Review of The Civil Dead (dir. Clay Tatum)

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By Marta Przygodzka (she/her)

This review is a part of our Glasgow Film Festival review series. The Film Festival is running between 01/03/23-12/03/23, don’t miss out and go and see some incredible new films.

The Civil Dead is the 2022 come-back of co-writer’s Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas. The film is my definition of the perfect date: silly, yet smart, not try-hard but bizarrely poetic and tender in its mundanity. 

The film’s protagonist, Clay (Clay Tatum), is a photographer whose job prospects are steadily giving up the ghost, bumps into Whit (Whitmer Thomas), an old hometown acquaintance. Whilst Whit happens – somewhat unfortunately for the both of them – to be a deceased spirit visible only to Clay, The Civil Dead is not your typical haunting story. The ghost/host dynamic serves as mere pretext for an extensive reflection on the politics of seeing and feeling seen, an appropriate meditation for the cinematic form.

Self-reflective aesthetics transpire right from the opening sequence as a bedside lamp floods the dark cinema screen with light, satisfying our voyeuristic curiosities whilst a dolly shot takes us beyond the frame of the bedroom. Aware of its indie film persona, The Civil Dead oscillates between allusions to cinematic conventions and references to the machinations of the industry, with the nebulous shadow of a TV monitor shining restlessly in the distance. The audience, alongside Whit’s ghostly position, find themselves eavesdropping on marvellously lengthy and banal mumbles of conversation, becoming implicit in Whit’s creepy observations. 

There is a lot to be said about the wisdom of laughing at bad jokes, so I must stress my appreciation for Tatum’s and Thomas’s bold dedication to them. Whereas New York Times’s Jeannette Catsoulis speaks of this indulgence in bad jokes as ‘buddy comedy’, the term arguably encompasses the film’s viewers and its authors’ who hope, but do not insist, on us getting the joke. Some of this personal humour takes the form of Clay referring to his wife as ‘boo’, his attempts to walk out of the film frame, and taking pictures of the audience (spoiler alert: we are invisible).

The Civil Dead is essentially an hour and forty-four minutes of feeling validated before getting ghosted. The intimate dimension is amplified by the real-life friendship of the writers/lead actors, who demonstrate plenty of self-assurance in their authorial choices. Some of that might be attributed to the fact that The Civil Dead is a film by two white men about two white men, inevitably leaving many people out of this ‘buddy experience’. Nevertheless, I can’t deny Tatum’s and Thomas’s adroitness at the edges of formalism and pure indulgence in the pleasures of film-making; they consider all the hypothetical practicalities of being haunted and of being dead in a kaleidoscopic arthouse-comedy-horror, with spooks of sadness that escapes classification. The Civil Dead is having its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival this month. You can catch it on the big screen at GFT on the 10th and 11th of March. It has been a while since I have seen such a cleverly funny mise en abyme, so if you enjoy total works that come full circle, I promise you won’t be disappointed.


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