[Review] Island Zero (2017)

If you are up for some middling low budget, independent horror with an authentic Maine setting and local flavor, Island Zero might be just the ticket. The film is written by Tess Gerritsen, the bestselling author of medical and crime thrillers, including twelve novels featuring Detective Jane Rizzoli and Medical Examiner Maura Isles on which the TNT series Rizzoli & Isles (2010-2016) is based, and is directed by her son, Josh Gerritsen.

Island Zero is set on an island forty miles off the shore of Maine a few days before Christmas. The resident fishing industry, in the guise of two private fishermen named Arthur (Joseph Klapatch) and Reuben (Robin Johns), is worried because all marine life has disappeared from the local fishing grounds. Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin), a marine biologist, has experienced a similar case in the past and has predicted just such a situation would next occur here. He has been living on the island for two years, with his girlfriend Lucy (Teri Reeves) and his daughter Ellie (Elaine Landry), in case his prediction comes true. Several of the residents plan to go to the mainland for the holidays or to return home from temporary work on the island, but the ferry never arrives, leaving them stranded on the island. Soon it is apparent that the ferry is not returning to the island. When the island also loses its power, internet access, and cellular signal, the island inhabitants are completely isolated from the outside world. To make matters worse, whatever has been killing all the fish is now coming for them and as the film’s tagline forewarns, “Every THING needs to eat.”

The screenplay includes a band of well-developed characters. Sam is joined in his fight to survive by Maggie, a temporary doctor with military experience, played by Laila Robins (Homeland). The rest of the cast is filled out with the diner owner Val (Stephanie Atkinson), her waitress Jessie (Joanna Clarke), a self-proclaimed novelist Titus (Matthew Wilkas), and a crotchety but lovable couple: Ruth (Anabel Graetz) and Alvis (Richard Sewell). Sewell, as Alvis, delivers a particularly effective recounting of his previous experience with the creatures.

The film’s story is very much driven by its characters. According to the filmmakers, roughly 80% of the cast and crew hale from the Pine Tree State. Many of the supporting actors have limited film experience and it shows in some places. However, the authenticity of their performances as residents of the island is impressive and helps carry the story forward, more than making up for any perceived hiccups. The cast is expertly anchored by Laila Robins, who has the acting chops and gravitas to make it all believable while lifting those around her. Just enough is revealed about each of the characters that you care about them and their individual fates.

The creature design is interesting and innovative in its characteristics, behavior, and look. Some horror fans want to see it all and some think less is more. In Island Zero, the “less is more” model of creature reveal is used to good effect. However, in terms of gore, there is one scene that is particularly gruesome.

Josh Gerritsen does a capable job directing his first feature film. The story flows well and Gerritsen pulls off several scenes of suspense and tension. Tess Gerritsen is an excellent writer of thriller novels and has a good story to tell. However, unlike a novel, in which the visual must be created by words, a screenplay has to find a balance between telling and showing. There are times in Island Zero where telling the viewer is redundant to what has also been shown.  In other words, fewer words would be better than having a character state what is visually obvious.

Island Zero takes an eco-horror base and throws in a little science fiction creature feature, some military-industrial shenanigans, a possible first alien contact, and if you’re of that bent, a bit of Lovecraft around the edges, all for a budget between $300,000 and $400,000. The filmmakers set out to make a low budget  independent horror film for the purpose of eliminating studio interference. They also wanted to film on location, showcasing Maine and some of its talented residents. Regarding those goals, mission accomplished. Even with some of the blemishes common to low budget independent horror films, Island Zero is worth your time. Give it a watch and along with the scares, revel in the eclectic island characters as well. Alvis and Ruth are a hoot!

Jeff Mohr
Jeff lives smack dab in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa and is a long-time horror fan. His first remembered encounters with the genre were The Wizard of Oz, Tarzan gorilla chases, and watching the first broadcast of The Twilight Zone episode, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." While he now qualifies as an old fart, he strives to be an Old Boy. Paraphrasing Robert Bloch, he has the heart of a small boy. He keeps it in a jar on his desk.

Jeff has written for Horrornews.net and SQ Horror Magazine. He currently writes for Gruesome Magazine and is a co-host of the Decades of Horror podcasts - The Classic Era, 1970s, and 1980s - and the Gruesome Magazine Podcast.