As I said a few years back with the underrated Deadgirl and The Horde, there are, in the 21st century, only two reasons to make a zombie movie:
1. Use the concept of the undead as symbol or means to explore a deeper theme (i.e., male aggression in Deadgirl)
2. Just make a really f*cking good movie (i.e., The Horde)
Ben Wagner's Dead WIthin is an independent horror film in every sense of the definition. To call it a zombie film is actually incredibly misleading, but it does make my point above so we'll go for it anyway.
Quick Plot: A happily married couple with a baby and yellow lab visit their friends in their secluded mountain home. Cut, rather immediately, to some time later when the visiting pair is now alone in the boarded up house, nary a baby bib, dog dish, or pot roast in sight.
Kim and Mike, we learn, have survived what must have been a national, and probably worldwide pandemic. Symptoms are similar to the rage infected victims of 28 Days Later, with mass aggression being the goal. Those who suffer it exhibit black blood and huge dilated pupils. Also, they're dead before the change.
We don't get a newsreel or montage to explain this, nor do we need one. We piece it together pretty clearly from the completely natural interractions of Kim and Mike, a happy middle class couple whose date nights have become decidedly less sexy.
Their days are no better. Mike spends most of them foraging the countryside to bring home clean food, batteries, and the occasional slinky gown. Kim is therefore left alone to clean, paint, mourn, and wonder what goes on outside in the sunny landscape surroundings.
Dead Within credits its lead actors along with Wagner and Matthew Bradford for the screenplay, and it's safe to assume much of their dialogue was improvised. This can often be a blessing or curse, but it works superbly here. Mike and Kim aren't the most engaging or clever pair of characters to be centered in a film, but they're completely believable. The conversations they have--and tellingly, the ones they don't--are exactly what you would expect to hear from a married couple whose only company for a half a year has been each other.
This is, at least to me, a genuinely scary and expertly crafted film. Wagner doesn't shove the plague in our faces. Instead, it serves more as a background fact that's for a while less scary than the human horror of being confined to your own thoughts day in and out. As a result, when the virus begins to play a stronger part, it's somehow even more horrifying to witness. Wagner wisely keeps the menace just outside the characters' (and our) walls for so long that the screams and scratches builds so much of the tension.
There's also the growing stress of Kim, strongly played by Amy Cale Peterson. Is she going insane with cabin fever or could Mike really be plotting something on his daily voyages? Credit goes to both Peterson, actor Dean Chekvala, and Wagner for just how effective the uncertainly proves to be. It's rare that I watch a movie and have absolutely zero idea where it's going, and yet I could not decide who to trust or fear. The movie is probably being sold as "wife goes crazy!" but it's far more complicated than that. We stay with Kim the whole film and as a result, we fully identify with her fears and doubts. Yes, there’s clear paranoia at play, but Dead Within handles it so carefully that our own trust in our senses is completely awash.
Between both its musical score and the specific noises used for its monsters, Dead Within has one of the best sound designs I've ever heard on a low budget horror film
Considering most of the action is strategically confined to the cabin, it was a tad frustrating to not have a completely clear understanding of the house's geography
One could easily make an apocalyptic cookbook culled from cuisine featured in the film. Meals served that shouldn't be appetizing, but somehow made me hungry included canned peaches seasoned with nutmeg and the crunchy joys of uncooked lasagna noodles coated in Crisco
I loved this movie. Watching it so closely after the equally great, yet very different 13 Sins helped to give me yet another surge of optimism about the state of modern horror. Dead Within isn't perfect, but it's filmed, scripted, acted, and scored so darn well that it should serve as a prime example of how to make a genre film on a limited budget. The movie is so smart in how it establishes its universe and dangers and perhaps more importantly, knows how to build and time them in such a way that they're genuinely scary. I jumped more than once watching Dead Within (and full confession, said jumping was done a crowded bus commute in the Bronx). This is a strong little movie that knows how to use its resources to maximum effect. Well done, kids.