Island Zero – USA, 2017

‘Every THING needs to eat.’

Island Zero is a 2017 American horror feature film directed by Josh Gerritsen from a screenplay by Tess Gerritsen (Adrift). The Donkey Universe Films production stars Laila Robins, Adam Wade McLaughlin and Teri Reeves.

Plot:

A fishing community on a remote Maine island finds itself suddenly cut off from the rest of the world after the ferry stops coming. When people start to vanish, the terrified survivors realise that someone – or something – is hunting them…

Reviews:

…Island Zero starts off with great promise: it builds at a nice pace, has interesting characters who are performed well, along with an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, all these pieces come together in a sad climax, leaving Island Zero to lose the wind in its sails before it can cross the finish line.” Cryptic Rock

“Yes, much of the plot is formulaic, but the ensemble cast approach means it’s less clear than usual who – if anyone – will survive. The science behind the plot is much more coherent than usual and adds a menacing touch of believability to the underlying premise. There are hints of HP Lovecraft’s Innsmouth mythology…” Eye for Film

“Unfortunately, the majority of the picture relies on the creatures being invisible to the naked eye, which could be horrifying, but in this case is clearly just to save money. A strategically placed heat-sensing device is used as a way to “view” the creatures, who are not visually impressive (there are a few well-placed tentacles in lieu of any detail), but manage to pose enough of an all-encompassing threat so that the script doesn’t suffer.” Famous Monsters of Filmland

“A few cuts in the run-time would also have been a welcome change. Again, not boring, but pacing could have been picked up a bit. There are some interesting ideas in Island Zero. In the hands of a more seasoned filmmaking team and some better actors – the idea could have gone beyond it’s copycat scenario of Peter Benchley’s novel Beast and the aforementioned The Mist…” Horrorfreak News

“What we are given is something unique, nearly reminiscent in pace and mood to a strong Stephen King novel. With plenty of intense situations, a blood inducing action, Island Zero stands out and rises above mere genre convention. As a plus, the strong cast, grounded writing and a piercing score contribute mightily in boosting the thrills and chills.” Mxdwn.com

“The film concentrates on the building up of the panic through the actor’s scenes, with a range of emotions given off. It manages to keep the story rolling along with good interplay and dialogue, some funny, some emotional, but all relevant to the story. When the gore does arrive, it’s all the more effective as it is not overdone and judiciously used.” Flickering Myth

“Josh Gerritsen actually does a nice job at times conveying the mounting fear and claustrophobia of the islanders in their state of siege, but this is nothing like The Thing (either of them, the real ones). Unfortunately, the film always slavishly does what we expect it to do, even when it doesn’t make much sense.” J.B. Spins

“The thread of suspense that was prevalent throughout the fifty or so prior minutes proves easily undone by cringe-inducing silliness. The characters suddenly begin to act against type, the plot turns absolutely bonkers (one character communicates with the creatures through a computer), and the reveal of the creatures themselves, though mostly seen through the lens of an infrared camera, is laughable and quite disappointing.” Pop Horror

“At 99 minutes, it could use some trimming, and the wait proves to be a little too long given the payoff, where we’re not given nearly as good a look at the monsters as we previously have been at their leftovers. The effects coordinator and creature designer was Eric Anderson of an outfit called Shoggoth Assembly, and there is indeed a touch of Lovecraft to what we do see of them.” Rue Morgue

” …Josh and Tess Gerritsen have focused on building their atmosphere of dread rather than on bombastic, balls-out horror and spectacle, and this makes all the difference. While it has the vibe of an 80s Carpenter flick, it also manages to define its own personality, which makes it stand out from other mid-to-low budget fright flicks.” Screen Anarchy

” …Gerritsen’s feature film debut is a smart story that wisely doesn’t try to overstretch itself by aimlessly stuffing their film with poor CGI and inane action, instead working with their constraints to a create more esoteric thriller. Ending on a stronger note than where it starts, Island Zero is one of those movies that certainly entertains…” That Moment In

” …a slow burn of a film. It keeps the menace off-screen for most of the film while it builds up suspense bit by bit until the final act. Then it unleashes a few twists along with its creatures for a suitably tense finale […] For those who don’t mind a lack of heavy gore and fancy effects Island Zero is an enjoyable watch.” Voices from the Balcony

Main cast:

  • Laila Robins (Witchblade)
  • Adam Wade McLaughlin
  • Teri Reeves
  • Matthew Wilkas
  • Stephanie Atkinson
  • Joanna Clarke
  • Richard Sewell
  • Anabel Graetz
  • Paul Hodgson
  • Terry Bregy
  • Nancy Nickerson
  • Robin Jones
  • Joseph Klapatch
  • Elaine Landry
  • Anna Gravél

Filming locations:

Camden, Islesboro and Rockport, Maine, USA

NB. An opening scene that depicted a dog being killed (not for real) was subsequently re-shot after negative audience and distributor feedback. The director and scriptwriter, Josh Gerritsen and Tess Gerritsen, have issued the following statement:

Every thriller writer knows you must never, ever kill a pet in your novel. You can torture and mutilate any number of human beings. You can slice and dice women, massacre men on a battlefield, and readers will keep turning the pages. But harm one little chihuahua and you’ve gone too far. The readers will let you have it.

