Score: 4 out of 5
Mayhem is the movie that The Belko Experiment wanted to be, and really should've been given the talent involved. While in that film, the visions of writer James Gunn and director Greg McLean clashed badly, leaving a film that didn't know whether it wanted to be a gritty, brutal horror movie or a winking satire of office/corporate culture, Mayhem, meanwhile, leaves no question as to what sort of movie it is. It is an ultraviolent satire in the vein of a bigger-budgeted Troma flick, combining pitch-dark comedy, action set pieces that live up to the film's title, and a no-holds-barred smackdown of how office jobs chew people up, spit them out, and turn them into raging monsters, all with a pair of great leads in Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving. It's a blisteringly over-the-top horror-comedy that may be running a bit faster than it can fully keep up with, but is still a must-watch for fans of this sort of modern-day grindhouse action.
Yeun plays Derek Cho, a lawyer who's worked his way up from a fresh-faced new recruit to middle management at Towers & Smythe Consulting, having sold a little bit of his soul at each step he took up the ladder of success. Derek got where he is by working on a case involving the ID-7 virus, or "Red Eye virus" for its most visible symptom, which drives people into bursts of anger as their ids run completely unchecked; namely, he helped build the successful, precedent-setting legal defense of a man who killed somebody while he was sick with ID-7. Today, unfortunately, Derek has been thrown under the bus by one of his superiors, serving as the fall guy for a botched case that causes him to lose his job. The only thing stopping him from promptly leaving the building with a cardboard box containing everything in his office, as he's been ordered, is the fact that an outbreak of ID-7 has caused the CDC to quarantine the entire building as everybody inside, Derek included, succumbs to its symptoms. Now, fueled with primal rage and a desire to get some payback on the fat cats who ruined his life, and knowing that his ID-7 infection means he can legally get away with it, Derek teams up with Melanie Cross, a young woman who was in the building to renegotiate a loan and has her own bone to pick with management, to fight their way through the chaos all the way to the executive boardroom.
It's Office Space meets The Purge, basically. And it is awesome. Director Joe Lynch is no stranger to highly stylized action and horror violence, and he shoots the on-screen mayhem (pardon the pun, but this is really a movie where the title just says it all) with glee. The office building transforms into an utter madhouse as the employees, upon getting sick, start smashing their keyboards, yelling at each other, getting into fistfights, photocopying their butts, snorting cocaine, and streaking through the halls while letting their burning revenge fantasies take over. Derek and Melanie's quest is framed almost like a video game as they have to navigate the building for the right keycards to get to the executive suite on the top floor, and it is a late-period Resident Evil game specifically, one where the enemies aren't zombies but infected humans who have retained their intelligence and personalities but adopted a desire to kill. (The plot detail concerning the virus also answers the sticky moral question of why the characters in a film like this turn violent: because they're infected, silly!) Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving are clearly having a blast bashing in skulls and getting covered in Karo syrup, Yeun as the guy whose moral fiber was already weakened by working for such an unethical company and has had it up to here with them, and Weaving as a metalhead who clearly looks and feels uncomfortable in business casual dress surrounded by office drones (she's wearing a Black Dahlia Murder tank top underneath her blouse). Surrounding them is a great, over-the-top supporting cast, ranging from Steven Brand as Derek's cokeheaded, golf-club-swinging asshole boss to Kerry Fox as his second-in-command to Caroline Chikezie as the scheming corporate climber who ruins Derek's life and career to save her own skin to Dallas Roberts as the impossibly calm, Zen-like guy (even after he's infected) who management sends to deliver people their notices of termination. This was a movie that's as much about the people and personalities in it as it is about the horrible fates that happen to them, and while some of the American accents from the supporting cast were shaky (especially the Serbian actors cast in bit parts, this film having been shot in Belgrade), among the core cast there really wasn't a weak link.
The film's satire of corporate culture works best when it's in the background, which is, fortunately, for most of the film. The great cast I mentioned is made to look like a group of people who have all been turned into soulless machines by their jobs, having lost sight of things like empathy in their dealings with others and only concerned with how they can get ahead. It's stated that the virus didn't turn these people into violent maniacs; all it did was lower their inhibitions, and apparently, for most of them, that was enough to get them to start killing their co-workers out in the open. Derek and Melanie aren't immune, literally or figuratively; they've both been ground down by Towers & Smythe Consulting in some way, Derek as an employee and Melanie as a client of theirs, and they'd both be happy to see the people running things get thrown down the office tower's central shaft. It's only towards the end, when the film tries to get more specific in its proclamations, that it starts to stumble. The film works best when it's being broad and violent; when it comes time for Derek to start laying out the film's message about not letting your job ruin your life in more specific terms, that it becomes less effective, with the consequences of everything that had just transpired practically glossed over with a "oh, I just killed a bunch of people, but I feel fine". Given the sheer darkness of this film's sense of humor, the ending just felt a little too neat and happy to me. At least one fight scene, with Derek and Melanie versus a crowd of people all targeting them, also didn't ring true to me given the odds, feeling like the heroes had plot armor on their side compared to the rest of the film. That said, it was an awesome scene, and in this movie, awesomeness can get me to forgive a lot of things.
The Bottom Line
It's an intense mix of splatter horror, violent action, and grim satire that exploits the hell out of its premise, to fascinating and entertaining results. Check this one out.