4 out of 5
Directed by: Peter Ricq
Cabin the woods. Zombies. You don’t need much more for a horror movie, right? Director Peter Ricq seems to feel that way with Dead Shack, almost to a fault – the movie is ridiculously thin on background, and on the usual limp attempts at ‘explanation’ – but he, and co-writers Phil Ivanusic and Davila LeBlanc, have also realized that better variations on this shtick often come equipped with great characters in that cabin and facing those zombies, and Dead Shack nails that: Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood), seen escaping from arguing parents at film’s start to jump in a car and go camping with friends Colin (Gabrielle LaBelle), his sister Summer (Lizzie Boys), and their father, Roger (Donavan Stinson) and his girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian), are all engagingly human and hilarious right from the flick’s start. Yes, they’re all relatively one-color shaded tropes – Jason is shy; Colin is crass; Summer is brash; Roger is ‘cool dad;’ Lisa is a lush – but at the same time, we all tend to sink into our own tropes day to day, and Dead Shack embraces that, and leans in to the balls-busting camaraderie of friendship (and childishness, as ‘cool dad’ lets his kids drink and crack wise and etcetera) in a way that feels legit.
Don’t let that fool you into thinking that there’s any hefty emotional core to Dead Shack – it’s a comedy first, and quite often a ridiculous one, with a good dash of gore to make it all better. As Roger and Lisa layabout the camping cabin, the trio of teens go exploring – Jason cheesily failing at flirting with Summer; Colin busting his chops over it – and find their neighbor’s cabin, witnessing her (Lauren Holly) plying two younger kids with drugged alcohol, and then seemingly feeding them to creatures she has holed up in the house.
Dead Shack avoids horror movie idiocy – once the kids have confirmed what they’ve seen, they’re outta there, and back home to try to convince Roger to call the cops. Roger, though, being drunk and cool, is allowed to go the horror movie idiocy route, and picks up an axe and woozily proclaims to go check it out and… off we go. Lots of zombie munching, and head smashing follows.
And that’s about it! The straight forwardness of the story – Lauren Holly’s character doesn’t have a name; her part in events is given a justification but no real background otherwise – is wholly refreshing, as is the movie’s willingness to forego any of the usual distractions of disbelief or bickering and just get on with it, with a smile in place almost the whole way through. That said, there is sort of a lack of escalation to events: we know that low budget doesn’t mean you have to avoid excessive splatter (obviously there’s a classic reference with Evil Dead…), but Dead Shack’s gags are rather spaced out, and fairly repetitive – once you’ve seen one attack and slaughter, that’s about the extent of what you’re getting. But with its light tone and fun characters, the movie still definitely successfully carries its 90 minute runtime, much better than any given horror movie with extra characters and plot details trying to pad out the same.