(New Zealand/Australia, 82 min.)
Dir. Florian Habicht
Programme: Nightvision (World Premiere)
Zombies are all the rage these days. The walking dead are more popular than ever before with zombiewalks happening around the world and hit television shows spewing blood, guts and brains. The city of Auckland, New Zealand, ups the ante at the scare park Spookers, at which actors play zombies who roam the ruins of the now-defunct Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital.
What creates fear for some offers therapy for others. Florian Habicht’s doc features interviews with a number of actors at Spookers who see the opportunity to escape beneath gobs of make-up and role-play as ghouls as a chance to forget their troubles and be their true selves. The actors offer stories of survival and community, discussing how the Spookers family give support with suicidal thoughts or, in one case, a diagnosis of HIV. A young Spooker even relishes the opportunity to wear a ratty old wedding dress and play a zombie bride. He confesses in interviews that he’d never wear women’s clothing outside of the park, but for a few brief hours, the performance puts him at ease.
On the other hand, Spookers gives one former patient of Kingseat the chance to voice her concerns. She says the theme park is disrespectful to people like her who endured years of confinement and isolation while grappling with mental illness. The zombie make-believe of Spookers also reinforces stereotypical depictions of the mentally ill as innately dangerous and demonic. Perhaps a different setting would do the role-play therapy better service.
There’s a full doc to be made about creating a business on the unintended mockery of others and in exploiting illness for thrills, but Spookers doesn’t investigate these concerns outside of that lone dissenting voice. There are deeper questions, too, about why fear is so addictive and perversely thrilling. If only the doc would be more fearless in its curiosity.
Spookers might have made a serviceable short doc, but it doesn’t have enough meat to make a fully fleshed-out film. Habicht offers an abundance of montages of zombies in action and of patrons fleeing in fright that are more style than substance. The same goes for dramatized fantasy interludes that let the Spookers staff members play out their dreams and nightmares, such as a ballet act with a chainsaw and a zombie wedding. Despite all the visual pizzazz, the action that Spookers captures never convinces: it just looks like a bunch of people running around in Halloween costumes and make-up.