Deadgirl: A Twisted Tale of Lust and "True" Love
This uncomfortable, ahead-of-its-time film isn’t just another zombie flick.
Zombie films are a personal favorite of mine. Ever since I first saw George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as a child, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of the dead coming back to life to feast on the living. As such, it should come as no surprise that I’ve seen many zombie flicks over the years. From Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to ‘80s Italian classics, and even more modern takes on the genre, these films tend to almost always fall into one of three categories: masterpieces that helped define the genre, so-bad-they’re-good grindhouse romps, or absolute trash. 2008’s Deadgirl is a surprising entry that doesn’t fit into any of these descriptions. It is a pretty decent zombie flick with some very interesting commentary on social topics such as women, rape culture, temptation, and even the dangers of losing one’s self.
Deadgirl tells the story of two high school boys, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan), seniors and social outcasts who spend their days ogling their female classmates. Rickie especially fantasizes about entering into a relationship with his childhood friend, Joann (Candice Accola), although she is uninterested and dating a jock named Johnny. One day, the duo cuts class in order to explore an abandoned psychiatric hospital. Inside the structure’s basement, they find the Deadgirl (Jenny Spain), a mute and nude woman chained to a table. J.T. declares they should have their way with the girl, which his friend is not on board with. After failing to convince J.T. to leave with him, Rickie refuses to participate in the depravity and departs. However, he tells no one of what happened there.
Upon meeting again the next day, both return to the basement where J.T. shows Rickie that the Deadgirl can’t actually die, a fact he discovered after attempting to kill her three separate times following his assumed sexual assault. It is also revealed that their mutual friend, Wheeler, has been invited to take advantage of the Deadgirl as well. Rickie tries to free her, still disgusted by his friends’ actions, but this only results in J.T. being scratched before she is once again restrained.
The next day at school, an emboldened (or desperate) Rickie asks his crush Joann out on a date to no avail, resulting in his group being accosted by a jealous Johnny. Wheeler accidentally spills the beans about having “[their] own pussy now” and Johnny forces them to take him to the psychiatric hospital. Once there, Rickie convinces Johnny to let the Deadgirl give him oral sex, resulting in her biting his equipment. Johnny flees the scene but soon grows ill, with his intestines bursting from his body and leaving him in the same vegetative state as the Deadgirl. It is at this point the other three boys realize the Deadgirl is being kept alive by some sort of infectious disease.
J.T. and Wheeler decide they need a new, fresher Deadgirl to replace the original and make plans to abduct their next sex slave. Joann comes looking to talk to Rickie and is instead kidnapped by the pair and taken to the hospital. Rickie gives chase and arms himself with a machete as he comes to rescue her. He saves Joann by cutting off Wheeler’s hand and freeing the Deadgirl, who attacks both Wheeler and J.T. Attempting to escape from the carnage, Rickie is forced to return to the basement when he finds the exit is locked, becoming separated from Joann in the process. He has a brief skirmish with the Deadgirl, who knocks him down and breaks out into the wild.
Rickie eventually finds Joann again, although she is close to death after being stabbed in the back by a dying J.T. Rickie professes his love for her and promises he will take care of her, although Joann rebukes this declaration, telling him he needs to grow up and to get her help. J.T. begs Rickie to let him bite Joann so that she can live on as a Deadgirl so the fantasy doesn’t have to die with him. Rickie’s decision is not immediately known.
The movie then jumps forward to sometime in the near future. Rickie is shown at school looking happy and cleaner cut, perhaps fitting in better with his peers. At first it seems that he has grown and moved on from the trauma we’ve witnessed over the last 90 minutes. Things soon take a dark turn as we see Rickie making his way through the woods back to the hospital. In the basement lies his new Deadgirl. Joann is shown tied to a bed in clean lingerie surrounded by soft lights as the movie fades to the creepily selected song “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” by Liars.
