Looking at the poster and synopsis for Dead Weight, the feature debut of co-writer/directors John Pata and Adam Bartlett, you might think it's another dreary, post-apocalyptic road movie involving hungry survivors and hungrier monsters. You'd be right in that assumption, and also very, very wrong.
While the film is an atmospheric cousin of The Road, and owes a slight narrative nod to The Walking Dead, the creators forge a unique identity by injecting their end-of-the-world plot with a healthy dose of romantic-comedy-style flashbacks. Don't worry, protagonists Charlie (Joe Belknap) and Samantha (Mary Lindberg) don't fall into the quirky traps of Katherine Heigl movies; they simply share the intimate, in-joke language of committed couples. Even as their relationship strains when Samantha accepts an out-of-state internship, the strength of their special bond is evident.
Then the apocalypse happens.
A viral outbreak of unknown origin spreads like crazy across the Midwest, causing panic and mayhem. During a couple of quick phone calls, Charlie and Samantha agree to leave Ohio and Minneapolis, respectively, and rendezvous in Wausau, Wisconsin--at the bar in which they first met. The story jumps ahead several weeks to find Charlie, once an outgoing, pop-culture obsessed goofball, reduced to a solemn member of a survivalist collective. They travel barren, snow-covered plains, foraging for food and avoiding "the infected".
It's important to note that Dead Weight is neither a zombie movie nor an infected-person movie. Unlike many films that claim to be character studies foremost and gore showcases second, this is an honest-to-God character study that happens to take place during a flesh-eater outbreak. The characters worry about attacks constantly, but we don't really see any undead/maniacally sick antagonists until the final scene--even then, darkness and editing obscure these vague creatures because they're not essential to the film. Had Dead Weight been set in the aftermath of a civil war or natural disaster, its presentation and reason for being would have been left intact.
The movie's brilliance lies partially in a calculated narrative duality that immediately calls to mind Gaspar Noe's Irreversible. The present-day, post-outbreak story trudges forward with characters clinging to hope but finding only a breakdown of their ability to trust one another. In contrast, the flashbacks begin with the dissolution of Charlie and Samantha's relationship and work backwards; by the end of the film, we're presented with the the couple's darkest hour in one timeline, and the first sparks of hope and love in another.
I can't get into the second reason the movie works so well without giving away a major secret. But I really want to talk about it, and advise all you non-spoiler types to please skip the next three paragraphs.
At about the halfway point, as I recall, Charlie is revealed to be a psychopath. His desire to reach Samantha in Wausau isn't simply romantic wishful thinking: it's a full-on quest, and anyone who stands in his way must die. His first murder is shocking, but justifiable. A creep named Drew (Jess Ader) tries to rape Meredith (Michelle Courvais), the group's only woman, and Charlie bashes his brains in--nobly, if a little too gleefully. Next, he puts down a kindly old couple who threatens to tell the rest of the gang that Wausau has been overrun by the infected. This cover-up accelerates the cycle of lies and violence, quickly asking us to re-evaluate how much we really know about Charlie.
In a lovely stroke of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style trickery, Bartlett and Pata paint an unreliable picture of our hero, a colorful portrait devoid of trap lines. It's unclear that the apocalypse turned him into an obsessed monster, and we're presented with the possibility that Charlie was a charming, murderous freak when he began dating Samantha--one who merely wore the skin of an affable, absent-minded comic book fan.
Amazingly, this is Belknap's first film as an actor. He breathes bizarre energy into the character, making his pre- and post-apocalypse personae dramatically different, yet still recognizable. His chemistry with Lindberg is not quite there, but for story purposes, this lack of a connection works perfectly.* All of the leads in Dead Weight are fantastic, particularly Courvais and Aaron Christensen as Thomas, the justifiably paranoid leader of Charlie's pack. As with Pata's low-budget short, Better Off Undead, some of the supporting players advertise their lack of experience a little too loudly. In general, though, I'd wager that every independent filmmaker would fall over themselves to snag this calibre of cast.**
I'd be remiss in not congratulating composer Nicholas Elert and cinematographer Travis Auclair. Their contributions help elevate Dead Weight far beyond the quality one might assume of a low-budget film shot entirely in Wisconsin. Elert's score recalls James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer's work on the "Joker" segments of The Dark Knight, appearing out of nowhere as an unsettling, high-pitched hum to underscore the dramatic volatility of key scenes.
For his part, Auclair makes flat land and snowy woods seem like the most interesting environments on Earth. His post-civilization heartland is massive and cold, and offers a stark contrast to the intimate two-shots of Charlie and Samantha's courtship; we're constantly jarred out of the cocooned safety and frivolity of this cute, twenty-something relationship and forced into a world where affection is as hard to come by as food. The effect is disorienting, like waking from a dream and not being sure which state is reality.
Dead Weight is a gripping drama with pulp roots that I hope kick-starts a new trend in genre filmmaking. We've been overrun by zombies in the last half-decade or so, and while I appreciate the occasional surprise offered by the trend-setters, there's still something inherently juvenile in all of these George Romero "homages". Pata and Bartlett boldly ask the audience to grow up, and to embrace the idea that a movie doesn't have to show intestines being eaten in order to rip your heart out.
Full Disclosure: I'm not in the plugging business, but I'm also not above sticking my neck out to help young filmmakers (especially those who happen to be friends). Dead Weight was just released on DVD, but John and Adam do not yet have a distribution deal. The only way to see the movie is to either catch them at the myriad festivals to which they'll be traveling this year, or order it, sight unseen, directly from Head Trauma Productions.
Even if you hate it--an unlikely prospect that would make me very sad--the two-disc set is packed with extra material that should, if nothing else, provide inspiration and guidance to aspiring filmmakers everywhere. If that's not enough incentive, there's also a limited-edition version featuring a slipcase by The Walking Dead artist and co-creator Tony Moore (come for the cover, stay for the consciousness-expansion).
*If you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, congratulations on having avoided the previous three paragraphs.
**A special shout-out to Steve Herson and Cheri Sandlin for expertly keeping me on my toes during their brief but very memorable scene.