The Civil Dead is a Testament to the Effectiveness of Low-Budget Filmmaking

Indie horror adjacent comedy The Civil Dead is a testament to how effective low-budget filmmaking can be. The creators go all in on their concept with a keen awareness of its absurdity being key to the charm of the movie. Written by Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas (who also star) The Civil Dead is delightfully more than the sum of its parts and provides the audience with a piece that is both a clever satire and a discussion about loneliness and displacement in contemporary American cities.

The film begins with an established horror trope; there is a loud bang in a house and a spouse wakes another to go investigate it. Director Clay Tatum doesn’t follow through on the premise immediately as he has a different kind of “horror” movie in mind.

Clay (Tatum) is a miserable man-child whose failing career as a photographer has led him to near financial ruin. His wife, Whitney (Whitney Weir) is supportive but even her good will is running low, especially when it comes time to pay rent on their Los Angeles apartment. In another era Clay would be the embodiment of a “slacker” but for this one he’s more a symbol of Gen Z/Millennial disconnect within the world of career engagement. When Whitney has to take a business trip for a few days he looks forward to some (extra) downtime where he can drink beer and watch TV unimpeded.

Clay’s money woes lead him to grifting. He notices that real estate agents charge for apartment applications, so while Whitney is away he pretends his apartment is up for lease and takes money from potential applicants. He’s also not beyond calling his friend Budd (Budd Diaz) an inveterate gambler for some cash. When Budd tries to talk to his friend about what a mess he’s in, Clay cuts the conversation short. The audience is given ample opportunity to realise that Clay is not a “good guy” – he’s self-absorbed and ridiculous. Riding his skateboard along the streets of LA he decides to take some photographs (with his outdated but hipster camera) and comes across an old acquaintance from his hometown. Whit (Whitmer Thomas) is standing in Clay’s shot and is surprised when Clay asks him to move. The two banter and catch up and despite Clay’s better judgement he invites Whit to hang out with him at his apartment.

The night they spend together is basically Clay drinking all night. He throws Whit a beer but when Whit doesn’t catch it he explains that he’s had an accident and now has rigor mortis in his hands. The next morning Clay is eager to get Whit out of the apartment, there’s just one small problem, Whit cannot leave because he’s a ghost.

After his initial disbelief about Whit’s status as the undead Clay seems to be somewhat cool with his old acquaintance’s “haunting” of him. Tatum and Thomas set up a series of funny scenarios for the two, including a celebrity poker game that Clay and Whit rig so Clay takes home the winnings. Whit is ecstatic to find that Clay sees him, he notes Clay has “the shine” (just one of the horror film references in the film). Whit can’t walk through walls or solid objects. He certainly can’t jump online and check for an obituary for himself. When Clay looks him up Whit sadly notes that he doubts his family even know he’s dead. Long before he left this mortal coil Whit was already a ghost.

With Whitney returning Clay has to find a way to rid himself of his Caspar the Friendly Ghost. There isn’t enough room in Clay’s life for three (there’s barely enough room in it for two) but Whit refuses to take the hint and move on. When he’s not around Clay he’s walking the streets of LA and taking in the lives of others. He can’t sleep, he can’t eat, he just exists as an eternal shadow.

Tatum and Thomas have a blast using genre tropes to heighten what is essentially a very messed up buddy comedy. They lean into the absurd but hold onto a central theme of alienation and scuppered ambition. Whit moved to LA to become an actor, Clay to become an artist. Like so many inhabitants of The City of Angels they were met with disappointment and isolation.

While the film is engaging it does suffer a little from repetition. The dynamic between Clay and Whit is excellent but the script draws it out for a bit too long. Tatum and Thomas both nail their characters quite early on, so the film doesn’t need to reiterate their particular quirks as often as it does.

Although Tatum and Thomas prefigure the gut punch of the film’s ending, it still manages to be successful. The audience can’t help but root for the hapless Whit and sympathise with his life pre- and post-death. Tatum and Thomas’ dialogue is filled with sharp observations about contemporary city living and the flow of their interactions is remarkably naturalistic for a film ostensibly about the supernatural.

Despite stretching audience attention a little thin The Civil Dead is a fabulous satire and great comedy. It also doesn’t shy away from being potentially quite frightening, although the horror aspect is more in suggestion than execution. With its gut-wrenching finale and its thoughtful meditation on loneliness The Civil Dead is a proficient piece of indie cinema that is sure to garner laughs, groans, and ultimately a deep sense of empathy.

Director: Clay Tatum

Cast: Clay Tatum, Whitmer Thomas, DeMorge Brown

Writers: Clay Tatum, Whitmer Thomas

Producers: Clay Tatum, Whitmer Thomas

Music: Max Whipple

Cinematography: Joshua Hill

Editing: Clay Tatum

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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