PRETTY DEAD: An Intimate Zombie Case Study

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Pretty Dead (2012)
Directed by Benjamin Wilkins
Written by Joe Cook and Benjamin Wilkins
Pretty Dead Official Site

It’s interesting timing that Benjamin Wilkins’ chilling feature film Pretty Dead has come into my hands. Considering this horrific event and similar that have played out over the past few days, I’d say the film is damn timely. With the popularity of zombie apocalypse films, TV shows, zombie walks, and the like, the reality is that a zombie attack scenario would be anything but fun and exciting. Watching a loved one succumb to such a condition would be tragic.

Pretty Dead has two hurdles to clear: One is that it’ll be lumped in with a multitude of zombie films great and small that have been released over the past two decades. Two is that it’ll be grouped with a plethora of “found footage” films plugging up the multiplexes. While there’s certainly no end in sight to these genre trends, Wilkins’ film might be met with ire from jaded horror fans who are starving for something different.

Unbeknownst to them, Pretty Dead IS that antidote. It’s a clinical, depressing, and horrifying look at a potential zombie outbreak scenario that is actually plausible. According to Wilkins and co-writer Joe Cook, they have created a medically accurate depiction of zombieism. Their presentation is emotional, intelligent, and frightening. Though the film is very minimal in scale, the implications are wide-reaching.

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Aspiring medical student Regina (Carly Oates) has just passed her Medical Licensing exam. She, and her boyfriend Ryan (Ryan Shogren), have just gotten engaged. It appears all her dreams are coming true. After a night of celebration – hastily shirking responsibility for once in her life – she experiments with drugs that leave her very sick and hospitalized. After recovering from the mysterious illness, Regina finds herself with a newfound hunger for flesh that may or may not be caused by a parasitic fungus called Cordyceps.

Cordyceps attacks its host Regina in the blood. At first the effects manifest in a playful way, Regina taking a bite out Ryan while they’re messing around. Regina plays it off, but Ryan is concerned by the wound that is much more painful than a hickey. Ever the scientist, Regina becomes her own test subject allowing herself to explore her desires in a controlled environment. Ryan entertains her cravings and hypotheses because he’s also curious, but also because he loves Regina dearly. As her hunger grows, Regina exhibits other disturbing symptoms like slowing pulse, quick healing ability, and bizarre changes to her physical appearance. Regina’s medical curiosity piqued, she and Ryan decide to document everything. The film is a culmination of their two months of shooting, as well as footage from various clinics and institutions.

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Pretty Dead gets complicated when Regina takes to killing to satiate her need. As the fungal infection grows, it deteriorates Regina’s mind. Ryan is at first supportive of Regina’s study, but he soon grows to fear for both his and Regina’s safety. After a failed suicide attempt, Regina is placed in the skeptical hands of the medical and psychiatric community. The doctors think her problems are psychological. Regina, degenerating to an zombiefied state, tries desperately to convince them otherwise.

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As with most microbudget films, there are a lot of things to forgive. The sound quality is less-than-remarkable.The acting, particularly from the supporting players, is a bit spotty. It’s sometimes a strain to believe the action in the scenes are spontaneous. A little more improv or candid moments may have helped lift the weight of the obviously scripted dialogue. A music score has also been added to the film. It’s actually a very good score, particularly some string music in some tense scenes. Whether or not it detracts from the realism is up for debate, though I do think the music adds a discomforting atmosphere to the film.

Another criticism I have is that Regina and Ryan accept the flesh eating problem a little too easily. They are freely and casually discussing Regina eating human fat without batting an eye. I suspect the film is somewhat tongue-in-cheek in this regard, but it’s occasionally a lot to swallow because it sacrifices the realism. Both characters could have been a little more freaked out by the events unfolding. This said, Oates and Shogren are still the anchors. Their relationship feels believable, and the two handle their roles with finesse. Oates displays quite a dynamic of acting chops ranging from uptight student to leaping snarling monster. She carries the film admirably.

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The elements that are done well more than make up for some of the deficiencies. The story itself is compelling, and we do feel for the couple’s plight. Cannibalism or zombieism can stand in for any sort of addictive problem like alcoholism or other severe dependency issue, as well as suffering from a degenerative disease. I think most anyone can relate to the struggles of this couple in some way. Sure, it might be weird that Ryan agrees to help Regina in some of the situations, but we’d do the same for a loved one.

Pretty Dead also contains some expertly composed, claustrophobic shots of decrepit institutions. The final sequence is edited very powerfully, and the climax resonates long after viewing. There’s a kinship between Wilkins’ film and Elias Matar’s Ashes. Both strive for realism and medical accuracy, flying in the face of conventional zombie films. In my opinion, Pretty Dead is an important addition to the zombie canon, and as such, is one of the most intimate looks at the subject.

Pretty Dead Trailer

Mike Snoonian

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since 2009 Mike has written about independent horror, science fiction, cult and thrillers through his own blog All Things Horror along with various other spots on the web. Film Thrills marks his attempt to take things up a notch, expand his viewing and writing horizons and to entertain and engage his audience while doing so. When Mike's not writing or watching movies, you can find him reading to his little girl, or doing science experiments with her, or trying to convince her that the term "chicken butt" comes from people putting chicken nuggets down their underwear. at age five, she's too smart to believe most of what he says.

5 Comments Join the Conversation →


  1. Planet of Terror

    The flaws that you point out were just too great for me to overcome. I didn't enjoy it. Interesting concept though.

    Reply
  2. mike snoonian

    It's funny-I turned in my review for BGH and think I came up with the EXACT same qualms for the film. Not a bad little indie though.

    Reply
  3. Chris Hallock

    James, I went back and forth, but I think ultimately I'd rather steer viewers toward it than away from it. I think it has a lot of merit, even if the execution left a lot to be desired. As always, now that I've finally seen the film, I'll be visiting Planet of Terror to compare notes.

    Mike, the things I criticized didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the film, so I figured a mostly positive review was in order. Looking forward to reading your review.

    Reply
  4. B

    I love the discussion here and really appreciate the insights of those few of you who have seen the film. We took some pretty big creative risks and it's actually extremely helpful to hear feedback on what worked and what didn't. You guys are awesome! Keep it up.

    -Ben Wilkins

    Reply
  5. Chris Hallock

    Ben, thanks for your comments. I consider all the hurdles faced by independent filmmakers when we write about the work on this site. I hope any feedback helps in your next effort. I thought some of those final hospital scenes were outstanding!

    Reply

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