If there’s such a thing as a ‘typical’ South by Southwest film, then it probably looks something like this. A cross between Office Space and The Purge, Mayhem is a low budget, high energy horror-comedy that, for better or worse, whacks you over the head with a simple, violent metaphor about the shittiness of corporate workplaces. It had the hip Texans in stitches and it looks to have done much the same here in Sydney.
The premise is fairly simple. After being wrongfully sacked, Derek Cho (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) wants to confront his firm’s arrogant, cokehead CEO (Steven Brand). The complication? An airborne virus named ID7 has caused the building to be quarantined and has turned everyone inside into horny, rage-fuelled kooks. With revenge on his mind and a newfound urge to kill, Derek fights his way to the building’s top floor, aided by the equally-pissed Melanie (Australian Samara Weaving), who wants her foreclosure notice overturned by the firm.
This isn’t your typical zombie/outbreak affair, though. For one, everyone is contaminated – even our protagonists – so don’t expect much in the way of a moral compass. In that sense, Mayhem steers well clear of clichés. It’s dallying in a very established genre but it doesn’t fall back on easy shocks. This is the fourth film by director Joe Lynch, whose filmography is a jumble of semi-recognisable genre work like Wrong Turn 2, but where some of his earlier work were apparently victims of studio interference, Mayhem feels refreshingly handmade, thanks largely to its B-movie absurdity.1
In a structure reminiscent of other tower-set action flicks — think The Raid and Dredd — Derek and Melanie ascend the video game-like building, defeating waves of malicious co-workers along the way (including ‘The Reaper’, Dallas Roberts’ show-stealing human resources guy) before confronting the big bad boss at the top. Because of a legal loophole, ID7-contaminated individuals can get away with pretty much anything, including murder. As a result, the fights are brutal and blood-soaked, and amputations and disfigurations abound. It’s unrestrained in a way that is delightfully blasé – you may well find yourself cheering when the diabolical Siren (Caroline Chikezie) ends up on the wrong end of a power saw.
The script, though, is a bit scattershot. There are some painfully unfunny lines, mostly early on when we’re suffering through exposition. Once limbs start getting sawn off, the film gets a better handle of its comedy. A big factor in this is the introduction of Melanie. Home and Away alumnus Samara Weaving blows her experienced cast mates out of the water. She wields a nail gun like she was born to do so, with a demented smile to boot. Yeun too has a lot of natural charisma, and while most of that has gone to waste in the dreary last few seasons of The Walking Dead, he’s easy to root for as the disillusioned Derek.
If anything, Mayhem tries a little too hard to rationalise its premise. There’s quite an extensive voiceover setup, as well as dense explanations about the legal precedent of the pathogen. Aside from the opening exposition though, Mayhem maintains its frenzied pace and infectious vigour basically until the end, which is no mean feat. I also have mixed feelings about what Steve Moore’s score contributes to this. His euphoric electronica style worked incredibly well for The Guest, but seems ill-suited to the high octane energy of this slaughterfest.
Mayhem is admirably committed to its conceit, which I should emphasise, is pretty terrific. If you’re on the fence about a corporate career, this will make your mind up for you. Lynch makes great use of a limited budget, delivering the goods where it matters – I don’t think lawyer killing has ever been this much fun. And while it’s certainly heavy-handed, the comedy is so black and the violence is so ultra that it’s clear no one is taking themselves too seriously, behind the camera or in front. Though Mayhem is far from perfectly executed, the executions are damn near perfect.