DEAD WITHIN – DVD review

More a study in isolation than an end-of-days zombie thriller, “Dead Within” confidently ignores the usual tropes of living dead horror, looking instead at the question “What’s more lethal—beasties or boredom?”

Directed by Ben Wagner, “Dead Within” tells the story of a couple who have boarded themselves into a remote cabin to ride out the apocalyptic rise of murderous, black-eyed undead. Cue six-month flash forward. As the days grind on, in their alternating terror and dreariness, the food gets harder to find and the walls start closing in on Kim (Amy Cale Peterson). She and husband Mike (Dean Chekvala of “True Blood”) pass the time between sorties for supplies with sad, ‘romantic’ dinners, passionless love-making, and desperate evasion of the guilt and grief from the gruesome death of their infant child.

Other than a brief introductory passage behind the credits, Mike and Kim are the only characters we see, struggling not only with hunger and fear, but also with the tedium and growing hopelessness that is locked into the cabin with them. Each day, Mike departs their cabin/prison to look for food, batteries, supplies – his excursions a comparative luxury that leaves Kim alone to face the four walls and her own increasingly surreal and slippery handle on reality. This focus on the intimate day-to-day, the personality-driven routines underpinning existence at the edge, sets “Dead Within” apart.

Without sacrificing the tension and claustrophobia that power the best undead films, Wagner’s approach feels fresh and unexpected, an intelligent step above and to the side of the seemingly endless flood of cheap zombie gorefests that have followed in the wake of “Walking Dead.”
Wagner spices the proceedings with the occasional dose of low-key bloodletting, but there’s no flesh-eating or throat ripping or any such noise here. It’s really a semi-improvised, sometimes wordless psychological study about the cost of isolation and the price of survival (the script is credited to Wagner, Matthew Bradford and the two leads). There’s also several well-timed and executed scares, all the more effective for their sparseness and restraint. Special kudos go to a great headless torso cameo.

Cinematographer Timothy Gillis takes his camera through a wide variety of gyrations and dutch angles and loose focus, keeping just on the angel’s side of excessive enthusiasm, just as the script keeps its head even when teetering on the brink of the bug-eyed. The camera movement does the lion’s share of evoking Kim‘s deteriorating mindset, but the performances by both actors are grounded and unshowy.

Video:
The DVD of “Dead Within” is presented in 16 x 9 full frame. The picture quality is fine for a DVD, highlighting subtle lighting effects and bringing an evocative, low-fi feel. There are options for English SDH and Spanish subtitles.

Audio:
The audio track is a serviceable 5.1 Surround, with no noticeable problems though not especially punchy. There are no set-up options.

Extras:
a set of interesting deleted scenes, with commentary by director Ben Wagner

Parting thoughts:
Working with clear budget limitations but also a clear vision, the filmmakers have fashioned a small-scale, noteworthy entry in a crowded field– nothing to challenge Romero’s best, but pieced together with skill and an internal logic that smooths out the occasional rough spots.

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