Somewhere in a nondescript hospital, a dead man in a body bag sits up, busts out, and desperately searches for a bed in which to keep his possibly resurrected boy warm. He can’t speak, yet, but sensations are gradually returning, even as his perceptions seem filtered through a whole lot of noise and chaos. Regular, ordinary Dr. Forrester (Shane Carruth) wasn’t prepared for something like this, but he’s the only one who seems to get that something is afoot that’s slightly, exponentially worse than a coroner’s mistake.
For the first hour of its running time, The Dead Center, in content and title, suggests that it may be that The Walking Dead origin story we’re never going to get (Breaking Bad fan theories aside). But it gradually reveals itself as something more: like the movies directed by its lead actor Carruth, it’s a film that clearly has a larger mythology mapped out, but isn’t going to tell you everything about it, leaving you free to fill in as much or as little as you need to in your mind. Which isn’t to say this film holds back, because by the end horror fans will certainly not feel cheated, nor that they’ve merely been hand-held through familiar territory. As in his feature directorial debut, the chilling soulless-clone-baby tale Closer to God, writer-director Bill Senese proves himself a masterful new voice in terror, specifically the body horror kind previously dominated by David Cronenberg. Senese’s take, however, is more grounded in verite, using realistic settings, handheld cinematography and natural lighting to create a “you are there” feeling that disarms your impulses to put cinematic fiction at a distance.
Carruth, who made a name for himself as a unique directorial voice with Primer and Upstream Color, has now made more of a career for himself as an actor, though he seems to be gravitating towards films that match his oblique voice, to a point. His nondescriptness as a performer is his strength; tough to recognize even from film to film, he looks like an ordinary guy, and fits in as one. An actor unhampered by that intangible star quality, he can be and has been anybody. Precisely the kind of anybody whose fate in a horror movie is not written in stone, which is the point.
At a certain point in the story, Carruth’s Forrester receives what seems to be some sort of mind meld from the possibly living-dead guy (Jeremy Childs, recently seen as Jody on Preacher), and events start spiraling (literally–a spiral symbol is one of the signs something is amiss) out of control. There’s more going on than just zombie bites, and the mystery patient, once he finally regains speech, begs to be killed. But since he can’t even be officially medicated without his consent, that doesn’t happen, and as a result, worse things do. Only Forrester and the coroner who made the initial diagnosis have a true sense of the evil they’re dealing with, and when I say “only,” I include the audience. We get glimpses and hints, but never the whole story; part of Senese’s immersive style is to give us only the details we’d know if we were experiencing these events in real time.
And it feels real: the hospital scenes use neon lighting and actual hospital colors to make every room except the restroom a sickly yellow; when the climax takes us into the suburbs, it’s all street lights and police sirens. The horrific visions in the heads of Forrester and the John Doe contrast to this with extreme blacks and whites and a shaking camera with ear-splitting noise, so you’ll vividly feel the sudden disconnect from what’s actually happening. And rest assured, this is no simple zombie movie, if it is a zombie movie at all. But it is as gory as one.
You may come out of The Dead Center rooting for a sequel. I’m just rooting for whatever Senese’s next movie is, even (especially?) if it keeps me awake at nights.
4.5 out of 5.
Images: Sequitur Cinema/Movie City Films via LAFF
Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the LA Film Critics Association, and probably not a zombie, depending what time of day you call him. You can find him on all the usual social channels.