Ever since I discovered the websites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, it has been a habit of mine to check the critic reviews of every film recommended to me before I watch them. From award-winning films such as Argo and 12 Years A Slave to much popular fare such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe series and The Force Awakens, I make it a point to check the weighted averages of the critics documented by those websites and read the reviews of the critics I trust. Personally, I believe that films that meet the “Fresh” (i.e. receives good reviews from at least 60% of the critics) designation on Rotten Tomatoes, or at least have rave reviews from the critics I trust (e.g. Peter Travers, the late Roger Ebert), are the only ones worth a darn; those that are not recommended are just a waste of time and resources. This disposition of mine continues for Horror Film class. The first three films are considered “Fresh” by the critics in Rotten Tomatoes and I have largely agreed with the critical ratings so far.
I expected that this pattern would continue until Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarmiento’s Deadgirl (2008) was screened to class. Once again, I did a cursory check on Rotten Tomatoes to see the film’s rating among critics. Lo and behold, the critics savaged the movie, with majority of the critics pointing to the disturbing premise and to the misogyny in the film. Frankly, this made me have low expectations for the film when it was shown to class. This made me believe that I was going to watch a bad film. And boy, was I wrong. Boy, was I surprised that Deadgirl would be the film that cut me the deepest in class.
For this entry, I realize that I have too much thoughts so I segmented them to portions to make them easier to make sense of.
To begin with, Deadgirl is buoyed by excellent acting choices for the leads found in Shiloh Fernandez and Noah Segan. Fernandez starts off a bit awkward at first as Rickie but once he finds his groove, he settles in to channel the “nice guy” persona pretty well. Additionally, Segan is truly menacing as Rickie’s best friend JT. Each pronouncements from him drips with much fervor and silent, psychotic rage. Other actors do not fare as well, like Candice Accola as Rickie’s love interest Joann or Eric Podner as Rickie and JT’s accomplice Wheeler, but it is quite understandable; the characters they play are archetypal and really serve as ciphers for the two leads.
Aside from the acting, certain standouts in Deadgirl include the cinematography and the writing. The camera-work is quite exceptional, especially considering the film’s independent-film budget. Additionally, the use of colors are also inspired, with the contrast of brighter colors for the school setting and a more greenish hue for the sinister abandoned hospital. Finally, Trent Haaga’s writing is fascinating. Admittedly, some of the line readings lack subtlety. However, it is able to balance the tension and the metaphorical dimension implied by the film.
Now that the level-headed review has been dispensed, I shall now tell my more personal opinions and analysis for the film. Quite honestly, I was shaken by the film. Shaken by the film’s premise? Maybe. The film involves JT and Rickie discovering a female zombie corpse (the titular “deadgirl”) in an abandoned psychiatric hospital. Once JT sees that the girl is incredibly gorgeous, he settles in to have sex with her. Quite simply, the premise of the film could be said as “Female zombie found by horny male teenagers. Necrophilia ensues.”However, it was not what really shook me. What shook me was the deeper meaning associated with this necrophilia.
THE NEED FOR CONTROL
In his essay “Why Horror?”, Andrew Tudor wrote about reasons as to why people watch horror films. Some of the theories he postulated included the thrill of being terrified caused by the narrative tension or the social dimensions of the film. However, he also wrote a theory farther from these two: that of focusing on the changing character of transgressions of horror. He noted that shifts in social and cultural contexts created a more post-modern bent in horror film. Horror films added a more exotic texture to it and thus, it became much more esoteric; only a few people in the academe understood the deeper meaning lying beneath the text. Thus, the ever-changing horror film broke boundaries to where no prior horror films went before. Such a phenomenon made for a more uneasy confrontation between “embattled ‘selves'” and the “risky and unreliable world they inhabit” (Tudor, 50-52).
The previous paragraph provides a segue to my further analysis of Deadgirl and also, the reason for why it immensely affected me. Compared to the past films shown in class, Deadgirl transgressed beyond what is expected of horror films. It has been accepted that horror films will have piles of corpses, body horror, and naked bodies. But necrophilia? That’s something that is considered “too much”. Society does not even want to talk about or address necrophilia. People consider that subject “taboo” or “too primal”. However, Deadgirl goes a different direction. Instead of considering it as taboo, it uses it to further shock the viewer and it is truly effective with the usage of necrophilia. Additionally, the film is not one to just use this for “gimmick”; it uses that for social and even cinematic commentary.
CONTROL IN DEADGIRL
So we’re finally here. What is this deeper meaning that Deadgirl has been hinting at? What makes the necrophilia such a necessary ingredient for the film? Well, the film is about control. To be more specific, the film is about the male ego’s desire for control and subjugation. In Paulo Freire’s essay, “The Banking Concept of Education”, he associates “necrophily” with control. He states that necrophilous person “loves all that is mechanical”. That person wants to turn the “organic to the inorganic” and that what matters is “having, not being”. Such necrophilous persons can only relate to a person as an “object” because objects are easy to control. Thus, the act of wanting to control, the act of oppression, kills life (Freire, 352-353).
