Charlie (Joe Belknap) is traveling through the wilderness to find his girlfriend, Samantha (Mary Lindberg), after civilization is destroyed by widespread biological attacks. He must try to survive while dealing with other survivors and his own emotional burdens.
The post-apocalyptic world is a well-trod staple of the horror genre. Some would say, not without good reason, that it has been trod just a few too many times. But "Dead Weight" succeeds with this theme by making it the background rather than the foreground of the story. This is, in fact, a romance story disguised as horror, adding an emotional level that most horror films lack.
The sheer level of acting talent going into this production is remarkable. Some of those involved are professionals, who spend their every waking moment acting. Some (in fact, most) are amateurs, making their theatrical debut here. And with one or two easily overlooked exceptions, all the performances come across as strong and bold. I have seen my fair share of independent films, and this one takes talent to the next level.
Directing and cinematography are top notch. A few shots seem inspired by some of the better directors out there, or even bad directors (M. Night Shyamalan) when they were at their peak. I have lived in Wisconsin for three decades and have hardly thought of it as beautiful, but the camera has brought out the best and the bleakest that winter has to offer, depending on what the scene called for. I am told that due to snow one scene had to be moved from a field to a barn, but this turned out to be a stroke of good luck -- the scene in question is among the most ominous in the film, and a field would be more difficult to capture the angles and shadows needed for the terror that ensues.
And although the film is quite dark at times (with the threat of infection, murder or rape always on the horizon) there is just the right sprinkling of humor in there to keep it from getting too dark, but not too much humor that the film would devolve into a parody of itself. The jokes and their delivery seemed inspired by the early films of Kevin Smith ("Clerks" and "Mallrats"), and based on what I know of director John Pata, that seems completely appropriate.
Likewise, the balance of "geek" and "non-geek" is pretty stable. The creators are well-known geeks who thrive in the world of comics and cheesy movies (which I mean in the nicest possible way). Yet, they never let this get in the way with endless homages and pointless references. Yes, Charlie is a comic reader. But he is also a fighter (you think just because a guy reads comics he can't start something?). Aside from the "Arnold moment", the film's only real nod is in giving Samantha the surname MacReady, which I took to be a subtle reference to "The Thing" (another story about survival in the snow).
I say in my headline that this was "Dawn of the Dead" meets "Blue Valentine". I think the "DotD" references speaks for itself. But the "Blue Valentine" reference might not. What really sold the film was the juxtaposition of Charlie's life getting progressively worse with flashback shots of it getting progressively better. Not all romances are good ones (as Lady Gaga has so aptly reminded us). And this film nails that.
Sadly, if I have to say anything bad about the film it is in the chemistry. Joe Belknap was great as a survivor and was an admirable lead character, a flawed and tragic anti-hero. But his chemistry with Mary Lindberg was just not there... the weakest scenes are the two of them interacting. Lindberg was great in every moment, but Belknap seemed to struggle with how to present himself as a boyfriend.
All in all, a strong first showing from Pata and Bartlett (ignoring the shorter, funnier "Better Off Undead"). Whether they are planning to go for a big distribution deal, or quickly dive into their next project, I wish these two the success they deserve. Until now, the best thing to come out of Wisconsin was the beer and cheese. "Dead Weight" gives those two fattening staples a run for their money.