Anniversary Dinner (2012) – By Cary Conley

What is your definition of true love? How meaningful was that vow "in sickness and in health" to you? How long could you nurse someone with a long-term, debilitating illness? These are some of the questions that are addressed in Anniversary Dinner, the new short horror film by the creators of last year’s superior indie film The Big Bad for example.

Frederick is married to the love of his life, Leigh. Unfortunately, a disease has swept the country leaving most people dead and some…well, undead. However, Leigh’s zombie state isn’t about to stop Frederick from celebrating their anniversary, complete with lights, candles, and a home-cooked meal…at least for him. But Frederick is interrupted by his sister who comes to check on him, inadvertently ruining Frederick’s dinner celebration. As one might imagine, Beth isn’t too happy to find that Frederick hasn’t eliminated his undead wife and threatens to do it herself. After all, it isn’t fair that Frederick isn’t emotionally strong enough to contact the proper authorities to dispose of his zombie-fied spouse like Beth had to do with various members of her family. But when the altercation spirals out of control, Frederick makes a decision that will allow him to be with Leigh until the bitter end.

2011’s The Big Bad was a unique genre-blurring vampire film that showcased the talents of writer and actress Jessi Gotta and director Bryan Enk. As in the previous film, Anniversary Dinner also blurs the genre lines, this time between horror and straight drama. And much like Gotta’s unique addition to vampire lore in The Big Bad, she also puts a twist on zombie lore with a genuinely sympathetic zombie. Sure, Romero created "Bud" for Day of the Dead, but the audience sympathy was driven more by the fact that "Bud" was somehow cute even though he was a zombie. Gotta has created a zombie that can somehow still recognize her mate, perhaps by smell, and has enough brain function to resist the never-ending urge to bite him. And while Leigh can’t talk as a zombie, she is still able to communicate in some primitive way with Frederick and understand his intentions by interpreting his body language and the look in his eyes. The result is a more human zombie that manages to mix genuine sympathy with fear which resonates more effectively for the viewer.

This time, Enk produces while Gotta co-stars and directs. The results are just as good as The Big Bad. As noted in the previous film, Gotta is a powerhouse of raw emotion and a fine actress; she again showcases her skills as a strangely attractive zombie with a conscience. She is at once scary and sympathetic as well as one of the prettiest rotting corpses to ever grace the screen. This juxtaposition between beauty and revulsion is delicately balanced and lends the film some extra emotional impact. This is partly due to Gotta’s dead-on (forgive the pun) portrayal of a ravenous zombie with only one thing on her mind as well as to Jane Rose’s superbly understated zombie makeup that allows just enough of Gotta’s natural beauty to show through to give the character sympathy even as her predatory eyes send shivers down your spine. The zombie even exhibits anger as she hears her husband and sister-in-law arguing and her sister-in-law’s repeated use of a derogatory term aimed at her.

Rose’s makeup effects for The Big Bad were extremely impressive and very high-quality for a micro-budgeted film, and her effects for Anniversary Dinner are equally good. As with most zombie films, there will be some entrails spread about as well as a few chomping effects, all of which are bloody enough. But the real show-stopper comes near the end of the picture and will quite likely cause you to sit up and ask yourself, "Did I really just see what I think I saw?" The effect itself isn’t new, but most of the time it’s done very poorly or just so quickly that it’s hardly noticed, but not in this film. It’s shockingly violent, well-done, and a tremendous amount of fun.

Essentially a three-character film, all three actors are quite good. Brian Silliman co-stars as Frederick and does a very nice job portraying a deeply saddened but nevertheless devoted husband while Alyssa Simon injects some chaotic energy into the film as well as a bit of dark humor (her reaction to discovering that Frederick has kept the undead Leigh is absolutely hilarious as is her comment upon discovering the meal Frederick is preparing for Leigh).

Daryl Lathon lensed and edited the film and does a terrific job in both capacities. The film opens with a fantastic montage of quick domestic scenes as a Frederick prepares the anniversary dinner. In successively quicker repeating shots we see pasta boiling, hands being washed, sauce being heated, hair being brushed. The scene creates tension because the viewer identifies right away that these seemingly mundane shots are slightly off-kilter: why would the husband be scrubbing his wife’s hands and brushing her hair? Why wouldn’t she be doing this herself? The explanation is quick in coming as the sequence fades out and back in and the audience sees a flyer warning of a contagion. These two short sequences manage to expertly tell the story with nary a spoken word or musical note played, a testament to the strong writing and editing the film contains. Another superb scene sees the zombie crawling on the floor; at first she is out of focus, but as she approaches the camera lens, her face becomes clear. It’s a fantastically creative and superbly atmospheric sequence. Likewise, the sound effects are startlingly effective and lend a gruesome quality to several zombie scenes.

The duo of Jessi Gotta and Bryan Enk clearly have immense talent and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next. For more information about their company, go to http://gottaenkfilms.com and for more information about the 12-minute short, Anniversary Dinner, go to http://anniversarydinnermovie.com.