Film Review: Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s DEADGIRL (2008)

You’re wandering around an abandoned mental institution with your best friend when you find a woman chained to a bed and wrapped in a plastic sheet. Do you:

(A) Run away

(B) Call the police

(C) Free her

(D) Fuck her

In Deadgirl (2008), the answer is always (D). When JT and Ricky find the girl in the basement, JT suggests, “We could keep her…just till tonight or tomorrow.” Despite the fact that Ricky’s moral compass has identified this situation as undeniably ‘Not Good,’ he isn’t enough of a man to stand up to his friend. So he leaves his friend and the girl in the basement. See no evil, hear no evil.

The next day, JT convinces Ricky to come back to the basement. And of course Ricky does, because that’s what friends are for. It turns out that – mid-rape – the woman started struggling and tried to bite JT. Obviously, the only thing JT could do in a situation like that is beat her to death. So he did. But she doesn’t die. She was dead all along.

This introduces Ricky to a new moral dilemma – if she’s just some dead girl, then they can do whatever they want with her. After all, it’s not like she’s a living, feeling human being. This never sits well with Ricky, but being the weaker of the two personalities, he just sits by as JT, and later their friend Wheeler, repeatedly rape the dead girl. Presumably, Ricky is still loosely tethered to basic human decency because of his schoolboy crush on JoAnn – a popular, preppy type who basically wants nothing to do with him.

However, Ricky’s weak ties to morality aren’t enough to prevent him from convincing JoAnn’s prick boyfriend to get a blowjob from the dead girl. Though the unwitting jock doesn’t know that the dead girl is predisposed towards biting, the audience definitely does and you can guess what happens next.

As a feminist, I’m sure you’re all expecting me to hate this movie. It is essentially 100 minutes of a woman tied to a bed being raped and assaulted. But I actually love it and here’s why;

In a time when horror films basically try to ‘one-up’ each other in terms of violence and gore – effectively bringing mankind into increasingly deeper levels of cultural depravity – Deadgirl is remarkably restrained. Despite the film’s brutally explicit premise, Deadgirl’s directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel usually refrain from showing the audience much of anything. During the first half of the film, most of the action with the dead girl happens entirely off camera. When Sarmiento and Harel do show the boys raping the dead girl, it is framed in a long shot with a fair amount of distance from the actors and the more graphic aspects of the rapes are hidden from view. This places the viewer in the uncomfortable role of voyeur – a rather unpleasant experience in the context of the film. And that’s the point. In contrast to films like Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005), the violence in Deadgirl is never gratifying. It is brutal, disgusting, and uncomfortable. Call me old fashioned, but I think that’s probably the appropriate reaction to violence.

Aesthetically, Deadgirl definitely draws on Asian horror cinema for inspiration; the framing, mise-en-scene, editing and even the dead girl herself are all reminiscent of J-horror. Rather than saturating the screen with blood and violence, Sarniento and Harel spend a great deal of time creating a sinister, creepy atmosphere. The events of the first two-thirds of the film are intercut with expository shots of empty classrooms and the dark, abandoned corridors of the mental asylum. The slow, atmospheric pace of the film makes the story much scarier; I found the occasional jump cuts to the face of the dead girl very startling. It also makes the film’s dénouement seem intensely brutal, despite the fact that it is actually rather tame compared to most extreme horror cinema.

Thankfully, excellent directing and acting help draw the viewer’s attention away from the weaker aspect of the film – the screenwriting. I definitely want to give Trent Haaga (maybe you remember him from Splatter Disco) props for creating such an original and controversial premise for a film. However, the dialog was pretty horrible at times and I have to applaud Shiloh Fernandez (Ricky) and Noah Segan (JT) for their ability to deliver these lines with a decent amount of believability. I swear the word ‘Man’ (as in ‘dude’ or ‘bro’) is used at least 10 times within the first three minutes. Jenny Spain produces an extremely creepy performance as the dead girl, despite the fact that she rarely moves or makes any noise. Candice Accola’s performance as JoAnn is probably the weakest in the entire film. She displays about as much personality as she does in the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, which is to say NONE.

