Friday was a dead night at the Dances with Films film festival (now in its nineteenth year of bringing the best of the independent film world to the heart of Hollywood), but in a good way. The two “dead” films that screened that night were Dead Dad and Detention of the Dead.
Dead Dad, the West Coast Premiere by writers Ken J. Adachi and Kyle Arrington, explores sibling angst when their father dies. Detention of the Dead, a “Breakfast Club meets Shaun of the Dead” tale by writers Rob Rinow and Alex Craig Mann, pits oddball high school students against a horde of zombies.
In Dead Dad. when their dad dies unexpectedly, siblings Russell, played by Kyle Arrington, Jane, played by Jenni Melear, and their adopted brother, Alex, played by Lucas K. Peterson, come home to tend to his remains. Stubbornness, pride and impulsiveness, complicated by internal conflicts they don’t want to share, repeatedly keep them from resolving their dad’s final disposition. They are able to agree on one thing: nobody wants to keep the ashes, but they don’t really want to part with the last physical manifestation of their Dad, either.
Dead Dad provides surprises on two levels. First, the quality and then, how it was made.
As for quality, this was amazing. One expects “relationship” movies to be somewhat like soap operas. But the filmmakers avoided typical soap opera mistakes. No over-the-top scenes, spot-on dialog or unnecessary histrionics; they understand “show don’t tell” and they even “show” in a subtle way.
The inciting incident of the plot is the death of the three sibling’s father. There are all kinds of ways this could have been handled crudely. Instead, Russell knocks on his dad’s door. There is no answer. We see empty bottles of alcohol, pill bottles, and a hand hanging limply in the air. Beautiful. Just what is necessary and nothing more.
Another example: While trying to decide what to do with their father’s ashes, the three siblings go on a drinking binge. Alex, jokes that the modest cardboard box in which their father’s ashes are being stored is now being used as a coaster. Jane, immediately, without any dialog, jumps up to remove the drink from the cardboard box and quickly dries it before it stains.
We know, without dialog, that she really loved her dad.
Quality is also shown in production values, editing and acting. The performance by Jenni Melear was particularly notable, as her character has the most complicated arc, and she is wonderful to watch, reminding me of a young Sharon Stone, but prettier.
The second surprise was how it was made. The dialog is so good, the acting so believable, the cinematography so well done that I never would have guessed that it was filmed from a rough outline script, over five weekends, with actors recruited from friends of the writers, with major scenes improvised.
How could this happen?
According to Adachi and Arrington, they began shooting with an outline because they just wanted to get the project started. Then, Adachi explained, “Our actors brought so much to it, we kept rewriting the script between the weekends.” Perhaps there’s a lesson here about iterative nature of the creative process. A script is never really done and when the shooting begins. It should continue to evolve. The script is done, when the film is in the can (or nowadays do we have to say when the bits are on the disk).
I don’t like relationship movies, but this one was so good, I had to make an exception. This film deserves to be widely viewed. It also convinced me not to leave a mess behind for my kids.
In counterpoint to the dead seriousness of Dead Dad, the midnight show tried to show us just how funny being dead can be, if the dead you’re dealing with are zombies.
Detention of the Dead pits a team of high school archetypes – a couple of jocks, a cheerleader, a nerd, a goth girl, and a druggy skateboarder – against the rest of the schools population, who’ve gone zombie.
To its credit, Detention of the Dead doesn’t waste time creating a back story explaining why the school has been hit with Zombieitis. As we are meeting the detainees, we spot signs of zombie infection in some of their classmates. And, after all, whatever reason writers Rinow and Mann may have come up with for the living-dead outbreak, we wouldn’t have believed anyway.
A challenge for film makers is making zombies scary. We’ve seen so many zombies already (several live in my neighborhood) that they are not really scary anymore. In Detention of the Dead, however, you will run into four legged zombies who are scarier than the two legged variety.
If you are a fan of the Blake Snyder style of writing screenplays, you’ll recognize this as the “Monster in the House” genre. Take a group of conflicting personalities, trap them somewhere with a destructive force, and see how they deal with it. Detention of the Dead does this well.
All the trapped kids are sympathetic. There is a love/lust triangle which evolves as the film progresses. Even the insensitive jock played by Jayson Blair has redeeming qualities. And the druggie drug dealer, played by Justin Chon (Eric in the Twilight series) turns out to be charming enough so we don’t take his unpleasant avocation too seriously. My only disappointment was that when I heard that the druggy’s name was “Ash”, I assumed that this was homage to the Bruce Campbell character in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, and thought this Ash would also be the hero. Sometimes, you can know too much movie trivia.
There were only two flaws worth mentioning. The dialog of the nerd Eddie, played by Jacob Zachar, was difficult to understand. I think at times he was delivering funny lines, but the otherwise enthusiastic audience didn’t react. Also, the ending was a tad cliché, but, after all, this wasn’t Shakespeare and it is a funny movie worth the admission price.
The audience for both these films added to the fun. As often happens at film festivals, the audiences contained the people who worked on and in the films. Where else would a screenwriter get a round of applause as his name appeared in the titles? It warmed my heart.