Wednesday, March 20, 2013

This DEAD WEIGHT is Worth Hanging On To

Dead Weight (2012)
Directors: Adam Bartlett, Joe Pata
Seen via: Nevermore Film Fest
Rating: 7.5 / 10

I'm getting tired of zombies. I'm not saying this as someone who thinks he's too cool for what's now a pretty mainstream horror trend, but as a genuine zombie fan who's just tired of the current laziness within the subgenre. I also like my zombies undiluted, without any cross-genre mashups or other gimmickry. All of these tricks are pretty clearly desperate attempts to try and distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. So what makes a small-budget film like Dead Weight stand out in such a crowded arena? The same things that have always distinguished the films with staying power from the cheap moneymakers - good storytelling. By stripping the zombie formula down to its bare essentials and focusing on a series of well-drawn and likable characters, it succeeds where most modern zombie films fail.

When it comes down to it, zombies themselves aren't that interesting. Some might disagree, but I've always found that when zombies work well, they do so because they play on the same root fears as more general post-apocalyptic stories. Sure, there's the added element of gore that comes along with the rotting undead eating the living, and also the terror of being overwhelmed by hundreds of mindless humanoids. But those factors alone can't carry a film. The reason zombies stay interesting is because they provide a reason to strip away the large-scale societal structure of the modern world and add the imminent threat of complete annihilation. It's humanity put under the ultimate stress test, and seeing morals disintegrate, sane people driven to their limits, and society crumble drives a story better than any walking corpse.

This is something that Dead Weight realizes. It's a zombie film that remains almost completely free of zombies. Not only does this serve as a smart way to work around budgetary restrictions (because nothing kills the vibe of a zombie flick faster than realizing the director just recruited a pack of friends in bad makeup to shamble around), it focuses the film on what's really important: the relationships between the various survivors we encounter and the choices they have to make in order to survive.

We're first introduced to our "hero", an ordinary guy named Charlie, as he eats cereal and reads comics at home. That's essentially the high point of his day now that his girlfriend has taken a long-term internship several states away in the Twin Cities. Their relationship is under serious stress, but they've both committed to sticking with it. When a large-scale disaster begins sweeping across the country and both are forced to leave their respective cities, they agree to meet up halfway, in Wisconsin - no matter how long it takes.

Charlie hits the road with a band of fellow survivors, and as is typical after the apocalypse, he finds that his companions pose as much of a threat as the undead. What's most intriguing about Charlie is the way his character evolves throughout the film. He's put into situations where he has to make a series of choices and sacrifices that threaten not only his own safety, but the whole goal of his journey - his relationship. Is it worth saving, even months after he last talked to Samantha, or is he carrying around emotional baggage that's just going to result in his demise? How realistic is it to expect your long-distance relationship to persist after the world has ended, and what might it cost to do so?

Despite the post-apocalyptic trappings, Charlie's relationship with Samantha is the central focus of the film. Their pre-disaster interactions are shown to us through a series of flashbacks. Alone, these scenes aren't anything special, but intercut with the post-apocalyptic storyline, they serve to remind us of how far Charlie has fallen from the happy-go-lucky goofball he once was. They're also a sharp contrast to the bleak world that occupies most of the film. A huge plus is the top-notch acting, which elevates Dead Weight above most other small-budget films. While I wasn't immediately sold on Joe Belknap's portrayal of Charlie, he does a great job overall, especially when his character is faced with some extreme choices toward the end of the film.

Comparing Dead Weight to the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead might seem unfair - one's a big-budget series with a massive production team behind it, and the other's a small-time labor of love. But both seek to be primarily character-driven stories, and in my opinion, Dead Weight manages to beat The Walking Dead at its own game. It builds a character-driven zombie story populated with interesting people whose motivations and choices always seem organic, regardless of whether we agree with them. Where The Walking Dead thinks conflict originates with characters bickering, whining, or acting illogically, Dead Weight doesn't rely on overblown drama to stay suspenseful. I'm continually tempted to write off zombies as overplayed and take an extended break from the genre. Films like Dead Weight  restore my faith and keep me coming back. The end of the world might be familiar territory these days, but that doesn't mean that it's worth giving up on just yet.

You can find out more about how and where to see Dead Weight via the official website:


  1. Great work as always, Eric. You're on to something with the zombie genre (at least as of late). Filmmakers have managed to forget what makes zombies terrifying...they're "us" after all, right? They represent our fear of people who we care about decomposing.

    Your description of DEAD WEIGHT sounds like the people behind it have taken some risks. I look forward to seeing it when I can.

    1. Hey, Dusty - thanks! Zombies as a giant metaphor for death is one aspect that I neglected to mention here. It's one of the ways in which I think the genre can be really effective if it's done right. Dead Weight definitely takes a few turns that I didn't expect. I'd be interested to hear what you think if you do end up checking it out.

  2. Thanks so much for the review, Eric!

    -John Pata and the Dead Weight family

    1. Hi, John - thanks so much for the awesome film. And thanks for stopping by!