★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
by Christopher Zabel
The Walking Dead’s success took the television world unexpectedly by storm. Exploiting a milieu of zombies in a post-apocalyptic world, the massive hit was bound to spawn imitators. Director Ben Wagner’s Dead Within successfully copies some of that formula with a strong performance by Amy Cale Peterson and solid filmmaking. Focusing more on the psychological dynamics of the characters than visceral zombie action, it keeps the direct-to-video movie brimming with believable menace.
Dead Within is the apocalypse writ small, featuring the practical realities of survival in isolation. A couple have barricaded themselves in a cabin for six months with little outside contact. We get glimpses that Mike (Dean Chekvala of True Blood) and Kim (Amy Cale Peterson) were like anyone else before a virus was unleashed that started the zombie apocalypse. This is a small movie almost crafted like a single-room stage play. Most of it occurs inside the walls of a remote mountain cabin, boarded up to prevent random zombies from gaining access. It’s a dark, limited environment that sets the mood for the couple’s growing sense of isolation, fear and paranoia.
More is revealed about Mike and Kim as the narrative unfolds. If you are going to starve to death as civilization collapses, one would think having your spouse or partner along would provide some comfort. It is them versus the world, which in this case means zombies and a few remaining human survivors. It is only through determination and luck they have survived six months by themselves.
The couple has settled on an agreement to divide their duties, falling along traditional gender lines. Mike is the one that has to regularly go out of the cabin and scavenge for supplies, bringing along a shotgun. Fearful for Kim’s safety in a world filled with zombies, he makes her stay in the cabin at all times. She paints murals and prepares their food to keep her sanity. She never leaves the cabin and her contact with the outside world is mostly limited to strange noises outside the door, real and imagined.
After six months like this, Kim slowly loses her grip on reality and develops what used to be known as cabin fever. Dead Within is really Kim’s story, its narrative is seen through her emotional perspective. Amy Cale Peterson is up to the task of carrying this movie, her tortured performance hits all the necessary nuances needed to convey the overwhelming isolation and increasing tension with Mike.
Dead Within has a few terrifying moments with zombies, though splatterhounds should look elsewhere for their kicks. This is taut psychological terror with believable characterization, clocking in at a well-paced 82 minutes. It entertains to the very end despite the limited setting, due to the logically thought-out ramifications of living in a post-apocalyptic world . One could easily see this as a lost tale from the Walking Dead universe, Dead Within resides nicely in that show’s world of humanized zombie drama.