In contemporary society, kids are growing up in the age of social media, where sharing compromising videos and photos has become common practice. Above all, school shootings have been on the rise. Nowadays (before the pandemic), going to school has never been more dangerous.
Jeremy Kasten’s The Dead Ones begins with fictitious footage uploaded to YouTube, titled “Locker Room Dungeon Boy.” The video shows barbarous bullies forcing a student’s head down a toilet as they call him derogatory names. Shortly afterward, a young woman is crawling through an air vent, unsure of what’s haunting her. Concomitantly, fugacious glances of a school shooting underscore the true kernel of panic permeating the film.
“A masked crew, under the disguise of The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, is lurking outside…”
Moments later, a teacher (Clare Kramer) is driving four students to Arcadia High School, where they are tasked to spend a week of their summer break cleaning the mess they’ve made at the school. Emily Davis (a convincingly frantic Katie Foster) is an impassioned young artist who lives with a mental illness and harms herself frequently. Alice ‘Mouse’ Morley (a moderately subdued Sarah Rose Harper) is rather demure but just as wounded, as years of abuse from her father (Muse Watson) have left indelible scars. Scottie French (an impressive Brandon Thane Wilson) has done time in juvie for retaliating against a bully. And Louis Friend (Torey Garza) is best characterized by his inflated rage, but opposites attract considering he’s seeing Alice.
The set-up is taken straight out of The Breakfast Club handbook, but as the mounting terror of The Dead Ones suggests, the teen angst has gotten more feral. The school is presented in the aftermath of a shooting. The school hallways are riddled with bullet holes, the lights are constantly flickering, and debris is scattered across the floor. Clearly, this isn’t your customary cleaning job that’ll bring these four outcasts closer together, principally because they have more pressing matters to worry about. A masked crew, under the disguise of The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, is lurking outside, locking the doors and windows until storming the school with weapons and explosives. At the same time, otherworldly entities are pushing the distressed teens to confront their past trauma head-on, rendering the school as some kind of purgatory the teens are unable to escape.
A free-flowing camera follows the students through the grimy, shadowy hallways as they encounter their demons: Alice sees her abusive father, Louis succumbs to his rage, Scottie relives the publicized moment of “Locker Room Dungeon Boy,” and Emily’s hallucinations get progressively worse. Although the supernatural imagery is interestingly representative and bizarre, the raw horror lies within the alarming flashbacks that gradually reveal the progression of the school shooting that was first alluded to in the introduction.
The Dead Ones is a vastly unnerving and innately contentious horror film that underlines the topic of school violence with palpable extremity. Whilst it would’ve been barrenly excessive to portray a school shooting and nothing else, the vindictive spirits and hallucinations exhume layers to the characters, exposing where their anguish stems from and how it blemishes their psyche. While there are many components that can fuel a school shooter’s vile urge, the movie draws from a few cogent possibilities: bullying, domestic abuse, mental illness, and rampant ire.
Solely as a piece of horror, The Dead Ones is genuinely terrifying. The ghostly antics are mainly employed to reinforce the trauma that the teens try to disregard, even though it lingers more memorably than any skulking spirit. The teenagers’ trek through their personalized purgatory is delectably murky, with the ruined school interiors upholding a foreboding climate that keeps the viewers (and characters) on edge.
“…vastly unnerving and innately contentious horror film…”
The flashback sequences of the school shooting are naturally more apprehensive, unsightly, and devastating. Coupled with Christopher Blauvelt’s excellent cinematography (undeviating wide shots and shuddering close-ups) and Maxx Gillman’s fluid editing, the flashbacks are not disruptive; in fact, the flashbacks are imperative to how the film evaluates what goes through a school shooter’s mind by rightly depicting the damage they inflicted.There is a sense of curiosity behind the identities of the masked gang, though it remains apparent. Even if the gang’s identities are foreseeable, it doesn’t take away from the fact that putting a face to the school violence is still intrinsically gut-wrenching. In all honesty, the graphic violence that coincides with the school shooting is almost too much to handle, but it isn’t complete exploitation. Every school shooting isn’t contained, and the perpetrators in the film are not lauded in any fashion.
The Dead Ones is a markedly unsettling venture through the mind of a school shooter, and one that disinters value in the unspeakable. But, as repellent as that may sound, the movie is as much a tale of vindication as it is an elaborate sentence of damnation and guilt. This 73-minute horror film will turn heads and trigger discourse, whether that be on the matter of school violence or how such aggression is dealt with it. Either way, The Dead Ones will not go quietly.
By Andrew Stover