[Review] DIGGING TO DEATH (2021)

Saddled with a new mortgage that he can barely afford, recently divorced dad David Vanowen (Ford Austin) decides he can save some money by installing his septic system. He’s not a licensed contractor or even a construction worker — he’s a computer programmer — but the always optimistic Vanowen tells himself, how hard can it be, right?

He’s barely broken ground, though, when he discovers a wooden cover to a hole, inside of which is a garbage bag full of money and a dead body. The bag contains more than $3.4 million, more than enough money for Vanowen to pay off his bills, save his daughter’s life, quit his job as a computer programmer, and live out the rest of his life in comfort and ease.

But what to do about the body?

Written and directed by Michael P. Blevins (Onion Syrup), Digging to Death isn’t the kind of film to spend a lot of time debating the moral dilemma of the situation that Vanowen finds himself in. Instead, it puts the consequences of any actions upfront for everybody to see: touch the money, and the dead guy’s going to get you. Vanowen touches the money. The dead guy (Tom Fitzpatrick) soon follows.

While the story’s premise seems slight  — the dead coming after people who rob their graves is the basis for just about every Mummy movie — Blevins uses it as a springboard to explore some interesting psychological phenomenon. What starts as a simple haunting, with the dead guy showing up first in Vanowenn’s dreams and then actually outside his bedroom door, quickly changes gears as Vanowen starts to act weirdly. He installs a bunch of security cameras inside and outside his house, as well as floodlights around his property, to alert him to any movements of the dead guy buried in his yard. The trap works; he chases the dead guy back to the hole and yells at him to stop messing with him in a hilarious scene. When the corpse doesn’t respond, Vanowen raises his arms to the sky and curses the world to stop (messing) with him, too. Exhausted, he passes out in the mud beside the hole.

How he wakes up in the hole next to the corpse — spooning him, actually — is left to the viewer’s imagination. But it’s a turning point because Vanowen starts to add to the body count at his home in some brutal ways from that moment forward. Has he simply snapped? Or is Vanowen being controlled by the corpse? Although it’s never spelled out, the answer seems clear by the end of the movie.

While Blevins does an excellent job keeping the audience in suspense, the real secret to the success of Digging to Death is the manic performance of Ford Austin. He starts the movie as a pretty goofy guy, the kind who works hard to find a silver lining in every dark cloud life has piled up against him. His daughter needs life-saving medicine her health insurance won’t cover? No problem, he’s up for a promotion at work. The promotion at work starts to look iffy at best? No problem, he’ll just work harder to make it happen. It’s annoying to spend time with the guy because he’s so freakin positive all the time. So watching the facade crack is a lot of fun. And scary as hell. Vanowen starts to kill people with the same positive attitude, but with a twist to it all that makes your skin crawl. 

  • John Black, Digging to Death
John Black
John Black still remembers his first horror movie, sneaking in to a double-feature of Horror House with Frankie Avalon and a Boris Karloff film he can’t remember the name of but will always remember for giving him his first glimpse of cinematic nudity as one of the actresses moved from the bed to the door without putting on any underwear! (Fond family memory: That glimpse, when discovered by his parents, cased John’s mom to call the theater and yelling at the manager for letting her son see ‘such filth’.) Luckily, John was more impressed by the blood and horror than the bare haunches and quickly became a devotee of the genre.

John has been a professional movie reviewer since 1987, when his first review – of a Robert De Niro film called Angel Heart – appeared in the entertainment section of The Cape Codder newspaper. He’s been writing about film ever since, primarily now as the entertainment editor at Boston Event Guide. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t watch at least one movie, which is how he thinks life was meant to be.