It’s been five years since the stateside release of [REC] 4: Apocalypse, the closing entry to a standout franchise in modern horror. Starting with 2007’s [REC], this unique quadrilogy shook up the zombie formula and proved just how effective found footage could be at delivering visceral terror; at least at the start.
As with most franchises, each subsequent entry released saw diminishing returns, but that doesn’t speak to the creativity or innovative mythology created by filmmakers Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Looking back, the [REC] series took some daring risks and delivered a cohesive four-film series that evolved in surprising ways.
[REC] The idea behind 2007’s [REC] was born from Balagueró and Plaza’s desire not just to make a terrifying horror movie but to make the audience an active participant in the fear unfolding on screen. The aim was to attempt to capture the same level of terror fans get from playing a horror video game. So, they decided upon a familiar horror story told through a single camera, treated almost as it’s if a character itself, relaying the narrative in real-time.
Using that conceit, the film follows reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo, played by unseen actor Pablo Rosso, as they cover the night shift of a local fire station for their television series “While You’re Sleeping.” What begins as a quiet, dull evening inside turns harrowing when the pair accompany firefighters Álex (David Vert) and Manu (Ferrán Terraza) on a call for a domestic disturbance at an apartment building. There they find an incoherent, sickly woman that aggressively attacks an officer, and the event sparks a deadly outbreak that leaves them trapped thanks to an unexpected quarantine.
On paper, that sounds like a generic zombie setup that we’ve seen countless times before. What transpires, however, thanks to the found footage technique and sense of realism the filmmakers introduce here, is every bit of the visceral thrill ride Balagueró and Plaza intended. The handheld camera provides the necessary limitations not just in the viewer’s range of sight but in how much of the story we can absorb and when. Balagueró and Plaza envisioned video game levels of unrelenting dread, and they essentially created a rail shooter with the film.
The audience knows about as much as poor Ángela knows, and we learn more about what’s happening within the building as she does, all while dodging and fleeing from increasingly infected residents. That the infection sets in at different rates for different people gives an unpredictability that keeps everyone on their toes. The sense of realism comes from the naturalistic way these characters interact, talk, and behave. That’s no accident, either. Velasco, who would win a 2007 Goya for her performance, spent years as a TV presenter, which translated seamlessly to her character.
As effective as the scares are, what solidified [REC] as a modern horror classic is that it changes the rules and mythology of the zombie outbreak by way of one unnerving final act. All alone in the penthouse suite, sole survivors Ángela and Pablo are desperate for a way out. They soon discover that they’ve entered the den of the outbreak’s source; an agent of the Vatican brought a possessed girl, Tristana Medeiros, there to isolate the demonic enzyme within her. It mutated and became contagious, so the agent sealed her up in the attic to die. She infects mice, which in turn spreads to a resident’s pet, and thus the outbreak is unleashed. [REC] concludes with one brilliant payoff, in which a ghoulish Tristana (Javier Botet) descends from the attic and drags a screaming Ángela off into the pitch-black darkness.
How do you top that in a sequel released two years later? By picking up almost immediately where [REC]‘s end credits began. 2009’s [REC] 2, working more like a continuation than a traditional sequel, starts about fifteen minutes after its predecessor, this time following Dr. Hunt (Jonathan Mellor) and a GEO team sent into the quarantined apartment building to control the infection. Concurrently, the father of Jennifer (from the first film) persuades a firefighter to sneak him back into the building from an underground tunnel so he can bring her prescription medication. Curious teens follow them. All characters, at least the surviving ones, eventually converge and stumble upon a miraculously safe but shocked Ángela.
This sequel sustains the same level of terror as the first film but expands the demonic mythology in exciting ways. Dr. Owen is secretly a priest sent from the Vatican for a blood sample. The infected are revealed to respond to prayer and crucifixes, like the possessed. More intriguingly is that the infected share a connection with the source demon, Tristana, who’s taken up residence in plucky reporter turned survivor Ángela. Tristana wants out, to freely spread her demonic contagion.
