Stakeland (2010, directed by Jim Mickle)
Given the rash of vampire movies and post-apocalyptic movies that have seen the light of day recently, it was probably inevitable that we'd get something like Stakeland. Throw enough Book of Elis and 30 Days of Nights and I Am Legends into the collective unconscious and eventually a post-apocalyptic vampire road movie was going to spring forth from somebody's brow.
Which is why it's incredible, not that Stakeland exists at all, but that it's so damn good.
The plot is beautifully stripped down. Vampirism has swept the globe and destroyed civilization; wherever humans gather in numbers the vamps will follow, forcing survivors to stay isolated. In the States, a battle-scarred hunter known only as Mister rescues a young boy, Martin, after the rest of his family gets eated, and together they start a journey north to the rumored safe haven of New Eden.
It's impossible to over-emphasize how perfectly that rescue scene sets the tone for what will follow. Nothing says that the usual rules of decorum have been tossed out the window better than watching a vampire squat up in the rafters, suck Martin's infant sister dry and toss her aside like she was a piece of fruit. It's not the most gruesome thing you'll see in a horror movie this year, but it might just be the bleakest, and finding the right level of bleakness is the single most important job any post-apocalyptic film has. Stakeland finds it inside the first five minutes of the movie, and never lets it go.
As Martin and Mister head north, they find that the bloodsuckers aren't the only predators they need to worry about. A Christian cult owns the highways, preaching that the vamps are God's curse upon unbelievers, and the Brotherhood and their deranged leader Jebediah prove to be far more dangerous than anything with fangs.
One of the big things that sets Stakeland apart is the care that's taken with the world around Mister and Martin. The cause of the vampiric outbreak is never explained, but its effects on civilization are spelled out in meticulous detail. A Marine they travel with for a while, when asked who won the war in the Middle East, snaps back "No one. There was nobody left to fight it." Basic pharmaceuticals become valuable currency. And while the vampires themselves are fairly standard-issue mindless, blood-crazed, tough as hell killing machines, the implications of that form of vampirism get fully explored, both by Mister in his efforts to trap them, and by the Brotherhood's use of them as weapons. I won't spoil the movie's brilliant, jaw-dropping set piece, but it's a thing of pure genius in its execution and its understanding of how evil and inventive humans can be.
Stakeland is inevitably going to get compared to two films in particular: Zombieland, due only to the similar titles and the fact that humans are an endangered species in each, and Hillcoat's The Road. The first is just unfortunate, as Stakeland is deadly serious in ways Zombieland couldn't be -- there's no Bill Murray cameo here (oops, spoiler!), no silly graphics displaying the rules to the audience. The two are different genres entirely, really. But when it comes to the latter, I'd say that not only does Stakeland hold its own against The Road, it's actually the superior film.
It all comes back to that right mix of bleakness and hope. Stakeland doesn't have what you could call a happy ending, but it does give you that real possibility that there may be a future after all. And in a world as dark as this one, just that little glimmer of light through the black is all you need to get you through.