Clay Tatum’s The Civil Dead is a witty horror comedy that explores the question of ghosts in a relatable manner.
We’re still troubled by the great question of whether or not ghosts are real. Many people have their own experiences with a poltergeist, but in terms of concrete evidence, there’s nothing to be found. The truth about ghosts and their existence could be heartwarming to some who want to see their loved ones once more, but for others, it could open the door to questions we might not want the answer to. Clay Tatum’s The Civil Dead is a dark comedy exploring what happens when the existence of ghosts collides with your own anxieties about life.
The Civil Dead follows Clay (Clay Tatum), a struggling photographer in Los Angeles who is given time alone when his wife is out of town. After being advised to be productive and creative in his downtime out of work, Clay comes across his old friend Whit (Whitmer Thomas). As the two catch up on each other’s lives, Whit discloses a troubling secret to Clay that may destroy his marriage and sanity.
Directed by Clay Tatum, The Civil Dead plays itself in an incredibly naturalistic way as it slowly brings us into its surreal world. The struggles of our lead character are profoundly relatable and, even in the face of the supernatural, never go beyond the line of unbelievability. Clay is a photographer but ultimately lives as a slacker deep within his own purgatory of being an adult. To be creative is to be mentally charged at all times, but when middle-aged life rears its head, this can become difficult. There are only 24 hours in a day. When much of that time is allocated to friends, family and jobs that only serve as a means to an end instead of a creative haven, life can suddenly become lost in a certain mundanity that The Civil Dead taps into exceptionally well.
When Clay and Whit finally reunite, The Civil Dead kicks into full gear. There’s a chemistry between the two leads that, even when it goes into its inevitable darker directions, never loses track of what makes their performances enticing to watch. None of these characters or actors aim for grand performances. Instead, they act as essential pieces to crafting the overall tone. When the surreal realisation surrounding The Civil Dead’s overall narrative is welcomed into the film, Clay Tatum’s direction does much of the heavy lifting and helps craft a slow descent into darker territory in the third act. The swings that the film takes in its final moments are somewhat messy in their execution, but in the end, the creativity of the script and its direction never falters.
The Civil Dead is an extremely dry comedy. Clay Tatum doesn’t aim for belly laughs here but instead for something more witty and reserved. Comparisons to “mumblecore” films are inevitable, but the freshness of what the film can do with its premise keeps it above the rest. It won’t be a film for everyone. However, those willing to tune into its wavelength will be rewarded with a unique horror comedy that takes more joy in exploring its characters than its narrative. While, at times, this can lead to the film’s runtime feeling bloated, this is made up for by the complete dedication from Clay Tatum to the overall tone of the film.
As a horror comedy, some may be disappointed by the overall ratio of jokes and laughs. However, The Civil Dead quickly makes it clear that at the film’s core is a strange and unique story that tastefully examines a surreal premise with a dose of the mundane. Clay Tatum shows a lot of promise as both a director and performer. While the film’s ambitions may occasionally be under-met due to the low budget and bloated runtime, The Civil Dead is still an entertaining and unique tale for those looking for a relatable tale of middle-aged life.
The Civil Dead will be released in select UK cinemas and on demand by Bulldog Film Distribution on 19 January 2024. In the US, the film is now available to watch on digital and on demand.