by Jeremy Biltz
The Movie: There have been a lot of zombie movies produced these last few years, some good, and some not so good. In a lot of ways, the zombie sub-genre has played itself out. Still, it’s interesting to see someone try something new. Ben Wagner does that with his one location, psychological thriller zombie film Dead Within. It’s not totally successful, but definitely worth a watch.
Mike and Kim (Dean Chekvala and Amy Cale Peterson) are a married couple, who have retreated to their isolated mountain cabin to escape from the dangers of a zombie outbreak. We don’t see very many of the zombies, but it seems that the main symptoms are glassy black eyes, black blood, and ravenous aggression.
Every few days, Mike ventures out to scour the nearby small towns to replenish their rapidly diminishing supplies. He refuses to let Kim go with him, fearful of her safety. Every time he goes out, he encounters zombies and keeps a tally of how many he has killed. But they’re using up the available food and necessities, and Mike has to venture farther, and stay away longer, each time he goes out.
The isolation is not good for Kim. She spends her days painting and reading, and waiting for Mike to return. But she never steps foot outside the house. Zombies occasionally arrive, but they can’t get in. Neither can their dog, who it seems has been turned into a zombie as well. But Mike always returns, and verifies his humanity with the secret knock they decide on each time he goes out.
But Kim’s mind starts to disintegrate. She hears noises where none should be. She talks to a ranger on their portable radio, who may or may not exist. Most of the film is watching Kim as she tries to figure out whether or not what she is seeing and hearing is real.
The tension of the film comes from Kim’s mental deterioration as it grows worse, and the uncertainty about exactly what happens. This all comes to a head when Mike returns from a particularly long and dangerous outing, and Kim can’t decide whether or not to let him in.
Dead Within takes some bold chances, and asks Peterson to carry a lot of the film on her own. She does a very good job, but still things tend to drag at times. Both Peterson and Chekvala deliver totally believable and empathetic performances, and I’d guess that a lot of their dialogue was improvised on set. (Both have writing credits.) The feelings of disquiet and dread are kept high throughout most of the film. While there isn’t a lot of call for blood or other effects, what we do see is of high quality.
This isn’t a film for everyone. It’s more of a psychological study than a standard zombie film. So, if you’re looking for the traditional gut munching and dead walking, you’ll be disappointed. However, there is a lot to enjoy, if you have the temperament to savor a slow burn of mental disintegration. Recommended.
The DVD Video: Video is 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks pretty good. There are a lot of handheld shots, so if that sort of thing bothers you, beware. Otherwise, the colors are rich and bright. It has a very summery feel, with lots of tans and light browns washed by the sun.
Sound: Audio is Dolby digital 5.1 channel, with available English and Spanish subtitles. No hiss or other problems are evident, and the dialogue is always clearly audible.
Extras: The only extras are previews for Parts per Billion, Buck Wild, Rob the Mob and Hell Baby, as well as several deleted scenes with some explanatory voiceovers.
Final Thoughts: Dead Within is a tightly wound tale of mental anguish and isolation. It doesn’t play like a typical zombie movie, and that’s okay. Director Ben Wagner was trying for something different, and he mostly succeeds. The two leads give fully committed and passionate performances. It drags from time to time, but Wagner and his compatriots are to be applauded for tackling a concept this difficult to execute.