Harold Gimble was patient zero for a sickness that would become known as Onset Rigors Disease, a zombie like illness that strips the infected of their faculties and stiffens up their bodies, and while Harold’s nurse Penny tries to make the poor, stiffening Harold’s life a little better, a group of bounty hunters are on the lookout, hoping to make a name for themselves by offing the first one to be infected.
Onset Rigors Disease sounds like a terrible, clinical name for being a zombie. The zombies in Harold’s Going Stiff aren’t really undead, but they are still referred to as zombies which makes me hate the term so much. Just call me a zombie and leave it at that. It’s like when fat people are called obese, it’s a terrible, terrible term. I just preferred being called fat, screw that obese stuff. And before you go getting upset at my insensitivity, I’m a fat guy, that means I can say these things about our more rotund members of society without having to fear any kind of backlash. That’s how it works right? Wait, it doesn’t work that way with fat people, everyone gets to make fun of them? Well, that’s kind of lame. I have to admit to a little bit of disappointment now. Let’s get on with this damn review because I am so eating a skinny person as soon as I’m done.
Our film begins in an almost documentary style with interviews of people dealing with the new illness Onset Rigors Disease, or Rigors as it’s been shortened, a disease that only effects men and causes a gradual loss of mobility by a hardening of the muscles as well as declining mental faculties. The world at large looks at these people as if they are zombies due in large part to the aggressive behavior they display after their minds have deteriorated, and their erratic, uncoordinated movements that are a result of the hardening of their muscles. For those unfortunate souls who degrade that far, only one of two sad fates await them, being locked up in inadequate and understaffed care facilities to await their death or being savagely beaten to death by one of the various hunters that roam the countryside looking for late stage Rigors sufferers they can “heroically” beat with blunt instruments. The hunter’s greatest prize would be the death of patient zero Harold Gimble. He was the very first person to exhibit the symptoms of Rigors, but for some unknown reason the disease has not progressed as quickly for him as it has for others. He also happens to be the star of this film, and as we progress past the various interviews with doctors treating the disease and the hunters just looking for a cheap thrill in killing those afflicted with it, we meet our titular character as he’s about to start physical therapy with his new home care nurse Penny. As time passes and Penny is able to give the stiffened Harold a bit more mobility, the two begin to draw closer to one another, their relationship almost bordering on something romantic, but the fact still remains that Harold is afflicted with a disease that not only will kill him at some point but makes his life a painful, living hell. That is until a doctor gives Harold the option of trying out an experimental drug that might just change his life forever. There are risks of course, but the possible benefits far outweigh the risk, and Harold makes the decision to give the drug a chance. What other choice does poor Harold Gimble have? It’s either this, or facing the hunters who are just waiting for the opportunity to capture and kill their most prized trophy.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with Harold’s Going Stiff. Since I started the Year of the Undead I’ve been trying to find zombie films that offer the viewer something a bit different, something other than your standard fare of a zombie epidemic overrunning the world and a small group of survivors trying to fight them off, so I was eager to check this film out as it seemed to promise something much different than your average zombie flick. That being said, I was still a bit apprehensive as the plot seemed like something that could get boring if not done right. I have to admit to being a bit of a hypocrite in the fact that while I’ve been searching for zombie films that offer the promise of something different, I’ve still been hesitant about watching those zombie flicks that didn’t seem to promise bloodshed and tons of gore, a staple I’ve not been able to move past as a gore loving zombie fan. Sure, I’ve checked out more than a few this year that didn’t have much gore to them but which I loved regardless, but I still remained hesitant about movies that weren’t going to be about evisceration, flesh rending, and the presentation of a human body utterly ruined by an attacking horde. With a viewing of Harold’s Going Stiff I now realize I need to change my attitude because this film more than many others showed what a talented storyteller can do with a cinematic paintbrush. It’s an amazing flick, using zombies to play on the very real fear of dementia and old age, and I’m glad I gave it a watch.
Zombies have always had an air of containing the fear of our bodies betraying us, refusing to obey our commands as the brains that were once used to control them acquiesced to the power of a force far out of their control, the force of a brain being destroyed in the face of an enemy we could not see. In zombie films this enemy is a virus, a mutation, a voodoo curse, or even a parasite, one that infects a person’s brain, eradicating who they were and controlling what little bit is left over. In the real world, we have a precedent for this fear, we simply call it old age and/or dementia in which we forget who are and are left with only a shell of the person we once were. Most of us have had to face this sad reality while watching it effect an elderly family member or friend. Harold’s Going Stiff takes the reins of those fears and takes us where it will as we watch people affected by Onset Rigors Disease succumb to symptoms that are very reminiscent of those suffered during our twilight years. The body starts to feel stiff and unwieldly as the muscles cease to work as efficiently as they used to, the faculties start to dim, and eventually the afflicted sufferer loses his mind (I would say his or her but in the universe of Harold’s Going Stiff only men are capable of being infected by the disease). I found it brilliant how well they worked this into the film’s metaphors for old age and dementia, especially the way the afflicted struggle to retain their minds in the midst of something determined to destroy them. To better pursue their age based metaphor, they make sure to state that this is not zombieism as filmgoers understand it, in fact, it’s not really zombieism at all. Doctors within the film are actually upset because they aren’t happy with Onset Rigors Disease being compared with zombies, a name for ORD sufferers that was adopted by the media not the medical community. Doctors attempting to cure ORD sufferers don’t care for the term because it has caused people to compare the infected with the living dead instead of human beings. Most of all though, those very same doctors are incensed about the hunters who go around murdering people while the cops look on with apathy, only happy that someone else is taking care of the problem for them. It was an incredible use of zombies as metaphor, done extremely well without becoming too heavy handed.
Of course, for such a thing to work to its fullest potential it’s going to need the very best of actors who are perfectly suited for their parts, and that’s exactly what happened. The people chosen to play various characters throughout the film do a wonderful job of helping along the movie’s metaphorical take on being zombies. This is especially amazing considering that our two main actors, Stan Rowe as Harold Gimble and Sarah Spencer as his nurse Penny, don’t have any other acting roles to their name for the most part, with Spencer having only one other acting credit. Still, they managed to play their parts expertly, to the point where you very much feel for the both of them as they struggle to deal with Harold’s affliction and begin to care more and more for each other, sometimes almost bordering on romantic affection towards one another. I applaud both of them for their performances and the excellent portrayal of the film’s main two characters. They are definitely the focus of the film, but by no means are they the only ones who put on a good performance, of note among the rest is zombie hunter Jon Grayson (played by Andy Pandini), a man who honestly believes he is doing what’s for the best in killing the late stage sufferers of ORDs before they can hurt anyone.
Harold’s Going Stiff is an excellent zombie film, but it’s not a gore driven one so be forewarned before giving it a watch. Still, it’s an amazing film with a good amount of black humor, serious observations, and heartfelt performances. It’s one I would highly recommend.
The Undead Review
Directed By: Keith Wright (Take Me to Your Leader, Long in the Tooth)
Starring: Stan Rowe, Sarah Spencer (Spores), and Andy Pandini (The Shop, Chilly Christmas)
Written By: Keith Wright (Long in the Tooth, Where’s Bingo Betty?)
Released By: FrissonFilm, High Fliers Distribution, and Level 33 Entertainment
Release Year: 2011
Release Type: Straight to Video
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Rotten Heads: Five Heads Out of Five