(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.