Review: Dominic Monaghan robs graves in I Sell the Dead

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

As perhaps a prelude to that highly-anticipated adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or just one of the first zombie movies to take the material out of a contemporary setting, I Sell the Dead is a remarkably funny and engaging little horror film, emphasis on the little.

Taking ideas, images and energy from the movies of folks like Sam Raimi and then recontextualizing them in a 200-year old time and place, writer-director Glenn McQuaid crafts an effective, intimate story that works because it understands it doesn't need a lot of spectacle in order to be successfully creepy.

Starring Dominic Monaghan (Lost), the film follows Arthur Blake, a cheerful grave robber growing up under the tutelage of Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden), himself a ne'er-do-well who recently found himself on the business end of a guillotine. Telling his story to a fascinated monk named Father Duffy (Ron Perlman) on the eve of his execution, Arthur explains that the duo plied their trade successfully for years, working first for Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm) and then for anyone who would pay them to pick up a shovel. But even as they stumble across a discovery that will make them rich and famous, Arthur and Willie find themselves at the center of a turf war for unearthed corpses—the outcome of which might not mean the fate of their next meal, but their very lives.

Like all great horror movies, which this one almost is, I Sell the Dead really kind of sneaks up on its audience—in this case, because scenes begin and end without requiring a massive, gore-laden payoff, and the proceedings as a whole operate in a straightforward and decidedly non-horrific manner. In fact, it's almost unfair to characterize the film as a horror film in any traditional sense, because so much of the film really just is about the sort of mundane details of being an 18th Century grave robber. That said, there are enough familiar "horror" beats to legitimize its spot in the zombie-movie canon, but in the same way that Shaun of the Dead both celebrated and deconstructed the genre, McQuaid's story doesn't dote on all of the hallmarks that would otherwise make it a four-square movie about the undead.

In addition to the subplot involving corpses that are reluctant to be disturbed from their final resting places, McQuaid frames the action with dissolves to comic book panels that give the film an almost EC Comics-kind of feel—that Tales From the Crypt kind of irreverence, steeped in human interaction but seeded with occult and mysterious underpinnings. This comic book-versus-zombie movie aesthetic works far better than one might expect, again, because it's primarily about the characters: Arthur and Willie are two well-meaning rascals, and while their travails are appropriately silly and scary, they're contextualized in recognizable human behavior that both feels period-appropriate and completely contemporary.

Ultimately, I Sell the Dead isn't going to redefine zombie movies as we know them, but as a sidebar or sort of historical footnote to what has come before, it's an entertaining addition to the genre; an equally suitable title might have been The Medieval Dead. Particularly in a time in movie history when the constant emphasis is on how much bigger and broader a film can be than its predecessor, Glenn McQuaid surpasses his competition by flying under the radar and telling a story that manages to resurrect the genre's fundamentals without needing to completely raise the dead.