Justin Channell is a moviemaking anomaly. Born in 1987 (making him a whopping 20 years old) and currently serving as the webmaster for the Troma Films fansite, Tromatized!, this knowing neophyte wanted to find a way to turn his love of horror and humor into a successful narrative combo. Along with his partners in motion picture crime, Joshua Lively and Zane Crosby (Channell writes and directs, while his buddies act onscreen and occasionally contribute to the scripts) he has turned the world of the living dead and the bloodsucking basics of Dracula's domain into the post-modern equivalent of an Abbott and Costello romp. The trio's first film together, the incredibly effective Raising the Stakes, found Lively and Crosby taking on teen angst and inhuman immortality. It was a joyful, juvenile jokefest. After providing a segment for the hilarious scare spoof Faces of Schlock Volume 2 (the zombie baby lark A Fetal Mistake), Channell immediately leapt into his next project, the cannibal comedy Die and Let Live. It's safe to say that the trio has struck groovy ghoulie gold again.
Benny Rodriguez and Scotty Smalls are two college age slackers who enjoy intellectual repasts at the local coffee house. It offers them the opportunity to ogle the brainy babes who stop by for a caffeine constitutional. Benny has the hots for Stephanie, and he's desperate to impress her. He begs Scotty to hold a poolside keg party in hopes of getting a hook up. Never one to reject a liquor-based soiree, his pal makes the mistake of telling a few unwelcome buddies, and before you know it, Benny's intimate evening becomes a typical adolescent booze binge. Even worse, there's been an outbreak at the local medical testing facility, and a virus with the ability to raise the dead has been released. As Benny, Scotty, and invited sponges pour down the pints, the local corpse population is stirring from their graves, and looking for people to munch on. It will take a miracle - or the unbridled bonding power of a dolphin-shaped 'friendship' necklace - to save the day.
Expanding on the ideas he used in making Stakes, and relying on the formulas found in all horror films, Die and Let Live chooses the best elements of the time-honored '80s teen comedy and fuses them into a sly Shaun of the Dead dynamic. This is not just a splatter film with funny bits, or a farce with occasional bloodletting. It's a legitimate combination of genres, a film that works flawlessly as both serious and slapstick. In a domain - the homemade movie - that tends to be more self-indulgent than successful, Channel finds a way to avoid the cliché while piling on the cleverness. He never tries to oversell the scares, and indeed, frequently uses the grade-Z gore to wonderful comic effect. His ease with the material, the excellent conceptualizing of how to handle both the casual conversations and the blood and guts set pieces argues for a filmmaker wise beyond his meager years. Channell also understands macabre's past, and enjoys the outright referencing of previous fright flicks as part of his production design. He even casts recognizable personalities like Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman and former company creative mind Trent Haaga in successful cameo roles.
But the movie really belongs to Lively and Crosby. Honestly, they are one of the best post-modern comedy teams ever. In fact, Channell could simply dump the arterial spray and zombie stomping, utilizing the duo as the next generation of rib tickling duos. One could easily envision an entire Benny and Smalls series, the boys getting into all kinds of hilarious mishaps while the narrative comments on contemporary youth culture. But it's clear that this trio is not locked into one style of silliness. Borrowing less from their media influences this time around (Stakes was overloaded with South Park homages), and creating a wonderfully wittiness that's all their own, these chums and collaborators off camera come across as lifelong companions on. Crosby alone has some amazing comic timing, never flinching or failing a joke. Lively is also adept at turning his occasional ironic quips into stellar asides. You can see how good they are when compared to the rest of the amateur cast. While the costars' lack of performance grade is nobody's fault (this is no budget filmmaking after all), Lively and Crosby could become indie film icons, the Clerks for a proto post-modern generation.
It makes for a killer combination. Anyone who wonders if the new technology really does lend itself to professional level lunacy, Die and Let Live is the answer. Actually, talent and tenacity are important factors as well, and it's clear that Channell and clan have a lot of both. There will be a few spoiled sports who look at this genial effort and wax poetic about how amateurish and underdeveloped it all is, how there's nothing on display here but geek nation wrongfully believing that they can make actual movies. Sadly, such a snobbish viewpoint misses the much bigger picture. Long ago, before business marred the maturation process of a performer, filmmakers and actors were allowed to indulge in a little self-serving cinema. They could make mistakes, go off on ambitious tangents, fail with dignity and succeed with insular style. All of these concepts could easily apply to the new DVD-friendly digital age of direct to home theater efforts. No one is expecting Citizen Kane, but something on the level of early Kevin Smith should be readily obtainable. Die and Let Live is such a solid statement. It's clever and cracked - the best of both entertainment worlds.
Though a little dark by normal home video standards, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image has a decent direct from video quality. There are some minor moments of flaring and bleeding, and the night scenes can stifle some of the otherwise excellent detail. Still, for a no budget production made on a college kid's shoestrings, Die and Let Live looks good.
On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix is acceptable. The musical score works well with the action onscreen, and the dialogue is readily discernible, for the most part. There are some moments when things get a bit tinny, and distortion can occur during the more scream oriented horror sequences. Still this is a perfectly satisfactory aural offering.
Heretic Films loads up this DVD with some intriguing added content. First up is a full length audio commentary featuring Channell, Lively, Crosby, and other members of the cast and crew. As you can imagine, it's a jocular walk through as many insider riffs and quips as possible. The Behind the Scenes featurette illustrates the very hands on nature of the production, while the outtakes and deleted scenes show that, even in the realm of amateur cinema, editorial experimentation and performance mistakes are rampant. Along with a collection of Heretic Films trailers, this is a nice package, especially for such a small scale production.
Perhaps the best way to judge an effort like Die and Let Live is to place it through a genre gauntlet. The first question is easy - is it funny? The answer is a resounding "Yes". The next step is a tad trickier. Is the film scary? Or at the very least ladled with buckets of blood? The response is positive, but ripe for reconsideration. In essence, a film like this isn't out to deliver the shivers. Instead, it wants to remind us of other movies that provide ample fear factors- and have fun doing it. As a result, Die and Let Live is a surreal hybrid, part homage, part funny freak out. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, Channell, Lively, and Crosby deserve a great deal of credit for what they accomplish here. Perhaps one day they will rise above the other outsider auteurs to take their place among the appreciated members of the mainstream. Until then, we have this fantastic film, and all the joy it brings. It is a rare thing indeed.
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