I Sell the Dead | movie review

I Sell the Dead is proof that not every IFC production is golden. It’s from a couple years ago now—2008, I think—and showed up on my Netflix recommendations page and sounded interesting enough to try. And that was the movie’s entire problem: it sounded interesting, but somehow wasn’t. It’s about a pair of grave robbers in the 18th century who get into the highly specialized sub-division of robbing graves with potential occult significance…accused vampires and zombies, etc. See what I mean? Hell, they had me at “18th century grave robbers,” because I love me a good historical movie, and that is both an intriguing topic and one that hasn’t been the focus of a movie, just a side point in Jack the Ripper type mysteries.

The problem with this movie, for me, was that it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a comedy or a horror movie. Horror comedies rarely work—Idle Hands might be a movie I remember very, very fondly for Seth Green, but that does not make it objectively good—because they tend not to go far enough into either the horror or the comedy to make compelling situations. That was exactly the case here. I could not watch this movie and some of the tactics of these body thieves without being a little bit horrified at what they were doing (especially when it came to not just digging up graves but stealing bodies from wakes), but because of the comedic situations framing those behaviors, I couldn’t enjoy the dislike because they were never dwelt on or handled with any gravitas. But yet because of the natural sort of disgust for what they were doing, I could not like the two main characters or care much if they lived, died, turned into zombies, got eaten by vampires, got caught, etc.  Creating two grave robbers I actually cared about would have been an impressive feat; alas, it was not the case.

The movie is also framed with one of the robbers being imprisoned and telling his story to the priest who has come to confess him the night before his execution. This kind of framework rarely adds much to a story, for me, but in its defense here, I will say that it becomes part of the climax of the movie rather than simply being a frame.  If you want to watch the movie and start to turn it off (which I considered) because you hate frames–well, it does come out of it later.

Dominic Monoghan played the younger grave robber, while Larry Fessenden played his trainer cum partner. Ron Perlman was the priest. None of them were exciting performances; none of them made me care, where the script and situations of the movie could not.

I find it interesting that this movie was made before the current slew of classic literature and horror mash-ups began, because it reminds me very much of the tone of, say, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Watching it, I thought it was a newer film that was jumping onto that ridiculous bandwagon that in my opinion cannot crash soon enough, but, to I Sell the Dead’s credit, it was a precursor. Either a bellwether or an omen, depending on whether you like the genre.

I think if I had to pick one adjective for this movie, I would simply use “boring.” Perhaps disappointing, because, again, the premise sounded like it could be good, and the entire movie I was juxtaposing what it was against what it could have been.  But overall, for me, watching it, I was simply unengaged by anything in it. It wasn’t funny enough to be funny, or horrific enough (either in the literal sense of them being grave robbers or the supernatural sense of them finding creatures of the night) to be thrilling, or dramatic enough to make me care that it was neither. I think this is an idea that would have been better served as a short film or sketch comedy, instead of a feature that had to try and make a longer story out of a string of scenes.

By Elena Nola

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.