And the answer is "What is Dead?" With the question possibly being, "Did you run out of ideas three-quarters of the way through what damn near could have been an interesting little film that filled a gap in the zombie genre that few probably knew existed?" More about using brains than eating them, Subject Two occupies a cerebral space left of the Resurrection Radio dial where dialogue and all the elements of smart, low-budget filmmaking reign supreme: premise, performance, character and atmosphere. To be honest, I hold a special place in my cold, black heart for this little film (that featured at Sundance and even won Best Feature at the London Sci-Fi Film Festival), even if it told a few lies to get me into bed, then left in the morning before I awoke leaving me feeling a little cheap. But just like in Bub, the thinking man's zombie in Day of the Dead, a few very special memories remained intact after the life left its eyes.
Subject Two follows an angst-ridden, young med student named Adam (cough...cough) Schmidt (Christian Oliver, The Good German) and his voluntary inclusion in some top-secret, resurrection experiments conducted by a mysterious, hermetic scientist named Dr. Franklin Vick (Dean Stapleton, strongly recalling a Five Easy Pieces era Jack Nicholson). After enticing Adam via phone and email, he instructs him to visit his facilities to assist him in some work that he's certain the student will find impossible to resist. Their laboratory? A secluded cabin in the Aspen mountains, accessible by snow mobile and pedal ambulation only. Suffering from constant migraines and a perpetual brood over the scientific world's disinterest in his ideas and, possibly, the fact that he looks like the test-tube love-child of Jeff Buckley and Seth Green, I guess it's no huge leap to think Adam would risk all to take part in some "important work" utilizing what he considers a promising, synthetic triad for cheating death � cryonics, nanotechnology and a mysterious "serum". What's not readily apparent to him is how he would be assisting the resident medical genius until he's suddenly and viciously garroted, being made to officially abandon his identity as Adam Schmidt to become known from that point on as the intermittently deceased "Subject Two".
Adam's periodic murders are the integral hook of the story, as each one propels the quiet plot through crisp, incisive editing towards more and more illuminating discoveries about the serum, metaphysical anonymity and what it really means to be "alive". From what I've been able to research about this film and its talented 38 year-old screewriter/director Philip Chidel (who also plays a small, but key role), the idea was sparked to life by a need to resurrect the careers of he and acting pal Stapleton, whom he met while working together on a previous dark comedy venture (Far From Bismarck). Stapleton, a ski racer prior to trying his hand at thesping, suggested Aspen as a setting for a genre picture. Immediately, Chidel began to imagine the idea of a Frankenstein-like monster self-exiling in the scenic, mile-high environs. When the concept of cold brought to mind cryonics, he began to toy with a reinvention of the Frankenstein myth and its concepts of death and rebirth. What he came up with is more a zombie/sci-fi superhero picture that asks more questions of immortality than creation, but the idea that ethics should never stand in the way of scientific curiosity is very much in attendance. Sometimes Adam sees his demise coming, sometimes he doesn't, and it's these gently peeled surprises, the complicity in their arrangement and the inventive and dead pan manner in which they're committed that makes a possibly one-note story a truly original and enjoyable affair.
Originally scripted as a calling card short, Chidel discovered that once they got rolling the affordable and amenable circumstances in terms of the set and crew permitted them to continue its production onward into a full-length feature � a decision that may have compromised some of the things that I loved about S2. Through a good three-quarters of the story, the tenuous bond between subject and scientist developed a few select shades, and seeing a main character cultivate a trust with an antagonist that had every intention of murdering him as many times as he felt was necessary was, like the sudden appearance of snowy mountain tops through a fortuitous break in the trees, brisk, fresh and exhilarating. Adam rolls with some very painful punches as the serum is perfected, and at one point requires a complete excision of the pain centers in his nervous system to control the agony of reanimation. In doing so, he loses a certain element of humanity that Adam finds difficult to reconcile. The link between physical feeling and human identity was a sloppy stretch for me, and Adam's crisis of conscious over the results seems a bit forced. Despite Dr. Vick's attempts to convince him that he is alive � immortal even � Adam won't hear it. To him, life is linked with the permanence of death...or something. Its at this point that the balance of power is shifted, as Adam unsuccessfully attempts to reenter the outside world knowing full well he could never do so in any real way. As I remembered it, he wasn't really kicking ass down the mountain, but a very short meeting with a pretty girl hired to drive him to the trail he would eventually take to the cabin (an early plot device that's designed to escalate his need to escape the project but really isn't kept aloft enough throughout to be effective) must have planted a seed of sexual hope. That, and I guess you don't know what you got until its strangled, stabbed, desaguinated and shot. And then shot again.
Another place the script begins to go stiff is when Adam is accidentally plugged by a hunter, whose incredulity over the subject's lack of life-threatening injuries puts a target on his head. His subsequent expiration presents no real consequences, lawful or otherwise, and seems to have little point outside of lengthening the running time and hammering home Adam's dwindling sense of humanity. He's also lead to believe that he is somehow "contagious", a device used by Dr. Vick to prevent him from straying into town. Why the doctor never has to explain why he's resistant to said contagion, I don't know. But it's never questioned, and it and a few other melodramatic inconsistencies are kept buried under the snow like a certain "Subject One" who we see dispatched in a rather well done opening scene. But as in all good horror films � not to mention screenwriting gone slightly amiss � whatever is buried eventually finds its way to the surface. In the case of Subject One, the results invigorate the story. In the case of the writing, it exposes the fragility of the premise. I can understand how difficult it can be to keep a low budget, single-locale yarn tight and churning, but if I had a producer's credit I would have eighty-sixed the hunter in act three and brought the secret of the first subject back into the fold much sooner. No doubt tacked on as a requisite twist, it deserved far more treatment and could have opened the story without having to go outside. And there's nothing like adding a third to a tense party of two, especially one with a syringe full of secrets and a serious axe to grind.
For the miniscule budget and relative green of the players involved, Subject Two is an impressive mogul run. It hits some impressive highs without ever feeling lightweight, even if it does get too easily blown off course towards the finish line. And it's always a delight to see deep resources of talent and creativity compensate for shallow financial resources, as there are plenty of small but tantalizing gambles that handsomely pay out. There's humor here as well, but it's never used to punch up the proceedings for a cheap laugh. Instead, it laces the pic, and forms deep from within genuine character to be revealed like a cloudy exhalation. Surprisingly, there isn't much horror to speak of, as that's not the thrust of the dramatic conflict and, trust me, it works. But gore fiends won't be disappointed as there are some tasty moments to savor even if they are a touch muted. But subtlety serves the story well, as the tone is a chilly and understated one that cares as much about the science as it does the fiction without sacrificing a hint of warmth when needed. Will there be a Subject Three? Or better yet given the clever twist, a Subject One? There certainly could be. I only hope that if Chidel returns to the hills for more, he marks his trail a little more clearly and does better to trust the original impetus of his vision.