More importantly, Deadgirl is an interesting reinvention of the zombie genre. According to the orthodox interpretation, zombies are essentially a hyperbolic representation of us (IE living humans) and the effects of modern society; consumerism, materialism, conformism, and probably any other ‘ism’ you can think of. In most modern zombie films, it’s fairly easy to draw a connection between the zombies’ mindless impulse to consume brains/flesh and our own urge to consume products. Obviously, the classic example of this is George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), where both human survivors and zombies flock to a deserted mall. The entirely film is essentially post-apocalyptic consumerist wish-fulfillment and has since been lovingly parodied by movies like Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, 2004) and Fido (Andrew Currie, 2006).

Deadgirl essentially reverses this entire premise. In the film, the boys are the consumers and the lone dead girl is the product to be consumed, used-up, and tossed aside. The girl has no identity, no history, and technically isn’t even alive. This raises the interesting theme of the zombie as nonentity. Most zombie films exploit the zombies’ ‘nonentity-hood’ as an excuse to mercilessly shoot, hack, and bludgeon them to pieces. The fact that the main characters are usually fighting for survival lends a bit of legitimacy to the carnage and bloodshed. In Deadgirl , the characters use the girl’s ‘non-living’ status as an excuse to reduce her to a sex object. The dead girl is literally a piece of meat with a limited capacity for thought or agency (aside from biting). She is essentially the most extreme form of the objectification of the female body imaginable. The only problem, a problem that both Ricky and the audience are acutely aware of, is that the dead girl has done nothing to justify her objectification. In truth, even trying to eat their brains probably wouldn’t be sufficient justification for what they do to her.

Specifically, Deadgirl is an interesting horror movie exploration of the rape mentality, where most rapists seen their victims as objects to be consumed. This makes it tempting to dismiss the film as shameless exploitation. However, Deadgirl doesn’t eroticize rape and doesn’t even sexualize the naked dead girl. Rape is portrayed as exactly what it is – disgusting and deplorable. This fact alone makes Deadgirl far more acceptable, from a feminist viewpoint, than films like The Last House on the Left. Both the 1972 original and the 2009 remake spend the first 30 minutes of the film sexualizing the female character and only then proceed to brutally rape her. Throwing in the theme of vengeance for the remaining hour still doesn’t excuse the fact that the filmmaker and the audience first sexualized her innocence and then enjoyed the vicarious thrill of witnessing her abuse.

More generally, Deadgirl examines our society’s tendency to objectify the female body (and the tendency of young men to do so in particular). Once JT and Wheeler discover that the dead girl can turn anyone into a zombie by biting them (it’s a testament to their collective stupidity that they don’t realize this earlier), they decide to kidnap a living woman and turn her into a newer, fresher sex slave for them to enjoy. The fact that the boys are totally willing to subject a living woman to this state means that pretty much anyone can be turned into an object for their enjoyment. This is hardly surprising considering we live in a society that actively encourages both men and women to objectify the female body (don’t worry men, your bodies are becoming increasingly objectified too). The conclusion of the film also touches on the idea of possession and ownership; brutalizing a girl in a filthy basement or disguising the situation with pseudo-romance are both essentially the same.

Deadgirl is told from the perspective of a teenage boy and explores the things boys are capable of doing with the right amount of sexual frustration, angst, and peer-pressure. The teenage years are notorious for their questionable morality, alienation, and nihilism. While we all like to think that, if placed in this situation, we would do the right thing, Deadgirl takes the cynical stance that a sizable percentage of mankind probably wouldn’t. And that’s just messed up.

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Comments (20)

  1. RedMaigo

    I saw this movie via Netflx and it disturbed me on a level that I haven’t seen since …I don’t think I have been disturbed like this before. It was to the point where I could not get through the entire movie and stopped right at the point when there were going to turn another girl into a zombie so they could use here as fcuk toy.

    I let a friend of mine see it and her reaction was the same when she watched the latter half of 28 Days Later: amazed and disgusted. With something so serious and horrifying going on men can still only think about their dicks.

    On a side note, after watching 28 Days Later again I realized that the guy playing the major was Christopher Eccleston (Dr Who setting up women as rape targets? Oh say it ain’t so!”)

    September 23, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Well, I think if a horror movie disturbs you so much that you have to turn it off, then they at least did SOMETHING right. I also found the subject of this film to be very disturbing and completely unappealing…but I think the filmmakers kept that in mind. It’s an uncomfortable film to watch, and because of that I think Deadgirl offers an interesting commentary and NOT an endorsement.

      Christopher Eccleston…I can spot those ears anywhere! But, Dr. Who is pretty suspicious…he pulls women into telephone booths and then they mysteriously disappear for extended periods of time!

