Each of the “Cabin Fever” films have thus far been directed by genre filmmakers with a very specific vision. That may seem like a low bar to set until you glimpse the history of horror franchise-building. The first “Cabin Fever” revealed a certain fiendish sense of humor courtesy of horror merrymaker Eli Roth, who thus far keeps making more and more of a failed effort to maintain a straight face. “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever” was a film reportedly compromised in the editing room, but what footage remained reveled in Ti West's more misanthropic worldview. But, and this is not meant to shade him, only the talented Kaare Andrews has actually used the material to make an honest-to-god horror film. The delightfully dumb and spooky “Cabin Fever: Patient Zero” is that movie.
The set-up, like the rest of the film, is familiar: the flesh-eating strain from the first films has been discovered in the Dominican Republic. Though it's been quarantined (by scientists who clearly have little care that a body count is growing), they fear the condition may not have a lasting cure. At the same time, they suggest they've found the patient zero of this outbreak: an unassuming family man played by Sean Astin who will now serve as the staff's guinea pig. There's a moral debate to be had as to whether he needs to be studied, or if he needs the compassion afforded to a man who has just learned his family has died. 'Patient Zero' refreshingly has no interest having this debate: these scientists (including a hilariously, inexplicably busty one with a low-riding top) will sacrifice many for a few.
At the same time, their island is about to be visited by a group of hard-partying post-graduates. Writer Jake Wade Wall plays with stereotypes a little: the responsible nerdy one who is marrying into a rich family is also having an affair with the jock's girlfriend. Of course, it is more of the same here, all frat jokes, flirty transgressions, and drugs. The film basically punches their ticket to doom, and spends its first half punching, punching, punching even more.
Once they get to the island, Andrew reveals himself as a real student of the genre. With its shrieking, paper-thin characters, repetitive score, and relentless, dimly-shot gore, it reminds one of the late films of Lucio Fulci. For some horror fans, this is a warning. For others, it's delightful. There was real poetry to Fulci's kitchen-sink approach to horror in his later years. Faces melted, heads shot across the room, characters suddenly had guns, swords or any other weapon that could benefit them at a moment's notice. More importantly, everyone was expendable. Death came like a lightning bolt. Fulci didn't mess around: his final films were sloppy, but they had an all-killer, no-filler approach to horror moviemaking. The fact that his craft was so traditionally “off” contributed to the actual scares. Something wasn't right, and that something often raised the hairs on the back of viewers' necks. Today, most horror filmmaking looks like a Budweiser commercial. There's nothing scary about a well-organized closet.
Andrews splits the difference, probably because of the demands of producers reluctant to embrace a nihilistic approach to nonstop violence that comes close to Dadaism. But it's still the sort of approach that hasn't been seen for years in mainstream horror filmmaking: 'Patient Zero' approaches the tonal “wrongness” of films like “Nekromantik,” movies that felt like they weren't meant to be watched. It's not the primal “boo” scare most people conventionally associate with horror films. It's the sense that you want to run away from the screen. This film is a mess, and it's going to get on you.
Much of the credit must go towards the makeup crew. It's a Fangoria funhouse up in here: “Cabin Fever: Patient Zero” has some of the most disturbing, disgusting gore effects of all time. This is a movie made by people who have studied some of the most horrific injuries known to man. Their hours spent parsing through the very worst alone deserves commendation, never mind the work in the film. Body parts snap off like twigs. Faces cave in like ant hills. The first two films felt like a warm-up for the repulsive grue on display in this film. Again, shades of Fulci's final films: he cared little about logic or continuity, but it was of the utmost importance to him that bodies be absolutely annihilated onscreen. Yes, the bar has been set low – you've got to sit through a lot of garbage to get to the glorious gore. But this is the finest of the 'Cabin Fever' films. If that matters to you, you're a fool to miss it. [B-]