If you’re a fan of Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, scribes of the later Saw sequels and the Feast trilogy, you know what to expect from them: gore, vomit, red filters, and maybe a half-clever plot twist. If you’re not a fan, it’s best to stay as far away as possible from Unhuman, a cheap-looking, awkwardly calibrated horror-comedy which only the team’s truest devotees could love.
Directed by Dunstan, whose The Collector was superior on every level, the movie begins with a title proclaiming it “A Blumhouse After School Special,” followed by a card “revealing” it’s “presented by the student-teacher division—STD.” This is as clever as the humor gets. The story proceeds to introduce us to the usual teen movie archetypes—jerky jocks, sensitive comic-book and D&D dorks, goth princesses, prom queens, introverts—before loading them onto a school bus for a field trip. Conveniently, they’re required to surrender their cell phones to the extremely hammy supervising teacher (Peter Giles), getting that essential modern horror shortcut out of the way.
It isn’t long before a big explosion of blood hits the bus’ windshield out of nowhere, sending it crashing and busting the cheerleader’s nose. But that’s the least of their worries; the radio, on an emergency broadcast frequency, warns of a chemical weapons attack. Next, a scary-looking metalhead knocks on the bus’ front door. Zombies aren’t generally smart enough to knock, right? Wrong. Every movie makes its own rules, and before long the teacher’s face gets bitten off. The kids make a run for it out the back door, and make it to an abandoned building seemingly repurposed into a kind of funhouse for rave kids. But it soon becomes clear that they’re expected—someone or something planned for these specific kids to show up on this day.
Now, granted, zombies pose an immediate threat, especially since these seem like the running kind. But everyone seems remarkably unfazed by the whole “chemical weapons attack” part of the scenario. Sure, protect against the immediate threat, but also maybe cover your faces? Or at least, in these Covid times, make some joke about masking being tyranny to explain it away? Never mind. That would be funnier than anything else in the movie.
As Dunstan and Melton’s frequent collaborator John Gulager understood, audiences will forgive bad gore effects in a horror comedy provided the humor works. Troma’s entire existence is predicated on that principle, and Peter Jackson’s early career depended upon it. Judging by this and The Collector, Dunstan’s better at directing straight horror, as he has trouble settling on a tone here, or even consistent direction of the cast. Ali Gallo as Tamra, the goth queen, and Drew Scheid as Stephen, the self-proclaimed “Level 20 Wizard,” stand out as actors taking the situation seriously. Everyone else, though, plays it to 11 like they’re in a Saturday Night Live sketch. When the blood hits the bus, Giles’ over-the-top instructor simply remarks, “Let’s just hope he was a racist so we don’t have to feel bad.”
Visuals go equally all over the place—Dunstan still loves his red filters and smoke machines. There’s a blacklight sequence that gets creative, but when Saw-style horror movie lighting is finally attempted towards the end, it arrives too late to scare anyone.
The plot takes a turn about halfway through the film that suggests the script had more potential on the page, but at the very least it keeps Unhuman from being identical to every other low-budget zombie attack flick. There’s no need to spoil, but if you’ve already purchased the VOD and are tempted to turn it off prematurely, at least hang in there until the story starts developing flashbacks.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers felt the need to add voiceover at the end explaining the moral of their story. Generously assuming that Unhuman was meant to have a message at all, surely it ought to have come across without being explicitly verbalized. Then again, maybe it’s meant as South Park-style “I learned something today!” irony. And yet, even after a tone that’s so uneven it requires this coda to communicate their intent, there’s also a mid-credits tease for a sequel. Unhuman 2? Based on this, it seems unlikely.