      September 23, 2010
  2. ohdrahcir

    You hit the nail on the head on why I couldn’t watch more than the first twenty minutes before the film made it easy for me to turn it off — the script. However, I thought the acting was atrocious! I sort of blame that not so much on the actors but on the drivel they had to read from. I watched the film a while ago, but I can recall that I didn’t believe in the two guys for a second because of 1.) the aforementioned script, and 2.) the two actors looked way too old to be talking the way they do in the film. What were they in high school? Yet they looked like they got held back 3 years. Maybe, just maybe, the two guys would’ve been more believable if the actors were much younger and saying the kind of stuff they say in the film, but I can’t buy into what’s there in the film now, which is unfortunate because your thoughts on the film really makes it seem like a worthwhile film. It’s kind of funny that I should denounce a film because of the dialogue in a script AND the acting since those two elements in a movie I usually let slide the most. I certainly liked what I saw of the direction though. It bothers me a lot when I let certain elements of a film ruin the entire thing for me because I end up missing some good stuff if it weren’t for some of my hang-ups.

    But, regardless of what I think, I like your take on the film.

    September 23, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      The script is horrible, I can’t believe they didn’t work on the dialogue a little more. I thought the actors managed well enough with the material they were given…and that’s probably why the dead girl was the best member of the cast – SHE HAD NO LINES! I also agree with you about the two main guys looking way too old. The whole time I kept thinking, “There certainly weren’t guys like that in MY high school, what a rip off!” I’m pretty good with the whole suspended disbelief thing, so I can usually overlook a lot of stuff…at least enough to finish watching a movie. I figured if I could sit through ‘Hood of the Living Dead’ and ‘Horrors of War’ (the two worst zombie movies I have EVER seen), then I could make it through this one too.

      Is Deadgirl the best movie ever? No, but I think it at least deserves a nod for taking the zombie genre and twisting it into something unique and different.

      September 23, 2010
  3. ohdrahcir

    I wish someone would make a close adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Renanimator.” I never liked The Reanimator that was based on it.

    I’ve grown cynical of zombie movies that have come out of the woodwork in the last few years. It’s starting to get saturated. The only zombie thing I am looking forward to is The Walking Dead show even if the comics basically rehash Romero. Sometimes genre trappings isn’t such a bad thing though, depending on the genre of course.

    September 24, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I pretty much support any adaptation of Lovecraft…and hope that it doesn’t get screwed up. I don’t think there’s a force in this world that would make me not excited for The Walking Dead. I loved the graphic novels!

      October 10, 2010
  4. Jessica Greenman

    Hmm. I liked this review a lot and agreed with all of it.

    However: I am sorry to say but I found myself asking over, and over, ‘is this what men really want?’ Because I think it is. I’m always getting these blokes who want to submerge my mind and have me locked up in a cellar somewhere, waiting, incapable, drooling with need and grief, and somehow or other effectively dead due to mental tyranny, and this sort of spills into their actual sexual behaviour. To the point where I wondered if maybe one of these men I um ‘know’ had actually had a hand in making the film – until I realised they’re all a bit like that. The romantic one was the worst: he was just sitting there watching and wondering and working out how to do the same thing with more sensitivity and tenderness, how to turn the story round so it was more to his tastes – without altering the basic situation in any way at all. And really and truly he liked that Dead Girl – more than that grinning fool he was meant to be in love with, of COURSE, because she was, well – so much more alive – everything about the Dead Girl is graphic – the pain, the sweat, the degeneration, the dependence, those clawing, desperate hands. That clutch him once. It’s a love story.

    I am in the middle of writing a novel that is very similar to this. I think men actually want dead girls and frequently think about killing them or reducing them to pitiful states where they’re both tormented to the point of insanity and unconsciousness and illimitably savage, so now they’ve got to remain tied up out of fear of what they might do to you. You’ve just got to keep putting her out with whatever – Rohypnol, chloroform – the famous ‘pad’ in John Fowles’ The Collector, which does have a bearing on this film (cellar, cellar). I know not ALL men are necrophiles but – but they sort of ARE. They HATE girls with brains or bounce, they like dolls, we’ve known this for eternity, men must feel superior and if they can’t destroy the female mind they’ll destroy her body instead – and here is the ultimate ideal – she’s so vivid, so alert, so victimized, so emotional and so inspiring – but she’s for all of that still chained up and dead so you can kill her over and over. It is the perfect combination.