From here, it is pretty obvious that JT is a perfect example in Deadgirl. Once he takes control of “deadgirl” for his sexual pleasures, he uses it for power. He monetizes the sexual experience and even uses it to achieve superiority over the school jocks. Late in the film, he even uses the female zombie’s ability to “turn” others into zombies for his own devices. He literally wants to turn “the organic to the inorganic”, as seen in his and Wheeler’s sorry attempt to make a lady into their sex zombie in a gas station. His control doesn’t just stop at the “deadgirl”. He exercises his control on Wheeler, who becomes his lackey and “yes man”, and Rickie, whom he pressures to join in on his “fun”. In the film, it manifests that JT has repressed his need for control. And once he finds the sweet nectar of success, he is not willing to let go, even if it meant his death.
RICKIE, THE NECROPHILIC “NICE GUY”
A less obvious, but more tragic, example for this necrophilic need for control is Rickie. And here, I shall link control with the male psyche.
I stated earlier in this entry that Shiloh Fernandez played Rickie as the “nice guy” in a rom-com. We all would know at least one straight-up example of this. Obvious contemporary examples would be Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer or Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man. Rom-coms always paint the “nice guy” as a perfectly understanding, sensitive young man, especially compared to the archetypal “jock”. Given their disposition, they would be ignored by the girl they’re pining for and maybe even bullied by the “jocks” who rule the playground. The “nice guy” would then make it a mission to stick it to the jocks and win the girl.
And this is where Deadgirl shows its hand. The directors, Harel and Sarmiento, know that the “nice guy” is a male fantasy. Such “nice guys” function less as dorky “knights in shining armor” but as creepy stalkers-to-be with controlling tendencies. This is framed with every stare by Rickie on the object of his affection, Joann. His eyes do not look innocent; in fact, it can be argued that his stares contain a darkness in them. He just wants to win her, not to love her as he says.
Throughout the film, Rickie’s repression and need for control is slowly shown. At home, Rickie is seen with his verbally abusive “father figure”, Clint (played by Michael Bowen). At school, he is surrounded by people who aspire to control him. There is Joann’s boyfriend, Johnny (Andrew DiPalma), who constantly beats him to “protect” Joann. And then, there’s JT, who uses peer pressure and emotional appeals to friendship to secure Rickie’s submission.
What is sad here is that these pressures get the best of Rickie. In one scene where Johnny coerces Rickie and Wheeler to show the “deadgirl”, Rickie eagerly turns the tables. Rickie plays on Johnny’s own fragile male ego to get Johnny to be fellated by the “deadgirl”. This ploy is fatally successful, with Johnny’s penis (read: masculinity and control) bitten off and ensuing death. And in another, much more heartbreaking scene, Rickie is pressured one last time by JT to give in to his urge for control. When Joann is about to die thanks to JT’s indiscriminate stabbing, Rickie confesses his love for her. Joann replies the negative, telling Rickie to “grow up” and move on from his puppy love. JT then offers to turn Joann into a zombie, an offer that is shown to be taken up by Rickie.
The final scene is quite a gut-punch. The aftermath shows that Rickie returns to his normal life, with much less classmates. However, Rickie goes back to the abandoned hospital and Joann is shown to be Rickie’s very own “deadgirl”. Here, Rickie is shown to have achieved his desire to control Joann, much similar to JT’s desire to control “deadgirl”, for his own sexual pleasure. Additionally, this final scene is a pointed critique on the “nice guy” archetype. If the opening scene established Rickie as a stalker, this scene establishes that he never really loved Joann. He just wants to “have” her.
It is quite understandable that Deadgirl is a divisive film. The necrophilia and apparent misogyny is a turn-off for certain viewers, but much more experienced horror fans can look past this and see that Deadgirl is more than meets the eye. It is a transgressive horror film that breaks barriers and provides a psychologically harrowing study on control and the male psyche.
Personally, this film has taught me some lessons. One of which is that Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are not always correct. It can only crunch the numbers of critical reviews, but it cannot certainly provide deep analysis of films.
Another is that I must be more aware about my dealings with my peers. Ever since the class film viewing, I have become hyper-aware of the fragile male psyche and the “nice guy” archetype. Still today, men still ascribe to wanting to be the “nice guy”. Still today, some of my male friends still ask this vacuous question: “I am such a nice guy. But why doesn’t she notice me? Why can’t she ever like me back?” And still today, men still have this tribal need to show their superiority and control. Jocks still verbally, albeit more passive-aggressively, bully their perceived “inferiors”. Men still believe that getting a girlfriend is a matter of “earning” and “scoring” her. Men still believe that people who haven’t reached “first base” are losers, either seriously or in jest. And still today, fathers impose their seniority to steer their children to the path that they want. And what makes me agitated is that at some point, I may have believed or said some of those things. There may have been progress but men can still do better. Men can still do better at treating women, and their fellow men, better.
Quite honestly, this has disillusioned me greatly about my male peers. Admittedly, this has made me ponder about my personal issues and shortcomings in the way I treat my male and female peers, too. However, these musings do not mean that I want to forget Deadgirl. These make me appreciate the film much more since it dared to show the toxicity of the relationship between the male psyche and control. So maybe, we need more daring movies such as Deadgirl.
“Deadgirl (2008).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0896534/>
“Deadgirl (2008).” Rotten Tomatoes. Rottentomatoes.com, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. <https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1214678_deadgirl>
Freire, Paolo (1999). “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Eds. Bartholomae, D. and A. Petrosky. Boston, MA and New York, NY: Bedford St. Martin’s. Print.
Tudor, Andrew (1997). “Why Horror? The Peculiar Pleasures of a Peculiar Genre.” Horror, the film reader. Ed. Jancovich, M. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.