Written by Anna Harrison
“The Civil Dead” is a ghost story, but it’s not a horror movie—nor is it “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” It’s not trying to impart any grand ideas: it’s just two friends, director Clay Tatum and co-writer Whitmer Thomas, cobbling together a film about two very different people who cross paths in an unexpected way. Translation: Whit (Whitmer Thomas) is dead, and only childhood sort-of-friend Clay (Clay Tatum) can see him, and naming the characters after themselves raises some strange questions about Thomas’ and Tatum’s off-camera lives, but maybe they save that for their therapists. Rather than focus on how or why Whit became a ghost, Tatum and Thomas instead laser in on the more mundane details: Can he walk through walls? (No.) Can he appear to anyone else? (No.) Can he get an erection? (Also no.) There’s a certain charm to the low-budget approach, even if you won’t remember the film a week from now—while the laid back approach to Whit’s ghostly existence is refreshing, it never becomes profound.
“The Civil Dead” is at its best when it keeps the absurdist premise grounded in the blossoming sort-of-friendship between Whit and Clay, but flounders a bit when it actually goes into the supernatural (even if only lightly) and especially when Whit explains his death to Clay. Tatum and Thomas have an easy chemistry that comes with years of friendship, and the movie loses steam when it drifts away from them, most especially Thomas, who remains charming even when Whit shows an immature streak.
The most interesting moment comes at the very end of the film, as Clay does something that seems incongruous with the man we’ve been watching but simultaneously makes him much more interesting—unfortunately, the credits start to roll just after, leaving us wishing that the film could have been this dynamic earlier. But to its credit, The Civil Dead never pretends to aspire to loftier ambitions, and what we’re left with is exactly (mostly) what we were promised, though it is frustrating to witness a kernel of something greater only as we leave Clay and Whit forever. As these things go, however, “The Civil Dead” is an inoffensive enough watch, and hopefully can net Thomas some greater calling cards in the future.
“The Civil Dead” is playing at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.