Review - Pretty Dead

Published on Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Pretty Dead

I try not to judge a book by its cover, but my hopes for PRETTY DEAD – an outbreak-cum-living-dead chiller from first time writer/director Benjamin Wilkins – weren’t high. For one thing, the film is found footage, a format that in the space of a decade has transformed from engaging novelty to the blight of the horror genre. Secondly, it’s a zombie movie (kinda – more on that later). Like found footage, zombies have their place, but have become synonymous with cheap and derivative straight-to-DVD dross. Worse, PRETTY DEAD is one of the new breed, eschewing Romero’s traditional approach in favour of the emerging trend for sentient zombies. The BBC tried it to lacklustre effect in last year’s IN THE FLESH, and, even more egregiously, Jonathan Levine framed it in a romantic context in ROMEO AND JULIET rip-off WARM BODIES. Perhaps most damning of all, a quick perusal of Wilkins’ IMDb page credits him as having worked on HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO. Case closed, right? Wrong. Expectations are made to be overturned, and in this instance I’m happy to say I was 100% wrong. Fresh, smart and creepy as hell, PRETTY DEAD is the first great indie horror film of the year.

During a night of drunken revelry with her friends, Regina (Carly Oates) ignores her boyfriend Ryan’s (Ryan Shogren) warnings and snorts a line of coke. She suffers an adverse reaction to the drug and is rushed to hospital. Although she appears to make a full recovery, the experience changes her, leaving her unable to ingest normal food. She develops a powerful craving for human flesh, which she is able to acquire from the hospital where she works, and finds she heals at an accelerated rate. With Ryan’s support she decides to investigate her condition and record her findings...

When it comes to low-budget independent horror, the territory occupied by PRETTY DEAD, found footage is a necessary evil. It’s cheap, audiences are both familiar with it and (mostly) receptive to it, and it’s less logistically demanding than traditional third person filmmaking. It’s also an excuse for lazy directors to indulge all manner of bad habits. Not here. As with the best found footage, the material not only justifies the format but demands it. Our personal connection to Regina – the fact that she spends much of the film talking directly to us – makes her descent into the heart of darkness even more affecting, and offers a chilling contrast to her final abstracted state. There’s none of the padding that usually comes with the territory – Wilkins (and Joe Cook, his co-plotter) have a story to tell, and waste no time diving into it. Although the film is scripted, there are moments of improvisation and spontaneity that help to sell the format, and the two leads convey the sincerity of their relationship without resorting to schmaltz. This sense of authenticity extends to the mocked-up official footage Wilkins incorporates, which, despite what is obviously a limited budget, never seems cheap or fake.

So is PRETTY DEAD a zombie film or not? The fact is, it doesn’t matter. It’s part undead chiller, part outbreak thriller, part relationship drama, part psychological study – all of which integrate into a fascinating whole. Regina’s investigation into her ailment, and search for a cure, is every bit as interesting as the symptoms she exhibits and the terrible things her illness compels her to do. Wilkins and Cook have come up with a truly alarming conceit, which is articulated by an intelligent script, measured direction that never strays into hysteria or excess, and performances in which we can invest. By leading us step-by-step through the stages of Regina’s physical and mental decline, Wilkins makes the extraordinary seem credible, and produces perhaps the most convincing zombie outbreak origin story I’ve ever seen.

To the film’s credit, the visual effects are all practical, with the makeup in particular deserving special mention. Also of note are the performances, which are excellent (especially those of the two leads). Demonstrating neither the uncertainty of a first-time director nor the penchant for time-wasting endemic among his found footage peers, Wilkins has produced a film that takes a fresh look at the most hackneyed of horror subjects, and marks him out as a filmmaker to watch. Knowing and deeply unsettling, PRETTY DEAD is an exceptional debut.

Oh, and stick around until after the credits for a final twist of the knife...

Score: 4 out of 5
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