Directors: Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel
4 / 5 zedheads
Rape is never about sex.
Rape is always about power, control, and domination. It's not even about feeling pleasure; it's about violently bending another person to your own will for your own selfish gratification. It's a concept that has always seemed fitting for exploration in the zombie genre but was never depicted because of its shocking and taboo implications.
However, Deadgirl, produced and directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel from a script by Trent Haaga, uses the conventions of the zombie genre with morbid astuteness to tell a story that explores the dark and predatory nature of masculine culture and the depths to which disaffected young boys and men can sink in their desperate struggle to control their own little worlds.
The film begins quite appropriately with shots of empy classrooms and an empty library and gym, suggesting a high school is an empty, lonely, alienating experience. Suitably, the first teens we see are two jocks tormenting another student by withholding his asthma inhaler. Watching this all unfold with complete apathy are out two main characters: best friends Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan). You've probably met kids like Rickie and J.T. before. They don't care about school, they're crude, homophobic, cocky, straining to appear macho. Rickie, however, seems more mature and likable as a character than J.T. In fact, Rickie has a hidden depth of feeling and moral sense that makes him the narrative's focus.
Of importance to the plot is Rickie's infatuation with JoAnn (Candice Accola). Ricki thinks he's in love with her, an old school crush, but J.T. derides him and convinces him to skip school to go hang out at an abandoned mental asylum instead of mooning over her. At the asylum, they can smoke, drink, and tear shit up for fun. J.T is clearly the instigator of the pair's most destructive behaviors, but Rickie is a willing participant. While exploring the tunnels beneath the asylum, they open a rusted that leads to a boiler-room. Inside, they find, gagged and bound to a table the body of a beautiful naked woman (played by Jenny Spain). Assumed dead, she soon awakens under a grimy plastic sheet, writhing on a stained mattress.
Although Rickie wants to get the hell out of there and call the cops, J.T. has other plans. From this point on, the film begins to develop a strong thematic undercurrent of critique against our culture of the sexual objectification of women. Even before J.T. realizes that the woman is what we would call a zombie, he sees her as an object. At different times J.T. describes her as "something out of a magazine" or "something straight out of porn," suggesting he sees the world -- especially women -- through a distorted lens of objectification. Rickie wants nothing to do with the girl and leaves. He's brought back by J.T. a few days later after J.T. has been abusing the girl. J.T. realizes that she cannot die. There's a dull, animal intelligence in her bleary red eyes, and she'll gnash her teeth and try to bite and scratch, but she appears impervious to pain or wounds. J.T. says that she "aint' a real human being," although that didn't stop him from abusing her the first time. Now, he has more license to consider her just a body, a thing -- "hot pussy any time." J.T. soon introduces their mutual friend Wheeler (Eric Podnar) to the deadgirl, and the two make the deadgirl their sex slave.
Rickie, who is morally opposed to the idea, is not willing to call the police or actually stop J.T. and Wheeler. On some level, Rickie's also fascinated by the prospect of a woman to whom they can do anything, anytime -- without compromise or rejection. Rickie becomes increasingly compliciit in a series of events that quickly spin out of control into deeper depths of depravity and violence.
The film is aptly shot and naturally acted (although Segan's turn as J.T. verges on the cartoonishly evil near the end of the film). There are also some sequences that feel more humourous than perhaps they should given the horrific subject matter.
And yes, this is a horror film. Despite the potential for the film to be a sleazy sexploitation flick, the film handles its sexual subject matter with frank seriousness and all the horror elements one would expect from a zombie film: cannibalism, infection, and well-executed gore. The real genius of using a zombie in Deadgirl is that the zombie, as a symbol, can represent both victim and victimizer simultaneously. First, from its traditional roots, the zombie is a symbol for the oppressed and objectified -- in this case the sexual objectifcation and abuse of women. Second, the George Romero style of zombie allows filmmakers to project all that is terrible and savage about humanity back at the audience in a monster with a human face. The deadgirl is a monster, but she has no free will. What is J.T.'s excuse? Deadgirl, like classics such as Dawn of the Dead, makes excellent use of the zombie's symbolic power to not only tell a gripping and disturbing story but also offer a critique of society and the film's characters.
Disgusting, twisted, outrageous, clever, and important: all these words describe Deadgirl. It's not a zombie film for everyone, but it's still an excellent movie. Despite the DVD cover's crass tagline (You Never Forget Your First Time) the film is one of the best zombie films released in 2009 and an intriguing use of the zombie as social/feminist critique.