Home Video Hovel: Dead Weight, by Craig Schroeder
Do you need zombies in a zombie flick? Dead Weight would argue that you do not. After all, the best zombie movies are less about the walking dead and more about the folks who are trying to keep their brains inside of their heads. Dead Weight is a film that removes the zombies, almost entirely, focusing on the politics of survival and the violence that accompanies an undead apocalypse. Unfortunately, Dead Weight is never stronger than its premise.
Written and directed by Adam Bartlett and John Pata, Dead Weight begins when Charlie Russell (Joe Belknap), a smart-ass slacker, finds himself thousands of miles away from the love of his life, Samantha (Mary Lindberg), when corpses start to get bitey. Charlie joins a band of survivors, all similarly dressed in junky-chic clothes, and heads for Wassau, WI, where he and Samantha plan to reunite and ride out the living dead armageddon. But before they can reunite, Charlie must overcome his increasingly violent psyche as well as an angry horde of clunky dialogue and rote plot points.
Dead Weight does have an interesting take on the zombie genre, in that there are virtually no zombies for ninety-nine percent of its running time. The film is more concerned with revealing Charlie’s deteriorating psyche and his relationship with Samantha. However, their relationship plays out through a series of overwrought and cliche flashbacks that spotlight all of the “stuff” couples do, without ever showing the audience what this couple does. Every flashback paints in broad strokes, highlighting how their relationship came to be but never affording them the time to exist as a relatable (or likable) couple. We’re constantly being told that Charlie and Samantha are in love, but we never get the chance to experience it; so when their love is tested, it’s hard to muster up the energy to care.
The band of survivors in Dead Weight make frequent stops in all of the zombie lore mainstays: barns, abandoned homes, hillbilly camp grounds, et al. These are tried and true locales for zombie flicks and horror films as a whole. Unfortunately, any eerie mood that the film creates can be credited to the audiences familiarity with these locations in other films. Any fan of Night of the Living Dead will get uneasy when the survivors wander into an old farm house, but directors Adam Bartlett and John Pata are never able to capitalize on that sense of dread that’s become a part of zombie pop-culture. What we’re left with is a film we’ve seen before. When there is scuffling coming from upstairs, it’s never scary because of course there’s scuffling coming from upstairs; it’s a zombie movie! Eventually, the film is just ticking the boxes as it meanders towards a finale we’ve seen before.
Anton Chekov famously suggested that writers should never introduce a loaded gun in the first act of a story if it won’t be fired in the third. Dead Weight is filled with loaded guns that never go off. A note left in an abandoned home urges against opening the barn doors. Charlie and company open the barn and there’s nothing there. Our survivors stumble into an old farm house only to be confronted with a commotion coming from the attic. They argue about what to do and eventually leave, having done nothing. An actual gun (though unloaded) is introduced in the first act, only to be kind of used and then forgotten later. As a result, most of the rising action feels inconsequential; the parts that are supposed to make a whole feel like a series of disconnected vignettes. This sets such a negative precedent, that when actions start to have consequences, they feel like plot contrivances.
So does a zombie flick need zombies? Maybe not. Dead Weight is in fact a zombie movie with very few zombies. But Dead Weight isn’t very good. So it’s probably not the film to argue that point.