New York City has a rat problem. This is hardly an earth shattering statement. Where you have trash, you have rats, and Manhattanites make a lot of trash. But MULBERRY STREET, the directorial debut of Jim Mickel isn’t really about the rats at all. BEN, WILLARD, those films are about rats, muddy, brown, scurrying, bubonic plague carrying rodents. Of course, Mulberry Street isn’t about those Jimmy Cagney “dirty rats” either. Mickel’s film is all allegory… with a fair share of just plain gory tossed in here and there.
This film picks up present day in a hot New York City morning. A former boxer is out for his daily jog and everything seems as simple as life in the big apple can be. But lurking underground is a sinister force. Scampering through the sewers is a battalion of four-legged beasties setting up to unleash a new kind of hell on the unsuspecting folks above. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, Mickel doesn’t offer a reason behind the outbreak, but with each bite, the rats become bolder and with each bite, the outcome becomes bleaker. As the infected begin to take on the rodents’ characteristics, they are transformed into squeaking psychopaths simply in search of more blood. As the disease spreads, subway systems are shut down, shops close up, the streets become a virtual ghost town and the government declares martial law.
Just glancing at the synopsis above gives a clear indication of the 9/11 mentality that begot this film, but Mickel hardly stops his social commentary there. A news broadcast that comes in the third act of the film describes the total devastation of Manhattan Island in eerily similar terms as that of the post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans—specifically targeting the government response to the situation. Mickel is not trying for subtlety here. This is slap in your sensibilities cinema—steeped in the George Romero tradition of utilizing horror and urban decay to comment on the problems facing America. But where MULBERRY STREET succeeds over Romero’s last film is in its sincerity and gritty realism. It was harder to accept LAND OF THE DEAD as both a slick studio production and an impassioned stab at the Bush administration than it is to see the immediacy and irony spilled all over the screen in this film. Still, with mighty ambitions often come mighty failures and it’s just too bad that the production is not nearly as great as its ideals.
The film looks and feels like an American update of Danny Boyle’s brilliant 28 DAYS LATER. This is going to seriously hurt the marketability in the wake of that projects sequel, coming later this year. The concept is solid but the execution is rife with problems. The acting is fine but the characters are hollow. Too much of the film is built around the ravenous behavior and anarchy of the infected population. In turn this madness fills the screen little more than running, screaming, slashing and gnawing. It’s hard to follow the motivations of the characters, even if that motivation is simply “stay alive”.
There is an excess of filmmaking taking place over story—too many camera angles, too much scenery and far too little exposition. Near the opening of our story the corpse of a young girl is scene in passing. This is left wholly unexplained. Was this the first victim? Perhaps the child’s death caused the plague to begin. Who knows? Later a wheelchair bound character dies in a matter that is so “blink and you’ll miss it” that I clearly blinked and missed it. I still have no idea what happened. But, it hardly matters since no one in the film seemed to care much about him anyway.
Mickel seems to have a lot to say, and I think he told the right saga to relate his opinion, but the films failing comes in that he focused on a few key points but neglected the overall plotline to point them out. Survival in the face of a total societal meltdown can be impassioned and powerful filmmaking, even in the horror genre. But MULBERRY STREET is simply not up to the task of telling the tale.