    The Dead Girl herself did put in a powerful performance but I think that’s no accident – she’s the real deal, the place where all the fantasies get projected, where pain and anguish and hope is actualised – and everything else in their lives is just so boring – we feel how dull it all is – I know they keep on saying they want cheerleaders and can’t get them and the Dead Girl’s just a compensation, a booby prize, but that is just not true is it? She’s where the deepest desires lie, she’s their heart of darkness. Down there, there in the cellar: everything glistens, everything is realler than real. No WONDER Ricky wants JoAnn in the same condition, he already can’t keep the dead girl out of his anodyne fantasies with leaves and laughter, so twee and so repulsive, and whyever would he want to? He wants the teeth. It’s not just the passivity, it’s the threat. And there’s a peculiar bond between them anyway. This Dead Girl has weird bonds with everyone – she is a reflection of their souls; they are what they mete out upon her.

    You’ll be thinking that I didn’t like the blokes much, and I didn’t, because they don’t see women as human, but, given that that’s a given anyway, after a while I rather came round to JT, ‘”you told me she liked it,” is what all rapists say,’ and at least he’s at it day and night – I mean this is commitment! Wheeler was just disgusting, he’s the type of man I actually want shot, and have a hard time believing his parents wouldn’t actually drown him at birth (as I would; I loathe banality), but the other two… They have imagination, and both develop as characters. Ricky of course was the pensive, yearning one whose love prevents him from abuse, but… I never really trust that type completely. He broods too much. He’s a bit like that bloke played by Joachim Phoenix in To Die For – kind of saturated by inner needs that prevent him taking any effective action, but its the inner needs that win out. Ricky’s holding back, we see at the end, has nothing whatsoever to do with cowardice but temptation (italics): his is the stealthy garnering of knowledge to create his own erotic fantasy once everyone else has gone away, something JT predicts at one point.

    I think this film doesn’t just speak to male desires but female ones too, mine anyway; in fact at the end of it I wanted to watch the whole thing all over again, and get myself a boyfriend who’d act that way around me, had the same drives. So far, they’ve just not been dedicated enough and leave me alone far too long. But that’s because I’m not really dead, so I’ll never be sufficiently attractive, no matter what they do to me. I realise that. I realise that.

    I may have to just slink off and watch it again, it’s like a drug. You’re quite right it’s voyeuristic – it’s strange watching it being a girl, because I felt so much empathy with the Dead Girl – none at all with JoAnn, another I just want eviscerated. I love it when Ricky says, ‘he doesn’t love you,’ (and he’s quite right) but does she listen? No. She’s better dead, more real, as I say, now at last she’ll be able to appreciate the regard he feels for her, and if she can only get to realise that once dead, well, so be it. I might have identified too much with the Dead Girl. But I think they all do, is my point.

    It’s a great movie – it’s a movie that, because it is so very creepy and so very realistic, slips right into levels of the brain that interlocute with horror and idealism and need and possession in this artistic, sinister way, that just ends up forgetting the real world altogether. The real world is consumed by the fantasy, swallowed up completely. Ricky’s never going to leave that cellar.

    Do you think James will phone me? I think he will. I don’t think he can ever forget.

    October 30, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Wow, this was quite the comment!

      – I can’t say that I’ve been in too many relationships with guys who really want to keep me locked in a cellar (at least, not literally…hopefully). Though, by your use of ‘blokes’ I’m assuming you’re in the UK. Maybe guys over there are different? I might be going to school in London next year, so I will have to investigate this.

      – I really like what you wrote about Ricky. He absolutely wanted to do the same thing, but in an environment that better suited his tastes. Ultimately, his conception of love was the same as JT’s: it all boiled down to possession. When JoAnn rejects him, he wastes no time chaining her to the bed in the basement too.

      – I’m not sure that all men want ‘dead girls.’ But I do think it’s an apt depiction of how women and female sexuality are displayed in popular culture and the media. We’re exposed to ‘subject-object’ relationships as opposed to ‘subject-subject’ relationships. Guys might be attracted to badass girls with brains and bounce, but they aren’t pleased when those brains and spunk are used against them. The ideal definitely seems to be a vivid, inspiring, beautiful female who is passive, eager, and willing to accept them at a moment’s notice. There has to be SOME reason why date-rape (and rape) porn are becoming increasing popular.

