Why the Dead Island trailer is one of the best short films you’ll ever see

If you haven’t seen this yet, it’s embedded below. Watch it now, because there be spoilers ahead. I’ll wait.

Right. So, what’s so good about that then, eh? It’s just a zombie attack done backwards, right?

Wrong. It’s a fucking masterpiece of emotional film-making, is what. Let me talk you through it.

Fade in close on an eye. Elegiac music. We don’t know where we are yet. Camera pulls back ad rotates to reveal a young girl, blood-spattered, obviously dead, lying on the ground. In the background, out-of-focus, something is flailing about, obviously on fire.

So what we have here is intense curiosity, set up from the get-go. Why is she dead? What the hell is the flailing, burning thing? What’s going on here? The audience wants to know more already.

Snap-cuts of a young girl running along a corridor and gasping for breath. First her point-of-view, then an objective point-of-view of her legs running, then the point-of-view of something chasing her as she looks back over. We can’t tell if it’s the same girl or not until the third shot.

Then, suddenly, shockingly, the girl comes to life, rolls over, and – second shock – starts flying into the air, accompanied by shattered glass. At this point it becomes apparent that time is running backwards.

The first question: Why is she dead? has been answered, and a new question: How did she fall? is posed. We’re also gifted our first shot of the location. It’s an island, and she’s fallen from a hotel window.

Intercut her being chased. This time we can see her pursuers – half a dozen men stumbling after her. Out of focus. Again, we can’t see them.

The glass re-assembles, and we see her grab onto a man’s back, presumably her father, who is swinging her around.

At this point we have our first chance to put together a theory about what’s going on – look at his mouth there. We can’t see what he’s doing, but the mouth is in the right shape for laughter. He’s swinging around in a hotel room, with his daughter on his back. It’s a game that’s gone wrong, she’s let go and smashed through the window. Note how the blood disappears behind them as they twirl, so that this way, in reverse, it looks like they’re laughing and playing, a happy family.

The chase continues, and this time we see the pursuers. Still stumbling, close behind her, gaining. It’s obvious now that this happens before the reverse-time incidents.

In the hotel room, from out of shot, people come back to life. They’re using the fact that time’s running backwards to show dead people coming back to life – a major signifier of zombie films. Confirmed factually as we start to see more of the people in the hotel room and the chasers are all covered with wounds. The wider shot of the hotel room shows that it’s covered in blood spatters.

Again, we see the father and daughter, and as they continue to twirl it becomes obvious that he’s covered in his own blood, because she’s biting into his neck. Denial of the previous image and the play-gone-wrong theory, opening a new story – they’re not playing, she’s trying to tear his throat out.

New character introduced – a woman with a knife, glanced at previously as she came out from under a wave of bodies, now watching the father and daughter with an expression of horror. Obviously wife. The daughter jumps backwards from her father’s back onto the bed, with a little bounce. Using again a signifier of family play – jumping on beds – for emotional resonance.

In the jump-cuts, one of the zombies has caught up with the running girl, just outside a hotel room, setting up the (correct) expectation that it’s the hotel room we’re running the main story in.

The mother looks shocked and terrified, as her child falls back on the bed and stops moving. Again, see how the emotion plays – watching it this way, in reverse, her child has just died and the emotional hit being delivered still works.

In the jump cuts, a zombie has the girl and is pulling her away from safety. Suspense. Will anyone save her? The door opens and bright light floods into the corridor for the first time, signifying safety. We can even see see people’s feet, moving towards her for the rescue.

In the hotel room, it’s completely obvious by this point that we’re in a zombie movie. In the past, the girl screams as she’s bitten. The audience re-focusses its attention on the early scenes. All questions have been answered. We know what’s happened, and why.

Blood clears from the hotel room; the zombies are pushed out in reverse. One snarls through the door. Reading the film text in this direction, the father and mother have vanquished the monsters. Uplifting feeling, as one snarls through the door which has just been barred with an axe. Again, watch the father’s face as the zombies leave. In this direction, that’s a cry of triumph as he forces them out, successfully protecting his family. The mother goes to the bed, and we read it as checking to see her daughter is all right.

In the corridor, the father grabs the axe. And now, because he’s emerging from the door that he’s standing at in the reversed film, the shot juxtaposition says that he’s taking the battle to the enemy. The two of them take turns holding their child, and we read that as making sure that she’s safe. There’s no blood visible when her father holds her, so it reads like she’s sleeping.

Then he puts her down, and we see the expression of love on both their faces.

And then the last shot is of him withdrawing his hand completely, leaving her alone.

Finally, the shots of the happy, safe, family.

But we know that time has been running backwards throughout. Watched this way, the emotional experience is that everyone is saved. But rationally, we realise that it’s not that way. And it’s that terrible juxtaposition between presentation and content caused by time running in reverse that makes this one of the most emotionally moving short films I’ve ever seen.

Damn it. Crying again now.

2 responses to “Why the Dead Island trailer is one of the best short films you’ll ever see”

  1. The trailer rather contains a small spoiler of its own with the ‘watch the dead island trailer in chronological order’ banner that runs across the top of the frame as it begins… as a self-contained piece it does work terrifically well, though. Can’t help wondering whether it will outshine the movie it’s promoting.

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