Todd’s birthday starts out fun with a birthday cookout that includes family, friends, and his girlfriend Valerie. Afterwards, his easy going uncle Carl drives Todd, his friends, and cases of beer to an abandoned factory in the woods where Todd has planned a one-night, underaged boozing, camping trip. The infamous factory has a manifold of ghost stories that circle around a single common piece – a cannibalistic maniac. When night falls, Todd suddenly disappears and his friends, including Valerie, believe Todd and his uncle Carl are revving up a good scare after Carl’s creepy campfire story earlier in the day, but when a dead, mutilated body is discovered, something sinister is hunting them and those stories about a cannibal killer no longer seem farfetched in an all-nighter fight for survival.
“What’s Eating Todd?” is a Here and Now production from a duo of women filmmakers with director Renata Green-Gabor making her directorial feature film debut from a story penned by first time screenwriter Brandi Centeno. The 2016 horror-thriller is a spun take on the weary zombie genre without necessarily going the full-fledged slow shuffle and moan zombie route from a story involving an antagonistic infected metamorphosing from an infestation strain of flies. The parasitoid concept is a closely related to a sensationalized man versus nature horror tale seen with a fair amount of anonymity attached and, the film, perhaps, could be an indie homage version of the George Langelaan’s short story, “The Fly.” Almost for certain that Green-Gabor received some sort of influence for “What’s Eating Todd?,” which she shot through the summer of 2013, from her thespian mentor Jeff Goldblum, the face of David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” released 1986, and thus answered the call to chance her first steps into feature films that had this connect to her mentor while providing and retaining her own originality into incubational horror or even a small minute into body horror, releasing the film three years later.
The marketing and selling points for “What’s Eating Todd?” is not the humble acting talent. It’s not a criticism. It’s the truth, as the cast is constructed of unknown names and unrecognizable faces. However, what is also true for a film written by female writer and quarterbacked by a female director is a leading role arising for an aspiring or established female actress. In this case, the role of Valerie goes to a modestly versed Madison Lawlor (“The Axe Murders of Villisca”) who not only becomes the strong and adaptive survivalist protagonist painted against a backdrop of coarse and flawed men who are either exposed of their short comings, involved in illegalities, or anguished to reveal their true nature. Lawlor maintains Valerie’s unwavering love and faithfulness to Todd, being the voice of reason amongst a naïve and obnoxious crowd that are mostly consisted of her cousin Alex (“Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark’s Phil Biedron) and his friend Duane (“The Zombinator’s” Scott Alin). Alex and Duane are a couple of super frivolous “bros” primarily integrated into the story to raise the body count. Cousins Valerie and Alex do attempt some kind of meaningful connection regarding identity and status in the hierarchy of high school, but was meagerly written and comes to be more a bickering battle of perspectives. Biedron and Alin sufficiently exact the right amount of goofball, oversexed, and dumb-wit to pull off a surface level duo. Todd (“The Z’s” Adam Michael Gold) is certainly the biggest failure out of the group of friends. The birthday boy’s upheaval from being the luckiest guy in the world to the world’s biggest problem goes into squandered territory that floods more questions than answers into Todd’s from baseline growth relationship with Valerie to his revamped mentality and accomplishments from ambiguous, circumstantial backstory of flesh eating and conspiracies. The weight of Todd and Valerie’s connection is only expositional rather than shown and the groundless Todd absorbs the downfall during an anti-climactic finale of internal struggle with Valerie as the source material. The film rounds out with Danny Rio and Carlos Antonio.
Though the cast won’t draw in an audience, the snappy “What’s Eating Todd?” title might turn some heads in it’s direction. However, “What’s Eating Todd?” inherently sounds like a farce and if you’re expecting humor, disappointment will rear its ugly, funny-less head as Green-Gabor had no intentions for a comedy element. Another misleading of marketing is the Indican Pictures’ DVD cover, which I’m assuming is also the film’s actual poster, of a woman in a cutoff sleeve jersey t-shirt with “Zombie Killer” in the name field and holding a sword (katana, maybe?) while blurry silhouettes of lumbering undead move at an unknown pace toward her in the background. Let’s analyze the comparison between cover art and actuality. As mentioned, the story’s female heroine is appropriate to the cover, but isn’t contextually accurate to the film. Valerie, the supposed character on the cover, isn’t holding a sword nor is she dressed in a “Zombie Killer” jersey t-shirt. As for the zombies, the term zombie is only made in jest by one of the bros and there is some undead moments of gore including gnawing and ripping out the jugular, but no tearing out of intestines, no munching on fingers, nor are there any instances where eating people like finger-licking fried chicken is happening here. Plus, there is only one adversarial fiend and not more as the cover suggests.
Indican Pictures distributes a Here and Now Production of “What’s Eating Todd?” onto a not rated DVD home video. The region 1 release has a runtime of 89 minutes and is presented in an anamorphic widescreen, 1.85:1 flat aspect ratio, on a 35mm, hand held camera. The digitally shot image renders brightly and clean with hardly any flaws worth disclosing. The night scenes are slightly tinted blue with a higher contrast to lighten up the image without being overly dark in the middle of the woods without much natural lighting and the digital noise has little intrusiveness despite the budget constraints of an indie production. The English language Dolby Digital surround sound has adequate range and depth and, for the most part, a dominating dialogue presence. Brief moments of Revenge of the Bimbot Zombie Killers’ Andy George’s original score would drown out dialogue during imperative, but happened too far and few in between. Other than a typical static menu and preview trailers from Indican Pictures, no other bonus materials reside on the release. “What’s Eating Todd?” is not a zombie movie despite the hoodwinking cover. What Renata Green-Gabor did direct can be categorized as a branch of the undead, an infestation altering DNA that mounts to destruction on and around of the affected that, technically, no longer makes them a part of the living human race. In short, expect a sheep in wolf’s clothing in this roughly run-of-the-mill horror that aims high, but misses low by offering too little to sanction a good story.