Mulberry St. A.K.A. Contamination (2006)



Jim Mickle

Nick Damici (Clutch), Kim Blair (Casey), Bo Corre (Kay), Ron Brice (Coco), Larry Fleischman (Charlie), Larry Medich (Frank), Javier Picayo (Otto)

Were-rat Zombies

“A deadly infection breaks out in Manhattan, causing humans to devolve into blood-thirsty rat creatures. Six recently evicted tenants must survive the night and protect their downtown apartment building as the city quickly spirals out of control.” – IMDb synopsis

The writing/directing team of Jim Mickle and Nick Damici has been on a steady rise of late.  After their indie-horror vampire apocalypse movie Stakeland (expect that in a future column) came out to fair critical acclaim, they went on to make the over-rated southern gothic cannibal drama We Are What We Are and the Joe R. Lansdale based Texas neo-noir Cold in July.  Comparatively few remember Mickle and Damici’s freshman project, a little movie from 2006 called Mulberry St.

There are several reasons why Mulberry St. might have slipped off everyone’s radar.  It had a mostly unknown cast and crew, it had a dull name, and it was part of the After Dark Horrorfest: 8 Films to Die For collection which was often a mark of mediocrity and forgettable qualities.  While Mulberry St. does suffer from some of the issues that plagued a lot of the After Dark selections, it’s a pretty solid genre film.

The movie concerns a group of tenants in a crumbling Manhattan apartment building who are facing eviction from a development company that seeks to beautify some of the older parts of Manhattan.  Clutch (Nick Damici) is our de-facto main character; an aging boxer who runs every day to keep in shape.  There are two old army veterans living together on an upper floor, a bartender and her teenage son, Clutch’s friend Coco, and the building’s superintendent.  Most of the movie just shows these characters going through a normal day in their lives with the menace of rat attacks going on in the background, there is also a subplot involving Clutch’s daughter coming home from the VA hospital as the city falls to chaos.

The unusually aggressive rats are causing panic in the streets and those who have been bitten by the rats start mutating into ratlike creatures themselves.  Soon the city goes to hell as rat people prowl the streets and our group of tenants attempt to hold out until morning in their building.

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Mulberry St. is sort of a siege movie but not really, the most apt comparison is the German zombie movie Rammbock; which had a similar premise, tone, and cinematography (as well as the exact same method of keeping the zombies at bay.)  It’s about a group of different people doing what they can to stand against a common enemy, and it largely succeeds at being that but fails abysmally in some regards.

None of these characters are one-dimensional but the nature of the plot is such that they’re never allowed to complete their arcs.  I realize the whole “interruption of the stuff actually going on” is kind of the point of the narrative but I’ve seen it done without making the story feel unfinished.  I feel like there’s a lot going on which I don’t understand and while the movie makes a few vague hints, there’s not a lot to string together for a cohesive picture; I call this anomaly the “Ti West factor.”

This was obviously an early work for Damici and he hadn’t quite figured out what kind of story to tell.  The ending of the movie is the ending to all of these sorts of movies.  It’s actually kind of annoying how cliched the “everything goes horribly awry” ending, which was designed to buck cliche, has become.  It’s got heart-wrenching deaths the audience didn’t expect, it has a valiant sacrifice, it’s got a downbeat final note, it’s kind of like social commentary so that’s what we’ll pretend it is!

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The most glaring flaw is that, well, this shit is really silly when you stare it straight in the face.  The movie smartly keeps the wererats out of focus, moving fast, or cloaked in shadow which hides the fact that they kinda look like the gritty reboot of Lester from Beakman’s World.  No amount of intentionally shoddy camera tricks can hide the fact that the very concept of wererats are a bit goofy, however, and the movie’s almost completely serious grimdark tone doesn’t help.

There are a few funny moments sprinkled throughout the movie (most of them coming from Casey’s boss, played by John Hoyt) but this is largely played not merely straight, but gravely serious.  This is a movie with things to say and it really kind of clashes with the campy premise, which is a shame as there are ways the two could work cohesively if the movie approached both from a different angle.  We have wererats; I want to see someone turn into a giant rat, I want weird bladder effects and gore gags, I want some weird jury-rigged super weapon that the hero uses for one scene and discards forever.  If there was any premise that lends itself to “feature length tribue to Evil Dead 2“, I think it’s this one.  What I get is a lot of (admittedly well-written and interesting) drama that leads to nowhere and a downbeat ending that feels too inevitable to be earned.

This isn’t to say that Mulberry St. is utterly devoid of a deeper meaning.  This movie is clearly playing on a post 9-11 New York and there’s a lot of social commentary on class warfare here, it’s even implied that this whole thing might have been caused by the development mogul who is kicking everyone out.  Admittedly the subtext is ultimately as pointless and disconnected from the rest of the movie as the character drama, but it is still there.

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What’s particularly disheartening (or encouraging depending on your perspective) is finding out that Ryan Samul (cinematographer of all of Mickle and Damici’s later films) also did the work on this one.  If there’s one gripe I didn’t have about Stake Land, We Are What We Are, and Cold in July it was that the cinematography was anything less than wonderful.  Mulberry St. looks like shit, we’ve got film-school rookie pans and zooms, indie-horror shaky cam, bad lighting, bad color saturation, it looks awful.  Now, I’m sure the equipment and lighting were shoddy by necessity of the budget, and even great cinematographers go through growing pains, but this is some shamefully shoddy workmanship and I can only imagine that Samul watches this movie whilst peeking through his fingers.

Mulberry St. is a bit of a glorious mess that’s not as scary as it tries to be, as poignant it wants to be, or as fun as it should be, but it’s a lot more good than it is bad.  It’s a nice look back at the Mickle/Damici/Samul triumvirate showing the potential as well as the weaknesses they showed nearly ten years ago.  Don’t expect a new favorite movie, but Mulberry St. is a worthwhile addition to collection if you’re a fan of doomsday, horror, zombie movies, or Mickle/Damici films.  Also I’m sure your local used DVD retailer has a good twenty-some copies collecting dust in the bargain bins.

Mulberry St. is available on DVD from Amazon and can be watched on Netflix instant.

“You know Carl, with all the cool ways to die around here, I’d rather not go by heart-attack.