‘The Civil Dead’
The indie comedy arrives in theaters for a limited engagement starting 2/3 at select Alamo Drafthouse locations.
The Civil Dead is an irreverent comedy from writer, director, and actor Clay Tatum. It follows Clay, an out-of-work photographer with quite a bit of free time on his hands. When his partner leaves home for a couple days on a business trip, Clay is tasked with relatively mundane duties like making some money here and there to cover rent, try to reach out to his gambling-addicted friend for support, and maybe think about getting some real photography work done instead of just hanging out in the living room and drinking beer all day. Clay runs into an old friend when he decides to be productive but realizes almost too late that his buddy is no longer alive and only Clay can see and talk to him.
The film is the first narrative debut from Tatum, showcasing comedic styles that he and his co-star Whitmer Thomas share. It’s by design a buddy comedy playing with conventions of the supernatural, investigating how people operate within friendships when they operate outside comfort levels. But when your friend is a ghost and can’t interact with physical objects anymore, how can the dynamics of your relationship change? In the case of The Civil Dead, Clay defaults to his slacker-style approach when presented with the role of having to support Whit. Whit is severely bored, feeling incomplete without being by Clay’s side every waking moment. Clay already is struggling to take control of his own life and can’t realistically take on the dependency Whit requires of him. The film is often funny and explores day-to-day experiences through skit-like chapters like “Don’t Forget to Pay the Rent” and “Double Down on a Bad Situation.”
In retrospect, Clay is lucky to be haunted by such a mild-mannered and chilled-out ghost considering the alternatives. Many people associate ghosts with unfinished business that must be fulfilled before they can finally rest. But this provides a sense of closure for the ghost in question and for a lot of scripts, a resolution for the dead (or undead) character. The Civil Dead has no answers in that regard, and because of that it plants one foot in the grave and the other in dry & aimless comedic territory. The aimlessness here is in fact the main strength of the film’s proceedings, guiding its wit and humoristic spontaneity. It’s increasingly amusing to see Clay stumble through a series of scenarios with Whit keeping him company, from arguing in public (where others just see Clay carry on one side of the conversation) to cheating at poker at a film producer’s house party.
It feels like a post-mumblecore entry, yet feels comfortable and at peace if it were to reside within the movement despite coming some two decades late. Although the film’s style is focused a little more on its form than is typical, it achieves a minimal approach to weaving the story across smaller chapters which lends it an episodic feeling. But its use of structure never forms a reliance against its free spirit; the attitude of Civil Dead remains as loose and off-the-cuff as Clay’s own philosophy, even in learning how to navigate his now-evolving friendship with Whit.
The Civil Dead occupies the sharper edge of the same knife as other independent filmmakers like Charles Roxburgh or Matt Farley have been working with (Metal Detector Maniac or Magic Spot come to mind here). Where Roxburgh & Farley sit themselves comfortably on the flat of the blade with their more wholesome body of films, Tatum brings a bite to his that can be a bit delayed, slowed in part by its sardonic notes and a hard-to-define sweetness that intentionally obscures Civil Dead’s moral clarity. The film’s murk is enough to assure you of its warmth so that jumping into its waters will feel enticing, even if you can’t see beyond the surface looking into it. In a way its delineation of aimlessness prevents either its audience or Whit’s anticipation for any situation to take a turn for the worse.
That isn’t to say the movie isn’t without its revelations though. Clay seems to already know what kind of person he is, and we learn that through his interactions and the schemes he pulls. Whit, however, is just as new to Clay and his tendencies as we are despite knowing him to some extent. It isn’t until the two decide to go to a rented cabin for the weekend in search of peace when both us and Whit discover Clay’s well-hidden sadistic side. The peace Clay is looking for is unspoken, but his actions illustrate what he’s willing to do in order to get it. Whit’s investment in the hospitality of his friend backfires nearly every step of the way, but his efforts always come back around to hoping for Clay to finally see him and lend Whit some of that peace he knows they both deserve.
The Civil Dead is often funny and timidly whack-a-doodle, but shows how maliciously the selfish human spirit can emerge when the terms of a relationship change. Underneath the outrageous genesis of how it creates its ghosts in life Clay Tatum’s film gives you something to chew on that has always resided just below a shell of its light-heartedness. It strays from the path a lot of other films that explore this take and feels very welcome and refreshing.
The Civil Dead is currently playing in select theaters courtesy of Utopia.
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This article was originally published February 17th, 2023 on Geek Vibes Nation.