A big hit on the festival circuit with awards at Kerry and Seattle, Adam William Cahill’s feature debut Follow the Dead is a horror-comedy that pits zombies against Millennials.
Disturbing viral videos are spreading across Ireland. Shaky phone footage and livestreams appear to show the dead rising in Dublin.
Now, the zombies are allegedly shambling toward the Midlands with a thirst for blood and a hunger for brains. All around, people are losing their heads and lives, but for Robbie Whelan (Luke Corcoran), the zombie apocalypse comes as something of a relief.
We begin with a date gone bad, a regular occurrence for Robbie, whose lacklustre love life is the talk of the house he shares with his would-be influencer sister and their two couch-bound cousins.
All of Robbie’s live-in family are in a state of flux. His sister Liv (Marybeth Herron) is a struggling musician hoping to gain an online following in the midst of the zombie panic. Robbie’s cousins, the brothers Chi and Jay (Tadhg Devery and Luke Collins) are wise-cracking slacker types.
Communication in the house is mostly verbal sparring between family members. Chi and Jay debate the source of the zombie outbreak, the veracity of the online reports and their own plans for the apocalypse.
When the cousins aren’t butting heads, they chide Liv for her attempts at making it as a vlogger. Robbie stands in as the “man of the house” because even though his own life is a mess, it’s less of a mess than the rest of theirs.
Follow the Dead is odd in that neither of its core elements, the horror or the comedy, is handled well. It’s not scary or all that funny.
The humour misses a lot more than it hits. Cahill, to his credit, stuffs a lot of jokes into a scene. The dialogue has a joke (or two) in almost every line, but that creates a challenge for the actors. When there’s too many jokes, laughs get lost easily. There’s a strange rhythm to the line reads and delivery that makes each joke feel like a series of set-ups without a punchline. When the payoff eventually comes it feels rote.
As an example, Chi, speaks mainly in malapropisms, it’s the old Jimmy Durante schtick by way of Offaly. Sometimes, Chi’s verbal slip-ups raise a smile, but more often an eyebrow.
Like Chi, each of the other members of the household rely on one distinguishing characteristic for laughs. Luke Corcoran as Robbie is nearly always exasperated with those around him, Jay has a twitchy, nervous energy and Liv is likely to be annoyed at all three.
One-note played over and over doesn’t make for beautiful music.
Jay and Chi’s double act of feeding each other’s conspiracy theories and cynicism sometimes approaches a worthwhile destination. Follow the Dead asks questions of our willingness to believe what we see on the Internet. Their exchanges, taking place in a cramped living room, touch on the maze of misinformation that comes with every refresh of a Twitter timeline or Facebook newsfeed.
But these kinds of sequences tend to fade into the background as Cahill’s script moves from plot point to plot point without letting any one element of the story come into its own.
Robbie’s ex-wife, a guard named Kate, is back in town and with her return Robbie’s troubled past comes into view. Meanwhile, a vigilante group has taken advantage of the vacuum in power and has started a terror campaign of their own in the name of revolution. Then there’s the parish-politics angle as the town is split on how to cope with the impending hordes of the undead.
Even the zombies take a backseat to other concerns. That’s perhaps the big idea at play here. With everything else that’s going on, who has time for the walking dead?
The make-up downplays their role as well: they are not always immediately recognisable as zombies. Indeed, the walking dead are competing in the scare department with the revolutionary vigilante guys, who wear gnarly masks. Chi calls them “Shlipknot” at one point, which diminishes the menace somewhat.
And that is the big issue with Follow the Dead. You can make a genre-aware film, or a film that calls attention to itself, but you can’t have joke after joke and then expect the scares to work too.
The gore that pops up from time to time feels shocking for its own sake. The effects are well done but it’s very hard to be invested in a horror narrative that isn’t wholly invested in itself. Be funny or be scary or even scary-funny, but funny-scary is a difficult tone for a film, one that Follow the Dead makes a haphazard attempt at.
What is most surprising then is that in rare cases this scattershot approach to tone produces a handful of genuinely affecting scenes. Almost out of nowhere, when Follow the Dead isn’t trying to be funny or scary, it succeeds in being heartfelt.
For much of Follow the Dead, Robbie and the rest of the Whelan family are treated as objects of fun. Reeling off quips and snipes at one another and the world around them. But in these quieter moments, the characters aren’t joke machines, they’re people worth caring about.
These standout sequences in which characters have deeply moving heart-to-heart exchanges feel apart from the rest of the film. The earnestness is at odds with the snark seen throughout.
Praising sequences that play unlike anything else in the film doesn’t do much to recommend Follow the Dead. I will say that these more dramatic sequences left an impression of Cahill as a filmmaker.
In the director’s statement on Follow the Dead’s website, Cahill speaks of an ambition to “to use the medium of film to tell unique, thought-provoking stories, with an emphasis on making Irish genre films”.
There are moments, now and then, here and there in Follow the Dead that show great ability and look to a bright future for those involved – with more feeling next time.