Two things can/have happened with the greater ease of making an indepedent film: One is that newbie filmmakers take no time or care with writing a good story and then take even less time to plan how they will film the story because, you know, they can just shoot a bunch of digital and worry about the results later. Two is that filmmakers do take that time to make sure the story is told well, thinking through how each shot is presented and how it represents the story. Luckily, Dead Weight
falls into the latter category. A character-driven horror drama, its emphasis on ordinary, non-heroic people and their actions (both good and bad), this is a solid feature debut from directors/writers Adam Bartlett and John Pata.
An infection has turned much of the population of the United States into zombies, and in this post apocalyptic country, Charlie, a young man from Toledo, Ohio, heads with a small band towards Wisconsin, where he intends to meet up with his girlfriend who had been living in Minneapolis. Having learned the basics of survival, they keep on the move, though the dangers they encounter come as much from fellow survivors as from the infected. As Charlie reminisces about his relationship with Samantha, he becomes more obsessed with getting to his destination, even at the expensive of those with whom he travels.
The film's greatest strength is the time is takes to present its characters. The traveling band are neither great heroes nor completely useless; they are people you would expect to find, really quite ordinary, but also susceptible to the stresses of such a journey and situation. It's the person standing next to you in the coffee shop that you share a joke with, or the neighbour you sometimes hold the door open for. They are given the big questions to tackle: how much would you risk for the one you love? How do you know how to trust? When do you fight and when do you run? Charlie's memories of his relationship with Samantha are shown in reverse, imitating how his mind becomes more obsessed as it reverts to that initial state of being in love. The infected are rarely seen in the film, which is to its advantage, as this isn't really what the film is about, and all we have to know is that they are dangerous. At points, the film risks falling into a bit of cliche, particularly with other travelers, such as the possibly just a little too nice, and the redneck rapists; but luckily the film pulls away just enough to keep it believable.
I was also very impressed by the care the directors took with shot set-ups, especially in the opening scenes. Frequent matching shots of characters seemed to be asking the audience to put themselves their shoes, and imagine how two seemingly good people can end up in two very different states of mind after going through the same horrific events. This goes back to my original point of the directors not simply holding up a camera and letting it roll; there was obviously careful storyboarding. There aren't a lot of long shots, which is perhaps a bit unusual for a journey film; instead, there are a lot of close-ups, giving the audience the chance to really look into Charlie's face to try and figure out how it got so crazy for him.
There are some pacing problems; at times some of the scenes felt just a few beats too slow. And I wouldn't say that this is a story that hasn't at least in part been told before. But its strength lies in concentrating not on the horror of the infected, but the horror of the survivors, and how the same situation can have vastly different effects on different people, with no rhyme or reason as to why. As Charlie, Joe Belknap is particularly good, as he plays the average guy extremely well, and makes his descent into something of madness wholly believable.
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