Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
The montage sequence that opens Dead Within comprises aerials of a big city and its suburbs, and then of a road leading to the wooded hills beyond, and a car snaking its way to a rural cabin. These images of the thin line between civilisation to wilderness are also themselves divided, about two thirds of the way up the screen, by a slender horizontal band (containing the film’s credits) that sets the upper and lower sections of the screen slightly out of visual kilter with each other. All these split screens neatly prefigure the fragmenting, schizophrenic nature of the film’s central character – and this is the last time in the film (at least until the very final scene) that the camera will leave the confines of the cabin.
When Kim (Amy Cale Peterson) and Mike (Dean Chekvala) arrive, their baby Lily and dog Teddy in tow, for a dinner party with the cabin’s owners Erika (Sarah McMaster) and Todd (Rick Federman), they are welcomed warmly inside. Cut to six months later, and Kim and Mike are in the cabin by themselves, refusing to open the door for another couple pleading to be let in. Hospitality is now a thing of the past, ever since a global viral outbreak has turned its victims into black-eyed, black-blooded killers. Forced to barricade themselves against the rage and chaos of the outside world, these former parents now live together with their gnawing guilt over the extreme actions that they have taken to survive. The lifeline to whatever now lies beyond the cabin walls, Mike goes out regularly on dangerous and increasingly fruitless foraging expeditions, leaving Kim alone with her dark thoughts and the voices in her head.
“Maybe we’re just both crazy,” jokes Mike in one of Dead Within‘s few lighter moments. “What if we’re, like, on The Truman Show – there is no plague, and there’s cameras everywhere, and they’re just watching us.” We are, of course, watching this couple’s every move, but when Mike is away and Kim is on her own, what we see assumes an increasingly disjointed and hallucinatory quality, reflecting the beleaguerment of her mind. Objects, even characters, appear that should not, and cannot, be there. Flashbacks and present experience blur into one. A stranger (voiced by J. Claude Deering) makes contact over the radio yet seems to know intimate details about Kim. Soon even the childish murals that Kim has painted on the walls are taking on an animated life of their own, and both ghosts and terrifying ‘trollers’ are invading the claustrophobic dwelling spaces – until we are not only questioning Kim’s sanity, but the very reality of anything that we see and have seen. What remains painfully present and immediate, though, is the devastating infection of guilt and loss.
Joining a small body of zombie (or quasi zombie) films – like The Desert and Dead Weight (both 2013) – that focus less on the ravenous threat without, and more on the physical and psychological rot that has set within, Ben Wagner’s cabin-fever creation is a sharply nuanced survivor’s tale that leaves the viewer to disentangle the genre tropes from their underlying triggers, and the reality from its delirious breakdown.