Open in limited release
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel
The premise of Deadgirl is brilliantly revolting â two high school buddies come across a naked woman chained to a bed in the basement of an abandoned hospital. Before long, they realize that this mystery woman isn’t alive, but some kind of zombie (a word the film never uses). While the more conscientious of the two kids, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) is squeamish about the whole situation; his friend J.T. (Noah Segan) knows a golden opportunity when he sees it. In short time, the lascivious, amoral J.T. has put the dead girl to, um, use. Now, upfront, Deadgirl is not a movie for everyone (if it were, I’d be very worried). Just reading the barest description of the plot will likely put off a good number of even hardened horror fans. And even those who think that they’re game for the movie might have second thoughts once it starts to unfold. Although not handled in an overly graphic fashion, there’s no mistaking exactly what’s going on. And frankly, a movie about a woman â whether the woman in question is living, dead or undead â being repeatedly raped is not an experience to be taken lightly. By design, this is a film meant to provoke, sicken, and upset viewers. Deadgirl raises questions about male sexuality and peer pressure â making it an ambitious entry in the teen horror sub-genre. Unfortunately, it’s only partially successful in handling its difficult material.
Writtten by Trent Haaga and co-directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, Deadgirl gets off to an effectively queasy start. The casual, incidental nature of Rickie and J.T.’s discovery of the dead girl is well portrayed â making the situation seem both eerily unreal yet plausible. In the early going, Deadgirl has a grounded feel to it that helps sell the outrageous actions of its lead characters. As long as Rickie and J.T. are the only two characters that know the dead girl exists, Deadgirl works. Rickie isn’t a bad kid (he steadfastly keeps his hands off the dead girl and tries to get J.T. to leave her alone), just one that’s incapable of standing up to J.T. while J.T. himself is a four-star sicko (Noah Segan’s performance is a riveting, convincing one). The moral quandary between the two friends is compelling enough to drive the movie, with J.T. devolving further into insanity and Rickie racked with guilt as to whether to stay silent or involve the police. It’s once other characters are drawn into the story that Deadgirl begins to falter.
It’s one thing to have one character who’s sick enough to have sex with a zombie, and another that’s too weak to blow the whistle on that person, but the more characters that get pulled into the activities in the hospital basement, the more Deadgirl‘s narrative strains credulity. First, after agreeing with Rickie not to involve anyone else, J.T. invites their mutual friend Wheeler (Eric Podnar) to visit the basement and see the goods. Unfortunately Wheeler is as dumb as J.T. is evil and before long, thanks to Wheeler’s boasting to the wrong pairs of ears, the dead girl is receiving more visitors.
As a psychological portrait of teenage boys, Deadgirl gets some mileage out of its grim premise. Haaga’s script establishes J.T. and Wheeler â and to a lesser extent Rickie â as socially ostracized kids with no avenues of power in the real world. They’re unpopular, picked-on, and clearly hard-up for sex. When the dead girl falls into their pathetic laps, we understand that the craven, misogynistic J.T. and Wheeler view this as a way to seize the kind of power that they crave but otherwise lack. These are people who have only known rejection in life so to be able to victimize someone else is empowering. As repellant as these kids are, Haaga’s script and the strong performances by the actors involved make their motivations understood â there’s a lot of deep-seated rage at work here. But when a pair of alpha-male jock assholes enter the picture and are peer pressured by J.T. into taking their own turns with the dead girl, the movie starts to derail.
That two screw-ups like J.T. and Wheeler could be so void of conscience is believable. And that Rickie would be too afraid for his own complicity in what’s happening to squeal to the cops is also feasible. But maybe I’m being blindly optimistic here but I have to believe that there are just some things you couldn’t peer pressure even a total Neanderthal into and getting it on with something that looks and smells like a rancid, dead thing is close to the top of that list. Even if these kids didn’t care about victimizing the girl, they’d surely care about their own health ahead of their macho reputations â if this dead girl doesn’t look like a PSA for SDTs, I don’t know what does. This incident with the two jocks is a misstep that the movie never quite recovers from. After this, motivations across the board become less character-driven and more prompted by Haaga’s need to steer events to a predetermined conclusion. As such, Deadgirl‘s climax feels less like the tragic result of human frailty than a case of characters being led through scripted moves, with the character of J.T. taking the biggest hit by being transformed into a cheesy villain.
While all the film’s performances are very solid (and buffer Deadgirl against feeling cheaply exploitative), special note should be paid to Jenny Spain as the titular dead girl. Spending the entire film naked and tortured, Spain delivers a feral, haunting performance that overrides whatever failings the movie as a whole might have.
As a study of disaffected, morally bereft teens, Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986) remains the more troubling portrait of adolescence. And for anyone who wants to see a better film that tackles the taboo subject of necrophilia, I recommend Lynne Stopkewich’s haunting drama Kissed (1996). Still, there’s an important cautionary message to be found in Deadgirl for all the parents, and future parents, of the world â if you don’t get involved from the start and give your sons the proper upbringing, they could turn into the sort of sociopath that thinks it’s acceptable to keep an undead sex slave. Adolescence is hard on everyone but with a respect for all living â and unliving â things, one can usually navigate the harsh world of high school without taking advantage of the first naked zombie they come across.
But these kids in Deadgirl â well, the problems they have could fill a book. Or a movie.