"Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From The Living Dead" by Max Brooks being a big success in the dying publishing industry, the success of Shaun Of The Dead, the overtly ridiculous nature of Planet Terror, the strangely entertaining Fido, it seems the zombie sub-genre has really run it's course. When you throw in the outrageous absurdity of a film like Black Sheep, you could come to the conclusion that there was nothing new under the vaguely cloud covered bright white moon.
You'd have been wrong. I certainly was. I thought The Zombie Diaries (which it might be time to watch again and write a review for) was a decent film, with a good strong premise, but it's been a while since I've seen something from the zombie genre which wasn't tongue in cheek, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, aren't we hip kind of comedy film making. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the films I mentioned above, but I always consider where the genre originated and wonder if anyone is ever going to be able to make a zombie film with an eye on what worked so well and was so great about Night Of The Living Dead (which I'll refer to as NOTLD for the rest of this piece). I can't say Deadgirl is on par with NOTLD, because it's not, but it does set it's sights on some of the elements of that film which the zombie genre has been ignoring for a long time.
I'm not sure what to think of that fact that Deadgirl hasn't generated more controversy. Have we reached so cynical an age that something as disturbing and subversive as this can't catch the ire of some loud, ready to be angry group of people? Or is it possibly that an idea like the one Deadgirl tackles is no longer quite so taboo and topics like masculinity, sexuality, and the way in group/out group systems work in American culture aren't really that controversial anymore? I'm going to guess that this film wasn't seen by enough people to generate controversy, and wouldn't be controversial to those who would have sought it out (like myself). Either way, Deadgirl really deserved more controversy than it received.
Before I go too much further, I want to get something out of the way. At some point in the future, someone, possibly even someone I know (most likely considering I think they're the only one's reading these reviews), is going to see Deadgirl and it is going to punch them, as hard as it can in their soft spot. They are going to be seriously disturbed, probably a little angry, and feel disgusting, in need of a shower. Then, they are going to remember that I wrote something favorable about this movie, and they are going to wonder what in hell I could possibly have liked about this movie. One part of that answer is that I know it's going to elicit that reaction from some people, and I like movies that can do that. And damn it, you should be disturbed by what you're seeing, it's good that it is disturbing, and a lot of people miss that kind of detail with films like this one.
Think about it this way, you've heard the old urban legend about the woman being raped in the alley, and hundreds of residents being able to hear her screams and no one calling the police or anything, right? The fact that there is a woman being raped, is disturbing enough by itself, but when you add on top of that the fact that no one was willing to help, and the outrage is doubled. You're outraged at the lack of outrage, and should be. Deadgirl works the same way. You should be disturbed by these characters. You should be disturbed by these events, and you should be both disturbed and outraged by their lack of either in the face of all of it.
Deadgirl has a very understated social consciousness to it that was one of the things that has helped make NOTLD a classic and which has also made it one of the most influential horror films of all time. I'm not saying this is going to be some kind of classic film, but it is nice to have a horror film who's creators were reaching for a big idea, and a big goal. This film reaches out to ideas about sexuality, masculinity, group association, growing up, brutality, and barbarism. An interesting result is that I don't necessarily know who to recommend this film to. People who enjoy literate, thoughtful films are likely to find this a little too disturbing and taboo. At the same time, there's not really enough blood in here to satisfy the gore fans. I think that if you enjoyed and appreciated the kind of territory David Lynch and David Cronenberg explored in their early careers, you might enjoy this.
I do think the "spiritual sibling" to this film would be Ginger Snaps. Deadgirl is very much about the growing up, maturing, and so on, but it's main characters are male, and hence, it's from a much more male perspective, in every conceivable way. Some of you out there are probably rolling your eyes because you're thinking that ninety-nine percent of the films we see are from a male perspective, and you'd be right, except this doesn't necessarily glorify it or make it look all that good or anything. It's confusing and strange and brutal, many things growing up male actually are. This isn't necessarily an indictment either. It's not necessarily a "men suck" kind of movie, specifically because it's much more complicated than that.
It is a movie about two seventeen year old guys who, while skipping school and trashing a long abandoned asylum, come upon something extremely unusual in the basement. The title tells you everything you need to know about that. From there, it gets really weird.
Shiloh Fernandez does a damn good job as Ricky, the films protagonist, specifically because there are times when you completely sympathize with him, and there are times where you absolutely do not sympathize with him, and can't possibly justify his actions or inaction. He's believable, and he does a good job selling the lack of certainty in his character. If he can't make you believe that his character is in the process of questioning some of the fundamental truths he would have automatically claimed at the beginning of the film, it doesn't work. He sells that very well. He also bares a somewhat spooky resemblance to a very young Joaquin Pheonix.
Noah Segan does a great job as J.T. as well. His character as antagonist and Ricky's best friend is probably the most well written in the film and he handles all the duties assigned with ease. I expect to see him popping up more regularly on television and in some larger films. It's a strong performance in the kind of character Hollywood really loves.
I haven't seen the original cut of the film, I picked up the "Directors Cut" on DVD at Best Buy for $14.99. This cut of the film had one particular scene of relatively extreme gore, and the rest of the film had some off screen violence with some blood being thrown on someone on screen, but it's pretty tame in the gore and violence department, which is probably good. The inclusion of too much gratuitous violence (which I'm not opposed to on principle) would have sent this film directly into cheap exploitation territory instead of kind of sleazy art house horror where it actually lands.
The lack of effects also helps to cover up the films budget. This had to have been a relatively low budget film, but it comes across well because you never really consider that very much while you're watching it. The characters are well written enough and the story well thought through enough that it keeps your attention, during a zombie movie, by focusing on story and character. That is unusual. In the majority of zombie films, you don't want to focus on story and character, because both were put together in much less time than it took to develop and prepare the effects in the film. The only thing more preposterous than the walking dead in most of those films is that the people the films center on are actually supposed to be living. In films like those you can forgive it. I give the film makers credit for never getting near that here.
Deadgirl is a film that deserves credit for reaching for the heights it does, even if it doesn't perfectly achieve them. There are moments when it loses it's tone or it's just slightly off and kind of ridiculous, but we're talking about a film which centers on a person whose corpse won't die. In itself, that's ridiculous, and hard to make into something which will be taken completely seriously for ninety-minutes. All in all, this is a film which deserves some love because it tries something different, succeeds more than it fails and is interesting to watch, and to consider after. Not for the faint of heart though, not at all. I'm looking forward to the future work from directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, apparently both graduates of the Troma school of film making. It will be interesting to see what else they come up with away from Uncle Loyd's influence.