I learned that lesson the hard way when I wrote Playing with Fire, about the fate of a Jewish-Italian family during WWII. What upset readers wasn’t the tragic fate of the doomed young lovers, or the fact the family perishes in a Nazi death camp. No, what really outraged them – and boy, did they vent their outrage in emails, reviews and reader forums — was the death of a fictional cat. In a novel about the Holocaust.

I was certainly aware that animal deaths are a trigger point in fiction, even for hardcore thriller readers, but I assumed horror movie fans were a tougher bunch. After all, they’re accustomed to zombie apocalypses and oozing brains and fountains of blood. Surely they can handle the death of a yappy little terrier.

Or so I thought when my son Josh and I made our low-budget horror film “Island Zero.” Set on a remote Maine island at Christmas, the movie’s about a small fishing community that finds itself cut off from the outside world when the ferry suddenly stops coming, and no one knows why. The phones are dead, the power’s out, and every fisherman who tries to make it to the mainland vanishes. When horribly mutilated bodies start to turn up along the water’s edge, the survivors realize that someone – or something – is hunting them. Without the budget for big-studio CGI or elaborate creature effects, we focused instead on a character-driven plot. Inspired by wintry Scandinavian films, “Island Zero” is very much about the villagers and their personal crises. The story is a slow but inexorable buildup to terror. Would a horror audience sit through a film where the blood doesn’t start spilling until the second half? How could we goose the scare factor early in the story?

We chose to add a cold open before the opening credits. This introductory scene is the equivalent of a prologue in a novel, and it gives the audience a taste of the scares to come. We had access to a sailboat and our producer found a scene-stealing terrier named Henry, who made his big-screen acting debut playing the very first victim. Henry happily dove right into the job, yapping on cue as we filmed his gruesome cinematic fate. Problem solved!

Or so we thought.

Not long after the film was completed, I got an urgent call from my friend Dan Rosen, a screenwriter who’d watched “Island Zero” at a film festival. “You can’t kill the dog! You’ll piss off the audience and they won’t sit through the rest of the movie because they’ll still be thinking about the dog!” He implored us to get rid of the cold open before we officially released the film.

I worried that Dan was right, but the rest of the “Island Zero” team adamantly refused to cut the cold open. They told me that horror audiences are tough, they want a jolt of adrenaline in the first three minutes, and a focus group who’d watched the film never raised any objections to the dead dog.

Reluctantly I agreed to keep the cold open.

A few months later, our distributor Freestyle Media released “Island Zero” on multiple streaming platforms. The very first week, it hit the top ten in horror films on iTunes, which was astonishing for a low-budget film by first-time indie filmmakers, and it picked up review attention from dozens of horror film critics. But it soon became clear that the dead dog was shocking viewers. Even gore-hardened horror audiences have trigger points, and one thing that really triggers moviegoers is dead pets. It’s such a sore point there’s even a website called DoesTheDogDie.com, which warns audiences which movies to avoid.

With our very first scene, we had broken one of Hollywood’s biggest taboos – a taboo so universally known that Blake Snyder’s classic book about screenwriting is called Save The Cat. When the fate of a dog named Boomer is unclear in the space-alien movie “Independence Day,” audiences sent an avalanche of angry letters in protest. (The alien attack wipes out entire cities and millions of people, but it was the dog’s fate that really upset them.)

While Island Zero was already available on multiple North American platforms, the DVD had not yet been released and it had not yet hit the international market. Could we somehow salvage the situation and save Island Zero from the eternal wrath of pet-loving viewers?

There was only one way to fix the problem: shoot a new cold open. It’s a desperate measure, akin to writing a new prologue after the book’s already out in stores, but we didn’t want one dead dog to sink our baby. Heading back to the drawing board, I wrote a new opening scene that wove in a crucial element from the main story. We dove back into the filmmaking process. It was like shooting an entirely new film and we started from scratch, scouting and securing a boat as the location, hiring new talent (actress Kelly McAndrew) and crew, collecting props and costumes, blocking scenes, and experimenting with special effects. For a crucial blood splatter, Josh and I spent days tinkering with corn syrup and dye to get just the right consistency and color to make a cinematic splash. What worried us most: our unpredictable Maine weather. The two-day shoot had to be scheduled a month in advance; would the seas be calm?

On the day of the shoot, the weather gods were good to us, Kelly was a dream to work with, and everything came together, right down to the blood splatter. The new cold open also makes the storytelling richer, showing a past event that is referenced multiple times throughout the film.

Two weeks later, the new cold open was ready for release, just in time for the DVD and Blu-Ray. We also insisted on having it replace the old version across all streaming platforms. Now if you stream Island Zero on iTunes or Amazon, the scene with the dead dog is gone. Instead what you’ll get is a dead woman. (Which audiences apparently find perfectly acceptable.) The new version will be on all other streaming platforms soon.

Sometimes, the best way to learn filmmaking is to simply dive in, do it – and make mistakes. And one of our mistakes was forgetting that the principles of storytelling are universal. Whether they’re reading a book or watching a movie, all audiences want their emotions tweaked by a great plot and engaging characters. Give them drama or comedy, thrills or tears. They’ll forgive you if you kill the hero or heroine, if you level cities or wipe out mankind.

But never, ever, kill the dog.”

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