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Sudden Death! (2010)

Indie Wired

If you're like me, the phrases "comedic musical numbers" and "student film" cause your feet to instinctively turn in the opposite direction of whoever uses them in the same sentence. Fortunately, in the case of writer/director Adam Hall's amazing, uplifting short, Sudden Death!, I was trapped in a makeshift screening room last weekend with co-star Doug Jones. Under normal circumstances, I would have missed out on this movie, which helped change the way I think about independent film.

Don't let the songs, lab coats, and stunning, redheaded lead actress fool you: Sudden Death! is not a rip-off of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. This is a wholly original production that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Joss Whedon's breakthrough Internet sensation. The production design, lighting, choreography, acting, and, yes, music, are all top-notch--the work of a passionate visionary who, unlike the creator of Buffy and Firefly, hasn't been at this for years. Sudden Death! was Hall's thesis project for USC film school.

The movie finds the city of Los Angeles overtaken by a fast-acting, fatal disease whose symptoms include spontaneous bursts of singing and flash-mob-style dance numbers; victims often conclude their performances by dropping dead--if they even make it through the entire song. Scientists Nathan (Matt Lutz) and Rachel (Autumn Hurlbert) have little time to find a cure, as members of their lab begin dropping like attention-starved flies. It also doesn't help that the two were almost lovers once, and that this end-of-the-world scenario has rekindled their dormant feelings. Frustrated lab supervisor Dr. Wright (Jones) has the unenviable job of stepping over bodies while keeping his star researchers on task and off-key.

Delving further into the plot would ruin the joy of discovery. There's a great celebrity cameo that will probably make you smile pretty widely (almost as wide as when you find out the actor's role in the plot), but that's all I'll say. Hall and songwriters Kahle McCann and Kenny Wood have a lot of fun with their morbid farce, inventing fresh takes on Airplane!-style sight gags and non sequiturs. It's a warm reminder that such comedies used to ignore the lowest-functioning members of the audience, before the era of Scary Movie 4 and Vampires Suck.

The funniest thing about Sudden Death! is that Hall and his producers made this twenty-minute gem with only $35,000 of strictly donated funds. I've seen at least five multi-million-dollar romantic comedies this year that look as good as this film, and none of them were half as entertaining. The takeaway: one doesn't need all the money in the world to create a memorable motion picture--ambition, imagination, and a little bit of seed cash can get you just about anywhere. There's a blurb on the Sudden Death! Web site about how Hall hopes to use this film as a calling card in Hollywood. He's accomplished so much working outside the studio system that I imagine he could revolutionize the way big-budget productions are made, if given the chance.

Buried just under the surface of this movie is a more important message. Unintentional though it may be, there's a very valuable lesson for aspiring filmmakers: You have to care, and you have to try. In this marvelous digital age, filmmaking runs the full spectrum of affordability. One no longer has to be Steven Spielberg to make a movie. Just rent or buy a digital camera, some lights, and a sound rig; bribe some actor friends with beer and screen credits; and convince your digital-artist buddies that your backyard sea-monster epic is the gateway to WETA--Boom! Indie filmmaking gold! On-line distribution is a relative cinch, meaning that there's barely a cost to getting your movie in front of millions of eyeballs all over the world. There are thousands of low-budget movies floating around now; but how many of them are great? Hell, let's start with "passable".

One of the keys to becoming a successful filmmaker is acting like one. Precisely because half of America not only wants to be a big-screen multi-millionaire but now has the equipment at their disposal to make that dream a reality, only the truly dedicated will stand out. Adam Hall's script is smart and very funny. The music in his film is catchy. Sudden Death! looks like the people behind it wanted to turn out something that could be aired on TV or screened in a movie theatre. Not only are there no cut corners here, it's evident that Hall and company assembled a crew of really talented people to perfectly execute a singular vision. And they did it for what I imagine is less than the quarterly lunch budget of a third-tier Hollywood studio.

You're right to assert that I'm neither a filmmaker nor a Tinseltown mogul--what the hell do I know about making it big? Not much, practically. But I see enough movies and follow enough careers to know the landscape, and to understand why no one sees some indie movies and why others lead to the fabled "big break". I'm rarely inspired by these smaller films because they're so often terrible. Sudden Death! is wonderful, through and through, and has raised the bar so high that I can't imagine being impressed by anything for a long, long time.

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