Back when it was released, the main rub against Brad Pitt's undead apocalypse tentpole World War Z was that there wasn't...enough...zombies. Of sure, there were CG throngs, masses using a hive mentality to swarm walls and lay waste to cities. But where was the interaction, the one on one so to speak, that made George Romero and others like him legends? The answer, simply, was that WWZ wanted to do something different, and barely succeeded. In fact, after seeing the very rough indie effort Dead Weight, one suddenly sees where Mr. Jolie and his blockbuster went wrong. Without a substantial backstory, without characters and motives you care about, you need lots of the living dead less your film be nothing more than a collection of action sequences. In this case, co-directors Adam Bartlett and John Pata decide that the love story they've concocted and random reminders of "the infected" will be more potent than full scale carnage with man battling his resurrected brothers (and sisters). They are partially right, resulting in a film that's far more effective that Mr. Pitt's globetrotting hero poses.
When we first meet our lead Charlie (Joe Belknap), he is returning to his Toledo, Ohio apartment for a little R&R. Suddenly, his girlfriend Samantha (Mary Lindberg) calls. She is in Minnesota and is anxious over the recent turn of events worldwide. Apparently, the news is reporting an outbreak of zombies - or as the film refers to them, "the Infected" - and the planet is coming apart. Cut to Charlie waking up, and we realize that he's made good on his promise to find Samantha and save her, and that he is currently on his way to Wausau in Wisconsin to meet up with her. Society has indeed crumbled and the survivors are struggling against both the monsters and mankind's own hateful nature. With fellow travelers Meredith (Michelle Courvais) and Thomas (Aaron Christensen) for company, Charlie slowly meanders across the barren and desolate Midwestern landscape, avoiding the fiends while discovering that others who've managed to stay alive are, perhaps, more dangerous than the ever-present walking dead.
Dead Weight reminds one of The Road, that Cormac McCarthy epic where the end of the world brings out the worst in people. It also nails several seasons of that AMC zombie phenom, as well as other similarly themed post-apocalyptic visions. Bartlett and Pata clearly had little money to work with and make the most of their vivid, snow-covered Wisconsin locations. In fact, local color more than makes up for a lack of scope in other areas. As for the main narrative, we do believe that Charlie and Samantha are in love, look forward to seeing if they will make it back together again, and are slightly sadden when the truth about their reality is finally revealed. For a short or perhaps an installment segment of a horror anthology, this material would work masterfully. Keeping things confined and claustrophobic goes to the overall plot and pacing as well. So stretching things out to near 90 minutes is a bit much. It requires our creators to go back and remind us of things we already know, as well as pull in other elements from better (or at least, bigger budgeted films) to keep us connected.
At least this is one survival story where all hope is not lost. Most movies of this kind - and adaptation of The Road was guilty of this - basically let us know that our players have no options and are barely living on borrowed time. This is where scope comes into play, and unfortunately, Dead Weight doesn't have the cash to create such spectacle. Instead, it stays small, and reworks its off screen "infected" for maximum impact. And it succeeds. We shudder when we finally see these beings, and recognize that, ala Jaws, having them mostly function as a frightmare MacGuffin is the right thing to do. Had they been onscreen longer, we'd end up with something ala Nightmare City - a grim and gross out gorefest with zombies that look like victims from a pizza dough explosion. As Spielberg did with his take on Peter Benchley's killer fish fiction, Bartlett and Pata play with the material they can afford. The result is something that offers dread and decent tension instead of landmark dystopian death. Dead Weight is not a perfect film, but it's definitely much better than you'd imagine.