In his feature film directorial debut, Josh Mendoza breathes new life into post-apocalyptic horror with the compelling and well-acted What Still Remains.
What Still Remains is a post-apocalyptic thriller. But before you rush to dismiss this film because you feel like you’ve seen it all before, this surprising low-budget film from writer/director Josh Mendoza proves there still remains great material to mine in the heavily saturated sub-genre.
The film centers around a young, nineteen-year-old woman named Anna (Lulu Antariksa). She has recently found herself completely alone in a desolate world ravaged by a zombie-like virus. Her only two links to anything that feels remotely close to a “real” life, her mother and brother, have just been taken from her.
Then suddenly, as if by divine intervention, a mysterious and handsome stranger shows up. Like a knight on a white horse, Peter (Colin O’Donaghue) appears to offer her salvation from a life of loneliness and hardship. He talks of spirituality and hope, inviting Anna to join his community.
His offer is enticing, but the brave and resourceful Anna isn’t quite ready to leave the only home she’s ever known. Born six years after “the change” that toppled society, this harsh reality is the only one she’s ever known, and she feels more than capable of taking care of herself.
Peter is disappointed, but seems to respect her wishes as he heads off for the journey home. However, we soon learn that he’s not prepared to give up that easily. He stays behind a little longer in the hopes that Anna may change her mind and join him. The gamble pays off, and the two depart for the long and dangerous trek across the mountainous region for the promise of a better life.
Along the way, Peter gives Anna reasons to both trust and fear him. These feelings are magnified when the two arrive at his village, which quickly begins to feel like more cult than community.
The first 30 minutes of the film are relatively quiet and deliberately paced. This allows for strong character development, while maintaining a palpable sense of foreboding.
Once at the compound, the film picks up the pace quite a bit, introducing new dangers and setting up the central conflict between the devoutly religious and “moral” community and the wild tribe of monstrous-looking savages known as bezerkers.
What Still Remains steers clear of showing the “zombies” that are spoken of but never seen. We begin the film a whole generation past the onset of the deadly virus. Thus, the focus is on the survivors and life in a world where little remains except the worst of humanity — free from the shackles of socially-imposed moral constructs and consequences.
Fans of The Walking Dead will recognize the familiar trope here; the biggest threat always seems to be more man than monster.
It’s in this exploration of good versus evil, shrouded in moral ambiguity, where WHAT STILL REMAINS truly shines. Delving into the effect of religion on society, the film explores how belief is so often corrupted to suit a particular agenda or to justify any given atrocity. By appealing to a higher power, even unspeakable horrors like genocide can be rationalized and justified.
Even when the desire is good and noble, blind faith can be too easily manipulated, and the path to corruption becomes far too short — offering a timely reminder that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.
Antariksa is exceptional as Anna. She strikes the perfect balance of a strong and cunning survivor who still manages to maintain faith, hope, and kindness in a world where those qualities are not highly valued.
Mimi Rogers is also a joy to watch, as the icy and unwelcoming matriarch of the community, a woman who has long lost that inner spark Anna possesses. In one of her most compelling scenes, she explains, “It wasn’t always like this, you know. But then, life changes you, bit by bit.”
And therein lies the real heart of Mendoza’s film. The zombie apocalypse is merely a backdrop for a much more depressing reality.
This is a film about what it means to be human and how eagerly and consistently man clings to the diseases of his own creation: greed, the quest for power and control, and the need to rule over the dirt even after the castles have all crumbled.
Thus, if you’re among the hoard of The Walking Dead fans who complain when there’s not enough thrilling zombie action, this film is probably not for you.
But, if you appreciate the complexities of how such external evil serves as a catalyst for revealing the more terrifying evil within, What Still Remains is a film I highly recommend.