The ever-present electric crackle and hum of modern life can sometimes be maddening, as anyone who's raged at ringing cell phones in movie theaters can attest, but The Signal takes the premise to wild extremes. A weird, unexplained psychedelic pulse just starts droning out of TVs and radios, and pretty soon most of the residents of fictional Terminus City turn into erratic, homicidal savages, making this an ostensible zombie movie without any supernatural baggage. It's also a pretty canny mash-up of dozens of genre movie plots — see Videodrome, Dawn of the Dead, etc. — all reduced to a funky, high-energy, postmodern apocalypse. While some elements are borrowed, the flick has its own inimitably disjointed atmosphere, in no small part because of its three different directors, David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush, thus splitting the movie into three distinct pieces.
Much excitement comes in the eerie opening third, the film's most straight-up horror segment, with cute adulterous hipsters Mya (Anessa Ramsey) and Ben (Justin Wellborn) awaking after a night of stolen passion to find that the world has gone bat-shit crazy without them. Things get graphically gory in a hurry: Mya's neighbors in her apartment building roam about, randomly hacking each other up with handy household items such as hedge trimmers. Her insanely jealous husband Lewis (A.J. Bowen) leads the chaos.
Later, the action moves to a yuppie New Year's Eve party, and the movie settles into an extremely dark comic romp, with a heavy Shaun of the Dead flavor that completely breaks the earlier fingernail-chomping tension.
The conclusion is too impressed with its own self-referential, reality-warping trickiness, but manages to bring the love story back to the forefront. The no-name cast is sturdier than you'd expect, solving the common genre problem of watching pretty plastic people become cube steak with only the merest concern for their safety. These are real people and, for the most part, they respond how real people would in a hopelessly crazy environment, which goes a long way to creating empathy.
Opens Friday, Feb. 22, at the AMC Forum 30 (44681 Mound Rd., Sterling Heights; 586-254-5663) and at the Birmingham Paladium 12 (250 N. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.