Film review: Play Dead (Fantastia Film Festival)

Courtesy of R.I.P via TheaterThoughts

Compared to the films I’ve seen at Fantasia Film Festival, the performance film Play Dead is an altogether different beast. Funny, engaging and made to make a viewing audience both squirm and yearn – it’s unlike anything I’ve seen at the festival before.

Let’s bitch it out…I’ve never seen a performance film at Fantasia before, but this one is the closest thing to a perfect fit. The film, directed by Shade Rupe, is based on the off-broadway play of the same name that ran from November 2010 through this year. In it, magician and actor Todd Robbins walks the audience through a series of setpieces all centered around death. The stage is set-up like a cross between a mausoleum and a museum. It contains over 50 boxes, each labeled with the name of an individual who had an association with the topic in life (including one unlucky audience member that Robbins murders within the first twenty minutes). It’s an often hilarious film, filled with entertaining stories, tricks, slights of hand and visuals – lorded over by Robbins looking like a cross between a carnival pitchman, an undertaker and Colonel Sanders (if the Colonel wiped the blood of his chicken down the front of his jacket).

To elaborate on the setpieces, which range from child murderers, to sexy society Ouija parties, to menacing mediums, is to give away around 90% of the fun, although even after you’ve seen the film, you’ll be no closer to understanding the majority of Robbins’ and Teller’s (of Penn & Teller) magic secrets.

As a film, there are a few additional elements meant to build on simply seeing and not experiencing the production. This includes infra-red vision of what is happening during the frequent theater blackouts (during which audience members were subject to a number of cruel pranks associated with the commentary from Robbins’ stories). This is effective because it allows the film audience to understand what the experience was like back in Greenwich, but it also creates an absence, a reminder that we can only watch, but not participate. It definitely made me wish the Fantasia crew had thought of subjecting us to the same experiences as we watched.


Ultimately the film is a nice blend of a performance and concert film, ably staged by Rupe over two nights to ensure Robbins’ and the audience’s best performance. An additional bonus for Fantasia fans was the attendance of both stage director Teller (of Penn & Teller) and Robbins’ himself, who provided amusement, awe and horror in-person when he demonstrated one of the film’s more memorable moments: eating a lightbulb. The tension and glee in the audience was palpable and allow me to reassure readers: this was no fake. I spent my Friday night watching a man consume a 60 W lightbulb…and it was crazy.

Play Dead does not currently have any other screenings scheduled, though you can attend the actual production in-person in Los Angeles and Mexico

For more information, visit the Fantasia Film Festival webpage for the film here

About cinephilactic

cinephilactic is a university contract instructor in Film Studies. He is an avid TV watcher, particularly science-fiction, fantasy and drama series. His favourite shows currently airing on TV include The Good Wife, Breaking Bad, Justified, Hannibal, Game Of Thrones and a smattering of shows on The CW. He has a tendency to "hate-watch" particular shows and likes to think that his sarcastic voice comes through in his reviews, though sometimes he's just being bitchy

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