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Overall Rating

Awesome: 14.52%
Worth A Look43.55%
Average: 27.42%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 14.52%

5 reviews, 32 user ratings

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Dead Birds
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by Jay Seaver

"What are Asian demons doing in the American South?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: There's not much in Dead Birds that a savvy horror audience hasn't seen before. That is, in many ways, the nature of the genre - you isolate the protagonists, start picking them off one by one, and feed them just enough information so that maybe, just maybe, one or two of them can escape from their situation with skin still covering their bones. What sets this movie apart is not just how effectively it makes the audience jump, but the way it blends its various influences: It combines an undeniably American historical setting with the style of recent Asian horror.

The setting is Civil War-era Alabama. Two groups of Confederate soldiers arrive at a local bank, one on legitimate business, the other deserters looking to rob them blind. After a suitably splatter-iffic shootout, the outlaws are on their way to Mexico. One of their number has been shot, but not to worry - they know about an abandoned plantation house where they can sew him up. The kicker, of course, is that there are good reasons for this house to be abandoned - the sickly-looking crops are littered with the dead birds of the title, and they are immediately attacked by... Well, it has to be some sort of giant, hairless coyote, right?

There are two main schools of thought on what a horror movie setting should be: A seemingly normal locale that harbors some hidden evil, or a place that exudes a palpable menace all on its own. The makers of Dead Birds are clearly subscribers to the latter theory. The hair on the backs of audience members' necks would be raised immediately at the large, candle-lit, empty house with the dying plants even if they weren't immediately confronted with some sort of monster. Still, even if this freaks us out, we can buy the characters going in there. They're desperate, they're not used to electricity or instant communication, and after the battlefields they've escaped, it looks like home. They can sense something wrong, but they'll only be there for one night and they've seen worse.

The crew of anti-heroes is, of course, ready to assume the worst of each other before looking for a supernatural explanation. The leader of the gang is William (Henry Thomas); he's the smartest and most level-headed of the group, but he's not afraid to assert his authority via slamming someone against the wall by the neck. He was injured on the battlefield, but that's how he met his lover Annabelle (Nicki Aycox). She's a nurse, at least a battlefield one, and she'll be called upon to patch up William's younger brother Sam (Patrick Fugit), who's loyal if more than a little green. William's connection to Todd (Isaiah Washington), isn't quite so clear, but they seem to trust each other. Less friendly is Clyde (Michael Shannon), who sees the tightness of that core group and figures they'll try to screw him over before they reach Mexico (and may not be far wrong), and so intends to kill them before they get the chance. He's also the guy who throws out the n-word when referring to Todd, so most of the audience will be inclined to dislike him from the start. Joseph (Mark Boone Jr.) is the other outsider, a big guy who makes noises about being on Clyde's side, but seems to be keeping his options open. The men are grizzled by their wartime experience, past caring about God and country. Annabelle isn't so hardened, but she's no shrinking violet, either. It's not quite a likable group, but one tough enough to not go quietly. The cast instills them with enough humanity that the audience can pull for some to get out alive despite them being criminals and killers.

Director Alex Turner and writer Simon Barrett approach their movie with incredible clarity of purpose. There's not a single scene in the movie not dedicated to raising tension or making the audience jump, most of them serving their purpose very well indeed. The script does take some shortcuts to get a bit of exposition to the audience, but does so in a way that avoids dead time. The actual powers and aims of the monsters/demons are left a little vague, but not unreasonably so. Understand the monsters too much, and it becomes fantasy as opposed to horror.

Though Dead Birds is thoroughly rooted in the American South, the atmosphere owes more than a little to recent ghost stories from across the Pacific. This is an undeniable Good Thing; there's been a steady stream of good stuff coming from Japan and Korea, and it's nice to see American filmmakers learning from Asia rather than just remaking the films. Here, the filmmakers hire a South Korean effects house (Girl Studio) to do the visual effects, and that probably contributes to the use of pale-skinned and black-eyed ghosts who seem to creek a bit before they pounce.

