Starring Matthew Nelson-Mahood, Lizzie Boys, Gabriel LaBelle, Donavon Stinson, Lauren Holly
Directed by Peter Ricq
Working class dad Roger (Stinson) treats his kids, Colin (LaBelle) and Summer (Boys), plus his new girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian) and Colin’s best friend Jason (Nelson-Mahood), to what should be a relaxing vacation at a cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, any notion of a carefree getaway is soon cast aside as the teens witness their nearest neighbour (Holly) attacking two young men before feeding them to her zombified family.
When the kids run back to report the grisly happenings, a now inebriated Roger decides – much to the disapproval of the younger trio – that he should go and investigate for himself. Unknown to our protagonists, however, the armoured-up, shotgun-toting neighbour knows what they saw… and she’s on her own mission to shut them up for good.
As zombies break loose and the conflict kicks into high gear, the kids have no choice but to kit themselves up with sporting gear and homemade weapons in a chaotic fight for life.
Sporting a distinctly ‘80s vibe, Dead Shack is a frequently hilarious, and occasionally tense, horror-comedy mash-up that’s easy to fall in love with. Key to the film’s success are the script and performances – witty dialogue sees endearing banter thrown around between the family and friends with nearly every line, yet whilst they rib on each other (often mercilessly), there’s never sense of anything less than complete love shared within Roger’s family unit.
Speaking of Roger, Donavon Stinson comes very close to being the heart and soul of Dead Shack all on his own. He lights up the screen every time he appears, and his drunken antics are a constant source of delight. Roger’s complete inability to avoid a sneaky drink (hey, he’s on vacation!) means the kids have to put almost as much effort into protecting their legless father as they do in fighting for their own survival.
This dynamic imbues Dead Shack with an abundance of heart, as it happily enjoys presenting the best of family and friendship. Even the seemingly disinterested and unlikeable Lisa doesn’t become the target of unnecessarily mean-spirited jokes, and when Jason reveals a secret of his own regarding his home life, the response is unexpectedly uplifting where in different hands it may have been used to create artificial conflict between supposed best friends. Nelson-Mahood, Boys, and LaBelle all deserve top-tier props for their performances, bringing to life a trio of characters that are rarely less than a joy to see together.
Whilst the horror elements are perhaps lighter than they could be – Dead Shack whips up a bit of tension but is rarely, if ever, actually scary – fans of zombie grue should find enough to keep them happy here. It’s always difficult to find the right balance between the comedic and the serious in a film such as this, and while he doesn’t exactly nail it, Ricq’s work is impressive for a debut feature. A certain late-game occurrence is perhaps the most jarring evidence of the off-kilter balance, feeling unreasonably cruel to the audience after the lighter-toned ride they’ve been taking.
Still, these are minor problems in the face of everything that Dead Shack gets right. There’s a ton of love splashed up there on the screen, and it seeps from every frame. When that’s the case, it’s almost impossible not to just sit back and let it wash over you. Do that and you’ll have a hell of a time with this particular zombie-bashing caper.