Viral is one of two films from filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman opening this weekend (the other being Nerve). This kind of opening weekend competition is rare, but having seen both I will tell you right up front that your money is better spent on Nerve.
Taking the post-apocalyptic infectious disease genre to a place it has rarely gone before, Viral is an outbreak movie targeting the high school crowd. Emma Drake (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and her sister, the far more outgoing Stacey (Analeigh Tipton), find themselves trapped in their family home as a recently discovered disease slowly transforms the human race into zombies. It’s not exactly a new idea, but writers Christopher Landon and Barbara Marshall find a way to keep things fun with sharp wit and strong character development.
The disease at the center of Viral is one that forces people to vomit blood profusely. It’s a stomach turning notion that adds a bit of grotesque entertainment for the true horror hounds of the world, but it’s not exactly a necessity to the story. Still, Joost and Schulman deliver on the bloody promise of the film’s R rating while still pandering heavily to a mainstream horror crowd. There is blood and decay, as well as plenty of people having seizures and/or vomiting, but it is nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s just as unsettling as it needs to be to make those with weak stomachs squeamish while everyone else elicits a steady string of sounds conveying disgust or horror.
D’Elia and Tipton are the core of the film, and they each deliver strong performances. That said, they and everyone else exist in the shadow of Michael Kelly, who pulls double duty as the sisters’ father and the local high school teacher. His appearance is minimal as this is a film largely focused on his onscreen daughters, but he gives the film something special that helps pull you in before the disease even begins to spread. His contributions after the fact are welcomed as well, but by that point the movie has found its legs and is more or less following a fairly well-tread survival-horror guidebook of jump scares and quarantine-induced drama that no amount of good acting can make feel brand new again.
The two constants between the two new Joost and Schulman releases are their love of leveraging technology for storytelling, like texting, and the presence of Machine Gun Kelly. The rapper-turned-actor from Ohio has minor roles in both films, but Viral gives slightly more room to showcase his range as a lovable jerk with 100% more tattoos than everyone else on screen. Both appearances are admirable, neither one is strong enough to make him a likely candidate for America’s next great leading man.
There is a chance Viral will hook younger audiences who have not experienced many disease-based horror films in the past (specially those who somehow missed The Faculty), though it’s unclear if genre fans will be as easy to entertain. The film’s a perfectly fine thriller that boasts a few decent performances, but the chances of anyone even remembering its name in two years’ time seems minimal given the lack of originality inherent in the script. Aside from the high school setting, which admittedly adds a bit of freshness to the mix, there is nothing in this film even casual horror fans have not seen dozens of times before. What’s worse is that none of it is executed better than any previous iteration, which begs the question of why such a film was made in the first place. Aside from a clear desire to cash in on an under-serviced demographic, there is no reason for this movie to exist, and even next to no reason for anyone to recommend anyone else waste their time with it.