It's disappointing to see that outside of a few festival showings, this movie has skipped a theatrical release and gone straight to video. It's a great-looking movie, with sepia-toned cinematography that works best when it's on the big screen, filling one's entire field of vision and thus becoming one's entire world. Even in the relatively low-tech Brattle Theater, the sound was pretty effective. The audience was into it, too, whooping and shrieking en masse. It's a pity most folks will only experience this movie in their living rooms, on TV.

It's frustrating, really. Look at all the rotten horror movies that have played theaters this year just because they have big names. A quality jump-inducer like Dead Birds should have easily have been able to attract an audience when no-one else was trying this winter.

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originally posted: 05/01/05 12:52:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 San Francisco Independent Film Festival. For more in the 2005 San Francisco Independent Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston. For more in the 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

User Comments

1/12/11 moose rapper Ho-hum 3 stars
10/31/10 The Dude Who Hated This Movie...Alot Ok, so this movie sucked cocks. Not scary...and you couldnt see Nicky Aycocks tits...fuck 1 stars
9/17/09 dr.evil The fat dude getting pulled into the well was nothing new but merely a wasted kill. 4 stars
6/25/09 tedders Scary, but the monsters are never really that close to the characters. Title makes no sense 3 stars
6/17/09 Matty watching it now. I google searched "why dead birds sucks" 1 stars
12/23/08 Apollo We loved it. It was truly creepy. Better than most current junk. 4 stars
9/15/08 Jeff M. I don't get why this movie gets heat. I loved it, suspenseful and a fresh setting. 4 stars
5/15/08 Kassii Immense. This is one of my favorite films of all time. The i guess you have to be a certai 5 stars
4/24/07 Shell-O Cherry OMG I love it because Sam(Patrick Fugit) is so hot 5 stars
12/04/06 steven newman Caught this up on Sky - (Five US) - not a bad way to waste a couple of hours 3 stars
6/05/06 megan not really scary 1 stars
1/21/06 Jerome Bosch Creepy, but you must be older than 14 to acknowledge that… 4 stars
11/01/05 Jim O'Connor Stephen Studach's Civil War Horror Novel Wolf Pack is INFINITELY BETTER! 3 stars
10/28/05 Tommy Boi This film was crap. Y was it called deadbirds anyway? it left me yawning and laughing 1 stars
10/23/05 xmovie seen it all before 1 stars
10/14/05 Red Carrot Very interesting hybrid horror/western. Check it out. 4 stars
10/08/05 ben hammond IT WAS FUCKING SHIT KILL THE MAKERS OF IT 1 stars
8/25/05 steve wiegand super sleazy 5 stars
8/05/05 Mark Louis Baumgart Good not-t--gorey, creepy and moody fun. Nice crime/horror/historical crossover. Great sets 4 stars
7/06/05 fanny me gusto mucho y amo a patrick fugit 4 stars
7/06/05 Karen me encanta y patrick se ve guapisimo lo amo 5 stars
5/10/05 jake cicso more frightening then 'The Ring' 4 stars
5/06/05 Teri Karma The best suspense since 28 Days Later! A must see! 5 stars
5/02/05 Dorothy Malm JUST AWFUL 1 stars
4/17/05 Mark Legron boring as all get out--horrible effects--not scary 1 stars
4/16/05 craig varney will stand your hair up 5 stars
3/08/05 Worx I thought it wuz okay 3 stars
12/23/04 Eric Cool movie 4 stars
9/25/04 Lisa Reed really spooky and atmospheric 5 stars
9/23/04 Erik Partlow Classy little scarefest - henry thomas was really good. 5 stars
9/15/04 big fish rich in suspense and dripping in fear 5 stars
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  15-Mar-2005 (R)
  DVD: 15-Mar-2005



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