The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE CIVIL DEAD | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE CIVIL DEAD

The Civil Dead review
down on his luck photographer's life is disrupted when he encounters the ghost of an old friend.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Clay Tatum

Starring: Clay Tatum, Whitmer Thomas, Whitney Weir, Robert Longstreet, Megan Galley

The Civil Dead poster

An unrequited platonic friendship hurts a lot more than an unrequited romance. A proclamation of "Sorry, you're not my type" can either be dismissed as a case of bad taste or taken as a prompt to join a gym, get a better haircut, change your wardrobe. But when someone tells you they don't want to be your friend? Ooft. That's a damning assessment of your character, and you can't fix your personality by pumping weights, shedding carbs or wearing more vertical stripes. On the other hand, there are few things worse than having to endure the company of someone you simply don't want to be around.

The Civil Dead review

And yet while there are lots of movies about failed romantic relationships, very few filmmakers have delved into the horrors of one-sided friendships. I can't say they do it particularly well, but with their debut feature The Civil Dead, director Clay Tatum and his co-writer Whitmer Thomas attempt to at least explore this largely untapped dynamic.

Tatum plays Clay, a struggling photographer who finds himself left alone for a week when his wife (Whitney Weir) leaves Los Angeles for a work trip. He promises he'll make some effort to advance his career while she's gone, but he really plans to spend the week drinking beer on his couch. His modest ambitions are thwarted by the appearance of Whit (Thomas), an old friend who has recently moved to LA.

The Civil Dead review

The thing about Whit is that he's dead. Yes, he's a ghost, and after wandering LA in limbo for weeks, he's finally found someone who can see him. Clay is initially unhappy with this relatively benevolent haunting but he realises having a ghost pal might have some benefits, like how Whit helps him to cheat at a poker game. But Clay soon grows tired of this spectral hanger-on and seeks a way to free himself from his pally poltergeist.

Tatum and Whitmer cleverly subvert the well-worn tropes of ghost movies by allowing us to see things from the spook's point of view. What might be considered creepy bumps and creaks in the night are rendered harmless by our knowledge that they're being caused by the affable Whit. At first we feel sympathy for Whit, who seems like a genuinely decent bloke, unlike the narcissistic Clay. Yet as the film progresses we begin to empathise with Clay's plight. Haven't we all known someone who was objectively a lovely person, but whose presence we found irritating? Maybe it's because such unblemished folk make us feel like bad people by comparison. Isn't it easier sometimes to be friends with an asshole, perhaps because you know they won't be too hurt if you have to eventually tell them to fuck off? Watching Clay's increasingly cruel treatment of Whit might make you think about how you've treated people in your own life, people whose only crime was failing to meet some arbitrary standards you've set.

The Civil Dead review

For all its melancholy insight, The Civil Dead is never as blackly comic as it believes itself to be. There are several setups that have great potential for Larry David-esque comedy, like Clay's scamming of would-be renters by charging a $50 application fee to view the home he's renting himself, or that poker sequence, but they fall flat. It's a movie filled with jokes waiting for a punchline, a comedy that is itself in limbo, one that puts the dead in deadpan. For a successful version of this dynamic, see the relationship between David Naughton and his undead buddy Griffin Dunne in John Landis's unrivalled horror comedy masterpiece An American Werewolf in London. "Have you ever talked to a corpse? It's boring!" Based on The Civil Dead, Dunne might have been onto something with that statement.

The Civil Dead is in UK cinemas and on VOD from January 19th.

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