Our friends at Anchor Bay are typically flawless arbiters of good taste when it comes to genre movies, but even the most discerning and well-intentioned among us experience occasional missteps, and The Terror Experiment, now available on Blu-ray, is unfortunately just such a disappointing acquisition. Despite a sparkling cast including Robert Carradine, Judd Nelson, C. Thomas Howell, and that dude who used to play the Assistant Priest guy who dated the one sister on 7th Heaven for awhile, The Terror Experiment’s attempt to fuse contagion paranoia with a slightly modified zombie apocalypse scenario is mostly redundant, too disorganized for its own good, and can’t seem to make up its mind exactly what it wants to be about. The result is a genre entry as shambling, boring, and ineffectual as the zombie-equivalent bio-toxicity victims at the core of its slapdash narrative.
Cale (Jason London) is a devil-may-care IT guy at a major government corporation apparently responsible for projects related to chemical warfare. Wading through the final emotional dregs of a difficult divorce, Cale’s personal problems are complicated by the fact that his ex-wife, Carol, works for the same government organization he does, albeit on a different floor, and in a different department. To make things even more awkward, these highly paid government officials apparently can’t afford outside childcare, and are forced to bring their young daughter, Allie, to work with them, leaving her in the care of a company-funded daycare.
This situation rapidly escalates from crappy to nightmarish when a right-wing extremist sneaks past the building’s security personnel disguised as a deliveryman and unleashes a stolen bio-toxin into the ventilation system. Almost the entire staff is infected with a synthetic virus that attacks the adrenal gland, causing its sufferers to become violent and aggressive to the point of homicidal mania. Cale is serendipitously fortunate enough to be located on the only floor with a sufficient back-up system to support the emergency airlocks, and along with a random assortment of other employees, he avoids infection. Realizing his daughter is trapped on another floor and may still be alive, Cale sets out on a doomed mission to rescue her and alert the outside authorities regarding their whereabouts.
Zombie movies in the traditional Romero vein usually include some element of infection paranoia – zombies, for example, can bite you and turn you into a zombie yourself. The ironic thing about Terror Experiment, which clearly strives to introduce new story elements to a classic subgenre by incorporating allusions to disease, terrorism, and government corruption, is that all of those elements are so standard to the genre already, and so unclearly defined in this instance, that they add nothing of value to the story. The exact nature of the virus, for example, isn’t really explained, aside from its symptoms – it’s not clear how communicable it is, and even the gestation period seems wildly variable. There are some scenes where people are launched full-throttle into delirious, slobbering stabby-mode immediately upon infection, and other scenes where sufferers appear to be stealthily concealing a much slower slide into chemically induced insanity. These are problems that could have been easily addressed with just a few lines of hackneyed dialogue, but since nobody does that, it’s often difficult to feel involved with what’s happening onscreen.
The other reason it’s hard to care about what’s happening onscreen is because there’s usually not very much happening onscreen. The scenes that do actually have gore in them are rife with intestine-yanking and theatrical gut explosions, but those scenes are way too few and far between to justify the total length of the film, which barely clocks in at 80 minutes.
Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray features a commentary track with producer/director George Mendeluk, but that’s about it, aside from promotional trailers. The film’s lack of adequate gore, zombie fights, or compensatory thematic content, and its failure to commit to a unified storytelling approach, makes it a lackluster genre entry by any measuring stick, whether you approach it as a contagion movie or a would-be clever riff on the zombie subgenre. So many “failed experiment” jokes are running through my mind right now that I don’t even know which one to choose, so I’ll leave it to you to invent your own. Hopefully Anchor Bay will do better next time.