The Milwaukee Film Festival launched Cinema Hooligante this year to showcase all that is gory, trippy, raunchy, scary, sometimes offensive, always fun. The program got off to a great start with the excellent anthology V/H/S and continued with a screening of Dead Weight, a no-budget, post-apocalyptic tale shot entirely in Wisconsin that has been making the festival rounds (HorrorHound Weekend earlier this month, Freak Show Horror Film Fest in late October).
The set up will be familiar to genre fans. Charlie (Joe Belknap) returns home to his apartment in Toledo and partakes in his favorite method of relaxation: pajamas, cereal, and comic books. Suddenly he gets a frantic phone call from his girlfriend Samantha (Mary Lindberg), who is working in Minneapolis. Has he seen the news? The world is in chaos. Major cities throughout the Midwest are crumbling. Highways are off limits.
Charlie hatches a plan for them to meet up. He figures that Wausau, a small city in Northern Wisconsin, will be safe. They settle on an exact place to meet, say their goodbyes, and set off for Wausau.
A couple of months later, Charlie wakes up startled. He was dreaming about the beginning again. It is winter now and he has been on the road with a small group including Meredith (Michelle Courvais) and Thomas (Aaron Christensen). They are slowly making their way towards Wausau, on foot, squatting in abandoned houses and empty buildings along the way.
From this point on the action shifts back and forth between Charlies journey to Wausau and flashbacks to his relationship with Samantha. We dont learn much about what caused everything. People talk of the infected, but they are mainly off screen.
Written and directed by Adam Bartlett and John Pata, Dead Weight is extremely rough around the edges, but there are highly effective individual scenes and signs of potential. The cinematography is beautiful. The frozen landscapes and wide open spaces, shot in grays and browns, are stark and evocative. It doesnt take much dressing to make this part of the world look suitable for a post-apocalyptic movie.
Random encounters with fellow travelers are tense. On country roads, the real danger isnt the infected. First Charlies group stumbles upon three men who claim they are hungry and only want something to eat. Their ulterior motive rears its ugly head quickly. Unfortunately the danger is eradicated just as quickly and the sequence feels like a lost opportunity.
A second encounter, with a kindly older couple desperate for human interaction, demonstrates just how far people will go in desperate times. Its harrowing and sad.
With only brief glimpses of the infected at the very end, Dead Weight attempts to showcase the loss of humanity in a collapsing world and the manners in which human beings are just as dangerous as the infected. It is intermittently successful, partly because the acting is really raw, preventing certain potentially poignant moments from achieving full impact. Also, the flashbacks are not as compelling as the excursion to Wausau. They make it difficult for the movie to generate momentum and instead stop it dead in its tracks.
Visually striking and occasionally potent, Dead Weight is a promising debut from young filmmakers. It falls short due to an overly familiar story, uneven performances, and erratic pacing, but kernels of a good film are there. Considering it was made for peanuts, its a respectable first feature.
For more information about the movie and where you can see it, visit this site.