Human Zoo, 2020.
Directed by John E Seymore.
Starring Robert Carradine, Jose Rosete, Rachel Amanda Bryant, Jessica Cameron, and Megan Le.
The internet watches live, as reality-show contestants struggle against time to see who will stay in solitary confinement the longest and take home the one million dollar prize.
John E Seymore’s Human Zoo is an unconscionable failure from beginning to what Seymore defines as an “end.” It’s outright cinematic abuse. Seymore intends for audiences to experience the same levels of discomfort and mania his “subjects” endure, but at what cost? Don’t expect epiphanies, or catharsis, or even halfway relevant payoffs. As someone who watches three-hundred(ish) movies a year (new releases), over a hundred of them horror-themed, please understand my qualifications when I declare Human Zoo one of the most embarrassing boondoggles ever to ink a distribution deal. Unpleasant, irresponsibly pointless, and never worth the pound of flesh Seymore demands.
Tune in for the world’s first live-streaming reality show, “Solitary Confinement!” Contestants withstand personal demons for a cash prize of $2 million, whoever can outlast the competition in a game of mental wills. The show’s producer (Robert Carradine) confirms each player will enter a cell with enough nutritional sustenance provided each calendar day and one camera inside their new living quarters. Whenever someone wants to quit, they throw their arms up to form an “X.” Otherwise, there are no rules: only four walls, a yoga mat for sleeping, and a bucket for…things.
They say every contest has winners and losers, but in “Solitary Confinement,” no one celebrates victory. Hah! Not here, prospective viewers. All “L’s” across the board.
Introductory casting calls kick things off like a novice YouTube improv troupe’s parody of Hollywood. Where a movie like Climax uses talking head interviews to give us a sense of character motivations, Human Zoo illustrates superfluous caricatures of MTV’s most obnoxious Real World celebrities. The Insta-addicted user who’ll sell her soul for social media infamy. An ex-athlete who substitutes abs for a personality. The yoga instructor who’s convinced he’ll out-zen everyone. These are outlines of eccentrics who’ve graced your television screens, which becomes a problem when actors are forced into a performance scenario with no developmental help once “Solitary Confinement” begins.
After an elonged and uncomfortably rapey montage where burly male “security” enforcers force each contestant to strip and shower (women are ogled, rubbed, lewdly spoken to; men are subjected to blatant racism), we dive straight into eighty-three uninterrupted minutes of actors losing their shit. I mean that both figuratively and literally. Their only actional options are to sleep, eat their daily oatmeal ration, or defecate. Their “cells” do not include a door since they awaken inside containment chambers sealed on all sides. Seymore dares to question how the human mind reacts to ultimate isolation like it’s some groundbreaking exploration into uncharted horrors. It’s not, nor does he ever justify this one-note torture mechanism slathered in poo.
The reality of Human Zoo is you watch performers scream at a webcam for the film’s majority duration, begging to be released. No deeper mythology, no reveal of a more sinister plot. Which actor can throw the most unconvincing tantrum? Whose meathead monologues are the most anger-latent? Which greedy victim will grab a handful of their own excrement and fling it at the camera lens or use it as a finger paint substitute? One by one, characters realize they’re never escaping – but there’s no rhyme to Seymore’s reason mainly because there’s no reason either. Cuts between actors are nonsensical and prescribe no urgency to any one’s situation, especially when you notice some contestants who “make the cut” are never shown in a cell (where’s punk-rocker chick). Attention to detail is non-existent, haplessly sustained throughout this random collection of unearned madness.
Worse still, Seymore’s conceptual commitment to Human Zoo is baffling. For no reason, cinematography will abandon the agreed-upon regulation that “Solitary Confinement” is being live-streamed worldwide by switching into close-up, third-person camera angles. How? There’s no other lens available in each sealed tomb? Seymore struggles to keep lighting consistent in these face-to-face shots, as actors are burst-lit and almost whited-out despite their live feed’s cavelike dimness.
Seymor struggles even harder to insert a musical score that, I guess, attempts to highlight the breakdown within performances even though, once again, the film’s universal rules fly out the window (EVEN THOUGH THERE ARE NO WINDOWS?!)? Also, why can I hear a woman choking at unsynchronized times when other characters are on-screen (seizure lady’s suffocation)? Did editors accidentally copy and paste a sound effect they never bothered to remove? I don’t know what you’re trying to prove, what barrier you’re attempting to break, or what bombshell commentary you’re hoping to ignite when your own film can’t even decide how to…exist.
I’d love to snark about how my favorite part of Human Zoo is the end, but even in completion – AND SPOILERS TO FOLLOW – Seymore finds one last way to infuriate, mislead, and miss the motherloving dartboard let alone bullseye.
What we watch is despicable experimentation of the societal variety – the Stanford Prison Experiment for TikTok and The Bachelor cultures. The thing is, experiments require a hypothesis to test. Which Seymore never defines in Human Zoo. His (lack of) intention becomes uninterestingly clear when our screen cuts from one participant’s ongoing breakdown into her previous answering of a question about “fame” from the fact-finding introductions – and then we’re greeted by an immediate credits scroll. There is no third act. Human Zoo is all second-act buildup into a mass of doodoo stink and incoherent rants (looking at you, “genderism in cinema” guy), only to then exit stage-left with the abruptness of a scalper who’s just seen you realize your “face value” tickets are fake. Exploitation without explanation. Punishment without punctuation. Provokation without an aim, trajectory, or target, which is worthless to an art form that can otherwise speak volumes.
Human Zoo doesn’t earn my “try it yourself” recommendation. Human Zoo repeats itself into unjustifiable redundancies as defining character traits (the ones with OCD who count wall screws, the ones who writhe in psychological pain, etc.) double-up without added value. Human Zoo believes it’s speaking loudest by saying nothing, but I assure you everything John E Seymore attempts to “warn” has been blasted before and roasted at much higher heats. Or, you know, actually cooked through and not presented bleeding-raw. I am broken (not in an indulgent way). I’ve endured my share of low-budget, aimless horror efforts, but Human Zoo takes the throne as a new champion of the hopefully forgotten. Maybe I’ll be back with another review in the coming days; maybe I won’t. Perhaps I just can’t fathom another assignment as grueling, thankless, and numbing as Human Zoo.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★
Matt spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don’t feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged). Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd (@DoNatoBomb).