There is almost no science fiction or horror element more useful in building social commentary than zombies. Conversely, it’s an element that has become a cliche – so universalized and recognized that adding anything fresh to the genre is a difficult order. And with the inclusion of Make-Out With Violence being added to the genre, it looks like one more option is off the table.
The Deagol Brothers have created a zombie film that barely deals with the zombie. Instead, it’s more a coming-of-age, summer love type tale that just happens to involve the reanimated corpse of the object of affection. The dramatics and childhood romance of the summer after graduation plays out on schedule while one young man grows increasingly obsessed with the girl he could never have and will never have alive.
Twin brothers Patrick (Eric Lehning) and Carol (Cody DeVos) are set for summer and the unrequited love quadrangle that’s developed within their social group. Patrick loves Wendy (Shellie Marie Shartzer), the local girl next door of everyone’s dreams. Wendy loves Brian. Carol loves Wendy’s best friend Addy (Leah High). Mutual friend Anne Haran (Tia Shearer) seems to love several people. The film opens with the disappearance of Wendy and the preparation for a body-less funeral for the girl. What follows is the discovery of her re-animated body in the forest, a pact to keep it secret by the twin brothers and their younger brother Beetle (Brett Miller), and the oddly natural continuation of everyday youthful life over a life-changing summer.
Make-Out With Violence is a strange film. It’s independent, fresh, and has a style all its own (particularly because it borrows from so many different sources). There are going to be comparisons to The Virgin Suicides and Night of the Living Dead, and with the coming-of-age vibe, it feels a lot like My Girl if the main cast were high school-aged and if Thomas barely came back to life after all those bee stings. At its root, it’s a film about young people discovering what life and death is all about. It’s a film about letting go of someone (or not being able to let that person go). All of this is handled with the shaky awareness of the first-time filmmaker – complete with moments of genius and moments revealing the amateur shine underneath.
First of all, the acting ranges from subdued and honest to dull. The major tone of the movie is almost one of middle-class ennui – a look at what students are like when they are no longer students, and the only responsibilities filling their day are flirting with the object of their affection, figuring out whose pool to lay out by, and, of course, figuring out what zombies eat. As expected, the lighthearted nature of a young man actively seeking out the love of a young woman, and the plan that he hatches, brings a lot of sunshine to the project while the scenes with Wendy’s near-comatose, randomly-spasming former-corpse bring the darkness. Shellie Marie Shartzer – to her credit – makes every moment she’s in, whether she’s lying completely still or instinctively biting the head off a rat. She brings an air of creepy sweetness to the action and ironically, she brings the most life out of all the actors. Her only rival in that department is Eric Lehning whose character Carol comes off like a twelve-year old most of the time, belying the sense that he’s a high school graduate that hasn’t had much social interaction. He’s a seventeen year old that can’t swim for no explained reason. Still, there’s a dopey kindness and innocent love in his character as he pursues Addy, refusing to stoop to certain levels in order to keep his relationship pure.
On the flip side, there’s the mildly disaffected Patrick who can’t let Wendy go and spends almost every moment with her zombie self, attempting to create some semblance of a relationship. The acting there is flat, though. It may be the case that Eric Lehning was going for a disturbing quiet vibe, but he just comes off as muted – getting out-acted literally by a corpse.
Beyond the sleepy-eyed tone of the flick (which seems to be the thing in indies now for whatever reason), there are those few tell-tale additions to the story that seem quirky but go nowhere. The most obvious example is that the twins’ parents never expected two children (because they didn’t get regular ultrasounds?) so they only had one boy’s name and one girl’s name ready for whichever popped out (and apparently they couldn’t come up with another boy’s name?). Thus, Carol has a girl’s name – this does nothing for his character, but it makes the film slightly more quirky – something that a more experience filmmaking team probably would have either changed with gritting teeth or worked into the story somehow. If nothing else, the film suffers from its need to be quirky – which is shocking considering that they genuinely have an interesting concept and subject matter on their hands. No other work was needed to differentiate, but the small inclusions meant to be off-beat take it just over the edge.
However, it really is a beautiful film. The shot framing and selection is fantastic, creating a feel the fluctuates between the happy, sun-colored fields of summer and the slightly frightening moments of Wendy’s glacial-paced sporadic movements. The score also adds to the film in a strong way, of course coming from Jordan Lehning (who also did the music for the Deagol Brother’s short Robot Movie).
Overall, it’s a good movie and a solid first feature that takes a decades old film convention and reinvents it by taking it out of the main thrust of the story. If anything, Make-Out With Violence is a movie about young people trying to fall in love that just so happens to have a zombie. But just as they keep that zombie a secret, hidden away in an empty house they are looking after, the movie itself shuffles that element away into the corner and out of the spotlight. It balances out an endearing love story with the slightly unhinged desperation of a young man who is a few blood-soaked inches away from being a necrophiliac. Like I said, it’s a strange film. And it’s worth checking out.