In 2015, Director Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert and David Whelan wrote and directed Savageland (2015) a found footage (found snapshot, more like it) mockumentary film about a massacre that happens to a small town along the Mexican border. Their film explores strange circumstances surrounding a slaughter that stokes local prejudice and racial intolerance. The the team notably released the film during a time where the U.S. political landscape became a lightning rod for similar sentiments. The story begins in a small town called Sangre De Christo (Blood of Christ).
The Mockumentary Format
The writers tell their tale through the narrative of a writer Lawrence Ross, a crime journalist investigating the events of June 2, 2011. On that night someone attacked the small border town of Sangre De Cristo and utterly destroyed the entire population of 57 people. Body parts were strewn all across town, many with human bite marks. One man stands accused of the crimes. The lone survivor, a Latino man named Francisco Slazar single-handedly murdered everyone in town… allegedly. Lawrence Ross doesn’t buy it.
One man destroys an entire town. Not likely. Francisco Salazar tells another version of the story, but he tells a story that simply can’t be true. He speaks of people rising from the dead and attacking him and others violently. Those that succumb to attack “turn” into assailants themselves. Zombies? Neither the local sheriff, or the xenophobic locals believe story, but then a roll of undeveloped film is discovered by a resident and given to Lawrence Ross. Once developed, the film shows that Francisco’s story might not be so crazy after all.
As characters go, Lawrence Ross come off as completely legit and believable. That’s likely because he is played by a legitimate investigative journalist named, wait for it, Lawrence Ross. With respect to driving the story forward, the casting crew made a great choice adding these bona fides. Many times the mockumentary style feels disingenuous. While this casting decision helps, many of the other actors fail to carry Ross’ water. Only the quality of the mockumentary actors have the power to suspend disbelief in these films.
Malevolent Dark readers may remember a similar format being uses in the fantastic Lake Mungo (2008).
Clearly Guidry, Herbert and Whelan intend to weave their monster story into a larger social narrative. The US political landscape at the time focused heavily on illegal immigrants, fences at the border and people violently arguing both sides of this situation. Attitudes were polarized along political boundaries and emotions were high. Savageland takes this topic head on, but unfortunately leads to an uncertain conclusion.
It appears through most of the film that the writers intended to write a scathing rebuke of racist and xenophobic attitudes. The white sheriff, and the the white people living around Sangre De Christo found it much easier to believe that a single Latino man could murder an entire town than to consider his story in the face of photographic evidence. Others point to systemic racism. In doing so they invoke images of the KKK and stories about past racially motivated transgressions, thus condemning racism and hatred.
Yet… to conclude the film the filmmakers also explicitly states that these monsters that destroyed Sangre De Christo crossed the border and continues on a Northbound march to the Arctic ocean. They supplement this with video evidence of a zombie attack at a campsite hundreds of miles north of Sangre De Christo.
Immediately after condemning xenophobia and racism, they confirm all the biases and seem to support the racist fears of the townspeople. Boogymen and monsters from the south of the border crossed into God’s country on a march of destruction to the Arctic Ocean. Which side are they taking, or is the point to straddle both sides of the fence? Overall, the socio-political intersections wield a ton of potential, but ultimately the presentation lacks focus, and the refusal to pick a side lacks resolve.
Typically found footage films rely on reels of motion pictures, video tapes or digital media. Savageland uses still photographs instead. The minor adjustment brings the audience information slowly and methodically while still maintaining a shroud of mystery. Many of the pictures are blurred and otherwise ambiguous. The story behind the pictures strains belief. Supposedly Francisco Salazar, under constant attack from bloodthirsty zombies chose to document the events with his camera rather than get out of Dodge. Accordingly, the writers support Salazar’s behavior with some cockamamie story about camera invincibility from a former Vietnam photographer.
From our view, Savageland makes for an interesting take on a zombie film, but as a found footage film it honestly lacks the impact of top-tier films in the sub-genre. As a zombie film, we love that the writers eschewed any attempt to explain the origin of the zombies. Most zombie films begin with the Patient 0 trope. The ambiguity of the photographs leaves it up to audience to determine if the assailants are virus driven or otherwise. Some photos even suggest an almost supernatural ghoul with glowing eyes. Either way, we don’t know and the film is better for it.
From the found footage perspective, even thought he mechanics of the still photos attempts to control the flow of information, the story reveals still reveals too much, too fast to maintain the mystery. Furthermore, the accusation surrounding Francisco Salazar sound so implausible that any real suspicion that the accusations could be true evaporates within 30 minutes. Finally, the supporting interviews become a bit repetitive with the narrow exception of Lawrence Ross.
Savageland struggles to be a great movie, but it also fails to be a bad movie. As far as flicks that one might encounter on Netflix or other streaming service, Savageland does just well enough to deserve a watch. We rated Savageland a bit below average because it didn’t really shine, and re-watch value feels low. Still, anyone watching this film should enjoy it enough to not lament the lost time. When ranked against other found footage films, Savagland would not crack the top-20. We would consider checking out other works from these directors.
Savageland (2015) - Massacre at a Border Town - Malevolent Dark
Director: Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, David Whelan
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33
- Found footage for people needing a fix
- Tweaks the found footage formula
- Just good enough to make it worth the ride
- Feels jumbled
- Social commentary fails to land
- Pales in comparison to better found footage films