February 8, 2010

I Sell the Dead (Review)


I Sell the Dead (2008)

Director: Glenn McQuaid


2.5/5 zedheads

Although I Sell the Dead is not strictly a zombie movie, it has enough undead elements to warrant a review here on The Zed Word. Unfortunately, this horror/comedy rarely manages to be frightening or funny, burying whatever charms it has in a grave six feet under its own mediocre execution.

The film begins in the Victorian era with the execution of Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) and the interview of his partner Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan). Blake and Grimes are body snatchers – grave robbers who are paid by unscrupulous individuals to dig up bodies and deliver them to the buyer. Blake is being interviewed about his criminal adventures by Father Duffy (Ron Perlman speaking in a terrible Irish accent). Duffy is a man suspiciously interested in Blake's tales of the occult. You see, Blake and Grimes left behind the normal body snatching business for the more lucrative and niche market of trafficking in the undead: vampires, zombies, and few other weird surprises.

I Sell the Dead is based on an interesting premise and (aside from the occult) inspired by real life grave robbers such as the infamous Burke and Hare. In this regard, Fessenden and Monaghan's performances are enjoyable as they turn these two scoundrels into a likable pair dealing with unlikely situations. We see their bond grow from their first encounter when Blake was a young boy to their final occult adventure. Despite these charms, the story structure, supernatural elements and humour, special effects, and music all fail to drive the film forward.

 Zombies: Pillowy softness you can see and feel.

The film is structured like an anthology film. Unlike most horror anthologies in which each segment focuses on a different set of characters, each segment in I Sell the Dead is Blake's description of various events in his life as a grave robber. These stories are book-ended by and interrupted with questions from Father Duffy. Unfortunately, each segment fails to tell a satisfying story worthy of the time its given. Instead, these segments seem designed to provide the audience with information that will become important in the last scene of the film, but this is done at the expense of a sense of momentum in the narrative.

For example, in the first two segments we are introduced to Blake and Grime's nemesis Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm). As Quint, Scrimm brings a subtle flavour of menace to the tale, and he's set up as an interesting antagonist. He also brings some horror cred to the picture; fans will recognize Scrimm as the Tallman from the Phantasm series. Threatening to blackmail Blake and Grimes, Dr. Quint works them ceaselessly and without pay to provide him with bodies for medical research. Blake and Grimes find a way to dispatch Quint, however, and the character leaves the narrative about halfway into the film to make room for a new group of antagonists to be introduced: The House of Murphy. By removing Quint from the narrative, the film jettisons all the investment we have in that protagonist/antagonist relationship and forces us to accept a new group of antagonists. I never really felt the antagonism between Blake/Grimes and the outlandishly evil House of Murphy was given the same attention or effective introduction. Even worse, each encounter with the House of Murphy is about as scary as an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Without any horror, the humour struggles to hold up its end of the film – leading to flat sequences involving the discussion of sandwiches or an aimless drinking contest. Clearly , the characters of Blake and Grimes have some chemistry, but it doesn't produce the kind of memorable laughs the film needs – just a few grins. Although the cumulative narrative from each segment pays off in the final moments of the film, this story structure deprives the movie of its horror and humour, leaving the film to meander until its far more interesting conclusion.

If you see these two faces standing over you after 
a night of drinking, you probably aren't getting up again

The film's visual effects are also glaringly distracting. Although the special makeup effects were quite effective and the costumes and sets conveyed the perfect tone of a foggy, grimy Victorian era city, the digital effects and green screen / blue screen compositing were terribly executed. At times, backgrounds were clearly digital and the characters moving in the foreground looked crudely pasted into the frame. These very rough digital effects pulled me right out of the movie. Was this intentional? Part of me believes so because the film seems like it is trying to approximate some kind of comic book aesthetic. In a lame nod to Creepshow, scenes in I Sell the Dead will pause and dissolve into freeze-frame comic book illustrations of the scene, or comic book illustrations will dissolve into live-action scenes. Forgetting for a moment that these comic book sequences didn't work for the tone and thematic style of I Sell the Dead, was the digital composition also trying to appear artificial on purpose? Whether it was or wasn't, it simply didn't work for the film and squandered the charm of the useful practical effects in the film that did work.

Finally, the musical score in I Sell the Dead was hackneyed. Although the film was not a comedy about bumbling fools, you couldn't tell that from the score, which sounded more at home in a cartoon about goofy stooges getting into mischief. At most points, the score was distracting and out of place with the action on screen.

I Sell the Dead turned out to be an unsatisfying viewing experience. Zombie fans will find little zombie action in the film to get excited about, and general horror fans will probably be unsatisfied with the film's inability to bring home satisfying horror or comedy. Not for want of a good try, I Sell the Dead simply did not convincingly sell itself to me as either a good horror film or a good comedy.