While staying at a run-down cabin in the woods during the weekend, three children must save their parents from the neighbor who intends to feed them to her un-dead family.
That there’s nothing new to be drained from their rotten flesh?
Well, with the intimate family comedy (yes, with flesh-eating zombies) – co-writer and director Peter Ricq offers up a feast of juicy gore, well-written characters, great dialogue and a (not an undead one) living, beating heart. This is Dead Shack and it had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.
A semi-trashy and messed-up (but loving and loveable) family is planning a winter retreat to a modestly-priced cabin, for a weekend of fun. Dad Roger (Donavan Stinson), his two mouthy teenagers, Summer and Colin (Lizzie Boys and Gabriel LaBelle; respectively), Roger’s bitchy girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian) and Colin’s best bud Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood; in his debut screen performance) – settle into their unimpressive cabin. And while Roger and Lisa stay behind to do some serious drinking, the three kids explore the nearby woods. Their travels find them outside the home of a strange neighbor (Dumb & Dumber’s Lauren Holly) who happens to be harboring several zombies in multiple rooms of her home. And she is on the constant look-out for potential victims to feed to her flesh-eating kin. The nosy kids see something they shouldn’t and now their little weekend getaway turns violent and bloody.
Right off the bat, you’ll dig the score from Human – which is a total ‘80s throwback – immediately bringing up comparisons (good ones) to the music in the juggernaut series Stranger Things. I don’t know for sure if it fits the rest of the film (which isn’t particularly kicking with an ‘80s vibe), but I’ll let that go since the synth-y music sounds great.
There’s plenty of over-the-top gore (a la Peter Jackson’s Dead/Alive – if far less juicy than that undead classic) and it’s all a great deal of fun. You’ve got shotgun blasts, zombie munching and lots of damage done with an axe. And the zombie make-up is quite well done. We don’t see much of the zombies until later in the film, and the squishy goodness of their dead flesh is worth the wait.
The dialogue in the film is expertly done. Within two seconds of meeting the family whom Jason will spend this camping weekend with – you’ll be in love with their brashness, which is a goofy cover to the love they have for one another. The use and re-use of a “power high-five” by Roger when trying to get Jason out of his shell – is a dialogue highlight.
And on the topic of the family – it’s an incredible dynamic and with this immediate love comes buckets of sympathy for these characters. There’s a scene late in the film where Jason confesses something to his friends and when he expresses his love for this broken but deeply loving family – as an audience member, you’ll feel the exact same way. In a sea of flesh-eating, gore and violence, the relationships in Dead Shack are the big winners. Who’d-a-thunk it?
It’s another ensemble piece, and all of the actors here are spot-on. But as is my norm – I have to call out the best of the best. And that honor goes to Donavan Stinson as Dad Roger. His comic timing is impeccable, and when he drunkenly agrees to escort the kids back to the neighbor’s house to further investigate some apparent “cannibalism” – his physical comedy is just as good as his line delivery. I’m most impressed by the fact that indeed, Roger is something of an irresponsible parent (getting drunk in front of his kids and letting them wander off so he can play “strip-go-fish” with his girlfriend) but damn if I didn’t just love him. What’s key to the success of his performance is the chemistry between Stinson and his (what amounts to) three on-screen kids. You believe their deep connection, and you love how goof-ball Roger can be with them. He says something in the film about “wanting to be the fun dad”… and he is. Hell, I want Roger to be my dad. Even underneath all of the craziness, Roger’s a good guy. And Stinson deserves so much credit for bringing him to drunken life.
And I want to mention the work of Lauren Holly. We get little history on this nameless neighbor, but we do know she sees the walking dead from the same perspective as Herschel Greene of the series The Walking Dead. Holly’s “neighbor” doesn’t speak that much, and so Holly doesn’t have much to go on in the script. But she kicks ass as this weirdo woman and she really shines – and in her zombie-proof black leather outfit, she’s sexy as hell as well! And with her amazing supporting performance in this year’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter – I feel as though a Lauren Holly renaissance is upon us. And I couldn’t be more thrilled!
It’s also a welcome change in a zombie film to really have something character-driven and intimate. There are no helicopter shots of a city under siege – complete with dozens of burning buildings in the distance. And you won’t see hordes of blood-thirsty zombies – only a scattered few. But the story, the performances and dialogue are worth the World War Z epic-style barn-burner trade-off.
Perfectly acted with juicy gore and zombie-munching for days – the easy highlight of the horror/comedy Dead Shack – is the realistic (but goofy – that’s real, right?) familial relationships contained therein.
Of course, the year is still young, but I’m going to venture that this film could find itself on my Top Horror List come the end of 2017. It’s also a film which I will have to add to my extensive zombie collection, as right now, it feels like I could watch it over and over.
Potential cult status? Perhaps. But only time with tell.
So don your zombie-proof gear, bring some antibacterial wipes and keep your eyes peeled for Dead Shack.
It’s still running its way across the film festival circuit (or shambling – these are old school Romero-type zombies after all), and is scheduled for a wider release some time in October.