When people talk about Aftershock, the conversation will inevitably turn to the pre and post earthquake tonal shift that defines the film. For the film's first half hour, we're treated to a kind of innocent comedy where three guys hit a bunch of clubs in Chile looking for ladies. One, Eli Roth (playing a character simply known as "Gringo"), is a hapless loser humanized by a young daughter waiting for him back in America. Overweight Pollo (played by a guy who looks exactly like The Hangover 2 Zack Galifianakis) has money coming out of his ears and a surprisingly deft hand with women. The third friend, in a weird but inspired bit of characterization, used to be a really fat guy and still hasn't gotten used to being handsome.
All this stuff is just kind of goofy, especially Roth's character, whose nerdy schtick never quite adds up to the man we see and hear delivering the lines. And it's not a very consistent portrayal anyway. While normally meek and oblivious, Roth's character will also throw out a big "fuck you" when slighted or suddenly have brains enough to make a joke his character seemed incapable of just moments before.
Even so, this isn't an awful way to spend thirty minutes. It's all pretty fun and it goes on long enough that you do actually find yourself caring for these characters. The same amount of fleshing out goes into the three women they run into, especially two sisters who have all kinds of family drama stuff going on between them. Giving us a handful of fully formed characters obviously plays into the film's big tonal shift coming up. Deep down, we know things are going to get bad for these people, but it's presented with such dedication to goofy comedy and light tone that you feel the film might remain fun even after the inevitable trauma begins.
When the earthquake does hit, this tone disappears just as expected, taking the film from fun and games to screams and bloodshed. Roth and director Nicholás López wisely get more bang from their buck by keeping all the earthquake stuff and its immediate aftermath locked within a crowded nightclub. It's crazy and violent enough to communicate the situation's severity without having to pony up big dollars for buildings falling down all over the place outside (though Aftershock does save space for a bit of that, too). Kills during this sequence are horrific but also a blast, the kind of big hits and splatters that will make midnight audiences cheer.
Soon, however, Aftershock takes yet another tonal shift, this time into unexpected mean spiritedness and abject horror that shocks but also feels unwelcome and overdone. We guffaw earlier as a woman has her face knocked off by a speeding car, but we have to formulate an entirely different reaction when a female character is raped, not once but twice. Sequences like this hit hard not only for their considerable surface level horrors, but also because the script has done all that work making us relate to these people.
Aftershock was inspired by Chile's 8.8 earthquake in 2010, after which society halted to unruly chaos and the ugly side of humanity. That would make an interesting thriller, and for the most part, the horrors found in the film are not outside the realm of reality. Aftershock wants to use the tragedy but not honor it. There's not a ton of social commentary you can mine when you've already made us laugh at a guy chasing his severed hand while a crowd of people kick it around. The horrific violence arriving later in the film really only adds up to emotional manipulation as a parlor trick for its own sake.
But it is horror, and that's certainly the kind of thrill people come to horror to find, so it remains up to you whether or not Aftershock crosses the line or simply keeps you on your toes. Certain sequences are extremely well done, and it's undeniably remarkable what such a small budget achieved. The film isn't really a failure. It's just unnecessarily mean.