Co-written and directed by Hayden J. Weal.
Starring Thomas Sainsbury, Hayden J. Weal, Jennifer Ward-Lealand, and Tomai Ihaia.
Marbles, a hapless stoner, can see ghosts. Tagg, a recently dead wannabe super-cop, needs to find a serial killer. Can a critical ghost cop and a directionless stoner get over their prejudices and work together to save lives – and deaths?
It goes without saying that the most prevalent theme in the horror genre is death, and while it isn’t so easy to find a fresh through-line these days, Hayden J. Weal’s offbeat Kiwi comedy Dead charts a singular – if slightly uneven – path.
Stoner Marbles (Thomas Sainsbury) finds himself able to communicate with ghosts after mixing his weed with some medication, leading him to use his ability to help limbo-ensnared ghosts pass over to “the other side” by resolving their unfinished business on Earth.
His supernatural vocation becomes complicated, however, when he meets a recently murdered hotshot cop, Jayson Tagg (Weal), who enlists Marbles to help track down the serial killer responsible for his demise, with the added aid of Tagg’s sister Yana (Tomai Ihaia).
As much as Dead might seem like yet just another wacky New Zealand horror-comedy, the upfront comedic approach belies an unexpected, palpable emotion underneath. An early sight of Marbles helping a young girl to “move on” from her family lands a surprise hit in the gut, both as a depiction of innocence lost and also the evident exhaustion that Marbles feels in being a conduit – or as he says, “condueet” – to the dead, attempting to communicate the subtleties of the ghosts’ feelings to loved ones who can’t see them.
The film, written by both director-star Weal and co-star Sainsbury, hops across a number of genres amid its duelling plots, from the buddy-cop mystery of Tagg’s murder, to the underdog comedy stylings of Marbles attempting to amass enough money to stop the family farm being sold, to the fringe spicings of a zombie film – though the less said about the latter, the better.
These genre poles dovetail neatly enough into one another as long as you don’t fixate too much on the particulars of the supernatural setup, which the film itself sure doesn’t. Tagg’s sister Yana, for instance, is convinced of her brother’s spectral presence in record time, and while not terribly plausible to the audience, is in the service of moving things along at a maximal pacy clip.
At its heart, Dead is less about its story than its characters, particularly Tagg’s arc of moving on and accepting in death what he couldn’t in life – it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the serial killer is targeting gay men – elucidated by one especially memorable quote, “Moving on doesn’t look like how we think it should.”
Things admittedly become less interesting when it tries to have more of a pointed narrative in the second half, complete with a convoluted third act reveal that stretches the bounds of the premise’s limitations to near-snapping point.
Yet its heart remains in the right place throughout, even when indulging in broader gross-out humour and some questionable gay panic which feels a tad out of place – both albeit filtered through that distinctive Kiwi sensibility. Elsewhere more promising humour abounds through an almost Edgar Wright-inspired examination of the subtleties of language – Marbles pronounces numerous words incorrectly – and surely the most romantic banter about soiling oneself ever put to film.
It’s all shot through with fair gusto by the cast, especially Weal and Sainsbury, who have a clear handle on their vision for these characters and deliver immaculately in kind. Their comic chemistry, unsurprisingly, is surely the film’s key strength.
Underneath all the ridiculousness, Dead has an honest heart where the matters of life, death, love, and regret are concerned. Oh, and make sure not to turn the movie off as soon as the end credits roll.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.