If that sounded fairly intense, it was. Deadgirl is definitely a movie that grabbed my attention. That being said, what themes did the film try to tackle? One of the biggest is the view of women as objects. The only two female characters in the film, Joann and the Deadgirl, are viewed as property by the male characters. The Deadgirl especially is seen as a sex object by every male character who comes across her, with the exception of Rickie. J.T. doesn’t even hesitate to rape her immediately upon her discovery and attempts to kill her afterwards to cover up his misdeeds. Wheeler joins in on the “fun” without a second thought and even jock asshole Johnny wanted to get in on the action, that is, until discovering the Deadgirl is actually an infectious zombie, leaving J.T. and Wheeler deciding to discard her like trash and replace her with a new body. Her only value to them was her ability to fulfill their sexual desires. She was property to them, a sex object with a shelf life.
Rickie is the only one who saw her as an actual person, wanting to either help her or set her free, unlike his friends. However, his inaction and refusal to turn on his friends and go to the police might be a shot at rape culture. While it is possible that he thought no one would believe him, the authorities surely would be willing to listen and at least investigate the basement after the incident with Johnny. Instead, out of loyalty or perhaps a misguided attempt to “save” his friends by getting them to see the error of their ways, Rickie allows the situation to spiral out of control. While it is true that he himself does not participate in the assaults, he is just as guilty for not doing the right thing and choosing to turn a blind eye. Sexual assault and objectification are absolutely normalized by most of the characters in this film. Even Johnny gets overly jealous and possessive of his girlfriend, Joann. In the end, it costs most of them their lives.
I’m not a socially or politically motivated person myself. I tend to watch and take movies at face value, although it is interesting to reexamine the film in a world post-#MeToo movement. So many celebrities and online personalities have been accused of sexual misconduct over the last few years in the public space. There is even the recent drama surrounding Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, with new evidence seeming to paint a different story from what most people initially believed. Then there’s Weinstein. How many in Hollywood knew about Harvey Weinstein and did nothing? Could Rickie really be a stand-in for Hollywood or society in general? If not participating in rape culture, at least enabling it through inaction?
Remember that this film came out in 2008, so I doubt it was attempting to appeal to what many would call the “woke” culture of current times. Still, it’s hard not to look back in today’s charged landscape and make comparisons. If this film had come out even a few years later in the wake of #MeToo or Gamergate, that is likely what many reviewers would claim. It’s hard to say if such attention would have given it a positive reception even now. Many media outlets called it misogynistic and it maintains a 29% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe the film was ahead of its time, but I doubt most people gave it a chance considering its somewhat uncomfortable plot and themes.
Deadgirl also unintentionally deals with the more recent subject of “incels,” or involuntary celibates, which Wikipedia describes as “members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one.” Rickie, J.T., and Wheeler were not popular students. None appear to have had girlfriends or much in the way of sexual experience. As a result, they spend a lot of their time fantasizing about girls out of their league. Even the “pure” Rickie fantasizes about being with his dream girl and friend, Joann, despite having virtually no chance with her. These boys want relationships and sex, but are unable to achieve it through normal means. Thus when the opportunity to live out their darkest fantasies becomes a reality, they jump on it. Literally. Media and researchers have often criticized this group for being both radical and misogynistic, with some even going so far as to categorize incels as a hate group. Regardless of your views, it would be hard to disagree at least J.T. and Wheeler would likely be labeled as members this group by some outlets in 2020.
Would everyone act like Deadgirl’s characters in that same situation? Probably not. We don’t get to see much about J.T. and Wheeler’s home lives to see if there are other factors that have contributed to their bad decisions. At the very least, being “losers” at school implies there are other underlying issues in their characters. Mental illness, lack of parental guidance, or even addiction to hardcore internet porn could all be contributing factors. Were they horror fans with no distinction between reality and fantasy, unable to see how fucked-up the situation they were in was? Or perhaps J.T. especially was just an evil person who liked to torture animals in his spare time? Deadgirl doesn’t really give us anything to go off of regarding that train of thought. All we know is that Rickie is shy and unsure of himself, while J.T. and Wheeler come off as very immature hooligans. All of them are somewhat socially awkward, but that alone doesn’t explain their actions. I’m not saying the average teenage boy wants to have forced intercourse with a bound, naked woman; this is a movie and you have to suspend some of your disbeliefs. There would be no interesting story if they found the Deadgirl, called the cops, and the movie was over in ten minutes.
