Since the mid 2000’s we’ve had a glut of zombie content. It seems that tv, movies, comic books and other literature have been overrun by the undead horde. In a shorter, more recent window, we’ve also seen a ton of “kids in peril” from films like Cub and Clown to the incredibly popular Stranger Things. Both have seemingly run their course (certainly more so for the zombie genre) so it begs the question: how do you keep any of it fresh? Peter Ricq’s new film, a kids in peril zombie splatterfest, answers that question simply: do everything right.
Dead Shack is the story of Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) a seemingly disadvantaged young man who has found kindred spirits in similarly disadvantaged siblings Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) and Summer (Lizzie Boys). The trio, along with the siblings dad Roger (Donavon Stinson) and new stepmom Lisa (Valerie Tian) take up residence in a secluded cabin in the woods for a weekend of relaxation and copious amounts of alcohol. Their quiet getaway is interrupted when the trio of teens stumbles upon a house in the middle of the woods that seems to be playing host to some grisly murders.
The thing that separates this film from other genre fare almost immediately are the characters. I can’t, in recent memory, think of a group of on screen personas that have been as beautifully realized as our 5 main characters. Sure, the dialog is filled with tons of fun quips and crude jokes, but it doesn’t come off hacky or cheap because you believe in the dynamic of the characters and how they play off each other. The way Roger talks to his kids and to Jason or to his new wife all feels very universal in the same way that any given episode of Roseanne does. It’s a “lived in” quality that so few ensemble casts find themselves with. They’re real lower-middle class people who respond to each other and to the outrageous situation they find themselves in authentically.
Of course none of that could be possible without the performances to back it up either and fortunately Dead Shack is devoid of a single bad one. When going into watching a movie with several young leads, you’re never sure what kind of performances you’re going to get but it’s clear here that director Peter Ricq spent time vetting his cast and finding the best young people for the job. They play beautifully off of more seasoned performers like Stinson and Tian and when the material gets emotionally heavy, all three young leads really step up to the plate. It’s so refreshing to see so many actors that seem to have no problem balancing material that runs the gamut of emotions and depth. The script, while strong on dialog and character, is pretty straightforward zombie fare but these actors really elevate it into something special.
One of the things we look for in a zombie flick is what the gore score is like and I’m happy to say that Dead Shack is one hell of a splatter fest. There are a ton of really great gags and even some spots that subvert your expectations of where a kill or gag is going to go (another brilliant way the film works) and it really helps keep it all fresh and interesting. Aside from some digital blood here and there (one of the things I can’t help but notice) all of the viscera looks really phenomenal. And smaller, more emotionally charged, effects really shine against great performances that back them up.
Dead Shack was probably the biggest surprise out of Fantasia this year. It’s funny, gory and has more heart than I could have ever expected. Don’t get bogged down in the fact that it’s a zombie or a “kids on bikes” movie. This one is really something special and definitely stands head and shoulders above most of the movies in the sub-genre today.
You can keep up with the film via their Facebook page and be sure to catch it when it’s available for mass consumption!
Review by Mike D.