From its punning title, to its self-identification as a rom-zom-com (“romantic comedy with zombies”), to the admittedly coincidental fact of having a redheaded lead, Kyle Rankin’s Portland-made horror comedy “Night Of The Living Deb” practically begs to be compared to Edgar Wright’s 2004 film “Shaun Of The Dead.” That “Deb” is no “Shaun” isn’t, in itself, a debilitating problem. “Shaun Of The Dead” is, simply, the best comic horror movie ever made, a success on practically every level. “Deb,” making its Maine premiere on Saturday and Sunday at SPACE Gallery isn’t as ambitious an enterprise, riding along on the considerable charm of its recognizable stars, and, for Portlanders, the spectacle of familiar landmarks infested with the walking dead.
Cast and crew members turn out for killer premiere of Maine-made movie on pressherald.com
The film begins with Deb (Maria Thayer of “Strangers With Candy,” “Eagleheart,” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), a spunky but awkward local news camera operator, daring to approach the handsome Ryan (“Men At Work,” “Smallville”) at a bar, even though she describes him as “an angel that came down from outer space.” Waking up in Ryan’s bed the next day, Deb is hustled out of the apartment by the befuddled guy (neither can really recall how they got there), only to find the streets of Portland awash in gore and flesh-eating zombies. (“At least they’re the old-school palsy-variety zombies,” enthuses the ever-enthusiastic Deb in one of the movie’s knowingly funny references to its place in zombie movie history.) Making their way across the city to the supposed safety of the compound-like home of Ryan’s wealthy father (legendary character actor Ray Wise of “Twin Peaks,” a longtime Rankin stalwart), the two get on each other’s nerves, bond through intermittent zombie-killing, and, not shockingly, fall for each other.
As the leads, Thayer and Cassidy are the film’s chief assets – even if the script (by first-time screenwriter Andy Selsor) can’t integrate their growing chemistry into the zombie apocalypse at hand. (Indeed, the movie often simply puts the peril on pause to allow the leads to banter at their leisure.) As Deb, the always-bright and funny Thayer is the sort of character who shouts would-be endearing exclamations (“Awesome sauce!,” “Yahtzee!”), spouts poetry (by Portland native Longfellow) and wears funky clothes, all traits which are supposed to mark her as an outsider that straightlaced Ryan wouldn’t normally be interested in. Thayer’s always fun, but the way her Deb embodies the “manic pixie dream girl” romantic archetype is a little heavy on the manic, hardly seeming to register the zombie outbreak, even when her best friend (Julie Brister) gets zombified. Cassidy fares better, his underplayed reactions to Deb’s hyperactive brashness landing with appealing charm. (Sure, I kept catching alternating glimpses of Paul Rudd, Chris Pratt and Ben Affleck in his performance, but those aren’t bad traits in a comic-romantic lead.)
As far as the “rom-zom-com” goes, “Deb,” for all its convincingly rendered zombie gore, isn’t much interested in the horror aspects. Again, Rankin, despite the film springing a few nifty plot twists I won’t spoil, doesn’t look to ratchet up the tension (even in a roadblock armed standoff), instead letting the shaggy charm of the cast play off of each other. Apart from the leads, Wise is delicious with twinkly menace as ever, Chris Marquette (“Joan Of Arcadia,” Rankin’s “Infested”) is funny as Ryan’s cluelessly gung-ho brother, and, in the small role of a snarky soldier, Brian Sacca (“The Wolf Of Wall Street”) steals all his scenes. (Poor Syd Wilder, as Ryan’s shrill ex, has the thankless task of embodying the film’s conception of the anti-Deb – a.k.a. a mean, promiscuous, shallow jerk who spends half her screen time in elaborate lingerie.) As for the local color, Portland looks good on the big screen, even if it’s dripping with blood (and there’s a graffiti/grammar joke that’s the most Portland thing I’ve ever seen in a movie.)
There’s a lot to like in “Night Of The Living Deb,” even if you can’t see your house being stormed by zombies.
6:30 p.m. – SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland, sold out; Space538.org
7:30 p.m. – Smitty’s Cinema, 420 Alfred St., Biddeford, $9; Smittyscinema.com
9:30 p.m. – SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland, $8; Space538.org