THE DEAD INSIDE
(Unrated, Drexelbox Films, 99 minutes, screened April 3, 2011 at the Phoenix Film Festival)
Meet Harper and Max, married survivors of the zombie apocalypse who wander the desolate, sun-baked earth foraging for food. Alas, it’s not all so peachy keen, as the lovebirds have long turned into the walking dead themselves, and the locked door they approach is where they hope to find fresh meat to feast upon in solace from the rest of the pustulating pack. Their brains may have atrophied but they still have their wits, as they bicker over Harper’s moaning for brains reducing them to a cliché (anyways, she’s “more of a large intestine girl”) and Max futilely suggests they turn the handle. They face a challenge, as does their creator, series novelist Fiona Cella (Sarah Lassez): “How do I open this f***ing door?”
The Dead Inside is not to be confused with another film of the same title released in 2011 nor the 2013 British movie, both of whom have lower IMDb scores. No, this is from Indiana indie filmmaker Travis Betz, and this Dead Inside is not a movie I am wholly unfamiliar with, having first seen it at the 2011 Phoenix Film Festival on my 27th birthday before its DVD release through Monarch Home Entertainment in 2012. Betz won the year’s Dan Harkins Breakthrough Filmmaker Award, as well as a couple other accolades in Los Angeles, one of which was for Best Score.
That aforementioned query from Fiona is not simply stated but sung, for The Dead Inside is also a musical, with original songs written by Joel Van Vliet (no relation to Captain Beefheart) and Betz. As Fiona, nicknamed Fi, frets over her ever-debilitating struggle with writer’s block, her photographer boyfriend Wesley (Dustin Fasching) returns from another unfulfilling assignment wondering where his heart went. With both of their respective muses having fled, Wes and Fi romanticize a real-life zombie apocalypse that would give Wes more time to be with Fi so they can rule the world themselves.
If only fate was so fortunate. Fi fails to cope with a form of violent anxiety which reveals itself as supernatural and highly possessive. Wes tries both admitting her to psychiatric care and conducting an exorcism after she’s found having sliced her own finger off and levitating over their bed in the middle of the night. It soon becomes clear that Fi’s body has been taken over by the spirit of a deceased woman named Emily, and a battle of wills develops between Wes and the manipulative entity determined to live forever within Fi.
Betz has fashioned a movie from three distinct tones centered strictly around one setting and two actors, although The Dead Inside is aptly named in regards to the themes of dry comedy, romance and drama which he juxtaposes. First, there’s the fictional Harper & Max siege which, in actuality, serves to lighten the load whenever the focus shifts to them. These moments bleed into the main conflict in the real world once Harper falls under a hex which renders her human again, but that doesn’t stop Betz from having Max test Harper’s condition by forcing her to eat a dog’s severed leg. The Dead Inside also refers to both the stunted ambitions of Wes and Fi as well as, ultimately, their own personalities once Emily’s ghost takes residence.
Lassez and Fasching are counted on to act as three separate characters, although the former has the trickier task since one purely exists as the host for another. Fi is drawn with a fair amount of quirks, such as pitching a makeshift fort in the living room whenever she gets depressed, as well as a propensity for profanity in song, but she doesn’t come across as well as her portrayal of Emily, whose depth eclipses that of Fi. Lassez does well enough to differentiate both personas physically, but the clearer arc is demonstrated by Fasching’s Wes, who at least tries to understand Emily’s tragic back story involving an abusive lover and an unborn son but deduces that she hasn’t told him the bitter truth about her death, which plunges him deeper into a mentally-unbalanced fury. Ultimately, the film forgoes black comedy completely to reach at tragedy, although not without considerable strain on its momentum.
There are also the songs to deal with, which include not one but two breakdown-themed vehicles for Fi (“Leave” and “Control”) as well as a tender ballad from Wes concerning his signature on the release papers that will place his girlfriend in the sanitarium. The highlights amongst them are the “Zombie Apocalypse” love song, the contentious tango of “Doomsday” and the self-descriptive “Emily’s Story,” which allows Lassez to demonstrate an impressive lilt in her voice. These are not just the best songs in the batch, finding emotional resonance outside of the pitfalls of novelty value, but also fine showcases for Betz the visual stylist. The songs uniformly work better in the movie rather than as standalone listens, though.
The best hook to be found is how The Dead Inside plays early on with the notion of metaphorical undeath in regards to artistry, with Fi’s schizophrenia and self-mutilating impulses lending a visceral edge that jibes well with the cutaway zombie gags. It doesn’t tie together as well as it should the more it continues, but Travis Betz does show potential to do a lot with limited resources and an undiluted feel for the multi-faceted macabre.