Sunday, November 15, 2009

Love the One You're With

If you’ve read anything about Deadgirl, a first time effort by co-directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, you may be expecting an unwatchable piece of exploitation rich in zombie rape and I Spit On Your Grave levels of depravity. You’d be wrong on two counts, since 1) I Spit On Your Grave is a film I’ll defend for other reasons and 2) Deadgirl is actually a haunting, disturbing, and somewhat restrained little film that’s far stronger than its premise could have damned it to be.
Quick Plot: High school stoners JT (Noah Segan) and Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) cut school one day to hang out in the local abandoned asylum (was my suburban hometown the only place in America that didn’t have of these, by the way?). Upon tossing around some rolling chairs and chugging unbranded cans of beer, the boys come upon a bolted room and a beautiful corpse chained inside. Rickie is freaked out. JT is aroused. 

The next day, Rickie returns to find JT has drawn his own conclusions about the “Deadgirl”: she’s undead and has been left all alone. Rickie remains horrified but has no idea how to pry his best friend’s um, attention, away from what seems like a gift from the gods. As children of broken homes in a small town with no future, JT and Rickie are aware that they have little else going for them. The don’t catch the attention of the ladies--not the fleshy Daisy Dukes-donning gas station pumper and certainly not Rickie’s unrequited crush of a cute redhead dating the token jockjerk. For JT and later, their even more fried friend Wheeler, life has never been better than having a gorgeous, complacent, full grown woman tied to a table for their personal pleasure. The more sensitive Rickie, on the other hand, knows it’s wrong but isn’t quite ready to alienate his best friend (and sadly, the only thing he seems to have in his life) over a corpse.
I worry my synopsis of Deadgirl is still making the film sound a tad homemade pornish, but it is a surprisingly sensitive film. I can’t downplay the subject matter and indeed, there are some extremely uncomfortable scenes that some filmgoers won’t make it through. Overall, however, Deadgirl is disturbing and thoughtful, not exploitive and gratuitous. The most horrific moments are found in JT’s increasingly distant dialogue, while the actual sex is portrayed with appropriately un-erotic staging. Think of the non-cathartic nature of the torture scenes in The Girl Next Door, as opposed to the more heavily stylized scenes that tend to rear their glossy heads in mainstream cinema.

Overall, Deadgirl has the feel of a short story in a zombie anthology mixed with an indie drama about small town youth. The performances are a tad inconsistent (perhaps there’s only so much Candice Accola can do with Charlie Brown’s Little Redheaded Girl role compared to Segan’s creepily macabre JT and Fernandez’s likable enough RIckie) but hold steady enough to sell a film that depends so much on its characters. There are some truly memorable images, such as Deadgirl’s overly makeup’d face which is, one scene later, covered with a magazine cutout that recalls Claire’s Season 4 collage work in Six Feet Under.
High Points
We’ve seen zombies as everything from choreographed two-steppers to Olympian sprinters and softball players, so it’s pretty impressive to see a film that brings something new not just to an undead-themed story, but also in its creepily haunting depiction of the “Deadgirl,” aided by Jenny Spain’s careful performance.

Abandoned asylums make everything better
It’s refreshing to see a film about teenagers that doesn’t force trendy lingo or pop culture references into their mouths. There’s nary a cell phone or high speed Internet connection to be found, and it adds a strange timeliness that make Deadgirl work for any era
Low Points
Although occasionally evocative, the score calls attention to itself far too often
First of all, is it a requirement for all high school films to feature a character named Johnny? Next, does Johnny always have to be played by an actor pushing 30?

Lessons Learned
Abduction is far more difficult than it looks, unless you’re the big man on campus and you’re throwing two stoners into your trunk in the middle of school recess
Oh, boys. Do I really have to tell you to be careful where to put your valuables?

Meat left in the open will spoil***
Winning Line
“I wish I was 15 again.”
“I’m 17.”
“Man, I wish I was 15 again.”
I actually really love this quick exchange between Rickie and his mother’s girlfriend, played by the solid character actor Michael Bowen. It captures the lack of adult influences on Rickie and his friends, but more importantly, it quietly points out that 17 is indeed a different point of life
Deadgirl is currently on Netflix’s Instant Watch, so give it a try when you’re in the mood for a serious, dark, and deep ride into a mean mean place. The production values are top notch so if you can get behind the characters and survive the idea of what you will see, then I recommend a tryout. It almost has a Jack Ketchum-y feel that’s been numbed by some IFC serum. It won't brighten your day, but it will provide a thoughtfully unsettling film experience worthy of your time.
***A personal story: When I was in high school, every health class was forced to undergo the inevitable STD slideshow which was fabulous on every level. First, the teacher (who apparently freelanced with this lesson plan all over Long Island) asked us to raise our hands if we planned on going away to college. Without any irony or exception, she pointed to the 90% of the class and claimed that each and every one of us would get crabs, because that’s what happens when you share a toilet. This was followed by magnified shots of just what crabs are and what they do, which in turn was followed by one of the school jocks--sadly not named Johnny--trotting outside and returning with a very reddened face.


  1. For some reason I just couldn't get through this film. I'll have to give it another shot someday as most people have convinced me of it's greatness. I can't put my finger on what it was- I mean I watched Salo for Pete's sake I think I can handle Deadgirl... no? It was a very bizarre occurrence...

  2. I guess you need to be in the mood not just for a dark film, but also one that has a sort of small town youth indie feel along the lines of something poked out of Chloe Sevigney's resume. Could that have been it? How far did you get?

  3. Yeah that was probably it. I was somewhere near when they started bringing the jock guy to the dead girl I think? Fear not, I will surely try again!

  4. Nice, thoughtful review.

    with a few exceptions here and there, I'm surprised/intrigued that this film seems to be polarizing in a decidedly "women liking it, and men not liking it" way.

    I found this to be one of the best and most thought/discussion provoking horror films of the past few years.

  5. Thanks Chris!
    Andre: you now seriously need to finish it to weigh in!

    It is interesting to hear the different male/female take on Deadgirl. I think a lot of films involving rape affect men differently from women, especially when it's a group mentality. Something like Irreversible is horrible for a woman because it shows the pain and horror of sexual assault, but I Spit On Your Grave and Deadgirl, I imagine, are disturbing to the male psyche in how they capture that sexual openness and competitiveness when put in a group dynamic.

    Maybe women get that the film isn't sensationalizing rape. For me, the most uncomfortable rape scenes come in films like Rambo (IV), where it seems to happen freely to unnamed characters while threaten the main heroine, and Straw Dogs, where it's made to seem like a sensual act.

    Yay for open discussion about sexual violence in horror. It's so uplifting.