Grave robbing was big business in the 19th century, and desperate anatomists turned to body snatchers (also known as “resurrectionists”) to keep their laboratories stocked with fresh corpses. Dominic Monaghan (better known as Charlie on “LOST”) and Larry Fessenden are resurrectionists of a sort in “I Sell The Dead,” though their grave robbing quickly takes a turn that’s funny, bizarre, and pretty damn entertaining.
Monaghan and Fessenden are, respectively, Arthur Blake and Willie Grimes. They make their living digging up dead bodies, first at the behest of Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm), and, later, just because it pays decently. After a few years of digging up graves, they think they’ve seen it all—that is until one night when, digging up a grave at a crossroads, they find a corpse with a stake in its heart and a string of garlic around its neck. Arthur removes the stake, the vampire wakes up, and before long, the two cads are in the thick of some Victorian-era supernatural shenanigans. Zombies and other creatures are afoot and they’re a prized commodity. And luckily, Willie and Arthur are good at rounding up the undead.
“I Sell The Dead” is two parts Hammer to one part “Evil Dead II.” It’s cheap and low-budget, one of a string of new features coming out of indie production house Glass Eye Pix (of which Fessenden is the man in charge), but in the best sense possible. You can tell writer/director Glenn McQuaid, Fessenden and the rest of the crew stretched their budget to the limit, but the movie never feels shoddy. There are some moments when the cracks show—some not-so-great CGI fills in the backgrounds and substitutes for other effects—but when it counts (that is, when the zombies and vampires start attacking)–the movie looks great. The zombies and vampires that Arthur and Willie must face bear more than a passing resemblance to the Deadites in “Evil Dead II,” and “I Sell The Dead” uses some of the same kind of slapstick touches.
“I Sell The Dead” feels great, too—McQuaid shifts the movie from gruesome horror with a touch of adventure to period slapstick with ease. Occasionally, scenes will bleed into comic book panel-style transitions. The passing nods to horror comics (along with the heavy Hammer influence and a small role by Angus Scrimm as a deranged anatomist) are a nice touch and reinforce the movie’s blend of the gothic and the comedic.
As far as that comedy goes, Monaghan and Fessenden are a great pair. Fessenden looks kind of goofy—his forehead is too big and his hair’s a wild mess—and his bizarre appearance contrasts with Monaghan’s boyish looks. They have drinking contests, fight over who has to dig up the next body, and attempt to scam each other for sandwiches and booze. It’s a good dynamic, one that gets interrupted when, suddenly, Arthur’s new girlfriend/apprentice Fanny (Brenda Cooney) is introduced into the mix. Don’t get me wrong—Cooney’s a total fox and I don’t want to complain too much about her presence on screen—but Fanny’s sudden appearance in the final third of the movie feels artificial. That’s a minor gripe, though.
There are plenty of other awesome characters that don’t feel forced, and McQuaid excels at populating the film with killers, criminals, bartenders, and old ladies, all of who really stand out. The best of the bunch is the House of Murphy, a fearsome gang of murderous grave robbers that serve as Willie and Arthur’s only competition. In a clever, comic-book style sequence, each member of the House of Murphy gets a quick origin story, from the cold-hearted Cornelius (John Speredakos) to the horribly scarred Valentine Kelly (Heather Bullock). I hesitate to recommend unnecessary sequels or prequels, but a House of Murphy movie would be pretty awesome.
“I Sell The Dead” is McQuaid’s first feature, though he has worked previously on other Glass Eye Pix productions like the global-warming themed thriller “The Last Winter.” McQuaid has some good sensibilities and it will be interesting to see what he does next. Meanwhile, “I Sell The Dead” can be found on On Demand (if you’ve got cable), though it’ll be out on DVD in December, if you’re patient. It shouldn’t be a tough sell—“I Sell The Dead” is fun enough to rouse even the most soundly sleeping corpse.