by Jason Coffman
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In case anyone hasn’t noticed yet, the zombie is no longer the exclusive property of the horror genre. Co-opted by popular culture over the years (with special nod to Shaun of the Dead for advancing the cause), the Zombie is officially in the ranks of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and the Mummy. The proof is everywhere: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a best-seller, Popcap Games made the family-friendly game Plants Vs. Zombies (wherein you use adorable plant weapons to fight off hordes of the undead) and Columbia Pictures recently scored a major box office hit with Zombieland. The Zombie has become a permanent fixture in our cultural landscape, for better or for worse.
So now that the Zombie is culturally acceptable, how do filmmakers keep the zombie film interesting? Well, as with those other monsters, film versions of the Zombie must now do something truly different. Something memorable, perhaps something shocking. If George Romero has proven anything with his “Dead” films, it’s that the Zombie’s flexibility as metaphor is nearly limitless. Anyone can make a “Zombies take over the world” movie, and they will. But as this apocalyptic depiction becomes more popular and cliched, filmmakers who want to do new things with the monster will be forced to get more creative, take bigger chances. To truly get weird.
And that’s where Deadgirl comes in. In a landscape where kids are playing Zombie-related games and no one bats an eye, this film twists the genre into something completely different. Deadgirl is not a film for the faint of heart or soft of stomach— it’s a bleak, brutal story that will inspire awe and disgusted anger in almost equal measure. Simply put, it’s one of the most original and daring horror films in recent memory.
Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan) are two high-school losers. One day they decide to ditch and hang out at an abandoned mental hospital and drink beer. While poking around the bowels of the hospital, the two are chased by a wild dog into the deepest recesses of the hospital, where J.T. discovers a door rusted shut and hidden behind piles of discarded hospital equipment. In the room they find a young woman covered in plastic and chained to a gurney. Rickie’s first impulse is to call the police, but when J.T. realizes the girl is alive he decides that it may be in their best interest to “keep her.” Rickie, disgusted, leaves but promises not to tell anyone. Later, J.T. takes Rickie back to show off his gruesome discovery: the “Deadgirl” can’t be killed. What follows is a power struggle between the increasingly distant friends, with J.T. determined to keep the Deadgirl and spending more and more time with her and Rickie trying to free her. Unfortunately, J.T. can’t keep his discovery to himself and soon drags more people into his obsessive game, which quickly spirals out of his control and threatens to destroy more than just his friendship with Rickie.
Deadgirl is not an easy film to watch. Its graphic scenes of violence and sex are going to put off most audiences well before the credits roll. However, despite its graphic and disturbing content, Deadgirl also gives the audience a lot to think about well after the film is over. It’s the kind of horror movie people might write a thesis about; not to get all “grad school,” but the layers of subtext in Deadgirl only really become apparent once you can get past the confrontational subject matter. In short, it’s one of those rare films I had to watch twice before I could even form a coherent opinion regarding how I felt about it.
Whatever expectations you bring to the film, Deadgirl will likely confound them. That in itself is rare enough, but it’s only part of what makes Deadgirl one of the best and most important horror films of the year. We can only hope that filmmakers continue to be as inventive and thoughtful as Trent Haaga (screenwriter), Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel (co-directors) in taking the “Zombie movie” in new and darker directions.
Dark Sky Films released Deadgirl on DVD on 15 September 2009. Special features (Unrated Director’s Cut version only) include a feature-length commentary track with cast and crew, a “making of” featurette, special effects/make-up stills and a reversible cover.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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