An argument can be made that Deadgirl even deals with the issue of sexually transmitted diseases. The infection that keeps the Deadgirl alive is transmittable from, at the very least, by a bite, if not through sexual intercourse. At first, J.T. and Wheeler don’t even think about the possibility of getting infected as they were caught up in their own fantasies and sexual satisfaction. It’s doubtful they were using any protection and the thought probably never crossed their minds. It is only after the horrific death of Johnny via his bite that the two become fearful of catching something. This fear is the primary motivation for the kidnapping of Joann, leading to the film’s bloody climax. While this is not a major theme that is explored throughout the film, it is one still worth mentioning. Other horror movies have tackled this subject in more meaningful ways. 2014’s It Follows is likely the best example, in which a supernatural curse afflicts those who engage in sex is the entire focus of the film, along with issues of trust and intimacy. It’s still food for thought, though.
Another theme that cannot be ignored is false love or infatuation. Rickie is in love with Joann (or at least thinks he is), but she doesn’t feel the same way. They are simply friends and nothing more, a fact that Rickie doesn’t respect when trying to ask her out despite knowing she had a boyfriend. After Joann’s kidnapping, Rickie then thinks he will be her white knight, storming in to save her. He even hacks off his friend Wheeler’s hand with a machete as he is molesting her. In the end, though, he fails. Joann is mortally wounded, literally dying in his arms. Even then Rickie is delusional, choosing this exact moment to declare his love for her and promising he will save her. Joann immediately tells him to “grow up” and get her medical help. For Rickie, it was almost as if he felt he was still the hero in his own fairytale with his youth and immaturity really coming to light here. The only reason Joann has found herself in this situation in the first place is because of Rickie’s mistakes. If anything, she probably hates his guts by this point. There are no happy endings in the real world, despite Rickie’s delusions.
The end of Deadgirl is really the most memorable part for me and provokes the most thought. While not exactly a twist, it was still surprising to see Rickie had taken up J.T.’s advice to turn Joann into his new Deadgirl. After spending the entire movie fighting to do the “right thing,” Rickie ultimately betrays his own morals and beliefs, choosing to embrace his dark desires. Notably, he only does this when the Deadgirl has become his true love, the object of his own obsession. In his warped mind, this may have been the only way Rickie could save Joann and finally be with her. However, the dynamic between the two still hasn’t changed. She doesn’t and is now incapable of loving him back. The two remain in a one-sided relationship that she is being forced into against her will. Imagine the mental gymnastics this kid has to do now to justify his actions on a day-to-day basis. He views the physical husk of his affections not only as if she were still alive, but with himself as her savior and soul mate. This leads us to the final question of, what is the film trying to tell us about Rickie’s final decision?
I think at its core, Deadgirl is a cautionary tale reminding us that no one is incorruptible. “Everyone has their price,” as it has been said before. Everybody has secret desires and passions. If we are not careful, we can lose ourselves to that darkness. It doesn’t even have to be sexual urges. Drugs, alcohol, gambling addiction, or an abusive relationship we want to make work are all things that can cause us to lose ourselves if we give in to our temptations. Granted, none of these situations are potentially as serious as banging a zombie, but the lesson is there if you dig a little deeper. For Rickie, he was willing to sell his soul to be with the one he naively claims to love. The truth is, if he really did love her, he wouldn’t have made this final, fatal mistake. He is desecrating the very remains and memory of Joann for his own personal gain. Now, Rickie is stuck in his own version of Hell, forced to lie to himself every time he looks in the mirror. He is not a good person and he is no better than J.T. or Wheeler was. He has become the villain in his own story. If nothing else, this film reminds us that lust and infatuation can be dangerous emotions for those consumed by them.
Just to make it clear, Deadgirl is a fairly uncomfortable film to watch at times. I mean, we are dealing with not only issues of sexual assault but also what is technically necrophilia. If watching that somehow turns you on, I guess it’s a free country, but I think most people will agree it’s the kind of feeling that leaves you wanting to take a hot shower to wash away the griminess. However, that is probably what makes the film most interesting. It made me feel something. It also tried to do the genre a little differently and provoke thought on important social issues.
I don’t think this was a case of the directors trying to project their personal fantasies on to a film. Deadgirl was meant to grab our attention by any means and get the gears in our heads turning. Take that for what you will and make your own conclusions upon watching it. Besides, if this was simply a movie about zombies found in a hospital basement that escape, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it at all. It would be another generic zombie film and we have plenty of those.
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