The Dead Center review Shane CarruthYear: 2018
Director(s): Billy Senese
Writer(s): Billy Senese
Region of Origin: USA
Rating: n/a
Color, 93 mins

Synopsis: A John Doe comes back to life and sets off a series of events. 

The Dead Center may be a bit too ambiguous for some, but it’s an undeniably fascinating experience. I like that it never became what I wanted it to be. In a world where horror films are a dime-a-dozen, director Billy Senese is trying to do something different, and the results are commendable, even if a little distant. Too often, horror films are exactly what we see on screen. Things happen, there’s a battle waged between good and evil, and when the credits roll, we’re over it. Senese’s film isn’t about instant gratification. It’s something that we really have to think about, truly getting under our skin. Those looking for cheap scares aren’t gonna find them here, but if you want something a little deeper, this is a thought provoking rumination on the finality and inevitability of death itself.

Dr. Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) is part of an overworked, over booked emergency psych ward. Needless to say, him and his colleagues have their hands full, attempting to aid the numerous patients that quickly walk in and out of their care. One of these patients isn’t like the others, however. Unbeknownst to Forrester, his latest patient, a John Doe (Jeremy Childs), is a reanimated corpse. Catatonic upon arrival, but slowly gaining awareness, this John Doe has just broken out of his own body bag before finding shelter amidst Forrester’s cramped wing. Still, Forrester decides to make John Doe his mission, carrying his own personal baggage into the case despite already being under heavy scrutiny from his colleagues. Unwittingly, Forrester sets off a chain of catastrophic consequences, empowering an unexplainable force that can’t be reckoned with.

To Senese’s credit, his latest breaks the mold of cookie-cutter horror, never feeling merely like a series of scares, but a story that is textured and evolving. Leaning heavily into the space where paranoia and mental illness converge, Senese keeps us constantly guessing. Think of this as more of a thriller, but with deeply embedded horror elements. Since the film is plot-heavy, some of the character work feels a little undercooked, but this isn’t a deal breaker by any stretch. Ultimately, Senese has created a film about making us feel the confusion and helplessness that comes with death. In particular, Senese zeroes in on the sudden loss of someone close and the emptiness that follows. As the film alternates between psychological and supernatural, causal horror fans should find a lot to hang on to, specifically with the film’s third act, which carries big, mythic implications and lots of blood. Ultimately, there’s some pretty deep stuff going on in here, and it sticks with us the more we think about it.

The Dead Center review Shane Carruth Jeremy ChildsOn the performance side of things, Shane Carruth, Jeremy Childs and Poorna Jagannathan hold things down. First off, it’s great to Carruth in something even if it isn’t something he wrote or directed. He’s a woefully underutilized talent, and really adds conviction to the film’s sense of realism. As ex-cadaver John Doe, Jeremy Childs is downright terrifying. His performance naturally evolves over the course of the film, at first employing subtle body language, to something darker and more tragic. Poorna Jagannathan adds a voice of reason to the mix, with a cool-headed, steely Doctor trying her best to maintain some semblance of order.

With its subversive genre elements and a central premise that makes us think, The Dead Center instantly stands out. There is a very hard-edged old school vibe to the entire thing that never devolves into nostalgia, but rather helps to give the film its grit. At a time when most of the genre has become homogenized or a series of repetitive sequels, Senese’s film is a welcome mind-bender that carries a genuine sense of existential dread.