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How rad would it be to run wild in a post-apocalyptic world with your best friend? Hunting, fishing, killing zombies, taking whatever you need, never answering to “The Man,” never working another day in your life, just kicking back and taking it all in…if you squint just right, it looks like a damn good life, doesn’t it? Now…imagine the exact same scenario but substitute “a co-worker you don’t know very well” for “your best friend” in the above equation. Not quite as fun, eh?

First-time director Jeremy Gardner (working from his own script) takes a close look at the second scenario, the one that sees you getting stuck with a relative stranger during the fallout from an unnamed zombie epidemic, in the low-key, immensely effective horror-drama The Battery (2012). Utilizing a slow, measured pace and a startling degree of real-world verisimilitude, Gardner has created the equivalent of a mumblecore zombie film, a movie not so much about the ravenous hordes of undead that stagger and groan across empty swatches of abandoned humanity but about the few remaining humans who’ve been left holding the bag. When the end-times come, Gardner seems to say, we’ll all find ourselves doing the exact same things we did during “better times”: arguing, swearing, fighting, listening to music on our headphones, masturbating, hoping, goofing around, wondering and wishing for a better tomorrow.

In as economical a way as possible, we meet our two leads and get the lay of the land right off the bat: Ben (writer-director Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) are a couple of baseball players who find their lot tied together once the U.S. (and, presumably, the rest of the world) becomes overrun by zombies. We don’t get big explanations, no sense of a larger scheme at play here, just the facts, ma’am. Although the two were never great friends when things were “normal,” they now find themselves needing to rely on each other for their very survival: you might think that making a new friend is difficult…try doing it when mobs of zombies are trying to eat your face!

Personality-wise, the two former teammates couldn’t be more different. Ben is the brash, act-first member of the team, a guy who sees killing zombies as his duty and relishes the opportunity to live “off the grid” and make his own way through life. Mickey, on the other hand, is much more reserved, quiet and withdrawn. With his ever-present headphones and lingering memories of his lost life with his pre-apocalypse girlfriend, Mickey is like an open, throbbing wound, slinking from one place to the next without ever really living. Hell, he even resists Ben’s constant attempts to teach him how to fish: he’s got plenty of canned goods, after all, so why bother with the “real stuff” until he has to? Grizzly Adams, he ain’t.

Change comes to the guys’ daily fight for survival when they happen to pick up a mundane conversation on their walkie talkies. The discussion might not be earth-shattering (picking out the movie choice for that night) but Ben and Mickey are rocked to their very cores: here, at long last, is proof that they’re not alone. For Ben, it means more potential problems but for Mickey, the existence of others allows him the faintest glimmer of hope: for the first time, he can begin to see the path that leads out of their personal wilderness and back into regimented society.

The problem, of course, is that folks in post-apocalyptic societies don’t tend to be the friendliest, most trusting, sorts. One of the voices, Frank (Larry Fessenden), pointedly tells our heroes that there’s no more room at this particular inn, while the other voice, Annie (Alana O’Brien) does much the same thing, albeit in a nicer way. Too late, however: poor Mickey has already locked on to the newly discovered survivors as his own source of salvation and he won’t take no for an answer. Despite Ben’s constant protests, Mickey wants to track down Frank, Annie and the others at all costs: not only does he get a whiff of the civilization he so desperately misses but, with Annie, he gets a hint of that other thing he desperately misses…female contact.

As Ben and Mickey continue to move through the destroyed landscape of what used to be a familiar country, constantly on the watch for ambushing zombies, they find their own burgeoning friendship tested and strained at every twist and turn in the path. Will the two ever be able to set aside their differences and become united in their goals? Will Mickey be able to rejoin the civilized society that he always carries so close to his heart, via his ever-present Discman, or will he spend the rest of his days in the wild, gradually giving his own humanity over to survival instincts? And what, exactly, are Frank and Annie trying to hide from them? What is the truth behind “The Orchard” and will it spell salvation or doom for our hardy protagonists?

