Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on March 15, 2005, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


This season’s winner of the Direct-to-Video-Movie-That-Shoulda-Played-Theaters award is Dead Birds, a film that, despite its makers’ laments (in the audio commentaries on Sony Pictures’ DVD) that they labored under a low budget, never appears underfunded, or suggests its creators weren’t able to fully realize their vision. While not overly surprising, the movie bears qualities of acting, storytelling and visual style equal to many a big-screen feature, as well as a number of spooky scenes and startling moments of bloodshed. In fact, one of its strengths is that it keeps us interested in, and in some cases even caring about, the characters responsible for the most explicit violence.

Simon Barrett’s script focuses on a group of Civil War deserters who bloodily stick up a bank, killing a number of innocents in the process, and flee with their ill-gotten gains to a deserted plantation house in the wilds of Alabama. There’s already dissent among the group, which includes runaway slave Todd (Isaiah Washington, the best in a solid ensemble of performers) and a young woman named Annabelle (Nicki Aycox), who is refreshingly cast as one of the gang instead of a hostage woman along for the ride. Once inside the foreboding manse, the tensions are exacerbated by a supernatural presence heralded by the dead birds of the title (actually just one dead bird, as director Alex Turner reveals in his commentary that he didn’t have time to shoot more than one).

Turner comes from a TV commercial and music video background, yet his work is not about flash or fast cutting. He takes his time building up the menace, with long takes and what he calls “creeping zooms,” aided immeasurably by two veterans of May: cinematographer Steve Yedlin and production designer Leslie Keel. The latter, whose detailed houseboat constructions for Frankenfish (shot after Dead Birds by the same producers, but released first) gave that film a bracing verisimilitude, here creates period settings that feel accurate yet also slightly exaggerated for foreboding effect; the ceilings in some of the rooms seem just a little too high, and the adjoining cornfield is a graveyard of dead stalks. The makeup FX by Robert Hall and his Almost Human crew are first-rate, encompassing both shocking gore and a couple of well-realized creatures.

Yedlin shoots it all with gobs of atmosphere that are beautifully caught in the DVD’s gorgeous (and gore-geous) 1.85:1 transfer. The colors are lush and the nighttime blacks rich and deep; Turner says of the darker moments that he’s “not sure how [they’re] going to translate to video,” but no worries—even the gloomiest scenes bear sharp detail and definition. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is equally strong, containing punchy directionals and allowing Peter Lopez’s edgy score to work to full effectiveness. Imaginative, jittery menu screens navigate among copious extras, including a group of deleted scenes, most of which are actually extended versions of material present in the final film. Turner’s commentary explains why they were trimmed (mostly for the usual time concerns), and also reveals that he used audio elements from one later in the movie.

The disc’s highlight is a half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary (produced and directed by Turner’s assistant, Joshua Kopple) with a warts-and-all purview that elevates it far above the typical puff-piece featurette. It begins with a drunken, profane introduction by producer Timothy Peternel and takes us through story meetings in which one character’s original, very different fate is disclosed and the producers’ reaction to the initial creature concept designs, on the way to a highly entertaining assemblage of interviews and on-location footage. We get glimpses of Hall and co.’s FX work, witness on-set snafus (a bit player fainting in the heat, a horse going off course and almost trampling an extra) and learn about the “marble game” everyone on set was required to play. My personal favorite bit: the cast’s incredulous reaction when they learn that local prison inmates are working on the crew.

There’s also a fun Easter egg focusing on co-stars Michael Shannon and Mark Boone Junior (onscreen conspirators who also bonded off-camera) and the pair of audio commentaries. The first is Turner solo, in which he confirms his fondness for deliberate pacing—citing Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre as influences—discusses his collaborators and locations and how he pulled the whole thing off on his limited funds and schedule. He evinces a strong attention to detail, even noting that he and editor Brian Anton timed the cutting so that reel changes didn’t fall in the middle of crucial scenes!

The director is joined by Barrett, Lopez and leads Henry Thomas and Aycox for the second talk, which contains quite a bit of repeated information from the first, and not quite enough from Barrett about the script’s development—though there’s one priceless bit where he reveals that Peternel, after first reading the screenplay, sent him a list of 100 things that confused him about it. The actors share a few good anecdotes, and it’s amusing that Aycox, despite also starring in Jeepers Creepers II, is so squeamish about onscreen mayhem that she can’t watch Dead Birds’ more explicit moments, even covering her eyes during one scene while recording the commentary! Each track has its virtues, but enough of Turner’s observations are spoken on both that you can probably go with just the group talk if you’re pressed for time.

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