I like when a director knows what he/she wants from his/her film — even if the goal is to entertain on a level that ensures its legacy falls short of cinematic greatness. Some of my favorite movies are those that demand to be re-watched not for comprehension’s sake or to acknowledge metaphor underneath formal expertise, but because they’re fun. Horror/comedy is ripe for delivering exactly that result with its ability for work to simultaneously excel as an example of the genre’s common tropes and a subversion of them. Director Peter Ricq knows this and decides to lay everything on the line with cowriters Phil Ivanusic and Davila LeBlanc in Dead Shack. They clearly separate good and evil, letting each loose within a contained setting to battle to the death.
So they start things off with a rousing prologue playing with the zombie motif as lark before revealing it as truth. We witness the execution of a dude-bro at the hands of a chained monster craving flesh, the Kevlar-clad villain barking orders a nameless matriarch played by Lauren Holly. She’s stereotypically positioned as the backwoods neighborhood cougar that visiting frat-boys chat up for another notch on their belts. But there’s more than meets the eye with her. She lures these sex-craved dolts under false pretenses to feed them to the undead trapped in her basement, doing so under the ignorant veil of a sexist police force who’d never believe a woman could do such unsavory things (especially when they’re probably hoping to get in her pants too).
That’s the evil. Here’s the good: teenage pushover Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood), his obnoxiously crass best bud Colin (Gabriel LaBelle), and crush/sister respectively Summer (Lizzie Boys). This sarcastic trio has been led into the woods by the latter siblings’ father Roger (Donavon Stinson) for an off-the-grid vacation doubling as excuse for he and new girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian) to get loaded playing Go Fish Foreplay with the full bar’s worth of alcohol in their suitcases. Roger is obviously the farthest from responsible adult one could be, but he means well and loves his kids to the point of Jason envying their clan’s unorthodox circus of swear words, bad jokes, and unrelenting verbal abuse. And not a one is ready for the nightmarish comedy of errors about to consume them.
This fact only augments their endearing awkwardness and the mounting odds against them. Think it about: three kids and two drunks against a fiercely malicious woman with the gear to prove how serious and experienced she is alongside an army of zombies? (The word is never uttered.) It should be a bloodbath ending about twenty minutes after the lights dim and yet it continues moving forward as its inept, would-be heroes find the courage to excel beyond preconceptions we project upon them and they in-turn exemplify for themselves. Dead Shack ultimately reveals itself as a perfectly violent R-rated gore-fest targeting the tween sect. Remove some f-bombs and the MPAA may slap a PG-13 rating on so its promise of “Goonies meets George Romero” can entertain the correct audience.
That doesn’t mean I — more than twice the age we’re to believe Jason is — didn’t also have a good time. I laughed-out-loud more than once and found the effects work to be commendable for the genre. Ricq and company has a handle on their characters whether through their clichéd traits or universal age-specific attributes. We can smile as Jason fumbles his flirtatious advances while Summer deflects with a too-cool attitude and Colin mocks with an abundance of holier than thou smugness, but it’s the authentic response to their messed up situation that truly sticks. It’s easy to forget age in horror movies forcing children to join the carnage, so watching these three choke back vomit after the first few kills is great. It’s also more fodder for humor.
The comedy is where the film excels, the blood and gore a means to earning bigger guffaws while providing survivors with the set-up for their gloriously inappropriate punch lines. It helps that the men surrounding Jason have no filter or shame because they render his caution a commendable attribute rather than sign of weakness. Watching Roger stumble head-first into a home his kids have said was a death trap is hardly a sign of confidence or security — he’s just enjoying what he believes is a prank via the veil of pass-out drunk inebriation. He becomes a child alongside Colin (who might be having too fun with his shotgun) so that Jason and Summer can stand up as the responsible adults possessed by the wits to save them.
It’s a welcome switch playing into the filmmakers’ juxtapositions (Holly as protector of mindlessly lumbering creatures in a vastly different way compared to Jason and Summer’s mindlessly lumbering parental guardian for one). They’re subverting genre tropes, character traits, and authority — the latter with a wide-open environment devoid of law. The setting is cheap, decrepit, and in the middle of nowhere for a reason. Any bodies that may fall prey to things that go bump in the night won’t be found because no one cares to look within a world they’d rather pretend doesn’t exist a few miles past the city line. This means screams can be loud, gunshots can blast, and heads can be smashed. Anything goes, including drill-bit adorned football pads for a do-it-yourself aesthetic of mayhem.
Some of the backstory feels forced at best and unnecessary at worst, but the weird heart-to-hearts bolster motivations regardless of there needing to be a reason to fight beyond survival and empathetic humanity. Like most of what happens these small expository details are included for comic relief first and foremost — morsels of white trash living to ensure we take nothing seriously and revel in the uncouth behavior Jason and Summer endure. As for them, Ricq keeps any potential romance in the background so as not to distract from the job at-hand. Their banter is color, their survival imperative before anything else is possible. Sometimes caving in a couple skulls can be the best icebreaker. If still standing by the end you’ll have a shared experience to remember forever.
Dead Shack screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival.