There is a need with modern film writing to show itself through the prism of “wokeness”, to highlight itself at the right side of history and to obtain those sexy clicks and hits which websites desperately need as well as the distressing need to show relevance. In turn, this has writers looking at movies and wedging “Modern Knowledge” onto films that may not have even considered themselves that forward-thinking.
However, while 2008 feels miles away from the socio-political, cultural battlefield of 2021 that we inhabit now, it is now difficult not to view a film like Deadgirl without thinking of the troubling cases of Brett Kavanaugh, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Brock Turner, amongst others who have come to the forefront. Whatever one feels about the judgement of these men is one thing, yet it is the governing of women’s bodies in general that makes a lesser-seen independent, low budget horror film feel so prominent. While definitely not a “Me Too” film, if made today, Deadgirl would perhaps feel more “known”. It is through the spotlight being placed on certain events that Deadgirl feels fresh. Relevant. Pressing.
A coming-of-age film at its heart, Deadgirl introduces us to Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan); two high schoolers with designs on nothing and aims at less than that. On a regular, dull day at school, J.T. gets Ricky to stop ogling Joann (Candice Accola) – Ricky’s ex-beau from a younger more innocent life – so that they can skip school and head to the abandoned psychiatric hospital. Why? So, they can smash stuff up, drink beers and continue their downward trajectory of emptiness. The same alien-like disquiet that resides in the film’s opening shots; school locations being so dependent on young lives for their vibrancy.
While exploring the crumbling halls of the hospital, an encounter with a feral dog leads them to the bowels of the building, in which they discover a mute, naked woman (Jenny Spain) chained to a table. The friends dispute what they should do with their discovery. JT goes primal and decides that rape should be on the agenda. Rickie is the more sensible member of the doublet and rejects the idea. Their argument comes to blows and Rickie leaves.
JT confronts Rickie the next day with further revelation upon their chance discovery: The woman is undead. In typical horror movie style; the Z word is never uttered, but the film establishes that the rules are clear. It also quickly informs us of JT’s sickly intent. He was willing to rape the woman before he knew of her condition. With the knowledge that this woman is no longer with the living, he now believes she is his to claim.
The “beauty” of Deadgirl lies in some ugly truths that reside in the annals of toxic masculinity: That the right of a woman’s body is not hers no matter what state it may be in. Utilising the zombie sub-text as a metaphor, the noxiousness of this belief pervades through every crack of the film. Many popular coming of age horror films (Ginger Snaps, The Company of Wolves, It Follows) are orientated towards the female. Dealing with blossoming sexuality often with gothic elements. Deadgirl is a film of a particularly disturbing strain of urban/moral decay within the male psyche.
The deadbeat stepdad wishes he was 15 again and spews the type of man-up bullshit which breeds contempt in homes. The absent mothering figures, whose unknown whereabouts allow their sons to make afternoon screwdrivers. There is something to be said about a film that eschews the melding of female gothic sexuality to focus on the toxicity that exists within boys, their bonding, and their boners. Even the moment Rickie and JT lay eyes on the titular Deadgirl, the two come to blows as to what they should do with the naked woman who cannot even answer back to them. She has no voice, no command of her fate. One that is bleak since it is being decided by two horny seniors.
READ MORE: Early Universal Vol. 2 – Blu-ray Review
The dialogue also belies the infection. “We can keep her”, JT lewdly whispers on the first discovery. “Down here we’re in control”, he confirms in a later scene. “You know that ain’t a real human being, man!”, JT exclaims as tensions begin to flare between Ricky and himself. Despite the woman’s state, we as an audience are constantly reminded that this was and is a living human. Reaction shots linger. Deadgirl holds the traits of a zombie. One obnoxious Jock discovers that Zombie blowjobs are a bit more… chompy. However, the pained expressions we often see exhibited by Deadgirl feel like an evolution of where George A Romero was taking zombie movies. She may not know “why” but she just remembers. What exactly? Pain? A discussion between the boys suggests that Deadgirl was due to medical experiments. It’s a throwaway comment, yet a startlingly predictable one.
What’s also unsurprising is the way writer Trent Haaga’s screenplay looks at status. It’s made clear that JT and Ricky are from the wrong side of the tracks. A short scene in which Rickie tries to reconnect with Joann, suggests that they went their two separate ways due to the social circles they obtained through high school. There’s a glass ceiling that Rickie can’t penetrate. The simple reasoning being that he’s the kind of loser that can’t be seen with such a popular girl. It is inferred that sex with Deadgirl is the best thing a guy like Rickie can ever have. An unwelcoming point of view. The only option open to such a no-hoper is raping a reanimated corpse. Something that has no choice in the matter of sex. Intimacy and choice can only be bestowed on those who have a status deserving.
Of the real-life names mentioned in the first paragraph, each case was shocking due to the element of leniency which seemed to be placed on the accused aggressor, with the reason being that the depicted acts were somewhat beneath them. Deadlgirl’s not so subtle commentary dictates a similar disheartening idea that when down in the slums, this is expected. Confirmed even. A pivotal scene has JT pimping out Deadgirl to Johnny, who also happens to be Joann’s boyfriend. An offer through simple goading becomes one that the entitled jock cannot refuse. Of course, things will not go too well for the Alpha dog. But it’s certainly telling that Johnny is allowed to beat up Rickie for even looking at his girl, while happily looking to have sex with Deadgirl, a quite literal object of poorer desires.
One of the more frustrating elements of horror films is the perceived notion that they are easy to make. Particularly with their markedly lower budgets. There’s a little shock in seeing film writers coming up with needless terms like “post” or “elevated” horror, for little reason other than slightly more leaning on its budget and the ability to make a film look better or obtain more known talent. Deadgirl‘s limited budget doesn’t hamper the use of form. An intentionally ugly film about ugly people, the film’s desaturated, sickly look feels all-encompassing of the moral decay within the narrative.
Filmed entirely in California, the film is eerily desolate. A lower budget of course means fewer easily available extras. This works in the film’s favour as it feels like the town these characters inhabit is already on its last legs. The empty classrooms seen at the film’s beginning only differ slightly from the abandoned hospital most of the film is set in. Much like the title star, the town feels largely forgotten.
READ MORE: Deep Red – 4K UHD Blu-ray Review
It is within this which makes the film’s ending particularly crushing. Deadgirl’s horror is in how easily such corrupt conduct taints these boys. An even more troubling aspect is that such questionable ownership is almost welcomed in the real world. However, unlike the stated real-life figures mentioned (who did not have relations with reanimated corpses), the film details in a way that many people do not travel down the road of success. Life gets in the way. Aspirations die. But core parts of us do not. Much of who we are when we’re in our teens may get tinkered with, but may not truly leave us. Something that makes forgiveness in many real-life violations difficult to contend with. Or forgive.
In a film that looks at the objectification of women and male control, the final moments devastate. As the world moves on, people who inhabit this town, seemingly haven’t. And once more, as in the beginning, there is a woman who will be bound and tied forever. Held to a decisive moment. Her clothing will be picked. She has no say in her sexual/emotional input. She will remain her age forever. The same goes for Ricky. The smug grin from earlier scenes slides back to his face. He gets what he wants. Yet he too will never grow. Never mature. Innocence is lost while toxicity remains.