There’s nothing inherently wrong with filmmakers offering audiences a worm’s eye view of the apocalypse, but it’s too often employed as a means to show (or rather not show) the end of the world on a shoestring budget, rather than something required by the story. Of recent-ish releases, Right At Your Door had a decent concept (when an airborne toxic event occurs, man in house isn’t sure whether or not to let his wife back in), and mostly delivered on the promise of its premise; Retreat was a good example of the “has-the-world-really-ended-or-are-we-being-lied-to” subgenre; The Divide seemed largely an excuse to throw the most obnoxious characters you could think of together in a basement and watch them goad, seduce and kill each other (if there’s any justice, the filmmakers forgot to leave the door on the latch and remain in said cellar to this day.) Thus, one would be forgiven for approaching Ben Wagner’s Dead Within with the suspicion rightly due any film attempting to set a post-apocalyptic story in a single location, especially that hoary old horror staple, the cabin.
So let’s cut straight to the chase: Dead Within has every reason to confine itself to a single location, rather than just budgetary ones, and Wagner guides his cast of two (Dean Chekvala and Amy Cale Peterson, who are credited as co-writers along with Wagner and Matthew Bradford) through the absorbing narrative with the kind of eye for performance sorely lacking in so many low-budget horror films. And speaking of that budget, despite the limited location, at no point are you ever reminded that the film was made for less than an equivalent studio production: however much they spent on it, it looks like a million bucks. If there is any justice, Dead Within will serve as a terrific calling card for Wagner, Chekvala and especially Peterson, when it reaches wider audiences following its well-received festival plays.
It seems to be six months after a deadly virus has turned Mike (Chekvala) and Kim’s (Peterson) ordinary middle class existence upside down, confining Kim to the cabin while Mike ventures outside on daily forages for supplies to keep them alive, while avoiding those infected with the virus that turns their eyes and blood pitch black, and their thoughts to violence and murder. Of course, six months is a long time to be confined to a remote cabin, and even as we meet the couple, one of them is already beginning to display signs of cabin fever (the psychological condition, not the Eli Roth flick). But given Kim’s limited perspective, is everything as it appears to be? After all, Mike is the only one who knows what the world is really like outside the confines of the cabin, and any news from the outside is filtered through this single, potentially unreliable narrator. At least, until a radio broadcast breaks the silence during one of Mike’s daily forays outside.
As is often the case with films of this nature, to say any more would lessen the impact of this outstanding second feature, following his 2005 (non-genre) debut Southbounders. Suffice to say of all the surprises at FrightFest 2014, this was undoubtedly one of the highlights, with ambition, guts, technical proficiency and acting commitment inversely proportionate to its geographical setting. Pace poster quotee Mark Miller, it wouldn’t be fair to call it a zombie movie – it really isn’t – but if it was, it would very likely be the best damn zombie movie of the year. See it as soon as you can, and say you were there at the beginning of two or three brilliant careers.