[Review] 'The Dead Ones' Presents an Imaginative Story But Fails to Find Its Footing

Warning: Major spoilers ahead.

The Dead Ones is the latest film by director Jeremy Kasten, and unfortunately there is no easy way to talk about it without spoiling it. So, if you want to be surprised, go give it a watch before reading this review. Clocking in at just 73 minutes, making it short even by horror movie standards, The Dead Ones follows four students who are taken to a disheveled school for a special detention session where they are required to clean it up. The ruinous appearance of the school makes it fairly obvious from the start that things are not what they seem, and it isn’t long before you realize that this school is the personal hell of these four people and they are being tortured by their victims, apparitions, their former selves, and each other for the violence and death they unleashed on the school when they were alive.

The opening of the film is instantly distracting, I’m not sure if they were using green screens on the van windows and applying the scenery in post-production, or if it was the lens they were using, but it doesn’t look right and completely takes you out of the moment, which is an odd choice for an opening sequence. The mystery aspect of the film doesn’t work too well because the location is so wretched that any suspension of disbelief is gone from the start and I found myself less interested in what was actually happening than figuring out the premise. However, once the premise of the film becomes clear, the movie is infinitely more interesting, and it was fun trying to piece together who was who, as the original perpetrators were wearing gas masks, and what led them to take part in a school shooting that resulted in their now hellacious afterlife.

The script was written by Zach Chassler and it is mostly effective, but I would have liked a bit more. As the four main characters perpetrated a massive crime together, their motivations are central to the film. Scottie was bullied, Mouse had an abusive father who worked for the school, Emily was insane, which is the closest thing to an explanation we get for her and Louis was, well, I’m not sure. Louis Friend, a name cribbed from Silence of the Lambs, has plenty of screen time, is clearly angry, and is in love with Emily, the crazy one, but none of that establishes a clear motivation for his actions, which all the other characters have, though Emily’s is lazy and somewhat dubious. Given the short run time of the film, fleshing out the backstories of Louis and Emily and establishing clearer motivations would have been a notable improvement that could have potentially taken this film to a much higher level.

Outside of the opening van sequence, most of the visual effects are quite well done, though they don’t have much of an impact. Blood, organs, scars, and gunshot wounds all look pretty realistic, and the demonic, otherworldly creatures that show up on occasion look appropriately strange, but none of it had me particularly unsettled. I did love the setting, as the dilapidated school was well done and provided a familiar yet eerie backdrop for the story, and they did a great job with the debris and furniture looking exactly like what you would find in a ruined high school.

One place where The Dead Ones really shines is with the performances. Sarah Rose Harper played Mouse, and she did a great job of balancing rage, hurt, and compassion to create a complex, yet ultimately sympathetic character, which is quite impressive given the film’s premise. Taking on the part of Scottie is Brandon Thane Wilson, and he did a notable job with a difficult task. There are three versions of Scottie we see: the leader of the attack on the school, the bully victim, and the take charge pseudo-hero in the afterlife, and Brandon nails each one without making them seem like different people, which I really enjoyed. Katie Foster plays Emily, who doesn’t have much character development beyond being crazy, but Katie nails the crazy portrayal and does so memorably. I’m a bit conflicted with Torey Garza’s performance as Louis Friend, but I am not sure if the fault lies with him or the director. As part of the cleanup crew in the afterlife, Torey does an excellent job of infusing Louis with the anger and rage the fuels him, despite not being given much motivation for them. However, as one of the school assailants, many of his mannerisms and even some of his dialogue is lifted from Heath Ledger’s Joker performance, and that really didn’t go over well with me. This could have been a directorial decision as some mass shooters were inspired by Ledger’s Joker, but if that were the case here it should have been established. However, as I said earlier, we are never given Louis’s reason for attacking the school, which is arguably the biggest story issue with this movie and makes it hard to understand the reason why Torey chose to play him how he did.

The Dead Ones is an interesting little movie, and I think most horror fans will find something to enjoy here, but with a bit more story development it definitely had the potential to be more than what it is. At the very least the performances are great, and I hope to see these actors get more prominent roles in the future.

The film is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD/Digital via Artsploitation Films.