Ever since Night of the Living Dead (and arguably Invisible Invaders to get really obscure), the zombie siege has been an ever-reliable format for low budget horror. However, never before Stalled has a feature confined the siege to such a small area. An ideal location for both a touch of claustrophobia and a lot of humour, Stalled has its zombie survivor hold up in, not a farmhouse or mall or pub, but a toilet cubicle.
A lowly maintenance worker (writer Dan Palmer) is still on his shift on Christmas Eve, having to sort out the ladies’ toilet while everyone else is enjoying the office party. But soon he has bigger worries than whether all the canapés will have been eaten before he’s finished. The dead have risen, the office is overrun and soon he’s having to hide from the zombified staff in the furthest stall from the exit…
Being a UK based zombie comedy the first point of reference may be to Shaun of the Dead. (There’s a direct connection; Dan Palmer was in Edgar Wright‘s A Fistful of Fingers!) It’s a worthy comparison as both films deal with some pretty similar themes. Being trapped in a toilet cubicle is a pretty good metaphor for being trapped in a dead end job, looking at the same concept of being trapped in a rut as Shaun. Also like Shaun, the humour here is very dry and British, although here the focus is more on office politics. Running gags like references to Jeff from I.T. (not to be confused with Jeff from Accounts) will feel very familiar to many an office drone watching, and most of these have very good pay-offs.
In the film’s own merits, the story has a lot of strong character moments, especially in sketching out the lead (who’s never actually named, he’s only credited as W.C). In response to the growing crisis, although he does show some signs of resourcefulness, he doesn’t instantly become a Bruce Campbell-esque zombie killer. He’s very relatable, with a brain in his head for sure but so unsure of himself his life has run aground, again echoed in the main storyline. What works incredibly well is his connection to another survivor (Antonia Bernath), who he only hears as a voice behind a wall. She’s an extremely well written character, sweet in many ways, but with a real barbed tongue (she get’s the film’s most bad taste joke at one point). By making us feel so much for someone who’s almost never seen, with a very moving pay-off, the film should be applauded.
Of course the film’s biggest success is just how funny it is. Palmer and director Christian James first came to notice in the slasher spoof Freak Out, and their style has only grown from there. Despite the very small scale set, there’s a huge amount of invention in the storyline in ways to use the cramped conditions. From improvised weapons, like a no smoking sign, a bra and finger catapult, to the astonishing number of ways the loos are filmed. In the rare moments the film does venture outside the catapult, the creativity doesn’t stop, particularly in one highly memorable fantasy scene. The zombies are often used as sight gags (such as one dressed as Jesus), but they’re still also kept as a very real threat, with the gore levels matching their ferocity. It’s remarkable the number of scenes that manage to be intense, scary, funny and heartrending at the same time, including one attempted rescue that goes spectacularly awry thanks to W.C.’s incompetence.
Stalled doesn’t reinvent zombies, it’s not quite the next Shaun of the Dead (but it comes damn close) but it is a solid take on an old favourite. It’s telling that for there to be something new in this subgenre, it takes thinking very small and confined rather than huge and expansive (something World War Z should have learned). It’s laugh out loud funny, some genuine scares and tension, endearing characters (even ones that turn up for only a single scene), and is likely to be a video night favourite in years to come. Also, given the time it’s set don’t be surprised to see this turn up on lists of notable alternative Christmas movies in years to come; you’d be surprised how much Christmas spirit ends up in here.