They Call Us Walking Corpses, Unholy Living Dead
In the aftermath of a summer of colossally expensive, yet routinely vapid and entirely unamusing blockbusters, I Sell The Dead is a breath of fresh air. It marks, by my count, the second noteworthy horror movie of the year (the first being Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell). I say that with a bit of hesitance, because honestly, I Sell The Dead isn't particularly horrifying. It's fun, however; a brisk, 90 minutes of sly nods to the classics, clever wordsmithing, sharp dialogue, and excellent costume design, despite a budget that's probably less than Michael Bay spends on detonator cord.
The film starts with Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), imprisoned and waiting to be beheaded the next morning. As he contemplates his grim fate, he's visited by an imposing Irish priest named Father Duffy (Ron Perlman) to whom, in exchange for sharing a bottle of whiskey, he tells the tale of his life.
That tale begins with Arthur as an impoverished young lad who comes under the tutelage of the crass and sometimes-well-intentioned graverobber Willie Grimes. (Larry Fessenden) As time progresses, Arthur and Willie become two of the premier corpse snatchers of their time, working predominately for the eminently creepy and cadaverous Dr. Vernon Quint (Phantasm's Angus Scrimm), a harsh master who pays them little for their substantial risks. Everything changes the day that they realize there's more to the world of the dead than they'd thought, the day they stop being graverobbers and, as Blake tells Father Duffy, became ghouls. Ghouls because they no longer work exclusively with the dead, but instead have branched out into the realm of the un-dead.
The sequence wherein they learn about the existence of the undead is a brilliant one, a delicious bit of homage to the Evil Dead brand of zombie mayhem. It's a slapstick-filled shot of gruesome hilarity, and sets the tone for the remainder of the film. From there on, Arthur and Willie take on the oddest of odd jobs, finding the creepiest of crawlies, the strange and unknown that the normal world doesn't even know exists. Along the way, they take on strange other creatures, as well as the occasional conflicts with the dreaded Murphy Gang, led by it's maniacal and menacing leader Cornelius Murphy (John Speredakos), a rival group of freak finders. They also eventually take on an apprentice of sorts, the easy-on-the-eyes Fanny Bryers (Brenda Cooney), who eventually leads them towards further trouble.
I Sell The Dead plays less like a whole film, and more like a series of short vignettes about Arthur and Willie's adventures with the dead, the undead, and other entities of a strange and bizarre nature. It's a speedily paced little adventure, clocking in at under 90 minutes, and if it has a weakness, it's that there's a certain lack of cohesion to it. It seems like you're watching a series of short films about recurring characters -- which makes sense, since it comes on the heels of writer/director Glenn McQuaid's 2005 short film The Resurrection Apprentice, which featured Fessenden reprising his role of Willie Grimes. It's clearly limited by its budget, but McQuaid cleverly makes up for that by focusing intently on the players, rather than worrying about nonexistent cinematography.
Regardless of those minor flaws, I Sell The Dead is all good fun. It's not a game-changing entry into the genre -- it's a zombie movie... only it's not. One of the things that made I Sell The Dead refreshing was McQuaid's refusal to use many of the conventional horror movie tropes. It's a throwback to the heyday of Hammer films, a tasty treat of spooky atmospheres and clever startling moments. It's not terribly gory (although there's definitely some enjoyable, satire-filled bloodletting), or even all that scary, but it's got a lot of heart and the players are clearly enjoying themselves. Given the shoestring budget that it was clearly funded on, it's a remarkable accomplishment. That's not to say that it's good in spite of its budget -- it's good regardless of it. It's an enjoyable little picture that speaks to the viewer with its deft writing, cheeky nods to the classics. It's a modern horror movie that doesn't pander itself with cheap gags, torture porny gross-outs, or rote, annoying characterizations -- in fact, its plot and characters are strikingly original. I highly recommend that you join them as they merrily wade through a strange little world of minor-league undead carnage.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.