Like that of a significant portion of contemporary horror cinema, Deathgasm’s heart belongs to the 1980s, as it’s sentimental for a time in which record shops still reliably existed and there were no cellphones or Internet to compromise filmmakers’ most dependably isolating motors of suspense. Set in 1980s-era New Zealand, to be precise, the film also fondly evokes a time in which the metal band Slayer might’ve casually come up in conversation. Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) is the new guy in the sort of small, white-bread town that tends to drive adolescents to metal to begin with, and he’s being hassled by his aunt, uncle, and cousin, who took him in after his mother got into trouble with the law. Rail-thin, with long, stringy hair and a penchant for black clothes and enraged, sexually explicit artwork, Brodie is destined to rub many the wrong way, though he manages to fashion his own clique, which includes aspiring metal rocker Zakk (James Blake) and classmate Medina (Kimberley Crossman). Soon, Brodie and Zakk summon something from beyond, literalizing the concerns of squares who claim their music to be the work of the devil.
The title tells you straight away whether or not you’re among this film’s intended audience, as Deathgasm ably, enthusiastically furnishes the fatalistic joie de vivre that one reasonably expects from a horror comedy named after such an inventively lurid fusion of the words “death” and “orgasm.” Director Jason Lei Howden has a flair for punchlines that are funny for reasons that are essentially impossible to describe. The filmmaker also possesses a more explicable instinct for staging character movements—particularly of his eyeless, lovingly latex-ed monsters—that concisely telegraph the absurdist, labor-intensive awkwardness of demonic possession, which entails the navigation of a human body that befuddles one’s understanding of physics as an interdimensional warlord. In the tradition of Shaun of the Dead, easily the most influential horror film since Scream, the stilted movements of the creatures often contrast amusingly with the studied deadpan of the protagonists. It’s hilarious, for instance, when Zakk and Brodie kill the former’s newly besieged father, Zakk remarking, with an admirably understated degree of ludicrousness, “You know, it’s weird, but I think he would’ve wanted to go out like this.”
It’s this partially unsentimental caricature of the metal-heads that informs Deathgasm with stature. Howden’s aware of the undead invasion as a manifestation of Brodie and Zakk’s disenfranchisement from their peers and elders, and he occasionally allows that to rear its head in startling ways, such as when Brodie kills his cousin in cold blood in a scene that’s boldly staged as comic relief. One wishes that the filmmaker had taken Brodie’s rage further, purging the film of its unlikely sources of wish fulfillment (such as Brodie’s instant, reciprocated attraction to Medina), examining the loneliness that fosters even a superficial embrace of nihilism. But the film’s still a tangy, gory sleeper that refreshingly refuses to treat metal music, or analogue-era horror-comedy, as a joke.