'Dead Shack' Review: Exploding Heads, Zombie Carnage, And Plenty Of Dad Jokes [Fantasia Film Festival]

For fans of chuckle-happy zombie schlock, I present to you Peter Ricq's Dead Shack, a scrappy Sam-Raimi-esque vision birthed from cabin-in-the-woods campfire stories. Laughs are bloody and sentiments family-driven, but one of the more impressive aspects is a low-budget production that masks shoestring restraints ("shoestring" being relative). Gore effects are squeamish and pulpy, unblemished by budgetary shortcomings – and there's certainly no shortage of flesh-snacking examples to choose from.

A genre film that knows how to have fun while splattering a few heads in the process? You have my attention.

Ricq's story (co-penned by Phil Ivanusic and Davila LeBlanc) follows a family vacation into the middle of nowhere. Pops Roger (Donavon Stinson) is strapped for cash, which means their rental home is isolated and not properly secured. Whatever. Roger and new fling Lisa (Valeria Tian) get too drunk to notice, and the children would rather be out exploring. Siblings Summer (Lizzie Boys) and Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) are joined by Colin's friend Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) as the group wanders around surrounding woods until reaching their neighbor's property (who's played by Lauren Holly). They watch two lady-killin' bros enter her "shack," but instead of catching a sexy glimpse of some menage-a-trash, witness the dudes drop cold after being drugged. One is dragged in front of a door. A small undead child walks out. She begins feeding. Sound like a good time to leave? You bet...with the "cannibal" clan in hot pursuit.

Dead Shack's frequency is tuned to younger generations, made obvious by tech-heavy kid chatter. Jokes are made about landlines not existing in 2017 and penis cartoons being sent via text message, while Jason awkwardly hits on Summer right in front of Colin. Immature content focused on crass profanities that might not entertain older viewers. This is a backwoods zombie-slasher hybrid from the perspective of paranoid tweens. Just know this going in, fully aware that Colin's synthetic Red Bull energy is never going to dial down. Pee gags, jests about broken homes, expected brother/sister negging – sometimes the motor-mouth wit can be a bit excessive.

Fortunately, Ricq's youthful cast boasts cafeteria-style chemistry that supports violence with stellar comedic undertones. The trio of mischief makers ramble for what might seem like long stretches, exploring not-so-hidden feelings or one-upping family drama, but it's rarely a bummer. It's more just kids being kids, with Ricq utilizing his own juvenility to go all coming-of-age on some biters. Case in point: one of the film's tenser scenes occurs while Colin is stuck mid-urination. His stream is powerful, but Holly's killer – and zombie family – are on the other side of the door. It's such a laughable scenario, wholly representative of intended tones.

Even though Dead Shack is focused on child heroes, Donavon Stinson shines brighter than a radioactive flashlight. His schtick-loving dad mannerisms scream "Scruffy Jake Johnson," and alcoholic obliteration makes for some hilarious genre plotlines. He's supposed to be the adult, yet with zombies lurking around, his children constantly out-responsible and out-logic him.

"I'm super drunk and kinda high, so being quiet is hard," Roger says when shushed for the thousandth time. "Ughhhh, this is so boring," he whines while hiding behind a parked car, ignoring safety precautions. This is the constant game Stinson's arc plays, and somehow he sticks 99% of the landings (while intoxicated). Roger just wants a camping trip where everyone "acts like rednecks or people who don't trust the government," and damn it, Lauren Holly's roving horde of zeds aren't dampening spirits.

As far as carnage goes, Ricq's SFX team hits the killswitch hard when it counts. We're talking shotgun blasts to the dome and heads exploding like rotten fruit hitting the pavement. Action that takes place during an inevitable climax stand-off moves a bit slow, but once it comes time to dispose of the living or dead, acceptable offerings of goo and flesh are shared without hesitation. To reveal specific bloodletting would spoil important plot points, but just trust that gorehounds won't be disappointed. Plus, who doesn't love a good bro-zombie dismemberment?

Also worth noting is the lack of true scares here. Ricq's ideas are jovial and light, while chills tend to be an afterthought. Child zombies shamble with bluish tinted skin, other leashed family members gnash their rotten teeth, but it's never worth prickled hairs. The few "jolts" are more comedic than anything, especially taped-and-gagged bro getting accidental axed and then speared WWE style by a hungry walker. Holly may be dressed in mock SWAT gear, but she's no trained assassin. She's more a protective Michonne figure, who acts as a handler with blood on her hands. She's never horribly intimidating, only "psychotic" thanks to a zombie infection that's never explained.

In the end, a likable cast of rambunctious adolescents and even funnier inebriated adults make for an isolated zombie-and-mouse game that's an easy, breezy watch. Some of Lauren Holly's lines lack a bit of punch, but seeing her decked out in bite-proof tactical gear is a pretty kick-ass image. Same when the film's three pint-sized protagonists tool up in an abandoned shed, spiking football pads and fashioning weapons. It kind of feels like if that retro Zombies Ate My Neighbors SNES game was adapted, except one of the neighbors is insane and still caring for her zombie family. Because that's what Dead Shack is all about. The big "F" word. It's just that these warmer hallmarks are hidden underneath guts, guffaws and plenty of lame-tastic dad jokes. All chained up and ready to go.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10