Color, 2006, 66 mins. 2 secs.
Directed by Emily M. Hagins
Starring Rose Kent-McGlew, Alec Herskowitz, Tiger Darrow, Tony Vespe, Rebecca Elliott
AGFA + Bleeding Skull (Blu-ray) (US R0HD)
In the cinematic history books, there surely has to be a prize for "youngest person to direct a commercially released zombie movie." If there is, the winner would haw to be Emily M. Hagins who helmed this charming DIY horror outing at the age of 12 with some of her classmates used as primary cast members. Anyone with a love of shot-on-video regional horror should find plenty to embrace here with a scruffy aesthetic and clear enthusiasm from everyone involved going a long way to making this a 21st century successor to the heyday of 16mm non-professional features.
The news is buzzing about nanotechnology that's been developed as a possible cure for cancer, but things aren't so rosy behind the scenes as the nanochip is actually attacking healthy cells. With threats of pulled funding, it looks like the whole project is about to go kaput. All the tech samples end up tossed in a dumpster, which in turns leads to rainwater splashing the contents into the water supply of Austin, Texas. Meanwhile junior high schooler Dannie (Kent-Glew) is having weird, ultra-realistic dreams she can't quite remember but thinks they might be tied to the sudden outbreak afflicting the community that starts with a classmate passing out in the middle of class. One of the scientists involved, Sue (Elliott), starts tracking the pathogen outbreak but gets accosted by zombies on the way out of town, while Dannie and some of her friends band together with any implements they can find as the streets are overrun with shuffling fiends.
The fact that this is almost entirely told from a kid's-eye view goes a long to setting this one apart from the pack, and while the DV limitations obviously keep this well within the SOV realm (complete with the usual erratic sound recording at times), it's one heck of a job for a filmmaker who, as AGFA amusingly points out, wasn't even old enough to drive. There's definitely a "let's learn as we go along" spirit here (something confirmed in the bonus features) that keeps you on your toes, and if you've watched enough of these things, it's pretty amusing that a pre-teen could pull off a more accomplished SOV zombie movie than quite a few folks twice her age. For the gore crowd you do get some of the red stuff here (including a shockingly well-executed decapitation gag near the end) as well as some implied gut munching (including some hilarious sound effects), plus some zombie puking for good measure. On top of that you can clearly see a couple of the pint-sized zombies about to break character in a few shots, which somehow adds to the fun. Extra points for not going with the trite twist ending you might expect from that dream plot element, too.
Passed around by the director under her "Cheesy Nugget Productions" banner but never really given a formal release at the time, Pathogen made the leap to Blu-ray in 2022 from AGFA and Bleeding Skull with a presentation from the original digital video master. By now you should all know what that entails with the inherent digital video look retained here in all its lo-fi glory, with a DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) doing the best it can with the sound mix. Hagins and Bleeding Skull's Annie Choi provide a very cheerful and often funny track covering the inspiration of the Aussie zombie film Undead, the recruiting of talent for the film, the genesis of the story when she was 10, the locations involved (including her own school), and tons more. You also get a Q&A from the premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse on March 25, 2006 (6m40s) with the director and cast, including a great cameo from the most memorable prop in the film. Also included is Party Killer (8m26s), a 2007 slasher homage by Hagins about a party that goes very, very wrong, sporting a cast of minors whacking each other with baseball bats and trying figure out who has a deadly grudge against them. (Keep an eye out for that same prop doing a cameo here, too.) Finally 2009's entertaining Zombie Girl: The Movie (91m6s) by Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, and Erick Mauch is a very in-depth look at the making of Pathogen showing Hagins at work with her family and crew members (some of which overlap) on just about every aspect of the film you can imagine, plus a look at the Austin film culture that inspired her (which, be warned, includes a lot of Harry Knowles), the discovery of Undead, and the film's path after completion.
Reviewed on April 27, 2022