Dead Birds (DVD)

Starring Henry Thomas, Nicki Aycox, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, Mark Boone Jr., Isaiah Washington

Directed by Alex Turner

Dirty, gangrene-ridden filmic accounts of the violent conflict between the North and the South, I could see, would bore some to the point of suicide. Not me. If it’s engaging enough and not some backyard reenactment of the Civil War with your neighbor Bob, I’ll jump into the trenches for two or three hours of blood-soaked history. And wouldn’t ya know it, this modestly budgeted period piece from newcomer Alex Turner dishes on the history (we’re in the late-1800s for this one) as well as some heavy gore and otherworldly Lovecraftian heebie-jeebies for a mostly satisfying feast. That is, if you can withstand its unhurried storytelling pace these tales of America’s yesteryear can’t seem to shake (it ain’t no Glory, I’ll say that much).

Turner’s luck as a first-timer is beyond what most fledglings are granted with: a strong cast, a taut – if simple – script and Tim Burton’s thriftiness with the dinero. You see, Turner got to use the “town set” Burton’s production crew had originally built for Big Fish. Too nice to tear down, the block-or-so-long streetscape survived – fortunate for the Dead Birds troupe because the location is used to open the film and it sets a precedent for the rest of the painstaking attention for detail we can plainly see bathed beneath the blood.

This small town I speak of has a new coat of crimson by the time Birds‘ band of criminals ride out in a hail of bullets following a bold bank heist where they make off with four sacks of gold. A trail of bodies is left behind including one poor sap whose head is blown to croutons ala Fulci’s kid cranium-shot in The Beyond. Unfortunately a little boy is picked off in the process by leader-of-the-thieves, William (Thomas). It’s a chunk of karma evil enough to haunt the gang as they arrive at their hide-out: an old plantation house set behind a dried field of corn. It’s here they’re attacked by a toothy creature identified as a “hairless boar” which is quickly dismissed for more pressing issues, hunkering down for the night indoors and protecting the gold. Weird then turns to f*cked up as manifestations begin to reveal the house’s past.

The build-up is a long one and the pay-off is drippy with sacrifice victims but the frights could’ve worked a whole lot better if there were some discernibly likeable characters among the gristly lot. Turner keeps each scene rich with color and every frame creative in the composition department (May production designer, Leslie Keel, and d.p., Steve Yedlin, were on board) even right up to the very end when the story perilously threatens to split at the stitches. However, it remains courageously cryptic, never succumbing to needless exposition. Dead Birds never flinches, takes the genre to a time few have gone before and is, so far, one of 2005’s most welcome entries. And this, again, comes from Silver Nitrate, the company who served us Frankenfish on a skillet last year – another surprising effort that was better than it ought to be. I look forward to their future.

Columbia’s widescreen presentation presents a sharp and atmospheric picture with a uniformly strong sound transfer. An offering of extras usually fit for a more popular (ahem, successful) film are here for the taking – an unusual act for Columbia Tri-Star who is more akin to giving us the cold shoulder in the bonus features department when the movie’s not, say, Spider-Man.

To begin with, a drunken producer welcomes us to the Alabama set in Making Dead Birds (27m 10s), the disc’s main featurette. It’s filled with more laughs than you’d think, all of them stemming from unintentionally humorous on-set incidents, for example, when Turner learns that some of his crew are part of a local inmate reintegration program. They make great electricians, apparently. We also get a peek at some of the alternative creature designs created by Robert Hall’s Almost Human FX. From the Special Features menu press left on your remote and you’ll open the 6m 37s Easter egg entitled Showboat & Boomer, a series of interviews between actors Michael Shannon and Mark Boone Jr. – two of the film’s highlights who are seen here hamming it up and exchanging friendly verbal slams.

An audio commentary with Turner accompanies all five ho-hum deleted scenes. He also flies solo on one of two audio commentaries where he never misses a beat to credit his crew all the while detailing the challenge of cramming in – and being grateful for – the amount of coverage he needed to make a coherent film over the amount of days he had to do it. Similar sentiments are found on the second commentary track with Turner, actor Henry Thomas, actress Nicki Aycox, screenwriter Simon Barrett and composer Peter Lopez.

Columbia has also included trailers for Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, The Grudge and Wake of Death. If you wind up a fan of Birds, like myself, you’ll be thankful for the studio’s generosity. Let’s hope they keep this up.

3 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit

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