CAPSULE: THE DEAD ONES (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sarah Rose Harper, Brandon Thane Wilson, Katie Foster, Torey Garza

PLOT: Four seniors are locked inside their high school at night as punishment for vandalism; characters dressed as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stalk them.

Still from The Dead Ones (2019)

COMMENTS: I’m not the first one to describe The Dead Ones as some variation of “The Breakfast Club goes to Hell,” and I won’t be the last. It’s hard to ignore the high concept premise: high schoolers alone, sentenced to detention, but done as a horror movie. But The Dead Ones is a good bit more than that belittling description suggests, digging into the issue of teen bullying and its too-frequent apocalyptic consequences, while satisfying the bloodlust of its horror demographic with gore, shocks, and—yes—weirdness.

To continue the Breakfast Club metaphor for a moment… it should be no surprise that this one won’t end with a Don’t-You-Forget-About-Me-fist-pump. (Instead, we get an ironic recitation of the title, which is as close to redemption as The Dead Ones can come.) Rather than collection of brains, athletes, princesses, etc., what we have here are two basket cases and two criminals. Three out of the four are fleshed out with decent, if sad, backstories of abuse, humiliation, and mental illness. Emily, for example, is a cutter, and the bizarrely calligraphed scarring patterns on her arms and back are the first hints of true weirdness in the film (not counting some high school chatter about the ancient Egyptian god Ammit). What begins as a haunted high school spook show is interrupted by scenes of a far more realistic horror: four masked figures (the same ones who have locked the teens inside for the night) go on a daytime shooting rampage. The Dead Ones starts alternating between these two stories, and it’s not clear whether scenes are flashbacks, flash-forwards, or alternate realities altogether. Meanwhile, really weird stuff continues to happen at Midnight Breakfast Club: warping floor tiles, rag-eating ghouls, a precariously perched column made of classroom furniture. The teens’ reactions are rarely commensurate with the horrors they experience: one delinquent responds to being pushed around by a classroom of zombies with a defiant middle finger, rather than by wetting himself in terror.

The acting is not bad, with Sarah Rose Harper holding down the main duties (and delivering one fairly chilling monologue). The sound mix is thick and oppressive; I vacillated over whether it was too intrusive or not. Effects are done on the cheap. Kasten throws a lot of different styles into the film, from horror movie standard like flickering lights, various CGI and post-production tricks, homemade masks, crude stop-motion monsters, and scenes that play out on security cameras or YouTube videos, or on TV monitors that talk back to the characters. The welter of techniques keeps you off balance, but it probably would have been a stronger film had they stuck to a couple of key stylistic motifs. Still, it’s hard to complain about a horror movie that has the courage to go full weird.

Surprisingly divisive, The Dead Ones garnered positive reviews from critics while earning a shockingly low 3.1 rating on IMDB. Based on the few reader reviews available, it seems that most of the detractors missed a couple of relatively obvious clues that left them confused (or perhaps they didn’t watch all the way until the end, by which time everything should be crystal clear). Zach Chassler’s script is full of classical allusions that may fly over heads of those seeking a slash-’em-up teen thriller, so maybe it’s just a case of the film not finding its way to the proper audience yet. (Our readers are the proper audience.)

The Dead Ones was shot way back in 2009; some have speculated that the sad plague of school shootings in the following years scared off investors and distributors who thought the subject matter was too raw for the moment. Once finally completed, it only played a couple of stops on the festival circuit, but Artsploitation rescued it and put it out on the Internet and Blu-ray. The disc comes with two short behind-the-scenes featurettes and two commentaries, which are worth listening to in order to catch all the tiny, almost subliminal details that will probably escape you on a first viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“From within this structure, though, a weirdly intriguing picture flows… The Dead Ones is quite the madhouse and you have to admire Kasten’s journey into teen darkness.”–Elias Savada, Film International (Blu-ray)

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