DeadgirlReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/01/09 14:17:56
SCREENED AT THE 2009 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: The zombie film, when you get right down to it, is really not that malleable a form. The plots are more or less the same, just differing in setting, detail, and tone. So it's not exactly surprising that when someone comes up with a new take on the genre, two variations on it appear at once. Fortunately, "Deadgirl" and "Make-Out With Violence" couldn't be much more different in tone. Where "Make-Out" is sad and wistful, "Deadgirl" is sexual and nasty.Things hidden at shuttered mental hospitals should probably stay that way. Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan) are hanging around one while cutting class when a dog chases them through the service corridors into a basement storeroom. There, they find a girl strapped to a table, naked. She's got a nice body but isn't communicating. J.T. gets a look in his eyes that Rickie doesn't like; Rickie runs. The next day, J.T. brings him back to show him something amazing: The girl is living dead; it's safe with her strapped down. And it's not like Rickie is ever going to get anywhere mooning over JoAnn (Candice Accola), what with her meathead boyfriend Johnny (Andrew DiPalma) and all.
It probably doesn't take a whole lot of rationalization to convince oneself that it's okay to have one's way with a zombie; it's not like they're capable of caring about anything other than feeding. Even if you can make the case that the act itself isn't so bad, it can easily be the first step along a bad path. That's where Deadgirl gets its tension: There is not potentially a zombie around every corner, but a couple teenage boys - or three, once their friend Wheeler (Eric Podnar) is clued in - in this situation are going to make some questionable decisions even if they do see eye to eye. The dead girl is a moral test and catalyst to potentially pit the friends against each other and the outside world.
There is gore and violence, too, but the filmmakers make us wait for it; they'll set up an uncomfortable situation and then build the tension a little. Finally, they'll let loose and generally leave the characters worse off than they began. Interestingly, the dead girl is often the least of the characters' worries: Bound to the table, she's relatively safe, and while there's an element of lulling the audience into a false sense of security there, not breaking out the full-on zombie action also means that nothing is done to diminish the prosaic dangers, like feral dogs. Or bullies. Or what people will do once they've had a taste of consequence-free sex.
The two leads sell the conflict pretty well. Noah Segan gets the fun, flashy part, shucking J.T.'s morals with relish. The bad boy gets all the fun sarcastic lines, but Segan gives some nuance to his amorality: We believe he needs a little validation from his friends, and though we don't see much of the characters' home life, we get the sense that J.T.'s decisions are influenced by having a little less than Rickie. Shiloh Fernandez doesn't get to be quite so gaudy in his performance; a guy wrestling with his conscience isn't as demonstrative as a guy not doing so. I think many people can connect with the guy, though; he's trying to do the right thing and can't help but see that those with no regard for other people (or zombies) are walking all over him. The moments where he's at least tempted to give in to temptation are great, because you can see all he's holding back bubbling to the surface.
The supporting characters are more types: Eric Podnar's playing a pothead; Andrew DiPalma's Johnny and Nolan Gerard Funk's Dwyer are nasty jocks. I wish Candice Accola had a little more to do; the filmmakers do a nice job of presenting her as the pristine visual counterpart to the dead girl, and she does her best in selling JoAnn as full enough of contradictions and personality to make her the alternative to the unquestioning vagina locked up in the hospital, but she doesn't have much to work with. Neither does Jenny Spain as the title character, but that's the point; she's bestial, and even when the dead girl is being raped, she's responding, but not capable of either truly enjoying it or feeling violated.
I'm impressed with the job writer Trent Haaga and directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel do. My one issue is that the characters are aware of zombie-movie rules, and the movie follows them, which shouldn't necessarily go together. Otherwise, they do a nice job of working suspense against uncomfortable thoughts. There's some nail-bitingly tense scenes in there, and things that will linger in the mind afterward.That's the best kind of horror movie. Jumps and gore can be laughed off later, but uncomfortable thoughts tend to stick with you, and "Deadgirl" has some nasty ideas.
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