Pathogen (2006)

My cousin Brian appeared on a local Chicago television show called Kidding Around when he was in junior high. The show focused on ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. Brian’s talent was building castles that were made out of household treats like Golden Grahams and ice cream cones. He stopped building the castles after Bandit, his dog, ate one of them in the middle of the night. To this day, our family speaks of Brian’s castles as if they were tantamount to flying across the English Channel on a hoverboard.

Imagine how we’d feel today if Brian had made his own movie.

Conceived when writer-director-producer-editor Emily Hagins was twelve and released when she was fifteen, Pathogen joins Day of the Reaper as the most accomplished full length horror movie ever made by a person before they could legally drive a car. Pathogen isn’t for everyone. But unless you’re a complete asshole, this movie is for you.

An advanced form of technology called the Nanochip has leaked into the water supply in Austin, Texas. And also Canada! Within “3 or 4 days,” the city’s residents are transformed into flesh-craving zombies. Middleschooler Dannie figures out that the mutations are a result of contaminated drinking water. Armed with a knife, an axe, and many pairs of flip-flops, Dannie and her pee-wee zombie squad take to the streets to battle undead parents, teens, and even a toddler. It all culminates with a bloodbath in a real-life supermarket that would make the Polonia brothers proud.

I moved to Austin eight years ago. After growing up in Chicago and spending a few years in Los Angeles, I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming sense of kindness that permeates this city. So it makes sense that a teenager was able to find the support she needed in Austin to make a movie that complements scenes of zombies barfing up green slime with themes of empathy and friendship. With a plot that’s just as plausible as the one in Terminator 2 and an impressive devotion to editing and storytelling, Pathogen is miles above what we expect from a shot-on-video horror movie in the 2000s — let alone one that was made by a kid. This isn’t a throwaway turd on Mill Creek’s Catacomb of Creepshows 50-movie DVD set. Pathogen is as awkward and unsure as junior high itself, but it’s driven by wonder, sincerity, and a surprisingly cohesive style. Watching this movie is like seeing drawings of zombies in the margins of your algebra notebook come to life on the screen. It’s a constant source of sunshine and smiles.

Pathogen might be a slow-moving hangout movie with mumbled dialogue and clumsy pacing. But who cares? It delivers eyeball gouging, decapitations, and knife fights along with an endearing perspective that could only originate from a teenage girl. The twenty-first century needs more horror movies like this one.

The premiere of Pathogen was held at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin. During the Q&A, Hagins was asked what her inspiration was for making a movie at such a young age. Her answer was Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. Now I finally have a reason to appreciate that movie.

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