"Among the Fallen" is the story of Will Ashford (director Jay Shatzer himself), a young writer grieving the recent loss of his young wife Sophia (Erica Shatzer) and their unborn child. Depressed and melancholic, Will decides to go to an isolated cabin in the countryside in order to finish his novel and hopefully, overcome the grief that haunts him. However, what seemed like a peaceful location becomes a nightmarish trap for Will as the cabin is attacked by zombies. To make things worse, Will has several horrible visions that confuses his already unstable state of mind, and ultimately is forced to fight for his life. Tormented by his memories, Will must put himself together and fight the zombies with whatever he can find. However, the writer begins to wonder if all the bizarre events that are happening are real or just another hallucination created by his damaged mind. To find the answer, Will has to fight the monsters, who keep coming for him, and the night has just started.
In "Among the Fallen", Jay Shetzer takes the classic scenario of a horde of zombies attacking a cabin (seen as early as in Romero's landmark "Night of the Living Dead"), and gives it a spin by using the concept as an allegory of coping with grief. Ambiguous and heavily symbolic, Shetzer's story is constructed following the surreal logic of a nightmare. Will's visions begin to blur the line between reality and hallucination, reflecting the descent of his mind into madness. In fact, Shetzer's screenplay could be easily divided in two halves: one dedicated to the slow degeneration of Will's mind, and the other to his battle with the zombies. In this aspect, Shetzer makes of the zombie battle a thanatogical study, with Will literally dealing with his dead people in a quite gruesome manner. Interestingly, the screenplay lacks lines of dialog or narration, a bold movement that works as a double-edged sword for the film, as while it kind of makes it somewhat tedious, it also allows to pay attention to the visuals.
And it's in the visuals where Jay Shetzer's "Among the Fallen" stands out amongst the many independent horror films that are produced. And this is not related to the special effects, but to the gorgeous work of cinematography done in the film (camera by Scott Martin and Kevin Mitchell). With great use of visual composition as well as great knowledge of his digital medium, Shetzer builds up a quite visually attractive film that, unlike what could be expected, resorts to long takes and a slow rhythm to narrate its story instead of the fast editing that's common in modern horror, and surprisingly it works. Giving great use to Martin and Mitchell's camera to capture the oppressively melancholic atmosphere of Will's grief, Jay Shetzer succeeds in crafting a "contemplative zombie film" that truly reflects its thematic ambitions. Certainly, it's not a perfect work of cinematography (lack of budget is more than notorious at times), but Shetzer's visual narrative is easily the highlight of the film.
As an actor, Jay Shatzer is fairly good, considering the whole movie rests over his shoulders. While certainly not a great thespian, Shetzer delivers an effective performance that gets the job done without too much overacting. In fact, his subtle and restrained approach works nicely even when the character finally decides to fight back. This gives his performance a quite natural, realist look that makes for a good contrast with the adventure the character is living. As Will's wife Sophia (who appears in flashbacks through the film), Erica Shatzer is amazingly natural and real in her performance. Certainly, director Shatzer took a realist approach when filming the flashbacks, and it fits nicely within Will's nightmare, as the fragmented pieces of a past reality forever gone. The rest of the cast is effective for a zombie film, and the work done in the make-up department (Pat and Scott Martin) is pretty good for the budget, though certainly nothing amazing.
Slow, calm, and melancholic, "Among the Fallen" is the kind of horror film that resorts more on its ambiguity and its atmosphere to create a mood. While owner of a definite visual style and a marvel of cinematography (clearly Shetzer knew what he wanted and how he wanted it to look), it's hard to ignore the fact that its storyline is pretty thin, which sadly harms the film quite a lot. The use of the zombie film to make a metaphor for coping with grief is a pretty interesting approach, but Shetzer's leave its premise underdeveloped, and the result is a film of great visual beauty that struggles to keep things going. Perhaps, if "Among the Fallen" was shorter, it all would flow seamlessly and Shetzer's debut could find a place amongst the best horror short films of recent time. But as it is, it's a bit too tedious for a short film, and too thin for a feature length film. A bit more of screenplay development would had benefited the film a lot, maybe expanding the role of Sophia or developing further ways to keep the ball rolling.
Despite its shortcomings, Jay Shetzer's "Among the Fallen" is a nice surprise amongst independent horror films, since it's definitely different than the norm for zombie films. With its remarkable visual look and its ominous atmosphere of melancholy (plus welcomed nods to both Romero's films and Raimi's "The Evil Dead"), "Among the Fallen" truly shows that newcomer Jay Shetzer has a lot of passion for the genre and a pretty good understanding of the visual medium, two things that could take him to make greater things after this debut. While at times it gets tedious, "Among the Fallen" is well worth a watch if only to appreciate how Shetzer employs his gorgeous visuals to portray the dark descent to madness of a man tortured by grief.