Film Review: Stake Land

Add vicious, voracious bloodsuckers to Cormac McCarthy&#8217;s <i>The Road</i> and you have<i> Stake Land</i>, a clever horror-action hybrid tailor-made for viewers who like their vampire movies bloody and mean, rather than awash in teen angst.

In the not-too-distant future, a suburban family frantically packs their car in hopes of outrunning the vampire plague that’s toppled the U.S. government and plunged ordinary citizens into a waking nightmare. Alas, they waited just a little too long, and only teenager Martin (Connor Paolo of TV’s “Gossip Girl”) survives the frenzied attack by a pack of zombie-like vampires. And Martin wouldn’t have escaped had he not had the good fortune to run smack into Mister (co-writer Nick Damici), who’s adapted to the rules of this nasty new world and reinvented himself as a vampire slayer.

But even Mister has had just about enough of killing vampires before they kill him: It’s thankless, never-ending and sooner or later he’s bound to lose. He’s headed north in a vintage convertible to check out rumors about a safe haven called “New Eden,” and he’s willing to take Martin along for the ride.

The trip takes them through eerily deserted towns and “lockdowns,” rural areas where survivors have banded together to systematically exterminate existing vampires, keep new ones out and establish something like a functioning society. The results look like 19th-century western frontier towns, hardscrabble clusters of battered houses peopled by the tough, the lucky and the pragmatic.

Mister and Martin pick up some strays along the way—Sister Anna (Kelly McGillis), a pregnant girl (Danielle Harris) and a marine (Sean Nelson)—and eventually run afoul of the Brethren, a Christian militia led by the dogmatic Jebediah (acclaimed stage actor Michael Cerveris), who believes the plague is God’s way of punishing sinners and has a very un-Christian attitude when comes to those who think otherwise.

The movie’s title and basic premise echo 2009’s Zombieland, but the resemblance ends there: Where Zombieland deftly mixes horror and goofy, pop-culture humor, Stake Land is dead-serious, even when it’s dropping vampires out of helicopters into lockdowns (think medieval armies using trebuchets to lob plague-ridden corpses into enemy territory); George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is a much more apt comparison. Stake Land isn’t a genre-changer, but strong performances, brisk pacing and a disturbingly believable post-apocalyptic setting add up to a fine variation on traditional horror themes.