Dead By Dawn 2011 Review: Harold’s Going Stiff
Zombies have been used as a metaphor for a range of things over the years: they’ve represented mindless labour, consumerism, contagion, but never, to my knowledge, has zombieism been used as a metaphor for ageing. In the charming, understated British indie movie Harold’s Going Stiff, that’s just what we get.
The film is framed as a ‘mockumentary’, with the filmmakers examining the emergence of a perplexing new condition affecting British men and, in particular, how this condition affects an elderly man called Harold Gimble. And why? Well, it all started with Harold. A few months ago, he started getting pain and stiffness in his joints that went above and beyond the effects of old age: as he explains, he couldn’t dig his garden anymore, and cutting a piece of cake to go with his nice pot of tea was sheer agony. After many unpleasant medical tests and much deliberation, doctors proclaimed that Harold was suffering from a totally new disease. They named it Onset Rigors Disease – or O.R.D for short – and before long it seemed to be affecting others too. When it affects other men however, they degenerate rapidly until they don’t know their own families and even become violent. These guys seem like, well, zombies, and some concerned members of the community are now meeting this violence with (ham-fisted) vigilantism. Meanwhile Harold is trying to get on with his life, but as he lives alone, things are tough, and although his condition seems stable, it’s not getting any better.
To try and give him back some of his lost mobility, the local health service sends Howard a nurse, Penny (Sarah Spencer). She’s trained in massage techniques which it is hoped will help get Howard moving again. Penny is a warm, considerate woman who forms a close bond with her patient: she’s also very lonely herself, and Howard becomes as important to her as she does to him. As more sufferers of O.R.D keep appearing, the medical team who diagnosed Howard’s condition have to ask him if he’ll help them with more tests as they search for a cure, and Penny insists on being there to support him.
What unfolds is a humorous, often affecting tale. It’s worth establishing this, though: if you’re hoping for another Shaun of the Dead then this is not it. It has a similar self-deprecating British humour and it’s definitely funny, but otherwise completely different in tone. This isn’t a gory zom-com but a character-driven story which easily manages to flip from moments of laugh-out-loud physical comedy to real pathos, and when I say pathos, I mean that many audience members at the Dead by Dawn festival where I saw the film (including myself, if I’m honest) were moved to tears. Director/writer Keith Wright knows when to change tack, though, and to give the audience something lighter. The group of vigilantes who have made it their mission to attack any aggressive O.R.D sufferers they see give us a real comedy of errors during their earliest scenes, and there’s plenty of humour to be found in the rest of the film too.
The only potential problem I foresee for this film is that it doesn’t sit comfortably in any one genre. It draws on elements of horror, but it’s in no way a straightforward horror. It’s often comedic, but probably sits outside the comedy genre as well. This genre-straddling means that it might struggle to find its audience and that would be a real shame. Also, the beautiful South Yorkshire setting comes with some broad South Yorkshire accents which many people will struggle with! I’ve lived in Yorkshire for years and I had to pause for thought, so our friends on the other side of the pond may well have problems.
Ultimately, Harold’s Going Stiff plays out the anxiety surrounding ageing in a bittersweet, engaging story, as embodied by professional actors and non-actors who really make you care about their characters. It’s no small thing to craft a film which tugs on the heartstrings as successfully as this one does, and it’s proof that you don’t need a huge budget to make a good indie.
Editor’s note: find out more at http://www.stiffmovie.com/