The duo of Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas initially found a spark of success with The Golden One (2020), the unconventional comedy special-meets-documentary exploring Thomas’ family and upbringing. Inevitably, the latter also involved Tatum, as the two have been best friends since growing up in Gulf Shores, Alabama, sticking together as only two weirdos stuck in a small town can. Unfortunately, though, they happened to put out the special in early 2020, just before the first coronavirus lockdowns. The droll pair have returned now with The Civil Dead, a black comedy exploring the pitfalls of perennial friendship.
The story follows Clay (Tatum—since the actors use their own names, I’ll use first names to refer to the characters and surnames for the actual people), a down-on-his-luck photographer living in Los Angeles with his wife Whitney (Whitney Weir), an artist. He runs into an old friend from back home, Whit (Thomas), who he soon discovers is actually dead. To make matters even stranger, Clay is the only person who can see the late Whit. The pair try to navigate Whit’s new state of being, while also using their strange circumstances to help Clay make some quick cash.
The Civil Dead sounds like a buddy comedy on the surface, but Tatum and Thomas pull a bait-and-switch, with the film ending up much sadder than expected (while still quite funny) and even evoking elements of The Banshees of Inisherin. Clay is a loner without many friends, but he’s on his own by choice. Whit, on the other hand, is alone by circumstance, and ends up hanging onto Clay like a needy puppy. Clay’s awfully similar to Colin Farrell’s character in Banshees, who clings onto Colm (Brendan Gleeson) despite the latter’s protestations.
Whit’s whole situation—able to observe the world but not interact with it, unable to eat or sleep or even masturbate—is desperately sad and isolating. Other than the bodily function restrictions, Whit’s powerlessness and alienation are analogous to the experience of moving to a big city on your own without pals or much money.
Tatum captures this understated malaise well as a director. Whit is dark and dismal against the sun-bleached L.A. backdrop, out of place in every sense of the word. The feeling of listlessness permeates even the music, composed by Max Whipple. Woozy steel guitar and warbly, lo-fi synth meander throughout the movie, playful but also amplifying Whit’s directionlessness. Whipple’s hazy score is subtle, but also one of the best parts of the film.
In some ways The Civil Dead feels like a time capsule. It’s a mumblecore missive summing up a very specific time, place, and aesthetic, where $1,600 is considered cheap for rent and ITC Benguiat (aka the Stephen King font) is lurking around every corner. One of the most distinctive hallmarks of our time is that the story is cut up into different segments, denoted by a quotation scrawled across the screen (“Don’t forget we gotta pay rent” or “Get the fuck outta my shot, my man”). These chapter titles have been cropping up quite a bit as of late, with notable examples including Nope, The French Dispatch, and The Worst Person in the World, to name a few (for a more in-depth look, this Vox piece is quite handy). In the case of The Civil Dead, these chapter titles help give more form to a film that is often quite languorous. Ironically, though, that sense of aimlessness is The Civil Dead’s driving force; the omnipresent inertia brings us closer to the experiences of Clay and Whit.
And therein lies the greatest strength of The Civil Dead: Tatum and Thomas’ natural chemistry. Whit and Clay’s dynamic reflects that of Thomas and Tatum’s in real life; as Thomas explained to Paste back in 2020, “He’s very absurd and really silly, which is why I think he’s the funniest man on the planet, and then I often get sappy and lame and mixing that together kind of creates our dynamic.”
The pair’s back-and-forths are some of the funniest and most compelling parts of the film, whether they’re arguing about if a guy was “sucked off” in an alley (it’s not what it sounds like) or just goofing off in an isolated cabin. Their organic connection, as well as the fraying edges of friendship explored in the movie, make The Civil Dead a hilarious and emotionally devastating watch.
Director: Clay Tatum
Writer: Clay Tatum, Whitmer Thomas
Starring: Clay Tatum, Whitmer Thomas, Whitney Weir, Budd Diaz, Robert Longstreet
The Civil Dead is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.