Sometimes, low budget horror is a hard sell. Dead Within takes huge risks in establishing the slow passing of time and monotony of hiding from a deadly zombie outbreak with repeated rituals in a tiny, unchanging space.
Every morning, Kim and Mike pack up a backpack for Mike to take outside the house. While he hunts for supplies, Kim locks herself inside, scrubs the small cabin from head to toe, fingerpaints to cut the anxiety, and calls out for help on the walkie-talkie. When Mike blows his whistle twice and knocks out the correct song on the door, she lets him in for a formal candlelight dinner of whatever rations he found in abandoned buildings.
That's the plot of Dead Within. The story is a cyclical descent into madness as the long days away from each other slowly drive Mike and Kim mad. The entire film is set in the cabin, so we follow Kim's life closer than Mike's. His increasingly long journeys make her paranoid, while her anxiety over his travels makes him agitated and defensive. These thought processes are the variant that move the story forward.
Essentially, Dead Within is a cinematic play like Bug or Repulsion. They all feature small casts, claustrophobic environments, and a clear three act structure that will either scare you until you're shaking and crying or bore you to tears. Dead Within, in particular, is a slight narrative with fewer resources onscreen.
So much of what works in this sort of one-room horror is the set design. Unfortunately, the genuinely tiny space leaves only a few locations where a camera could actually fit. Director Ben Wagner wants to physically stay in the same space as Kim and Mike, so the option of using overhead angles or even exterior shots through the cracks in the boarded windows aren't possible. By the time the space begins to shift in the final act, it might be too little too late for some audience members.
I normally don't go that personal in a review. I don't think I have a choice here. The closest comparison I can make to Dead Within is Open Water. That was another polarizing, poorly reviewed horror film with a two-person cast and mental wellness stressed through exterior threats story. In both cases, I became so invested and overwhelmed in the scenario and inescapable environment that I experienced genuine fear. Both left me shaking and crying in my seat. The difference here is I had that reaction watching Dead Within with the lights on.
Dead Within is currently streaming on Netflix.