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Keep a little fire burning: Welcome to Kittytown @ Sydney Underground Film Festival

Directed by Douglas Luciuk, Kittytown shows us you have to be a little different to survive when the world goes to shit.

Source: Welcome to KittyTown website

Warning: Major Spoilers!

Dubbed as a cross between The Road (2009) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), Welcome to Kittytown is simultaneously a funny satire of the post-apocalyptic genre while also being a classic study of how effective character foils can create introspection in a film audience. Directed by Douglas Luciuk, Kittytown shows us you have to be a little different to survive when the world goes to shit.  

Unlike most modern post-apocalyptic films, where the exposition is in your face, Kittytown uses the scenario to create an effective sandbox to explore humanity. We never see a secret  lab making “The Miracle GMO” nor does the plot revolve around a Hollywood protagonist saving the world. As film critic Roger Ebert summarises, audiences “are by now more or less exhausted by the cinematic possibilities of killing [zombies].” While still pointing out that if there was going to be an apocalypse, it would likely be environmental and due to human arrogance, the cause of death in Kittytown — literally shitting yourself to death — pokes fun at the sillier scenarios dystopian and apocalyptic writers have come up with. 

The very abandoned setting extends on the film’s ability to remove the worst excesses of the genre. Set in the expansive fields of the US, full of railroad tracks and rotting farmhouses, we skip obnoxious CGI-dominated cityscapes. The film uses a minimalist approach to genre and setting, exploring how different types of people respond to a sense of emptiness; the scenario itself all but falls away.

The protagonist Vern (Darren Zimmer) is the archetypal cynical lone ranger. Distrusting of every sound and movement in the grass, he is the someone you would expect to survive an apocalypse. It’s hard not to grin when he talks about “cream corn” being a special occasion causing him to “pass brains up my ass.” That sense of humour loosely veils a sentimentality that he initially fears. We see him climb onto a broken tractor, reminiscing on his daily routine as a farmer. He does not let himself stay long. 

When he meets Tim (Robert Mann), it becomes clear he is meant to represent Vern’s foil: someone who takes the polar opposite approach to the new reality of being human. Wearing an obnoxious Hawaiian shirt and carrying a comically large travel suitcase, it’s a shock to the audience and Vern that he is alive at all. The audience gets to enjoy as Tim chips away at Vern’s harsh exterior until he eventually gets the privilege of walking side by side with him rather than staying two steps behind.

It’s worth mentioning here that the interplay does not always land. An offhand exchange that reveals Vern as a vegan subverts expectations but comes off as bizarre considering his background. Further, the scenes of Vern rushing off to defecate due to the GMO draw chuckles initially but eventually become sombre and cringeworthy when you realise Vern’s life is likely coming to a slow painful end. 

What moves the film thematically forward beyond the character’s growing relationship is a brilliant sense of ambiguity; it’s unclear what attitude to the apocalypse is validated. Initially, the story seems to frame the plot around Vern’s shell breaking down. Tim throws his 

rifle into the river and while initially furious he does not hurt or abandon Tim. 

The movie turns this on its head when they meet Sam (Todd Lewis). After checking under every possible surface, Vern stumbles upon a shed full of body parts and a cookbook with recipes like “Steak Diane and Sloppy Joey.” His cynicism saves their lives just as it was beginning to look redundant. 

Luciuk seems to be arguing ironically, that while extreme personalities are the ones who may survive the initial fallout, something more complete is required to survive longer in a new world. When they finally meet Charlotte (Bernadette Mullen), the voice on the radio, Tim’s sensitivity regains its place. Vern dismisses the mannequins Charlotte calls friends as “stupid.” Tim understands the depths people will go to not feel alone. 

That sense of ambiguity, in my view, is how the film should have ended. Instead, the cannibal Sam comes back to life, allowing Vern’s arc to complete in a way that’s almost too neat. Vern saves Tim and Charlotte, dying in the process from the disease he has had all along. He leaves behind a note, “take good care of Ted, he is my friend…” A sense of trust emerges victorious even though the movie itself does not seem to support that conclusion.

When sitting by the fire together Vern and Tim teach each other valuable lessons. Tim points out that “surviving and living are two very different things.” Vern retorts that sometimes all you can do is survive, “everyone has a Sam inside them… all it takes is one bad harvest, one bad winter.” 

Welcome to Kittytown is showing at the Sydney Underground Film Festival on the 8th and 10th of September.