Human Zoo perhaps started off as an interesting idea. The premise at least is enough to build a film around. A group of people competes on a new 24/7 reality television show to win two million dollars. They are sequestered within 8×8 cells in solitary confinement. Whoever lasts the longest wins. Unfortunately, the film lacks the tension and narrative drive to carry it to its conclusion.
The movie is broken up into three distinct parts. The first section consists of a series of filmed interviews. As the producers whittle down the list of potential candidates, we learn a few things about each person.
This is shortly followed by a second set of interviews. This time, the contestants are told they can introduce themselves to the alleged thousands of viewers online. Here we go deeper into each character’s backstory. One is a cat mom. Another wants to prove to himself that he can do something right after being released from prison. A third wants to use the money to pay for his elderly spouse’s medical procedures. And so on.
The final section depicts their entrapment. Their cell contains only a floor mat and a bucket to go to the bathroom. With only a serving of oatmeal and a bottle of water given to them per day, they try their best to outlast the other contestants. But when things get too much and some begin giving the sign to be released—crossing their arms over their heads and saying, “I quit”—they soon realize that something more sinister is at play. Once they realize they will not be freed, they further physically and mentally deteriorate.
As previously mentioned, the film lacks tension. Most of the film is shown through static camera positions, primarily the cameras in the corner of each cell. The use of this single-shot method becomes monotonous. It creates a clinical detached view, which doesn’t let audiences connect with the characters. There’s also hardly any action. Perhaps the only shocking parts are when one character has a seizure while another commits suicide.
The film’s pacing doesn’t help matters either. It feels as if the entire thing was padded to fit a feature-length run time. The first two-thirds of the film containing the two rounds of interviews could have easily been streamlined. In part three, the camera cycles through each cell’s live feed slowly, prolonging the torture viewers are exposed to.
Let me reiterate that word: Torture. That is specifically what each character undergoes in this film. It is repulsive and unpleasant. Even torture porn has more at stake than Human Zoo does. When torture is equated with entertainment value, fictitious or not, all bets are off.
At one point, a character comments on how her solitary confinement makes her wonder how animals feel locked up in a zoo. But any thematic commentary on human psychology is lost in the proceedings. Human Zoo comes across as cheap exploitation lacking in any entertainment value whatsoever. For what it’s worth, at least the actors are committed to their roles.
Sean Woodard serves as the Film Editor for Drunk Monkeys and a Co-Producer of the faith and spirituality podcast, Ordinary Grace. Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writings have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, NonBinary Review, Horrorbuzz, Cultured Vultures, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. He is currently a doctoral student at University of Texas at Arlington.