The “dead teenagers” in Dead.tv obviously haven’t seen last year’s giddily inspired gem The Cabin in the Woods or any of the hundred “spam-in-a-cabin” slasher flicks since the 1970s and ’80s. However, the puppet master here, played by the handsomely gray Eric Roberts, is Julian Barrett, a writing-directing purveyor of a popular, now-defunct ’80s horror trilogy called Summer Camp, à la 1983’s Sleepaway Camp. Making up for the end of his career, Julian has one last-ditch trick up his sleeve — jump on the reality-TV craze and reboot the outline of his films by casting real, troubled twenty-somethings, promising them the shot to win a million bucks and to fix themselves at a fake counseling camp. Of course, the contestant “eliminations” become deadly real.
With Dead.tv, writer-director B. Harrison Smith uses a self-reflexive approach in a different way and throws on a fresh-enough coat of blood. In fact, Smith is actually slyer in his comment on now-defunct horror franchises, with the inspired casting of Felissa Rose, and the popularity of reality TV than he is with the standard stalking and slashing. Wasting no time with the “getting-to-know-you” conversations, the film introduces its gaggle of soon-to-be victims with dark pasts in their reality TV auditions. There’s the sullen, anxious Adrienne (Nicole Cinaglia); hunky lunk Christian Novak (Joe Raffa); lesbian Sarah (Ashley Sumner); the clownish Vinny (Davy Raphaely); ex-military nice guy Matty (Alexander Mandell); the slutty Katie (Montana Marks); and a few other mysterious types.
Though the hook of watching a horror movie isn’t to see a Meryl Streep running around screaming, or for the plot and characters, there is typically a Final Girl or Guy whom we can root for and that’s not really the case with Dead.tv. The contestants, though while all attractive, boil down to jerks, brats, stereotypes, or nice-enough would-be heroes, and some of the actors fill their archetypal roles better than others. Adrienne might have the saddest backstory, and yet Nicole Cinaglia is the most uneven, seemingly misdirected to either underact to the point of being lost behind her mousy glasses or overact to irritating effect. Joe Raffa might make the most impression as the wild-card hunk, who shares one of the more artistically free sex scenes with co-star Montana Marks, and Gnomi Gre, as the pierced “princess of darkness” Missy, sells a quietly funny verbal smackdown to one of the arrogant dudes. The one Eric Roberts is perfectly snaky as Julian Barrett, and, of course, Felissa Rose, cast as Julian’s ex-lead Rachel Steele summoned to be the kids’ head counselor, seems to have some fun poking fun at her role of transvestite murderess Angela in Sleepaway Camp. Also, horror veteran Danielle Harris has a few scenes to chew on as the local sheriff (!) who doesn’t watch horror movies (!!).
Not the worst of its type, Dead.tv, like many entries in the genre, isn’t so much about what it’s about but how it’s about it. One thing is for sure: the film is a team effort. Actor Rafa does double-duty, playing loose-cannon Novak and taking credit as film editor, and Rose and Cinaglia are also associate producers. However, the production values are spotty, from a few technical editing faux pas and some overly dim cinematography. Luckily, make-up effects guru Clever Hall’s kills are realistically bloody and viscous, including guttings, stabbings, and a very nasty use of dishwashing liquid. There’s also a throwaway line involving the viral watermelon-to-the-face clip from TV’s The Amazing Race, which then gets paid off with a darkly funny death. One exception: the killing of a black amputee being beaten with his own leg seems a little mean-spirited. For such a low-budgeted affair that usually calls for blood to just look like Karo syrup, “practical” is always the way to go in the grue department.
On and off, this cheeky horror pic delivers what you want it to and ends on a didn’t-see-that-coming high note. Though not always competent and filled with more potential than what was fully applied to the finished product, Dead.tv does have a low-budget charm, offering a few twistedly twisty goodies and enough splatter to keep gorehounds happy.