The urge to create complications, to produce bigger and stronger obstacles within stories, is one of many balancing acts writers manage when crafting their stories. Introductions of characters and settings, moving the narrative forward, designing conflict – these are all key ingredients which, when used properly, will keep audiences returning again and again. Bigger, however, doesn’t always equate to better. More often than not, simplicity is the road to success. At a tight 82-minutes, director Jesse Thomas Cook’s Deadsight is the epitome of simplicity, creating an experience that’s frequently taut, often humorous, and incredibly clever.
On a snowy day in the rural outskirts of Toronto, Ben Neilson (Adam Seybold) wakes up in the back of an ambulance, alone, blind, and handcuffed to a gurney. Elsewhere, Officer Mara Madigan (Liv Collins) prepares for her last day of work before maternity leave, finding nothing but radio silence and emptiness during her drive to work. Unbeknownst to both, a plague has besieged their town, turning the living and dead alike into flesh-hungry creatures. Though their stories begin places, once together, the only chance either have for survival is to work together.
Developed from a script by Collins and Kevin Revie, Deadsight delivers exactly what horror fans want: tension, fright, unease, and a pinch of humor in the right places to make everything more palatable. They accomplish this through a structure that rarely dumbs itself down and, in combination with some tight direction from Cook, informs the audience without the need for constant expository dialogue. The film opens with Ben, but the perspective is his as EMTs try to treat his eyes. This sets the stage for his condition and, later, when he applies some drops to his eyes, we understand that Ben possesses some understanding of what happened to him. Later, when trying to navigate a farm house he stumbled upon, he uses a handrail handcuffed to his wrist as a guiding stick, suggesting a familiarity with his condition. Through mere observation, the audience learns everything they really need to know about Ben’s capability. What may frustrate is the sheer amount of inference Collins and Revie’s script requires from the audience, however, narratively, the focus on action over dialogue is undeniably refreshing. With this narrative structure, the audience is immediately thrust into the situation with Ben, trying to make sense of the chaos. The same happens with Mara, who routinely makes choices based on training, rather than emotional instinct. Sometimes that creates problems leading to smart narrative conflicts (as she thinks she’s dealing with humans, not the living dead) and sometimes it creates opportunities to showcase her skillset (as when she develops a short-term survival plan to protect Ben). Even when a brief sequence of exposition provides a theory on the cause of the plague, something which the audience doesn’t actually need to understand the stakes of Deadsight, the scene manages to push Ben’s emotional story forward. These moments stack up, revealing a film aimed at an audience experienced with the zombie subgenre.
Even though the characters within Deadsight are shown to be adaptable (Ben) and well-trained (Mara), they still make choices based on a grounded experience, not a horror-focused one. This means that they aim for body parts to wound or discombobulate versus aiming for the head. It’s takes time for them to process their new reality before they each can push aside raditional combat tactics. In this regard, Deadsight is well thought out. Where it runs into trouble, however, is when it forgets its intelligence and tries to lean hard into zombie-horror tropes. For example, it’s been shown that zombie movement is not uniform. Some move quickly like the rage monsters in 2002’s 28 Days Later and some slowly like 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. This creates a wonderful sense of tension as the audience, and the characters, don’t know what kind of creature they’re going to be dealing with at any given moment. However, in the climax, movements from the creatures become somewhat more rigid and less responsive to sight or sound. Mara and Ben are in a crucial fight for their lives and the tension is the weakest here than in any other moment in the film.
Even with this particular issue, Deadsight is more horror delight than dysfunction. Visually, Cook is predominantly measured in his direction, opting to use framing over shaky cam to increase drama. In one scene, Ben wanders his way down a road, the scene seemingly filtered a cold blue, suggesting Ben’s desolate predicament. As he slowly walks, tilting his head to and fro, the audience sees a zombie behind him coming slowly into frame. Using the audience’s knowledge of the slowly approaching creature and the framing of Ben’s position, we are suddenly aware of a time bomb and unware of how it might detonate. Conversely, early scenes with Mara are depicted more naturally, less blues and more warm colors, even as snow begins to fall around her. These subtle tweaks not only convey the pressure of the moment, but the character’s internal stress. It’s a lovely detail that adds a touch of depth to the proceedings. Fans of George R. Romero’s work will also note what appears to be a slight homage to the late director in both the use of a graveyard and the location and coloring of the climactic scene.
The success of Deadsight all comes back around to its simplicity. Looking over the cast and crew list, director Jesse Thomas Cook, actress Liv Collins, and others wore multiple hats to bring the film to completion. That small, indie spirit is honestly what makes the final product so winning. Despite a few issues related to tension, consistency, and even a slightly predictable ending, there’s plenty within to keep audiences right where Cook and company want them, right on the edge of their seat.
No special features available for review on the DVD release.
Available on DVD, On Demand and Digital HD on July 2nd, 2019. For more information on Deadsight and where to track it down, head to RLJE Films.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.