Dead Weight is a micro-budget film. It’s probably important to mention the micro-budget qualifier up front because it will be evident to the audience in the first few frames of the film and, in an attention deficit fueled world, could lead to premature dismissal. Dead Weight doesn’t look or act like other apocalyptic movies we’ve seen but, given a chance, that is actually more of a strength than a weakness. It doesn’t handle content the way its larger budgeted, multiplex dwelling brethren does. While some of the differences were obviously fueled by budget and general logistics, all of these choices culminate in a film that explores themes that are far darker, and far more interesting, than a large portion of apocalyptic thrillers that we are more familiar with. Because of that, a complete dismissal of Dead Weight based on the first few moments would be a mistake.
Dead Weight follows Charlie Russel(Joe Belknap) as he tries to find his way to his girlfriend Samantha(Mary Lindberg) through an apocalyptic, zombie infested wasteland. During this trek we also see, through playful flashbacks, his life with Samantha before the requisite apocalyptic zombie related disaster. Through these parallel stories it becomes clear that his goal, both in the present and in the past, is intentionally similar, to get and then keep the girl. The flashback portion works as a devolution of their relationship until it reaches a more simplistic and touching point. The present portion works as an evolution of Charlie’s dedication and general psyche into something much, much darker. When paralleled, these two views into Charlie’s world effectively explores what fuels our decisions and what we are willing to do to keep true to them.
Granted, the first thirty minutes or so of Dead Weight stumbles a bit through awkward edits and some stiff acting. It does, however, begin to hit it stride when it revels in the major advantage of making a micro-budget film, the freedom to put whatever you want on the screen. There are no focus groups, no nervous financiers, and no producers worried about the effect a decision would have on the 18-25 demographic. The filmmakers are free to tell the story they want. And the filmmakers of Dead Weight, Adam Bartlett and John Pata, want to tell a pretty damn bleak and troubling story. It is when that true bleakness begins to comes through, when this micro-budget goes where its big budget brethren never could, this movie becomes pretty compelling.
Following in the footsteps of most good zombie movies, Dead Weight really isn’t concerned with the actual zombies. It spends its time exploring human civility and what really makes us good people. Are society’s laws in place as a reminder of humanity’s ethical advancement or are they the instituted fine line that keeps all of us from embracing our inner chaotic animal? To be clear, it isn’t the fact that Dead Weight asks these questions that sets it apart from other apocalyptic films. The distinguishing moment of this film is when it provides the answer. When that answer comes, Bartlett and Pata have no problem showing us every jarring, sentiment destroying moment. They break the rules of standard storytelling and that decision ends up creating an effective and surprising third act.
There is no question that Dead Weight has some technical and performance shortcomings, not out of a lack of skill, but out of a lack of time and budget. Through that micro-budget veneer, though, we are introduced to a successful, and shocking, little morality tale that never takes the easy way out story-wise. In that success, Dead Weight is a good example of the slowly shifting paradigm of film production and distribution. While studios invest in remakes, sequels, and adaptations of proven profitable properties, independent filmmakers are able to create compelling, original stories that seep with the love, passion, and probably blood of the creators. With the advent of VOD and online video these filmmakers have a new, and ever expanding, outlet for their work. The micro-budget films are here to stay and if Dead Weight is any indicator of what is to come I can honestly say I am happy about that.