Let's make this clear: Deadgirl has an abundance of imaginative force riding behind it, something thoroughly appreciated in the drooping sector of American horror. It cooks up a crazy yet believable story, offers an impressive array of refined makeup work, and consistently dabbles in thoughtfulness about the mentality of forlorn teenage men. All these facts, as well as a promising trailer reflecting on coming-of-age elements within its creepy premise, make it all the more infuriating to see the potential behind Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel's curious zombie flick fall flat due to stilted dialogue and broken logic -- creating a horror film about a pretty, well, disturbing topic that's not quite as chilling or as highbrow as it could've been.
Two high-school outcasts, J.T. (Noah Segan from Brick) and Ricky (Shiloh Fernandez), ditch school and stumble over to an abandoned insane asylum, tactfully called "the nuthouse". They do typical bent-up guy stuff like break windows and spraypaint the walls, then stumble to the lower corridors only to come to a rusted-shut door. A little jimmying open and the guys get in, but they discover a very bizarre treasure within -- a pale, rotten-smelling woman (Jenny Spain) chained down to a bed with a plastic cover draped over her otherwise naked body. As if the situation couldn't get more bizarre, the girl begins to breathe.
Sadly, perverse minds might see where this is going. Instead of reporting the discovery like all other normal people (trust me, we're not working with the cream-of-the-crop here), J.T. simply mumbles something about "keeping her" and instantly starts on with the hornball-infused dialogue about what he'll do with her. That much can be swallowed for curiosity's sake, even though Deadgirl handles it in haphazard fashion. Just put the science behind it out of mind, as dwelling too much on sexing up an older "dead" woman (read: zombie) brings up more than a few health and intelligence concerns for the baby-batter-driven guys. Of course, these are teenage guys who don't care about things like that, right?
Instead, we're asked to lay back and take the barrage of sadist masculinity pumped into Deadgirl, then, in the process, somehow find catharsis around love and lust's uncontrollable nature inside the labyrinth of the sexually-frustrated teenage mind. Since little of the horror offers real chills and none of the coming-of-age suspense really works on any deep level, Deadgirl better classifies itself as a form of undead sexploitation cinema -- yeah, really -- that pushes the necrophilia envelope in a creepy-as-hell effort to intermix youthful growing pains with horror-minded oddity. It does offer a handful of staple jump-worthy scares and a determined flow of grotesquery throughout, but its aim to be genre-free amounts to a bite-in-the-rear when it fails to find the proper pitch on any set level.
First-rate makeup for our zombie sex-slave and surprising musical scoring from Joseph Bauer dress it up nicely, along with photography by way of the same model of camera (or one exceedingly similar) used in Cloverfield, but it doesn't make up for haphazard attention to thematic and situational detail -- leaving a gruesome slab of all-too-annoying questions and doubts amid atmosphere-driven horror. Don't even get me started on this film's horrendous grasp on tire irons and their effect on the cranial cavity, where a blow to the gut with a baseball bat knocks a guy out while a human head can take a blood-letting shot to the back of the scalp without even a flicker of lost consciousness. Creativity and cleverness can only go so far in masking gaps in logic.
It really doesn't help that we care so little for the characters in Deadgirl, an important factor for this horror / tense drama hybrid. We question Ricky's presupposed "good guy" convictions after he plainly surrenders to J.T.'s whims and offers a pinky-swear to keep this their special little secret -- something we as an audience quickly cry foul on. See, his somewhat pure heart has a soft spot for a popular red-haired girl named Johanna, so the prospect of fooling around with a chained-up piece of rotting meat locked away in an insane asylum doesn't make sense to him. But he certainly won't make an effort to stand up for how wrong it is. He's an undeniably weak character in a vile cesspool of ignorant wackjobs, crippling any attempts at dramatic poise amid this macabre erotic fixation -- and the cascade of perverted, bleak, and macabre answers to Deadgirl's provocative questioning simply isn't convincing.
Taboo and interesting, sure, but not convincing.
Presented from Dark Sky in a standard, clear keepcase presentation, Deadgirl offers attractive yet quote-ridden coverart with discart that -- though minimalist in design -- fits the film well. The artwork is reversible, revealing the more attractive "lips" poster on the other side with far less in the quote department. Note that this is the Unrated Director's Cut, running at 1:41:31.
Video and Audio:
Framed at 2.35:1 to preserve Deadgirl's original aspect ratio, this anamorphic widescreen image relies on proper rendering of a sickly color palette for its shiver-inducing demeanor. A pale disposition covers the entirety of the film, preserved nicely here through appropriate ghostly skin tones and greenish-gray light sourcing. Darker sequences do show quite a bit of noise at some points, but other renderings of black levels are pretty inky. A problem with the disc comes in the form of excessive edge enhancement, glaringly obvious against many straight lines in the lighter sequences. With details visible to lengthy distances and some exposition of close-up (both on the living and the dead), this transfer gets a lot right in rendering visual design.
Surprisingly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track packs a rather hefty atmospheric punch, delivering much more so than expected. As mentioned earlier, the score for Deadgirl is rather impressive -- and it stretches to the entire soundstage in a way that makes you appreciate its quality. That would be a safe bet, though; what wouldn't be quite as easy to anticipate is the crispness that dog barks, shattered glass, and other effects exhibit, along with a strong grasp of design rolling to the rear channels -- like the throaty noises that the mental hospital let out. Even the lower-frequency channel receives a nice workout, both for mid-range effects and lower-frequency blasts of sound. In all, it's an impressive track that's easily responsible for a lot of the film's mood.
A very active commentary adorns the film, featuring tons of enthusiasm from the entire Deadgirl clan (editors, actors, directors, crew, etc) as they record at their editor's house. They discuss shooting at a high school, Photoshop enhancement, juxtapositions, toning down emotionality in the film, pushing in cameras to grab tighter shots, getting to know each other on-set ... just about everything you could possibly want. Having a mass commentary can get a little crazy with too many people, but everyone stays excruciatingly on-task. Oh, and they mention that they purposefully did NOT used cellphones or rely in technology -- which is a major plus in my book, as reliance in technology is a major bane in my eyes. Great commentary.
Making of Deadgirl (7:15, 16x9):
Pretty standard fare, featuring interviews and a few behind-the-scenes clips scattered throughout the piece. Writer Trent Haaga spends some time with us talking about how the two leads represent the spectrum of his personality, while the directorial duo discuss some of the cerebral elements behind the film -- including a disheartening speech about the "best they're ever going to get" scenario.
Also available on this disc are a phenomenal (and explicit) Makeup Effects Still Gallery that reveals many of the secrets from the film, a slate of (thankfully) Deleted Scenes (7:27), and a Trailer.
It's hard to pack thought, some scattering of real emotion, and gruesomely effective horror elements into one film, but Deadgirl certainly gives it a sturdy effort. The problem lies in the fact that it's neither creepy nor completely dialed in to the coming-of-age core that it revolves around. Which is a shame, because all the aesthetics -- great makeup work, cinematography, music and sound design -- get a whole lot right, almost enough to forgive the awkward dialogue and flaccid sense of tension. Still, Dark Sky's presentation of Deadgirl certainly works as a worthwhile Rental, both for the atmosphere and for the thought-provoking analysis on zombie sex and the teenage mind.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site