According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the themes popularly associated with existentialism” include “dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, nothingness.” The Desert is ostensibly a zombie film about three housemates surviving a zombie apocalypse while holed up in a bunker-like home in Buenos Aires. But it’s really more of an existential play that just happens to be set in a dystopian landscape while toying around with these popular existential themes.
The film opens by throwing us right into the house and quickly introducing its three inhabitants: Axel, Anna and Jonathan. We initially meet them through low-fi videos they are recording of themselves, Real World confessional style. We see them kill time by playing board games, recording these confessionals, or just sitting in the interminable heat. Their conditions are sweltering and practically infested with flies, but they seem to be well supplied and relatively safe and comfortable, considering it’s the apocalypse. But who are these people? Why are they making these tapes? How do they know each other and why are they, as we’re told, “trapped” in this house? Aside from an opening scene making it clear that we’re definitely in the zombie-times, these questions linger and the film is not quick to answer them (and some never are).
Writer/director Christoph Behl told viewers before the screening not to “have expectations because the film is moving between genres,” and that a pretty fair warning. It’s not so much a zombie film as a film set among zombies, and it’s much more a quiet character study, a psychological thriller, a love story, and an exploration of many of those existential themes mentioned at the top. But one thing The Desert is not is a light film - there is very little humor or happiness, and while it’s not exactly bleak, there is an underlying discomfort throughout. Behl does a good job at ratcheting up the tension as the film progresses, with flairs like Axel’s unexplained decision to cover his body in tattoos of flies, the introduction of a fourth character, Pythagoras (Lucas Lagré), and the decision to employ no soundtrack. Instead of songs or a score, the background is filled with the noise of flies, fans, stray animals and the zombies outside to create a quietly terrifying backdrop.
Two of the characters, Ana (Victoria Almeida) and Axel (Lautaro Delgado), get the primary focus of the film while the third housemate, Jonathan (William Prociuk), is used more as a tool to serve some story elements rather than as a fully fleshed-out character. Despite some character beats that ring a bit false, Almeida and Delgado do a good job carrying the film, although Delgado’s performance is a little too impenetrable at times. The most interesting part of the film is the way it chooses to develop the love story, in a non-traditional way that would sound gimmicky if I explained it here, but which actually works fairly well within the context of the film. That method also serves to help the film build to a strong emotional climax, one where Behl shows trust in the viewers to understand character motivations rather than having them wear them on their sleeves. It’s this faith in the viewers that makes The Desert a film ultimately worth watching and, though not without its flaws, a welcome addition to the zombie genre.
The Desert had its North American premiere at the South by Southwest 2014 Film Festival.