Review: DEADGIRL

An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · July 27, 2019, 3:55 PM PDT
Deadgirl
DEADGIRL (2008)

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on July 27, 20099, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


Issues of gender have been discussed in relation to slasher films for almost as long as frequently unclothed women have cowered beneath and fallen victim to phallic blades. The same hasn’t been true of zombie cinema, since transformation into the undead has tended to render questions of male/female identity moot. That changes with Deadgirl, a troubling, attention-grabbing and already polarizing first feature by directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel.

Working from a screenplay by Trent Haaga, whose previous credits for Troma and other low-budget outfits gave little indication of the thematic ambitions expressed here, Sarmiento and Harel flip the genre script on its head. Deadgirl (playing midnight bookings in selected U.S. cities and at Montreal’s Fantasia festival) begins by establishing as its “heroes” a couple of high-school slackers and best friends, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan). Neither one of them has much time for or interest in classes, and are outcasts from the cool crowd; J.T. couldn’t care less, but Rickie is tortured by his love for JoAnne (Candice Accola), whom he briefly dated in middle school and who still kinda likes him, but is now very much a part of the social stratum that treats Rickie like dirt.

Escaping the bullies and other annoyances of their everyday lives, the two pals decide to hang out one afternoon at an abandoned hospital, where they indulge in minor vandalism, flee a vicious dog—and make a strange discovery in a basement room. Behind its door, which seems to have been sealed for a very long time, they discover the body of a naked young woman (Jenny Spain), strapped to a table and covered with a plastic sheet. Is she dead? Well, that depends on how you define it. Though she can move and growl and react to basic stimuli, she doesn’t appear to show any signs of true consciousness or humanity. She seems, in other words, to be a zombie. What to do with her? Rickie, quite sensibly, wants to report their find to the authorities. But J.T. can think of a good reason to keep her a secret—having to do with the fact that she’s nude, restrained and incapable of any vocal objections.

More than any traditional undead film, Deadgirl’s true antecedents are bleak coming-of-age dramas on the order of River’s Edge, with strong streaks of both commentary on and jet-black satire of how males objectify females. J.T.’s treatment of the Deadgirl as his own personal property (though he describes her in far less polite terms), in addition to driving a wedge into his and Rickie’s longstanding friendship, also ironically gives him more in common with those he professes to despise—specifically JoAnn’s jock boyfriend, who treats her like a possession. While providing a wealth of subtext to ponder, the movie also delivers a heaping helping of graphic gore and sexual material, though the former can’t be enjoyed on the level of traditional splatter and the latter is anything but arousing. Deadgirl intends to crawl deep under your skin and stay there awhile, and its creators’ refusal to frame the violence in a manner where it can serve as vicarious entertainment may be part of the reason some genre fans have complained that it doesn’t go far enough—itself a comment on how certain people (expect to) view women.

This is not to say that Deadgirl is without its comparatively lighter moments, though even its humorous highlight, occurring about two-thirds in, gets its laughs from confounding expectations of female vulnerability. Nor is it a perfect film; there are slow patches, and while J.T.’s eventual introduction of outsiders to the Deadgirl serves to shake up the narrative, the movie is at its strongest when the focus is narrowed down to the increasingly fractured relationship between J.T. and Rickie. That’s a tribute to the intense, fully committed performances by Fernandez and Segan, and special praise should be reserved for Spain, in a brave and no doubt physically strenuous turn complemented by Jim Ojala’s ickily realistic makeup FX. Some of these may have even hardened horror devotees averting their eyes, but Deadgirl is one screen shocker whose ideas have and will provoke more attention and discussion—both positive and negative—than its visceral sights.