Low-key, understated and pitched at a glacial pace, Gardner’s film isn’t what one might call a “thrill-a-minute” ride. What it lacks in visceral action, however, it more than makes up for with intelligent, character-driven drama. The focus here is squarely on the humans, not the monsters: for almost the entirety of the film, give or take a few choice setpieces, the zombies remain in the background of the action, serving as omnipresent threat but allowing Ben and Mickey to take the reins. In some ways, it’s a similar tactic to Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010), in which the massive beasts became secondary to the human drama at the film’s core. The Battery is, first and foremost, about the ways in which Ben and Mickey navigate around their world. which is an important distinction from most low-budget zombie films.

Despite this focus on the dramatic aspect, however, Gardner and crew don’t shortchange the horrific aspect. The zombies are all well-realized, with effective makeup, and the violence, although infrequent, is always gritty and physical. When the film wants to pull out the stops, it has no problem doing so: the setpiece involving Ben and Mickey trapped in a car by a veritable army of the undead is as tense as they come, culminating in a truly brave six-minute shot that handily recalls the tent scene in Bobcat Goldtwait’s recent Willow Creek (2013). By not making the zombie action the center of the film’s universe, it makes the scattered horror moments that much more effective: I can’t stress enough how radically different this is from most low-budget zombie fare.

In many ways, The Battery is a two-man show: although we meet a couple other characters, including the aforementioned Annie and a carjacker (played by Niels Bolle), the vast majority of our screentime is devoted to either Ben or Mickey. As with many low-budget films (particularly horror films), this could have been the kiss of death: as a lifelong horror fan, “outstanding acting” isn’t usually something I usually associate with these types of movies, at least not at this level.

Rather than being a deficit, however, the performances in The Battery end up being one of the film’s greatest benefits. Quite simply, Gardner and Cronheim have fantastic chemistry: not only do we buy these guys as real people but we also buy into their developing friendship, warts and all. There are certain moments, such as the minutes-long scene consisting of nothing more than Ben and Mickey brushing their teeth, that feel like nothing less than getting a front-row seat to real-life, albeit one where the occasional zombie pops into view. Both actors give unique life and characterization to their respective roles (Ben is the “asshole,” Mickey is the “nice guy”) that extends beyond easy stereotyping and feels a whole lot more like real acting. In this aspect, The Battery reminded me of another exemplary indie horror film about a friendship, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s extraordinary Resolution (2012). Like Resolution, the characters in The Battery feel 100% authentic, which works wonders on selling the inherent “unreality” of the zombie apocalypse.

While the cinematography in the film is never much more than decent (aside from a few scattered standouts), the sound design is actually pretty brilliant and flawlessly integrated into the fabric of the film. The big conceit here, that Mickey’s Discman provides the score in “real-time,” is pretty damn awesome: that the musical selections are so varied and exceptional (incorporating everything from traditional blues to Neutral Milk Hotel-ish sonic collages) really kicks the whole film up a notch, resulting in scenes and moments that could best be described as “thoroughly kickass.” The montage of Ben and Mickey bumming around the countryside, set to an old blues stomper, is beautifully evocative, as is the wild, chaotic abandon that fuels the scene where Ben gets wasted and dances in front of a mural. Gardner and crew understand that sound design is as integral a part of a film as the visuals and The Battery provides a great crash course in just how to accomplish that.

All in all, I was massively impressed by The Battery: for a low-budget, independent zombie flick, this is just about as artistic and exceptional as it gets. While the film doesn’t always break new ground (Mickey’s obsession with Annie is particularly tiresome and “old hat”), it strikes out on its own path often enough to prove how much Gardner has to say. For some viewers, the slow pace and relative lack of action might be slightly off-putting but more patient audiences will realize one important fact: you have to learn to crawl before you walk. By taking its time and easing into the horror, Gardner’s film demonstrates that it has the stamina to go the distance. Here’s to hoping that Jeremy Gardner and his team continue to pump out effective, well-made little films like this: for a genre that can often be more smoke than fire, there will always be a need for movies that are actually about something.

The Battery may a road movie set during a zombie plague but, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s really about human interaction and the ways in which we’re all intertwined, whether we like it or not. I’ll take that over another bloody disembowelment any ol’ day of the week.