Dark Sky Films // 2008 // 101 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // September 15th, 2009
Every generation has its story about the horrors of growing up.
"We could keep her."
Rickie and JT are the high school losers, the already disillusioned-with-life stoners who'd normally be calling in bomb threats or assembling an arsenal to take down their enemies real and imagined. Rickie has a bit more on the ball, enough that he dares harbor a crush on the pretty and popular JoAnn (Candice Accola), who's dating Johnny the jock (Andrew DiPalma).
One day, JT convinces Rickie to cut out of school early, and they go to an abandoned former mental institution to drink beer and get high. While exploring, they find something remarkable: a beautiful, naked girl tied to a bed. Rickie wants to free her and get help, but JT isn't about to let this opportunity pass, and he ends up slugging his friend. Rickie leaves, betrayed, injured, and disturbed at what he'd seen and what he knows is going to transpire.
JT doesn't show up at school the next day. Later, Rickie sees him, and they go back to the asylum, where the girl is still bound to the table. JT explains that the night before, she'd attacked him, and he'd broken her neck -- but she didn't die. To prove his point, he then shoots her three times -- and she doesn't die. They can't quite figure out why, but JT isn't interested in explanations. He's now the proud owner of a zombie sex slave.
The boys promise to keep this to themselves, but of course, this secret is too good not to share. Soon, JT is sharing with another friend -- one who's even less astute than these two. In due time, they learn that the Deadgirl has a few secrets of her own.
Deadgirl is, by turns, so creepy and funny that it's easy to forget that the whole film is built on the revolting, offensive, and not entirely fanciful premise that every boy's wet dream-come-true is a beautiful, immobilized woman. Cynically speaking, it's probably pretty accurate, and Deadgirl is a deeply cynical movie, but its targets are social, not sexual, politics.
The Deadgirl, as portrayed by the beautiful Jenny Spain, is hardly "a girl" at all. That she breathes is incidental to her near-perfect body, which, as the film goes on, suffers numerous indignities, including gunshots, beating, and decay, but remains alarmingly alluring to the guys. There's nothing especially human about her, save for some noises she makes that might or might not be "responses." She's really not a woman being treated as an object so much as an object being treated like a woman. We know from the moment we see her that she's not human, but it takes the lunkheaded boys a bit longer to figure this out.
Rickie really never gets his head around this, and he spends a lot of time trying to find some kind of humanity in the increasingly rotting flesh. JT, on the other hand, takes to the situation like a starving man to a steak. He knows an opportunity when he sees one. At 17, he's seen his future, and he understands that having the beautiful Deadgirl as a plaything in the basement of a shuttered mental institution is as good as it's going to get for him. When threatened with exposure and jail, he explains with chilling foresight why it's worth the risk: "We'll miss a couple of divorces, a handful of brats, and about a million shifts at the gas station." In no time at all, he's like that addict who's found his drug of choice, holing up with the Deadgirl, growing paler and more wild eyed, but justifying this once-in-a-lifetime adventure with skewed wisdom and an inarguable clarity of his place in the world.
Rickie is clearly still a boy, riding around on a bike, constantly being admonished by others for not "being a man," and harboring fantasies involving doing the right thing, find true love, and following your dreams. Unfortunately, he is pounded back to reality at every turn; it's as though he's being punished merely for having hope. His vague nobility is no less misguided and ludicrous than JT's descent -- or perhaps ascent -- into junior-league pimp/stud. Fortunately, as scripted by Trent Haaga and co-directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, it's all very funny and ironic rather than sad and bitter.
At its heart, Deadgirl is an original and offbeat take on the classic story of a couple of buddies whose friendship is torn apart by a woman. Rickie and JT are two sides of the stereotypical teen-boy coin, and while there's enough zombie grue to satisfy goreheads, this is ultimately a cautionary coming-of-age comedy, an After School Special about the dangers of hormones and playing with dead things, sharply written and directed.
Shiloh Fernandez (Jericho) is touching and believable as the troubled Rickie, never overdoing the earnestness or allowing the character to slip into pathos. As JT, Noah Segan (What We Do Is Secret) has a blast reinventing the crazily dangerous and creepily logical redneck archetype. This is a great comic performance played at just the right pitch. Fernandez and Segan also play off each other very well, creating an authentic sense of "buddy history" without which this film would sink.
Haaga's script and the direction by Sarmiento and Harel are well above both the usual indie gore flick standard and the usual indie youth-comedy standard. The characters are written as complex individuals, and their actions and reactions remain true to who they are -- sometimes, hilariously, uncomfortably so. The humor comes from the absurdity of the horror, the characters' matter-of-fact acceptance of this as reality, and some intriguing and well-staged plot twists. The camerawork by Harris Charalambous looks great, and there's a nice, moody score that includes music by Joseph Bauer, some indie bands, and a key scene played to a cover of the Bellamy Brothers' standard, "Let Your Love Flow."
Dark Sky gives us a very nice disc: good looking picture and solid Dolby Surround track for the audio. For extras, we get a commentary from what seems like every guy who worked on the film, including both directors, the two lead actors, the DP, the writer, the editor, and the composer. It's a good track, entertaining and informative, and unlike most group commentaries, it's not an indecipherable free-for-all. People talk in turn, not over each other. We also get a brief "making of," a series of stills on the make up effects created for the Deadgirl, a few deleted scenes, and a trailer.
Deadgirl is a rarity, a teen zombie movie that is not only sufficiently gory and suspenseful, but funny, perceptive, and moving, to boot. Like Mitchell Lichtenstein's Teeth, it deftly blends elements of horror with a story of coming-of-age and all its attendant angst and gives us something unique, surprising, and wholly satisfying.
Highly recommended. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site