FrightFest 2011 Review: Deadheads
When American twentysomething Mike (McKiddy) wakes up one day to find himself in some kind of strange incubation chamber, he doesn’t know what the hell’s going on. Stepping out into the world, he soon finds out. It’s zombie time. The walking dead are everywhere. And most alarming of all – Mike’s one of them. He may have retained his mental faculties and not developed a hunger for human flesh, but he’s good and dead, and soon realises he has been for three years. Promptly he crosses paths with Brent (Kidder), another articulate zombie. With few alternatives for company the two quickly hit it off, and ponder what to do with their undead existence. The only thing that matters to Mike is finding his long-lost girlfriend and popping the question he meant to ask three years earlier. This can only mean one thing: road trip. Along the way they pick up their own pet zombie and befriend a kindly old Vietnam veteran, with a zombie-killing survivalist and a couple of gun-crazy government operatives hot on their tail.
As the sons of Bart Pierce, special effects photographer of The Evil Dead, Brett and Drew T Pierce have a certain degree of family heritage to live up to. This is clearly not lost on them, given that they’ve found room for a scene watching Evil Dead at the drive-in, and grabbed themselves the endorsement of the mighty Bruce himself. But let’s not dismiss Deadheads as nothing more than the work of Hollywood brats coasting on the coattails of their parents Julian Lennon style. First off, if anything they’re Michigan brats. Second, and most importantly, the Pierce Brothers have done something that very few zombie films manage or even attempt; taken a genuinely fresh and unexpected approach to the subgenre. As a zom-rom-com, comparisons with Shaun of the Dead are of course inevitable, but as a zombie road trip buddy movie it’s something else entirely.
I asked the Pierce Brothers in the Q&A if they were prepared for the potential backlash this film could attract for its distinctly atypical zombie behaviour. After all, plenty of fans get angry enough when zombies are able to run; such purists are unlikely to be happy about zombies who still walk, talk and think as they did in life, and don’t even need to feed on the living. Nor is any explanation ever ventured as to why Mike and Brent are this way while the rest are classic shuffling flesh-eaters, which may further rile some. My advice is to take the film in the spirit it is intended, and none of this need be a problem. It’s clear from the beginning that Deadheads is not exactly the most serious zombie film ever made. This is not to say it’s entirely light-hearted; there are some fairly dark and shocking moments including onscreen child deaths, and there are also more than a few moments of genuine poignancy. As much as I’m loathe to make further comparisons to Shaun of the Dead (when approaching horror comedy it seems pretty much impossible not to these days), it’s an appropriate point of reference in this regard; much like Shaun, Deadheads manages to successfully balance humour, horror and drama, and this is one of its great strengths.
However, overall the emphasis is very much on the laughs; and oh yes, there really are plenty of laughs to be had. Not unlike Fanboys last year or indeed Tucker and Dale Versus Evil this year, FrightFest is a great location for Deadheads as this is geek comedy central, bulging with film references and clever wordplay. There is tremendous buddy chemistry between McKiddy and Kidder (wow, there is a lot of kidding going on… sorry), with Kidder’s Brent very much the goofball to McKiddy’s straight man Mike. Not all the jokes entirely work – one particular debate as to whether a werewolf could be killed by a sandwich falls completely flat – but when it’s on form, it’s hilarious. Of particular note is Benjamin Webster’s Agent McDinkle, a gravel-throated macho asshole supreme with a handlebar moustache, a zero tolerance attitude to lawbreakers, and a fair portion of the best lines in the movie. Indeed, he delivers my single favourite line from any film at FrightFest 2011; all I’ll say is it’s a variation on a famous lyric from a fairy tale.
Coming in the midst of so many downbeat films full of pain, despair and pessimism (well, it is a horror film festival after all), Deadheads made for a most refreshing change of pace. If you like good guys and happy endings as much as you like walking corpses and brain-smashing violence, then Deadheads should be very much your cup of tea. Funny how many of us gorehounds are really just sentimental bastards at heart, isn’t it…?