Dead Within (2014)
Directed by: Ben Wagner
Written by: Matthew Bradford, Dean Chekvala, Amy Cale Peterson, Ben Wagner
Starring: Amy Cale Peterson, Dean Chekvala, J. Claude Dearing
Dead Within tells the story of Kim (Amy Cale Peterson) and Mike (Dean Chekvala), a couple of who have survived the early months of a zombie apocalypse – a zombie apocalypse caused, in this instance, by tainted food – holed up in a remote cabin. Flashbacks reveal that, at the time of the outbreak, the couple was staying in the cabin with their baby and another couple, Todd (Rick Federman) and Erika Sarah McMaster), but that the others all fell victim to the virus, and Kim and Mike had to kill them.
Kim, desperate for some kind of human contact
While Mike makes daily trips to hunt for food and supplies, Kim has not left the cabin since the crisis began. The movie is told entirely from Kim’s perspective, confined to the cabin as Mike comes and goes. At the point where the narrative begins, Kim has begun breaking down; she has only a vague, disjointed sense of the passage of time, and is growing increasingly paranoid and experiencing hallucinations. Her psychological state is reflected in the choppy way that the movie is constructed.
On paper, all of this sounds like the makings of a tense, challenging story that really puts the audience in the shoes of the main character. By structuring the movie to match Kim’s skewed perspective, the filmmakers are trying to draw us into her mental state, to make us feel the paranoia and displacement from reality along with her. However, with no anchor point, no progression to the narrative/psychological breakdown, the audience is largely left floundering for a context. We cannot associate with Kim’s insanity, because we never have a chance to experience her sanity. We cannot be drawn along for the ride, because the ride is already ending by the time we’re brought on board.
The major technique by which we are shown Kim’s breakdown is the reduction of most scenes to de-contextualized middles, with few beginnings or endings. Conversations have no flow, events – and flashbacks – are inserted with little discernable motivation. Dead Within is basically an hour and a half of montage. Likewise, the camera is constantly moving, often with little to no motivation; it is a movie that refuses to ever sit still.
The lack of meaningful progression of complete, engaging scenes would have been forgivable – even quite effective – if this were a fifteen or twenty minute short film. The approach of montage and flailing camera would have been a good short-hand for conveying Kim’s psychological state in a compressed time, since the audience would have no expectation of being drawn in gradually and fully associating with the character. But, in a feature length film, the opportunity existed to reveal the character’s psychology incrementally, drawing the audience in to a sense of madness rather dropping them in.
With no shifts in style or pace and no on-screen evolution of its characters, Dead Within quickly becomes monotonous. The rushed, disjointed scenes are at first revelatory of Kim’s psychology, but, once the basic point has been made, they just become a tired insistence on points that have already been conveyed.
With a slower pace, more nuanced characters, and a less heavy-handed approach to its themes, Dead Within might have been a very effective examination of the impact of isolation and survivors’ guilt. Unfortunately, it instead falls back again and again on the same couple of tricks, which seem clever at first, but over time ring increasingly hollow.
Dead Within is currently available via Netflix instant streaming, so check it out and see if you agree with my assessment, and then sound off in the comments section!
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