NOW IN THEATERS! Which is worse: being dead or having a messed-up haircut? Director/co-writer Clay Tatum explores these questions in his dark comedy The Civil Dead. Clay (Tatum) is a freelance photographer in Los Angeles who thinks a hip haircut may help him stand out from the competition. So he proceeds to give himself a homemade Beatles hairdo that is sad and awful, a fact his wife, Whitney (Whitney Weir), confirms.
When Whitney leaves on business, Clay starts pulling off schemes to make rent. While hustling around, he runs into former friend Whit (co-writer Whitmer Thomas). Clay is surprised to see Whit, who he remembers moved to L.A., but they never met up. Whit is surprised Clay can see him because he is dead. No one can see or hear him, and he cannot open doors or pick things up. Whit says he can’t remember how he died, but he is so glad that Clay has the “shining.”
Clay isn’t so happy about this, as Whit never sleeps and has nowhere else to go. Clay puts up with Whit for a while, seeing how a ghost can come in handy on money-making schemes, such as cheating at cards. However, when Whitney comes back to town, Clay informs Whit that he has to leave. Naturally, this causes problems, and that is when the real haunting begins.
“Whit is surprised Clay can see him because he is dead.”
The script for The Civil Dead falls onto the tense end of the comedy spectrum, also known as a “wincer.” The wincer utilizes characters who act less than noble and get caught in their own consequences. It was pioneered by the classic films of Albert Brooks and popularized by Larry David. Tatum starts this tone off perfectly with the f****d up mullet he gives himself. You need a huge pair to be able to look that awful in the lead of your movie in order to pull comedic focus. Way to go, Bucket Balls.
Tatum does an excellent job and never drifts into being too unlikable. Tatum and Weir are also one of the most refreshing screen couples in a long time, as they are both fantastically normal-looking. Lots of people that don’t look like movie stars watch movies. It only makes sense that they want to see people like themselves on the silver screen. That Thomas is a more conventionally good-looking actor makes his submission to the normal-looking one even more enjoyable.
The Civil Dead follows the format of the ghost movies I grew up with, like the 1979 version of Topper and Ghost of a Chance with Red Foxx. One character is dead and can only be seen or heard by the other character. So a lot of the fun is seeing a character run around with everyone oblivious to their presence. Tatum and Thomas add the intriguing element where the ghost can only go through open corridors and cannot manipulate anything physical. This increases Whit’s dependency on Clay, which adds further pressure to the goofy ghost elements. It also removes the corny floating effect that happens when a ghost picks something up.
The darker edges of The Civil Dead seal the deal here. The haunting that occurs is genuinely disturbing, with the shadow in the doorway that never leaves. The ending is jet black and very satisfying. There is a big reveal that is both hilarious and poignant. The deep, dark, and delicious finale is a marvelous payoff for a ghost picture. The production is well put together, though nothing remarkable or revolutionary. Tatum and Thomas do a great job writing material that allows them to show their range as performers. While this level of filmmaking would be best enjoyed on a weekend afternoon, the comedy sticks with you. Prepare to be haunted.
The Civil Dead screened at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.
"…sticks with you."