The 2022 North Bend Film Festival took place over the weekend and once again, the team put together a killer slate. The lineup featured a variety of fascinating and entertaining films, and one of my favorites was The Civil Dead. It’s a very darkly comedic ghost story that may very well be the complete opposite of every ghost story you have ever seen.

There is a specific language that cinema has developed over the years to tell a ghost story onscreen. The ghost will haunt a specific place. They are not solid; they simply float through any object, wall, or door they cross paths with. They are often shown onscreen to be transparent or sometimes sporting wounds inflicted on them during their death. They often have some sort of unfinished business tying them to the world of the living; a task left undone or a truth that needs to be revealed.

In The Civil Dead, Clay Tatum upends nearly all of these conventions to tell a tale focused not on scares, but on the mundanity of being a ghost stuck on Earth. Tatum stars in the film as Clay, an unmotivated photographer who lives gig to gig and has to be persuaded by his wife to seek out new projects when he would rather just be sleeping and watching TV. One day, he bumps into childhood friend Whit (Whitmer Thomas). Whit moved to LA not long after Clay had and has been trying to make it as an actor. The pair spend the day hanging out and catching up, but when the time comes to say goodbye, Whit doesn’t seem to want to leave.

Then he drops the bombshell: Whit is a ghost. He doesn’t know when or how he died, but he has been wandering Los Angeles and Clay is the first person who has been able to see and interact with him. In an interminable and lonely existence, Whit has found a friend. And he doesn’t want to let that go. Clay doesn’t really have the compassion or the emotional intelligence to be the friend that Whit needs right now, but he’s also lazy and not very good at confrontation, so he lets Whit stick around awhile while he tries to figure out how he is going to find a place for Whit in his home and in his life.

Tatum eschews all of the more traditional ghost story mechanics in his film. Whit is not transparent and there aren’t really any ghostly effects. We just have two actors talking onscreen, each looking as solid and alive as the other. No tricks, no movie magic—just two actors doing their thing. It can make the film feel simultaneously very realistic, yet slightly surreal since it upends everything we have developed and come to know about ghostly filmmaking.

In many ways, it’s a buddy comedy. An uncomfortable, sometimes awkward, always funny buddy comedy. The two are thrown together in a way that pushes personal boundaries and forces each character to feel uncomfortable in the situation. Clay is just trying to live his life and keep things on an even keel. Whit is trying to understand this new version of himself. He isn’t tied to one particular place, but he is limited in the fact that he can’t interact with anything. He has to tailgate people if he wants to get inside a building and he can’t do much once he gets there. He simply watches and feels increasingly separate from the life he left behind. In Clay, he has found a companion—the only person he can have a dialogue with and feel less alone. The downside is the fact that Clay is not really emotionally equipped to be that sounding board.

The result is a story that is hilarious, at times uncomfortable, and at a few key moments, more than a little disturbing. Much of the humor comes from the awkward, borderline cringy interactions between Whit and Clay, and it works on a very real level. Whit is really pushy in his desire for friendship, and Clay simply isn’t that great at interacting. But they are seemingly stuck with one another, and the film explores just how they are going to try to make that situation work.

The Civil Dead is really unique in its approach to telling a ghost story, and it’s something that we definitely haven’t seen before. The humor probably isn’t going to be for everyone, but it’s a good blend of awkward, slightly absurdist, and more than a little WTF. It absolutely proves that there is more than one way to tell a good ghost story.

Movie Score: 4/5