In a fierce, alternative vision of America’s bleak future, a young boy is about to learn how cruel the world can be. Martin (Connor Paolo) was a normal teenage boy before the country collapsed in an empty pit of economic and political disaster. And from the ashes rose a new breed of terror. A vampire epidemic has swept across what is left of the nation’s abandoned towns and cities, and it’s up to Mister (Nick Damici), a death dealing, rogue vampire hunter, to get Martin safely north to Canada, the continent’s New Eden.

Vampire thriller doesn't overplay its rotting hand.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: It’s a testament to director Jim Mickle’s vision of a post-plague, vampire-infested wasteland that his many influences fly below the radar for the duration of his second effort, Stake Land. Genre buffs can gather afterwards and rattle off Mickle’s familiar riffs, but whilst in the film’s thrall, his Stake Land is a menacing, mean-spirited ride.

Perhaps it’s a blood-sucking version of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, utilising a Malick-like stillness and use of voiceover; or it’s an existential post-civilisation odyssey, a la The Road, with a bleak spin on The Karate Kid teacher-student dynamic fuelling its emotional undercurrent. Then there is the straight-faced pilfering of the killer-kid scene from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later; the wandering 'man-with-no-name’ heroic archetype, most recently brought to mumbling life by Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli; the introduction of a feisty pretty-girl warrior to romance-up the carnage, just like in Zombieland; and so on and so forth...

And yet, Mickle brings enough punch to the fright scenes and sufficient smarts to the socio-political metaphors at play to make Stake Land a standalone success, albeit a modest one, in its own right.

Teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) is one of the unlucky survivors of a devastating plague that has reduced the North American population to ravenous hordes of flesh-eaters. He is taken under the wing of a hunter-warrior known only as 'Mister’ (the enigmatic Nick Damici) and taught stake-weaponry and hand-to-fang combat moves. They head north to Canada, aka 'The New Eden’, crossing paths with both vampire swarms and last-vestige outposts of human existence, collecting on their travels the pregnant Belle (underground horror star Danielle Harris), loner Willie (Sean Nelson) and a nun they call 'Sister’, played with suitable gravitas by ex-A-lister Kelly McGillis (Witness, 1985; Top Gun, 1986; The Accused, 1988).

Despite its frigid locales and desolate visage, Stake Land finds a degree of warmth amongst its characters. Audiences, however, should be wary of investing too much emotion into this cast of character’s lives – in a world as steeped in predatory peril as 'Stake Land’, a smile or a stolen kiss (or the need to pee, as one support player discovers) may be just the moment of weakness the hungry undead are looking for. Head neck-biter is Jebedia Loven (an OTT Michael Cerveris), a neo-Nazi ultra-conservative zealot who survives a vamp-attack only to emerge as an even angrier white supremacist-type, craving blood and revenge.

Mickle, who displayed a talent for fear-inducing moments with his rat-infestation chiller Mulberry Street (2006), doesn’t waste the satirical opportunities afforded by his film’s middle-America setting. Living and undead alike perpetrate acts of violence and prejudice in the name extreme social and political dogma, and Mickle’s application of some darkly sarcastic symbolism is deftly handled. One particularly effective scene is a helicopter raid staged by surviving right-wingers who, convinced the plague is sent from Heaven to destroy non-believers, drop vampires into left-wing populated compounds; hungry, fanged pamphlets spreading the hellish word of a vengeful God, as it were.

It’s an inventive and ambitious sequence, superbly staged for a modestly-budgeted production; had the rest of Stake Land showed as much innovation in place of some of its more overly-familiar elements, it may have been the classic it’s Sundance Film Festival 'Midnight Madness Audience Favourite’ Award suggested it to be. Jim Mickle is a fine genre filmmaker and Stake Land is a satisfying entrant in the 'post-modern vampire film’ subset; if a little undernourished, it’s still enough to whet fan appetite for his next project.

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1 hour 38 min
In Cinemas 23 June 2011,