In a world where those who died a violent death stay in the realm of the living, Alex accidentally ran over Jono during a drunk driving accident. Now Jono haunts her constantly as she goes about her life, followed by his bloodstained body. She has learned to ignore him over the years, but his presence -- and his constant quips and needling remarks -- continually reminds her of the actions she wishes she could forget.
But one day at a diner, they run into another pair in the same situation: Large is constantly accompanied by his former lover Maria, who he murdered when he discovered her having an affair. Through the couple, Alex soon discovers a way to free herself from her dark bond to Jono -- but that route may take Alex down an even more perilous, possibly violent path.
This stylishly ominous horror short -- directed by Stefan Georgiou and written by Fred Armesto -- falls on the moodier, brooding spectrum of the genre, taking time to lay down its compelling atmospherics and the fascinating world before building up to a tense, thrilling finish.
The storytelling sets up a dystopian world, where the urban jungle is a cacophonous backdrop to isolation and alienation. Richly saturated, moody cinematography and painterly, surreal images also go a long way to establish feelings of uncanniness and dread, and there are also aspects of film noir in how it renders the world as a place where violence and corruption lurk in the shadows, waiting to come out.
More importantly, the writing and craftsmanship take the time to explore the strange, fascinating relationships and emotions that exist between the dead and the living. Rather than scaring or haunting in a traditional, monstrous way, the dead here remain very much themselves, except for their injuries and mutilation. They're able to think, reflect and talk to their killers. Their constant presence weighs down the living, often pulling them into anxiety, depression or anger.
This is, of course, a potent metaphor to explore how guilt and shame can twist someone's behavior and action to an extreme, and the range of performances in the film makes that metaphor come to life. Lead actor Olivia Hallinan has the difficult task of portraying an immobilizing depression, but her portrayal is realistic and compelling in showing the inner tug-of-war between guilt, fear and inaction.
When Jono convinces Alex to free herself from their dysfunctional bond, Alex and the story lurch forward with momentum, and the story's twists and turns culminate in a powerful encounter -- though it's highly debatable whether or not Alex becomes truly free at its end.
"The Dead Ones" pays an unusual amount of time on its world-building for a horror short, but that investment also makes it a more resonant, emotionally compelling entry into the genre.
Horror is, of course, richly metaphorical in bringing to life the almost primal fears and tensions humans grapple with, and here, it looks at the corrosive, toxic ways we can be manipulated by the shame we don't own up to and make peace with. "The Dead One" vividly brings to life a toxic cycle where guilt fuels poor decisions, which only leads to more guilt -- and a darker downward spiral that adds a new spin on Sartre's assertion that "hell is other people."