Clay (Clay Tatum) and Whit (Whitmer Thomas) mooch around a sleepy LA suburb in an inventive supernatural comedy. Here’s our The Civil Dead review.
For a film shot for the approximate annual salary of – according to Indeed.com – a prep cook, warehouse worker or bilingual call centre representative, The Civil Dead sure looks like a movie shot for (slightly) more than its $30,000 price tag.
Not much more, mind you. Part of the deceptively meandering buddy comedy’s charm lies in its scrappy, two-friends-chatting-nonsense energy. As co-writers Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas send their self-named protagonists sauntering around their Los Angeles suburb, the resulting comedy has an authenticity that money, evidently, cannot buy. Their loose, improvisational style only adds to the feeling we’re watching a couple of buds bickering on their way to buy a few crates of beer.
It’s all the more impressive that the duo have twisted this style into what appears on the surface to be a pretty high-concept premise. Tatum, who also directs, plays Clay, a struggling photographer looking for inspiration for his next project. Unfortunately, he’s being haunted by the ghost of a guy he sort of knew once upon a time (Thomas), and he’s the only one that can see him.
Desperately lonely, and with a spiritual form rendering him incapable of opening doors, Whit sticks to Clay like glue – a situation the living half of the relationship isn’t best pleased with. “Ghost time is more like dog time”, Whit complains when Clay shuts him in his car overnight.
Still, the ‘enterprising’ Clay is quick to use his not-so-friendly-ghost to his advantage. After a particularly successful night of poker – assisted by an invisible accomplice – the pair can’t help but grow a little fond of each other.
Like all friends, though, Clay and Whit’s relationship ebbs and flows as both become more or less invested in their time together. As a melancholic depiction of male friendship, their story carries a surprising amount of emotional heft for two people who often find each other a bit annoying.
Max Whipple’s music proves a perfect companion to the film, too. Flipping between 1950s, classical Hollywood-style horns to the chilled-out jazz befitting a purposeless stroll around LA, the whole thing blends into a tonally consistent, consistently funny experience. Especially impressive considering its non-existent budget, the commitment to a distinctly Californian vibe should earn Tatum, Thomas and co a lot of kudos.
Despite its meandering style, though, The Civil Dead leads up to a bold conclusion that makes the previous 90 minutes feel meticulously planned and, retrospectively, slightly chilling. The transition from cheery hangout movie to something much more sinister is masterfully done.
Not a bad investment for, in filmmaking terms, the price of a few light stands. With creative duos like Tatum and Thomas about, the future of the indie comedy looks bright.
The Civil Dead is available on demand from the 19th January.