The Civil Dead tells the story of Clay (director Clay Tatum), a misanthropic, unmotivated photographer who wants to do nothing at all for the few days his girlfriend (Whitney Weir) is out of town. His plans are interrupted by the arrival of Whit (co-writer Whitmer Thomas), a peaked-in-high-school failed actor who Clay has been ghosting since the pair of them moved independently to LA. Unfortunately for Clay, a terminal introvert, Whit is a desperately lonely ghost, and only Clay can see him – and so Whit refuses to leave him alone.
The chemistry between the two leads is comedically compelling – they deliver hilarious lines with total ease, a style of comedy called ‘mumblecore’– which feels more like overhearing some funny-if-strange guys having a conversation in public than a performed joke from a stand-up comedian, making each laugh feel far more genuine. Tatum grants Clay a sympathetic humanity beneath his asshole-ish veneer, but Thomas is the standout performer – not only getting the best punchlines but imbuing the undead Whit with a believable sense of rage, frustration, and desolate loneliness, desperately hidden behind a friendly façade, utterly terrified of scaring away the one person in the world who can see him. These two central performances are, at times, let down by unnaturalness and awkwardness from the supporting cast – there is a sense that a lot of the cast are friends of the main duo, which is understandable given budget constraints but does somewhat do a disservice to the film’s core of genuine humour, fear, and despair.
The pair struggle to stretch the premise to a feature-length film plot, rendering the hour and forty-five minutes somewhat meandering. The unmotivated vibe behind the majority of the film projects the aimlessness of both characters’ lives (and death) onto the audience, putting us in the same position of wondering where a story entirely out of our control is going – and a pre-title-card flash-forward that teases the final five minutes leaves us with a pervasive sense of dread throughout, giving us a taste of Whit and Clay’s deeply-buried fears that their respective stories will not have a good ending. However, this does lead to a somewhat sagging story, with several sequences and ideas that are gestured at but go nowhere that could have been trimmed.
Overall, The Civil Dead provides a delightful twist on conventions of buddy comedies, horror, and indie filmmaking alike, deftly providing a sense of two men desperate for meaning and connection and terrified of failing to live up to the stories they’ve told themselves their lives will be – all without wallowing in dismalness or heavy-handed-ness. It is as effectively restrained with its themes as Tatum and Thomas are with their comic delivery.
[Image credit: Digitin.com]