A zombie comedy with a science-fiction twist set in an intricate social context, titled The Last Serb in Croatia (Posljednji Srbin u Hrvatskoj), is a debut feature by Predrag Ličina, a filmmaker whose CV includes a great number of music videos, several television documentaries, television series Nedjeljom ujutro, subotom navečer (‘Sunday Mornings, Saturday Evenings’, 15 x 26’, HRT, Croatia, 2012) and a short film Teleport Zovko (17’, Kinorama, Croatia, 2013). In the series and the short alike, Ličina keeps his distance from the oh-so-entrenched postulates of the Croatian television and cinema mainstream. And now in his feature debut, the distance kept remains unchanged.
The Last Serb in Croatia takes place in Croatia seven years after its bankruptcy, a country with its population nearly halved, mostly due to emigration and the stark gap between the rich and the poor. Now that water has become an invaluable commodity, in order to seize its resources, the representatives of the greatest world powers decide to inject the zombie-turning virus into humanity. In such new, perilous circumstances, a loosely connected group of characters are fleeing Zagreb, set on moving to rural Croatia, in a bid to survive. The party consists of a wealthy man Milan Motika (Krešimir Mikić), actress Franka Anić (Hristina Popović), nationalist Maks (Dado Ćosić) and a business woman Vesna (Tihana Lazović). However, as it turns out, Motika is also the son of the largest owner of water springs, the actress is a star known for her role as the national treasure, Hrvojka Horvat, the Croatian superwoman, the nationalist is not of ‘pure’ blood, while the business woman is a villain, having assisted the powers that be in the introduction of the virus.
The motif of displacement is essential to the film; the characters are on perpetual move, with three main, limited spaces crucial for the advancement of the plot and for pushing the plot to its climax. A hospital in Zagreb where the central group is formed, a Serbian family residence of the Drakulas, and a refugee camp led by people of Slovenian nationality; the characters’ expedition through these spaces is accompanied and interrupted with segments of a radio show host reporting on the situation, shots of the satellite in space which the world leaders reside on, and scenes from Sweden where scientists are trying to develop a serum. It is a dynamic plot-driven film where the central group are shaped and defined through the dangers they encounter, motivated by their desire to stay alive. We also get to know them through their mutual interactions and relations to other minor characters, like the two gay medical workers at the hospital, the Drakula couple at their farm, or the staff and the refugees at the camp.
If we take it that zombie-themed horror films are in fact usually construed as social commentaries, aimed at highlighting the anomalies and negativities of society, The Last Serb in Croatia does not seem to be an exception here. In the geopolitical arena of former Yugoslavia, burdened by inter-national differences and contradictions, this film establishes a rethinking of national identities, with a rich and eventful history come to life—and it does this in a very witty and complex way. No punches pulled here; no one is spared from the clever critique, neither Croats, nor Serbs; neither Slovenians nor Bosniaks. And while the ironic treatment of Slovenia (with plans of the Great Slovenia) and Bosnia remains quite straightforward, Ličina goes deeper and more personal in his representation of Croats and Serbs, ironically twisting even their core nationalist beliefs (Croatia with its supposed origins, dating back to the 7th century, and the Serbian myth of the Serbian domination on the Balkans). Furthermore, the only ones who seem to be resistant to the zombie-virus are people of Serbian nationality living in Croatia, as if they were (to use the Drakulas’ words) the heavenly people. The matters are only made worse when a serum is developed. Aptly called SERBUM, the side effect of the drug is zombies being turned into Neo-Serbs, their even more dangerous kind. In order not to reduce such an approach to a single national point of view, Ličina made interesting casting choices; so the Croatian actor Mikić here plays a Serbian character, while the Serbian actress Popović’s character is the Croatian superhero, with Bosnia-born Ćosić assigned the role of a Croatian nationalist etc.
In a context as intricate as this, informed by genre filmmaking, The Last Serb in Croatia is great chiefly owing to the approach and signature style of Predrag Ličina, and excellent performances from most actors, but also thanks to the hard work of the rest of the crew. The editing is meticulous, its special and visual effects are well-done, the photography is evocative, the costume and set design in perfect sync, with remarkable make-up and, of course, exquisite original soundtrack. When everything fits together, the nuanced performances of the actors can really take the stage (Hristina Popović is exceptionally good), and it is easier to go beyond the confines of the script. Ličina never succumbs to triviality; the nationalist context is not exploited for the sake of superficial jokes or exaggerated bluntness. Medium long shots are heavily used, and there is painstaking attention to details. In addition, his work with actors is never rigid—one can see they are allowed to fully immerse themselves in the roles they have—and his depiction of violence is never too graphic, instead focused on its rhetoric quality, making the viewers think. He emphasises the humour without taking away from the drama, and the emotional impact does not fall prey to his loyalty to the genre. Lastly, the critique is neatly incorporated in the film as a whole.
And this is not even all of it. The Last Serb in Croatia is one of the best genre films in Croatian cinema, at the very least of this decade. Also, I feel it is one of the most important and finest films of this year in general, right there with another, perhaps slightly more achieved feature debut—one by Dana Budisavljević, The Diary of Diana B. (Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević). This is a giant leap for Croatian cinema in general and Predrag Ličina’s oeuvre in particular. Our only hope is that it will not take him too long to film his next project.