When I interviewed writer/actor Trent Haaga, he described Deadgirl as “The River’s Edge meets A Simple Plan with a zombie sex slave.” And now that I’ve seen it, I have to admit that’s a pretty apt description. After making the rounds on the festival circuit, garnering mega-buzz and dividing audiences wherever it played, Deadgirl is now out on DVD.
Written by Trent Haaga and directed by Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarmiento, Deadgirl is the story of two slackers who find a naked dead woman chained to a gurney. Well, that’s a bit of a simplification. Actually, she’s not dead per se—but she’s not alive either. She’s somewhere in between. Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan) are high school buddies, outsiders who are moving in different directions. Rickie is quiet and artistic; J.T. is crude and going nowhere fast. One day, they cut class and go hang out in an abandoned hospital, drinking beer and destroying private property. When they finally work their way down to the basement, they find the deadgirl (Jenny Spain). Rickie wants to release her and get help for her, but J.T. has a different idea—a much more disturbing idea. He wants to keep her and use her as their personal sex toy. J.T.’s rationalization is, hey, it’s not like she’s alive, right? Rickie doesn’t want any part of it, but agrees to think about it. Things get wildly out of hand and the film races to what eventually seems like an inevitable conclusion.
Note the “eventually” in the previous sentence. One of the things that most impressed me about Deadgirl was that, for the majority of the film, I had no idea where it was headed. I could not predict what was going to happen next, which is an admirable quality in a horror film these days. But, truthfully, I don’t think Deadgirl really is a horror film. At its core, it’s a study of friendship and the way life pulls people apart. Sure, there’s a zombie, but she’s really just the mother of all complicating incidences. This film is the story of Rickie and J.T. and the results of the choices they make. These are two dead-end kids with no real future ahead of them. Finding the deadgirl is the best, and worst, thing ever to happen to them. And the decisions they make will prove pivotal. And though Rickie struggles to do the right thing at every turn, it soon becomes clear that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Shiloh Fernandez and Noah Segan are both wonderful in roles that are, essentially, the ego and the id. Fernandez plays Rickie as a little boy lost, overwhelmed by events but always struggling to be good. Segan’s J.T. is the blustering loudmouth everyone knows. Haaga’s script is very well crafted, depicting adolescent male camaraderie quite realistically. It eventually pushes us to the edge of comfort while delivering enough black humor to make the lurid subject matter palatable. Though violent, Deadgirl never seems exploitative.
Co-directors Harel and Sarmiento have made a very good-looking independent film. More and more, digital cameras are allowing talented filmmakers to deliver quality films at low budgets. Working with such digital video equipment, Harel and Sarmiento were able to capture both ethereal imagery and stark, grimy interiors clearly and effectively. I know purists still argue against DV, but if I hadn’t known Deadgirl was filmed on digital video, I wouldn’t have guessed it.
As I mentioned earlier, Deadgirl has been polarizing audiences everywhere, with good reason. The deadgirl is brutally abused in the film, though when given the chance she can take care of herself, all feral growls and gnashing teeth. But I think her character is an interesting, though unsettling, plot device. She acts as the canvas on which the male characters paint their souls. And through her brutalization, we see who and what these characters are. Is that a good enough reason to portray such horrific cruelty onscreen? That’s a question I can’t answer for you. I recommend you see this film with some friends and decide for yourself. If nothing else, Deadgirl is sure to provoke a spirited conversation—and that’s never a bad thing.