‘Unhuman’ review: A vibrant zombie feature that tries to offer more than just clichés
Brianne Tju in 'Unhuman'

Zombie movies and television shows usually deal with the dead, sort-of-dead, or drastically changed, who come back to life causing havoc and death to all the regular humans who remain. On the surface, this subgenre of horror is all about the creatures and the scares. On a deeper level, when used effectively, zombies and the situations their presence manifests, can be used to look at the human condition, and identify the real monsters of humanity who emerge when society falls to pieces.

The new film Unhuman attempts to give the best of both worlds. It aims to strike a balance between shallow thrills and a healthy load of social commentary. It wants to go beyond the clichés, and it succeeds in many instances while falling short in others.

Directed by Marcus Dunstan, with a screenplay he co-wrote with Patrick Melton, Unhuman tells the story of a high school field trip gone terribly wrong. A group of students who take a trip in order to obtain extra credit, find themselves in the fight for their lives as they are hunted by what appears to be a group of murderous zombie-like creatures.

A young introverted student named Ever, played by Brianne Tju, along with seven other students tries to survive in the woods, but as tensions grow higher among the group it becomes clear that something much more sinister is afoot.

Now, this sounds like a very basic plot. A group of people has to band together to survive what might be the zombie apocalypse. And you’d be right to feel like this kind of story has been overdone. Then again, one could argue that it is not just how often a story is told but the way in which it is told that makes it stand out. This is where the strength of Unhuman comes into play.

On a visual level, director Dunstan gives viewers a world filled with vibrant colors and energetic dialogue. The movie feels fast paced, but surprisingly not rushed. This is in contrast to other movies in this subgenre of horror where, when things are bleak, the colors on screen reflect the same, making for what can be a drab visual experience. This makes up for the fact that many of the characters fit into stereotypes of high school students we’ve seen before.

There are the cocky jocks, the shallow mean-girl cheerleaders, the outcasts, nerds, and so on. The saving grace of these unimaginative stereotypes is the cast who give the best they can with their cookie-cut-out characters.

The main protagonist “final girl” is a young woman of color, as opposed to the usual white female counterparts that fill this spot in countless other horror movies. And that’s not to say that having these kinds of characters in a film automatically makes it bad, but it can become predictable. Fortunately, Unhuman isn’t as predictable as it appears to be on the surface.

There are a number of themes that emerge in the movie that, if viewers stick with it, will be followed up upon in rewarding ways. An interesting idea in the film is that high school, and the social caste/classes that people find themselves in doesn’t end once they graduate. This becomes increasingly clear as the story unfolds.

High school, with its suppression, bullying, favoritism, and the like, is simply a microcosm of society as a whole. This results in ramifications in the movie when it comes to the motivations of the characters. It’s an interesting concept that isn’t always taken on in movies like this.

What that also leads to is what alienation can do to people. What’s the difference between someone who feels oppressed and overlooked and who decides to turn to malice, versus someone who has been through the same and chooses instead to fight for the betterment of everyone? Once the story becomes clear there’s a juicy nugget of commentary regarding extremism and incel culture (a community of men who believe women owe males sex and that society is against them) that is all too relevant to our world today.

The real meat of this story starts in the middle of it. That’s not to say that the beginning half isn’t fun and your regular bloody zombie adventure. It’s just that, if you want something beyond that, it can be found in Unhuman, but it isn’t as apparent from the get go. With that said, there are parts in the film that needed some major overhaul.

When dealing with a creature feature, suspension of disbelief is essential. You’re not dealing with the regular world you live in, but the world the filmmaker creates. Good storytelling establishes the rules early on for the viewers so we can understand what is allowed to happen in the world we are watching and what is not.

Alas, Unhuman is guilty of not following its own rules in many instances and pushing the viewers’ suspension of disbelief beyond the limit where confusion soon follows. There are some things that just don’t make sense in this movie. Not even in the universe the story creates. If you’re a stickler for that sort of thing, then it may be too distracting to see past.

If you are able to look past some glaring plot holes, then you may walk away pleasantly surprised. Unhuman attempts to add to the discussion around certain ideas that many young people and adults continue to grapple with in a world that often feels like it’s jumping from one chaotic moment to another, as we attempt to hold onto our humanity and our capacity for empathy.

Unhuman is now available on digital.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.