The directorial debut of Zach Schlapkohl, Jacob Kiesling, and Ethan Cartwright, What Doesn’t Kill Us is a zombie film that is less concerned with the tropes audiences are familiar with than the aftermath of those events. Thanks to a medical breakthrough, all those who were impacted by the spread of a virus- called the “fugu virus” due to its spread being caused by the import of Japanese blowfish to East Texas- are rehabilitated. The attacks and deaths have become a thing of the past, but their impact is still felt. As these recovered individuals return to society, they face great prejudice. As a mockumentary, What Doesn’t Kill Us seeks to tell their side of the story. It shines a light on the “necrosapiens” who wish to move past usage of the “z-word” and depictions on The Walking Dead to show people that they are just like them, except with rotting flesh.
While the opening introduces a variety of necrosapiens who decry the various prejudices they face, What Doesn’t Kill Us focuses on three particular people: Keith (Peyton Paulette), a salesman who believes he was hired to fulfill a “diversity quota”; Bridget (Tevia Loeser), who is not a necrosapien but whose father died in the initial virus spread and now fights for the legalization of necrosapien marriage; and Jeremy (Richard Scott Jr.), who plays college baseball and hopes to be the first necrosapien in Major League Baseball. All three characters face their own personal challenges, whether it is racism, career issues, romantic strife, or prejudiced hecklers, that create quite the obstacles in their lives. All three characters are well drawn-out and well-acted, bringing an incredibly empathetic side to the film. Richard Scott Jr. is especially impressive, excelling as a young man facing criticism and hatred wherever he turns, even in the media. As he sits there and faces a lot of the prejudice head-on, Jeremy’s road is perhaps the most publicly scrutinized of any character, and Scott impressively captures the internal struggle to either ignore or confront the hate.
This examination of prejudice is the overarching idea in What Doesn’t Kill Us, using the introduction of necrosapiens into society as the entry point. Paralleling a lot of modern America- political battles over marriage rights, Chick-fil-a’s comments, right-wing YouTube channels, and more- What Doesn’t Kill Us can be a bit heavy-handed at times but it works quite well. As an innovation on the zombie genre, it is a welcome breath of fresh air, and as a comment on racism/prejudice in America, it is well thought out. It shows some of the hate, but it largely focuses on the personal problems it causes. Whether it is the insecurity felt at work over being the “different” one or the uphill battle to fight for political equality, What Doesn’t Kill Us does not just settle for showing those aforementioned parallels. It translates them to how it impacts necrosapiens, giving its three protagonists the room to comment on those daily struggles and the various issues that come up with being a necrosapien. It proves incredibly affecting, seeing just how much it has stolen from them. The strong acting helps considerably in this area.
While its racial themes offer a serious side to a film with such a ridiculous premise, What Doesn’t Kill Us never loses sight of that fun side. A sharply-written script loaded with wit and quirky humor provides constant enjoyment. Obviously, a lot of the humor is derived from the absurdity of the situation but that wit gives the film a consistently rewarding comedic side. There are also a wealth of physical gags that prove just as effective, offering a wide variety of comedic exploits that make What Doesn’t Kill Us a very funny film. The larger comedic set-pieces, such as a mock sitcom starring necrosapien actors with a horrible laugh track or an over-the-top action movie with a white guy in necrosapien makeup, are just as rewarding as the smaller bits. They are smartly used as not just a comedic bit, but also as a comment on representation of minorities on television and the derision those groups often feel towards the shows “meant for them”. It is further representative of a smart decision by the filmmakers to not be a slave to its three protagonists. In the course of its narrative, the film makes time for small bits from other necrosapiens or even those who hate necrosapiens that add to those racial themes, but are also incredibly funny. It also underscores how What Doesn’t Kill Us does a great balancing its weighty themes with some witty humor, with the cast excelling in this area as well. For a group of nonprofessional actors, they do quite well delivering the comedic lines with real punch.
Beyond the content, What Doesn’t Kill Us also has great make-up with some fun innovations specific to each character. Whether it is a hole in someone’s throat or blister-like imperfections on the flesh, every necrosapien comes with something that seems unique to them. Some are covered in torn flesh and obvious signs of their ailment, while others could pass for a human with makeup on their face if it were not for some holes on their skin. The lack of uniformity is a nice touch, in addition to how well realized the make-up/special effects are in the first place. For a film with a shoestring budget to have such high-level work in this area is impressive, and full credit goes to Zach Schlapkohl for pulling it off.
A contemplative, funny, and highly enjoyable riff on the zombie genre, this mockumentary should prove to be a great calling card for its three directors. While its status as an independent student film is quite obvious to anyone who sees it, What Doesn’t Kill Us is never held back by its lack of professional polishing. It is still a smartly conceived and well-executed film that proves heartfelt in its look at the day-to-day experiences faced by a minority group. Currently in the process of finding a distributor and festival screenings, What Doesn’t Kill Us is probably a ways off from being available for public viewing, but when it is, this charming and funny film should have no problem finding an audience.