Stake Land: Slaying Vamps and Banging Tramps

The setting of a “post-apocalyptic” world is a great tool for movie mayhem. The problem is it’s been done to death. Classics of the genre like the Mad Max series and (one of my personal favorites) A Boy and His Dog exploit the theory that following the total breakdown of society, man will devolve into hyper-violent, insatiable savages. And hey, I agree. Add vampires to the mix and you’ve got Jim Mickle’s Stake Land. Initially the premise sounds like Zombieland meets The Road, but Stake Land is entirely its own monster: a convincing and fiercely human take on survival horror.

America is blindsided by an epidemic that turns people into savage vampire/zombie hybrids. After his family is killed by one, teenaged Martin (Connor Paolo) is taken under the wing of “Mister” (Nick Damici). “Mister” is a man-with-no-name type; he gets his rocks off hunting vamps and banging tramps. The duo are traveling north, to a supposedly safe haven called “New Eden.” They make their way through makeshift towns and pick up a nun and a pregnant girl long the way. But vampires aren’t the only danger on the road. Even more terrifying, in a way, is the Christian fundamentalist paramilitary known as the Brotherhood and their leader, Jebedia Loven (Michael Ceveris).

The devil is in the details and Stake Land has a plethora of interesting ideas and “rules” going on that make it feel fresh. For instance, there are different types of vampires. The “berserkers” are the first round of people to change. they have thicker breastplates so you have to stake them through the back of the neck, severing the spine. The makeshift towns Martin and Mister pass through also have their own set of rules. The duo is usually shown respect though, once Mister flashes the pulled fangs of vampires he’s slain. The sense of hopelessness in these towns is overwhelming and sometimes only shattered through a song or dance. Escapism doesn’t last long in this world though, especially when crazy-ass Christians are dropping vampires from a helicopter.

Nick Damici’s Mister is quietly and dangerously cool in the face of rabid vampires. He exudes a gruff and worn form of badass that a lot of young Hollywood actors couldn’t believably pull off once in their entire career. Mister is the real fucking deal and it’s a relief to see a macho character convincingly come off as human as he does. Connor Paolo was a great choice to play the orphan Martin. He plays a teenager without a gimmick. Without the hyper-literate BS of Cera or the witty cynicism of Eisenberg, Martin is just a normal-ass teenager. That’s refreshing.

When you think things couldn’t get any worse, director and writer Jim Mickle offers some hope at the end – something that feels genuinely earned after such a bleak and brutal trip through a collapsed America. While Stake Land isn’t really revolutionary, it deserves a place in the post-apocalypse canon and will certainly be one of the best horror films of the year.

Stake Land got a limited theatrical release and an On Demand release through IFC on April 22.

This review originally appeared on the Mishka Bloglin!!!