      – I also like what you wrote about the dead girl. She is the mirror of all of their fantasies, hopes and emotions are reflected. The basement is much more REAL than the world above ground. This is reflected in the cinematography; the world ‘above’ is brightly lit, washed out, and usually fairly empty. The basement is dark, vivid, and visceral.

      – I think there’s an undeniable power dynamic when it comes to sex. This film is equally capably of speaking to men and women. Just as men sometimes fantasize about domination, I think women fantasize about domination. Of course, power plays in a relationship are a far cry from rape and abuse but it’s easy to see a connection. The dead girl, fully nude and teeth bared, is much more real and often seems much more alive than the prim JoAnn (who I also wanted to see eviscerated). I supposed this could lead to a discuss about primal urges and repression, but I don’t want to go there right now.

      – Finally, I’m not sure who this ‘James’ fellow is, but it sounds intriguing.

      October 31, 2010
    • Joe

      “However: I am sorry to say but I found myself asking over, and over, ‘is this what men really want?’”

      NO! It isn’t! What’s the fun in sex if you don’t completely share it and experience it with another conscious, intelligent human being? I’m a 25 year old virgin and I’ve never been that desperate for sex that I’d use a zombie, let alone someone chained against their will. Sex should be about connecting with someone not getting your rocks off.

      “I think men actually want dead girls and frequently think about killing them or reducing them to pitiful states where they’re both tormented to the point of insanity and unconsciousness and illimitably savage”

      Could this be any more offensive? Who the hell do you hang out with? ONLY SOCIOPATHS ENJOY THIS! Not ALL men want that and if they do they need Help.

      “But that’s because I’m not really dead, so I’ll never be sufficiently attractive, no matter what they do to me. I realise that. I realise that.”

      Lady, this thought is absolutely disgusting and I’m deeply sorry you’ve been led to think this. Whoever put this in your mind is a monster.

      Look, I don’t know your story. I don’t know if you really think all of this or if you saw the author say she was a feminist and felt like letting off some steam and joke around with the ladies. But any man that believes women should be locked in a basement, dead, or alive, and good for only having sex is NOT a MAN at all. A real man puts the woman he’s with completely before himself. A real man thinks about your feelings and well being before his own. A real man treats his partner like an equal.

      August 17, 2013
  5. Feminist indeed

    Honestly, this review is nonsense. You’ve projected a feminist sensibility into a misogynist piece of trash. It’s fascinating to me how people can “interpret” something…a movie, book, etc.,…into something it was never meant to be. This is a horror film that tries to be shocking and it succeeds. It’s certainly not remotely feminist, and to try to appropriate it to that purpose is ridiculous. It’s torture porn taken to the nth degree, and it’s misogynistic.

    March 9, 2011
  6. Insidejoke

    I did watch the movie in parts, as I thought it was pretty disturbing. However, it wasn’t the sexual parts that captivated me, it was the whole question that never got answered: Why was she there, why was she animated, who put her there and where are the people who originally put her there.

    Maybe it’s just me.

    March 13, 2011
  7. アドリアナ

    At first, I did not want to read this review because of the first few sentences. However, I continued out of curiosity, and I am extremely impressed with your quality of writing and analysis of the movie. It almost seems as if you have a background in psychology. Great post! Thank you for writing!

    January 20, 2012
    • アドリアナ

      However, I don’t think I could ever watch this movie or endorse it to be watched. I don’t understand the pleasure or purpose of watching torture or rape. How it effects the mind (short and long term) and what drives people to watch, remain watching, or look away is something I would like to research further, perhaps in graduate school.

      January 21, 2012
      • constantineintokyo

        Thanks for your comments! It’s definitely a controversial topic but there seems to be a growing genre of ‘zombie feminism,’ if you will. I’ll be posting a few articles that look at feminism in horror films and I’d love to hear your thoughts. 🙂

        January 23, 2012
  8. spark

    thats a bloody fucking movie,.. ;(

    how was joan infected.? why is JT not infected inspite of getting bitten by the zombie ?

    wer did the first zombie girl go (free in city ?? O.o :-/ )

    and lots of unanswered questions rises.. this is a fucking unfinished movie .. if i’m a director, i can make a part 2 of this movie answering all the questions.. fuck the director.. my head is blowing trying to fill the gaps in this movie…

    September 5, 2012
  9. spark

    why do they make a story with this much of unfinished scenes…
    and ricky sits as if there’s no problem at all .. 😛
    such a foolish stupid unfinished story

    September 5, 2012
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