There's a sinister silence that permeates the zombie sub-genre. Long ago, these undead minions were the stuff of curses, witch doctors, and acts of slavery and revenge. In 1932, WHITE ZOMBIE brought to the forefront a being that existed to do it's master's bidding. This "style" persisted, however (as is the case throughout all history, cinematically and otherwise) the idea was built upon and expanded. George Romero (father of the modern zombie) took the movie-going masses by surprise in 1968 by introducing a new zombie AND mythology. This creature was never intended to do man's bidding. This creature was of unexplained origin, still quite mindless, yet with a taste for human flesh and a drive matched only by it's appetite for the "other" white meat. Over the last 15 or so years, the zombie sub-genre has been the focus of legendary bickering and fan-boy outrage. Were the infected in 28 DAYS LATER zombies? Was Jason Voorhees part of the undead army? How dare Zack Snyder put a spring in their step! Since Romero's original was caught in public domain hell; remakes, re-imaginings, and expansions on his zombie narrative have exploded and infected "filmdom" from the multiplex all the way down to fan-made, completely abhorrent YouTube tripe. The zombie movie has now become little more than an annoyance and a punchline to what was once one of the most terrifying and unsettling monsters committed to celluloid. THE WALKING DEAD books and TV series have brought on a resurgence of late. Their mainstream success and "palatability" (I would argue) brought on by the focus being placed firmly on the living's emotional plight rather than solely relying on the horror of uprightly mobile rotting flesh. Since fictional explanations for zombie apocalypses and HOW it all began continue to be played with; there are more than a few avenues that have (and continue to be) explored. Yet, it's not the "why" or "how" that's so terrifying when it comes to being caught in an undead uprising. It's the consequence and tragedy that faces brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, parents and children when a loved one succumbs to the "disease." Once you realize THAT, you've got a good foundation. But let's not kid ourselves: filmmakers can (and will) still fuck it up. It takes a nimble team to handle such a tired, mercilessly abused, and currently (for the most part) laughable movie monster. A team like writer/producer Joe Cook and writer/director Benjamin Wilkins of PRETTY DEAD.
Doctor- Regina (Oates) and EMT- Ryan (Shogren) are "live in" lovers. Soon to be engaged, young, intelligent, fun-loving folk ready to "become" adults. One last night of mischief at a karaoke bar and Regina's (symbolic farewell to irresponsibility) bump of cocaine changes all of this. After a horrible reaction to the powder (and being resuscitated by Ryan) Regina begins to change. At first, nothing to be super alarmed about: headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite, etc. However, when Ryan opens their fridge to find bio hazard bags full of human tissue (mostly fat) we have a problem. Hardly handled for laughs a la Tyler Durden's soap-making enterprise in FIGHT CLUB; this revelation begins a rapid unraveling of Regina's life, her mind, her body, and her soul; not to mention her relationship with friends, family, and especially her now fiance Ryan. At first supportive and concerned, Ryan begins to slowly (and understandably) crumble under the weight of these new and hideous developments. With their medical background in tow: Regina and Ryan set out to identify, study, and cure the cause of her intense cravings for human flesh, inability to sleep, lack of a pulse, and deteriorating epidermis. Filmed and presented as a compilation of personal video diaries and security camera footage; PRETTY DEAD pulls aside the curtain on the days leading up to, and those that followed Regina Stevens' cannibalizing of four men; and how the "system" dealt with a woman convinced she was already dead.
For years I've rolled my eyes at the debate regarding how the "living dead" should behave. Run, shuffle, talk, growl, be mindless or thoughtful. I've always kind of liked the idea of a person dying and functioning normally initially, only to slow down and deteriorate as the death process progresses. So, if in fact, Regina truly is "zombified," this one's right in my wheelhouse. Found footage approach aside (which at this point I could take or leave) Cook and Wilkins have narratively constructed a zombie movie that stands firmly on it's rotting head. PRETTY DEAD is not a horror film. It's not a romance, a drama, a dark comedy, a monster movie, or a tragic love story. It's the sum of all those parts and much more. A true genre film that cris-crosses themes and uses this technique to build a genuinely heartbreaking tale of a young woman's journey as she "circles the drain." As Regina, Carly Oates so adeptly navigates and carries the story, she leaves the viewer with no choice other than to be pulled deeper into her mess. Played with fear, anger, confusion, acceptance, denial, and even a splash of joy and whimsy; Oates (it would appear) had more than a little passion for the project. Shogren (as EMT fiance Ryan) nimbly plays off Oates and unfurls his loving, sweet cheeked, guy next door persona allowing his emotional fall from grace to be that much more painful when complete. It's not a perfect film, however, it's subject matter is handled deftly and with real emotional gravitas. It feels as real as something like this can and Wilkins and Cook introduce a wonderfully dense amalgamation of ideas that might just make them the "grand kids" of the modern zombie movie. Again, if this WERE a zombie movie. I choose to tread lightly here because PRETTY DEAD was a joy to watch in real time, with no preconceived notion of what I was getting myself into. Watch the trailer, keep your eyes open for it's inevitable release, and remember: sometimes it's not just the blood and guts that make a monster movie a MONSTER MOVIE. Sometimes it's about the transformative power of watching and experiencing one of our own (unwillingly, painfully, and fearfully) become that monster.
Director: Benjamin Wilkins
Starring: Carly Oates and Ryan Shogren