“A refreshingly sincere and subdued exploration of belonging, loneliness, mortality, and friendship”
After premiering at the 2022 edition of Slamdance Film Festival—where it won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature—The Civil Dead is finally receiving the wider release it deserves. Screenwriters and lead actors Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas take a potentially goofy premise and treat it with the utmost thoughtfulness to create something that, as a viewer, is nearly impossible to predict. A bizarre yet sincere exploration of the desperate need for connection in a world so often without it, this mumblecore ghost buddy comedy highlights how sometimes the most terrifying things are not what one might expect.
After an opening that teases the film’s sinister elements, the film introduces Clay (Tatum), a loner photographer stuck in a rut, and his artist wife Whitney (Whitney Weir). As Whitney is leaving for a couple of days due to work, she encourages Clay to do anything but sit on the couch and drink beer. Aware of her husband’s self-isolating tendencies, Whitney tries to motivate him by suggesting that he should do some photography to try and break out of his cycle of creative stagnation and unemployment. After carrying out some schemes to try and make his half of the rent, including momentarily putting their apartment up for rent to scam potential renters with application fees, Clay decides to follow his wife’s advice. While outside photographing his surroundings, he suddenly runs into his long-lost friend, Whit (Thomas). Clay is surprised to see the Whit, but Whit is stunned that Clay can see him at all because he is dead. After catching up, Whit discloses his unsettling secret to an unassuming Clay, which leads to equally joyous and uneasy times.
Caught in similarly aimless and unfulfilled stages in life, Clay and Whit are characters that feel very lived-in, further underlined by the fact that they are not only portrayed by but created by people that understand their desires, motivations, and struggles. Starring as fictionalised versions of themselves while drawing inspiration from people they grew up with, childhood friends and longtime collaborators Tatum and Thomas deliver such seasoned down-to-earth performances that encapsulate the full spectrum of the human experience. As the film juggles sympathy for each character, the line between traditionally good and bad gradually blurs. Since the film’s brilliance lies in its mundaneness, the performances of the actors play a vital role in carrying the film.
Above all else, The Civil Dead is a testament to how beautifully Tatum and Thomas complement each other, and their chemistry transcends the screen whenever they engage. Ultimately, the film is at its absolute best when it focuses on Clay and Whit, but struggles somewhat when it delves deeper into its paranormal elements. In contrast, the humorous elements of the film unravel much more smoothly. Few things feel as good as when a film genuinely makes the viewer laugh, especially in the kind of spontaneous way that feels improvisational rather than heavily scripted. Luckily, everything from conversation to humour unravels organically and effortlessly in The Civil Dead.
Although The Civil Dead features beautiful shots and transitions—one of them the fading of a skate part playing on a television to Clay himself skating down a street—the boldest creative decision unravels towards the end. The sequence in question—a film noir-inspired black and white flashback—is something viewers will either get on board with or find out of place. Unlike anything else in the film, the silly and gorgeously shot insert is also the sole section actually shot on film. Furthermore, the film also features details hidden in plain sight that give viewers additional information about the characters. When Whit fails to grab the beer can Clay throws his way after first reuniting, it reveals his secret before it is told. Moreover, when Clay puts a towel over something broken instead of dealing with it, it offers insight into his personality. If one is attentive, they will discover Whit in the background before he is even introduced, or catch up on fleeting comments that foreshadow how the story will end.
As it breathes fresh life into the ghost film genre, The Civil Dead is a heartfelt and chilling story that proves to be a refreshingly sincere and subdued exploration of belonging, loneliness, mortality, and friendship. Although entering familiar territory, The Civil Dead is nothing like any previous ghost story. Instead of being goofy or malevolent, viewers are introduced to a ghost who is as humanly multifaceted as a ghost can be. Even in death, Whit is afraid of dying and being alone. He is always present, though at the mercy of humans, which proves to be an utterly lonely and terrible way of existing. It is interesting to see a film explore human emotions through a ghost story, daring to trust that viewers will buy into the premise without depending on spectacles or gimmicks. Tatum and Thomas are confident that the foundation is strong enough—and rightly so— and its minimalism is refreshing, especially in a debut feature, where one might be eager to experiment with too many ideas at once.
While the film feels a little thin for its 104-minute runtime—a feeling that is more evident in the film’s second half—it never feels monotonous. The straightforward concept simply feels slightly overextended, and a tighter edit would have been beneficial. Still, with an advantageous laid-back approach, organic performances, and an original screenplay, The Civil Dead is a low-budget gem that will entertain anyone who enjoys unconventional and understated comedies focusing on character instead of plot. A finely-tuned debut feature that shows prominent potential for the filmmakers’ future, The Civil Dead is a gentle yet eerie story proving that while life is cruel, death is certainly worse.
Director: Clay Tatum
Producers: Kasandra Baruch, Mike Marasco, Clay Tatum, Whitmer Thomas
Cast: Clay Tatum, Whitmer Thomas, Whitney Weir, Budd Diaz, Robert Longstreet, Teresa Lee, Christian Lee Hutson, DeMorge Brown
Release Date: Jan 27, 2022 (Slamdance Film Festival), Feb 17, 2023 (Internet)
Available on: VOD, more information here.