In 2008, a two character indie film called Sunday came out of nowhere to claim a spot in The Independent Critic's Top 10 Films of 2008, a fact that surprised even filmmaker Travis Betz.
It may come as a wee bit of a surprise that I thought of that marvelous little romantic film often while watching The Dead Inside, Betz's latest independent project that could be called a romantic, horror, comedy and musical and still not manage to encapsulate everything one experiences while watching this marvelously quirky, ingeniously entertaining and strangely affectionate film.
Once again, Betz limits his film to two characters - Wes (Dustin Fasching) and Fi (Sarah Lassez). Wes is a burned out photographer making ends meet by shooting weddings. Fi is the writer of a series of zombie novellas called "The Dead Survive," though she's mired deep within a serious case of writer's block.
When Fi begins showing signs of mental illness, Wes does what any loving partner would do - He gets her institutionalized.
Okay. Okay. It's not quite that casually conspired. Wes actually tries everything he can to help Fi, but he soon discovers that there are dark forces lurking inside her and they don't want to go. So, Wes embarks on a battle for his girlfriend's soul that will wreak havoc, maybe inspiration, on both of them.
Sunday was a rarity for Betz, a deeply felt and surprisingly straightforward romantic film that enchanted me from point one and absolutely never let go. It's not that Betz's films aren't deeply felt, but that they tend to be bathing in quirk, weirdness and ample doses of horrified fantasy. The Indiana born Betz has an extraordinary knack for making the abnormal seem normal and for finding the normal to be hilariously absurd.
Trust me. It's a gift.
With The Dead Inside, which was just released by Monarch Home Video on DVD, Betz very nearly masters the perfect weaving together of absurdity and normalcy as he paints a surprisingly heartfelt and emotionally compelling love story against the fabric of zombies, spirit possession and mental illness.
When that which possesses Fi quietly says "I'm not evil," it's an almost achingly painful moment that takes your breath away.
Then, we get back to business again.
As was true with Sunday, The Dead Inside is perfectly cast with Dustin Fasching a sympathetic yet increasingly fractured Wes. Fasching has the challenging of playing a relatively straight man, emphasis on relatively, in this entirely off-kilter world. Yet, he also needs to hold his own against the far more expressive and unpredictable Fi, played quite wondrously by Sarah Lassez. Lassez exudes her Fi's essential sweetness and vulnerability while also tapping into that mind that would create zombie novellas and, as well, she beautifully plays Fi's transition from loving girlfriend to potentially possessed partner.
Then, there's the music.
Oh my. The music.
With original music by Michael Brake and Joel Vliet, The Dead Inside simply comes to life on a far grander scale.
Or is that death?
Either way, The Dead Inside's music is so devilishly heartfelt that one can easily picture it in a Broadway musical, while lyrically the songs are captivating and funny. Both Fasching and Lassez can sing well, but rather than make a show of it they genuinely seem to have their characters living inside the music.
D.P. Shannon Hourigan's lensing is perfectly in tune with Betz's unique vision for the film, capturing both the heart and horror coming to life. Hourigan has a gift for allowing the camera to linger until just the right point with a character, while the film's look avoids all the usual zombie horror cliche's.
I can't deny that I still have a modest preference for Betz's Sunday, a film that was stripped down and simply an experience of a fantastic story brought to life by two terrific actors. The Dead Inside is a terrific film and easily one of the most original films I've seen in the past year, a film that manages to combine elements of horror, comedy, musical, zombies, 70's sit-coms, psychological dramas and more - And, somehow, it remains a cohesive and compelling and entertaining film. There are a few brief moments that are a tad extraneous, extended beyond where they needed to be. Yet, these are incredibly brief and minor moments that don't begin to dilute the film's lasting entertainment impact.
The Dead Inside is available now on DVD and can be ordered straight from this website. If you consider yourself a connoisseur of the truly unique indie scene, this is one film you'll want to add to your collection.