Unknown forests, secretive dungeons and dangerous minds: to contemplate horror is often to contemplate the unknown. And so when flung, with eyes and ears locked into an alternative digital reality, straight into an unfamiliar virtual hospital populated by army personnel and zombies, you’d think it would be the unfamiliar things that trigger the old heebie jeebies.
But in Aaron Reeves’ immersive video experience, which brings two isolated participants into an intertwining fifteen-minute storyline, it’s the familiar things that shock. Just as you adjust to the dislocation between the world that surrounds you and the world held inside your video goggles, and just as you start trusting the performance artists who guide you as you walk, effectively blindfolded, through the Camden People’s Theatre basement, Dead Arise pulls out a shocking dose of the everyday, shuffling the relationship between illusion and reality so that you never quite feel settled.
Each singular, unchangeable narrative leaves very little space for the participants’ creative input, yet the neat coordination between audio/visual technology and live sensation incorporates all five senses, and renders each audience member fully involved. While the pre-recorded video and sound measure the tempo of the piece, the artists – working only on audio cues and participant reactions – deliver the sensual accessories to this story with precision. The sip of water offered just before one of the most dramatic scenes is a cue to spring into conflict, the dismembered scent of coffee is a strong device for an emotive flashback, and the weight of a handgun leaves little doubt as to the participant’s mission.
While fact and fiction clash, and sense and perception collide, it’s a shame that gender boundaries remain so clear. Upon arrival you are allocated to one of two simultaneous routes through the space. The first, deemed as the female perspective, sees you guided by Aaron Reeves. IRL, his job is to lead you around the space, offer props at appropriate moments and prevent you from walking into a wall. Complementing his role as your former partner in the video, Reeves is also there to offer you a hug when your screen fills with romantic flashbacks to a simpler time. The corresponding male perspective is supported by Ruth Adams, who contrasts her gentle, reminiscent affection with a full, door-battering resistance as you try to hold back the zombie attack.
While both versions are rather physically demanding as they call you to lie, stand, crouch and collapse, the male perspective is undoubtedly more gung ho. The feminine take on this story sees the participant running with an inert handgun before dying passively; the male lead gets to kill the zombies, kiss the girl, and take command over his own life. As each narrative is meant to be experienced in isolation, and the nature of the piece prevents you from seeing your companion’s progression through the storyline, it is hard to contemplate why such gendered difference was necessary.
Yet, although fully subscribed to the conventions of pulp horror, Dead Arise is crammed with surprises, and the piece’s strongest moments occur when it briefly presses the pause button on the bloodshed in order to drop into dreamlike alternative layers. In borrowing the first person viewpoint and sense of involvement from gaming, and the stubborn narrative thrust of film, this clever piece successfully refreshes the thrill of this well-worn genre.
The production could afford to meditate longer on its more imaginative elements, but in creating a world where it’s easier to fire a gun at an enemy than to carelessly throw a torch to the floor, it challenges and rearranges the habits we’ve learnt from experience and gaming – and does so with personality and true bite.