[REC] 3: Genesis
For the third and fourth entry, the dynamic duo split custody of their horror baby. Plaza took on the immediate follow-up, [REC] 3: Genesis. In terms of timeline, Genesis overlaps with the first two films, set at a large church for the wedding of Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin). Among the hundreds attending is an uncle who happened to be the veterinarian of Jennifer’s infected pet dog referred to in [REC]. It turns out that infected dog bites take a little while to transform a human into a rabid monster, and Clara and Koldo are at least allowed to make it through their ceremony and well into their reception before all hell breaks loose.
The most obvious shift in Genesis is from found footage to traditional film. It’s a move that polarized upon release, but it’s the perfect antidote to the age-old found footage question; why don’t they just put down the camera? It makes sense for cameras to be involved at a wedding, to capture the events for memories’ sake, and interview the guests. Once that’s done, the party is in full swing, and when deadly chaos erupts, well, no one attending is going to want to keep filming.
The second most apparent shift is in tone. Genesis bears more in common tonally with Evil Dead 2 than [REC]. It’s another polarizing move. The gore for an already gory franchise is dialed up to splatstick levels, especially as Clara shreds her dress to wield chainsaws more handily and Koldo dons armor in attempts to hack his way to his bride. Plaza never loses sight of the series’ mythos, though, including subtle nods like the news footage outside of the original film’s building in the background of individual shots. More overtly, the priest freezing the infected in place via loudspeaker prayer is a nice touch. All of which to say that this sequel deserves far more credit than it received upon release. Think of it more as a fun sidequel.
[REC] 4: Apocalypse
Balagueró took the reins for the final film, [REC] 4: Apocalypse. Picking up after the second film, Apocalypse opens with a thrilling scene that sees a special ops team rescue Ángela and destroy the building. Shortly after, she and the team’s survivors, Lucas (Críspulo Cabezas) and Guzman (Paco Manzanedo), wake on board a ship quarantined at sea. The doctors there are determined to find a cure by any means necessary, using Ángela as a guinea pig. Naturally, the contagion has followed her, and the vessel descends into a claustrophobic nightmare.
Of all the films in this franchise, Apocalypse fared the worst critically and financially. Balagueró continued where Plaza left off, in terms of traditional filmmaking over handheld found footage, and some less than spectacular effects work – I’m looking at you, dumb zombie monkeys- left a lot to be desired. That Balagueró tended to shoot high action scenes with shaky camera work frustrated many as well.
The director did play around with expectations in a fun way, though. From the get-go, it’s expected that Ángela’s role remains the same as in the previous installment, which is that of a demon using its host to gain freedom. It becomes a waiting game to see precisely when Ángela will drop her innocent façade and let Tristana loose. It’s not until the final act that it becomes clear our plucky heroine regained her agency from the thrilling opening scene, with Tristana latching on to a more reliable host in Guzman. It’s also worth noting that this entry allows Ángela to have one of the more fulfilling Final Girl arcs of all time, going from scared bystander to villain to fierce survivor throughout three films.
Apocalypse wraps up with an epic action-heavy spectacle, resulting in Ángela finally free from Tristana’s hold once and for all. Naturally, it also ends with a tease that the Tristana worm lives on, somewhere in the ocean’s food chain, with the potential to wind up inside a human again. The box office returns, however, say that no one should expect any follow-up to that dangling thread.
It’s hard not to wonder what the reception would’ve been like for Apocalypse had it been a standalone release unaffiliated with the high standard of the [REC] series. It’s heavily flawed, but it’s still a solid effort. At least compared to many other zombie films.
Each installment plays like an experiment for the filmmakers; the first two films are experiments in visceral, unrelenting horror, the third Plaza considered to be his adventure film, and the final movie goes full-throttle on the action. It’s worth noting that they manage to be cohesive narratively throughout all the tonal shifts, style changes, and narrative expansions. Whether the latter half of the series works for you or not, I appreciate the risks taken and that Balagueró and Plaza understood they couldn’t keep attempting to duplicate the success of the first film every single time.
It’s been thirteen years since [REC] shook up horror, and only five since the quadrilogy concluded, but it’s a series I foresee creating great discussion and analysis for years to come.