I noticed this title had popped up on a lot of “Best Of” lists from two years ago so I was keen on seeing it. Saints be praised, I wasn’t disappointed. (Don’t you love it when that happens?) Lean, mean, and gritty, there’s not an ounce of fat on Stake Land; no extraneous drama, no clumsy attempts at comedy, and very little dialogue. It’s a rural, post-apocalypse road movie that’s long on action and intense situations. Admirers of The Walking Dead, The Omega Man, Road Warrior, and especially Justin Cronin’s novel The Passage will be in their happy place. The undead/post-apocalyptic genre is getting pretty crowded these days, but director and co-writer Jim Mickle manages to “stake” out a little fresh territory.
Martin (Connor Paolo) is a young survivor trying to keep his blood inside his body during the vampire infestation that’s swept the nation after the collapse of society. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) His hard-boiled mentor Mister (Nick Damici) is a bad-ass vampire killer that drives a muscle car around the rural South, chasing bloodsuckers (and collecting their fangs) and steering clear of the crazy Christians known as the Brotherhood, who may well pose a greater threat than the undead. They stop and sleep where they can and barter with other refugees, all the while following a vague plan to head north for a safe settlement called New Eden, which may or may not exist. Martin and Mister are targeted for death by the head of the Brotherhood, Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), a bald-headed fanatic who thinks the vampires are angels sent by God to rid the world of sinners.
The vampires in Stake Land are neither dudes in capes nor sparkly teenagers. In fact, they’re little more than zombies; grunting, snuffling ghouls on the hunt for a fresh cup of O-Positive. But they’re fast, strong, and seemingly all over the damn place. Because this is basically a road movie, things keep moving (duh!) and the action never bogs down. Martin and Mister fight, flee, make friends, lose friends, and gain enemies, and continue to chase a nebulous idea that somewhere else is probably better than here. Just like everybody, ever. It’s Martin’s determined belief that he can somehow find a normal (or at least livable) life that propels Stake Land, and keeps it from imploding in the face of hopelessness and chaos. Believe me, there’s plenty of hopelessness and chaos to go around; it’s almost as prevalent as the vampires and deranged bible-belters.