It’s undeniably messy and frequently laughable, but Patient Zero is also never boring and has a couple of intriguing ideas.
Patient Zero is a zombie thriller of the 28 Days Later mould, in which the infected aren’t the shambling undead but living people driven mad and feral. This is usually a good idea. Danny Boyle’s film hasn’t been plundered quite as much as those of the late George Romero. And it’s easier to build sympathy and a credible threat around ghouls that have retained at least some of their humanity.
That’s what Patient Zero would like you to believe, anyway. The reality is a bit more complicated. In a world ravaged by a mutated form of rabies, a cohort of soldiers, scientists and civilians cower in an underground bunker, where studies on captured infected hope to reveal the location of the elusive “patient zero”, from whose DNA a cure can be reverse-engineered.
The film’s first good idea is that one of the soldiers (played by Doctor Who’s Matt Smith) can communicate with the subjects thanks to having been bitten but never turned. Most of them are raving mad and thoroughly inarticulate, but through a combination of vinyl-based torture and probing questioning, he can get something out of them; especially an extremely chatty college professor played by Stanley Tucci.
Here’s the problem: Patient Zero makes no effort whatsoever to really explain how and why this works, so the overall impression is that the zombies can just communicate normally and Matt is the only one who can be bothered to chat them up. There’s never any indication of how the infected feel about the other eggheads, who include Natalie Dormer and John Bradley in a weird Game of Thrones reunion.
What matters, really, is that the zombies are up to something. Tucci’s actually great here as a swole intellectual with menacing cat-eye contact lenses; his unspoken promise that this is all a fiendish master plan is what keeps Patient Zero trundling along its disjointed structure, even though it’s abundantly clear from the clunky character development and wavering tone that large sections of the plot were snipped away to keep things pacey.
The film’s a success in that regard, and while the nutty third act doesn’t deliver the smarter, less derivative experience that was promised earlier, it certainly isn’t boring. That won’t make up for so thoroughly wasting a solid cast and a couple of decent ideas, but fans of zombie-adjacent cinema might get something out of Patient Zero, even if it’s only a headache.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.