You all know about love at first sight, but what about love at first bite? That’s (sort of) the case in director Orcun Behram’s dreary, Turkish zombie “romance”, The Funeral, which just played at Beyond Fest.
Taking viewers through the heart of Turkey, The Funeral follows lonely hearse driver, Cemal (Ahmet Rifat Sungar). When he is tasked with taking the body of a dead girl and disappearing for a month, he understandably declines, eventually swayed by a large cash sum. Strange as it is, the job seems easy enough…until he discovers that the girl has returned to life with a craving for human flesh.
Gloomy. Drenched in muted colors. Behram’s The Funeral drags viewers down into a lonesome grave covered in the dirt of hopelessness. We meet Cemal, a man seemingly on his own. No true friends. Estranged from his family. Spending his days drinking. Existing, but not living. He might as well be one of the corpses he transports around town. Through the eyes of Cemal, Behram crafts a world that is as ugly as it is bleak. From off-road hotels to the emptiness of the countryside, the audience is taken through the most dismal parts of Turkey, where poverty and despair reign. All of it creating a somber atmosphere as persistent as rot feasting on death.
The Funeral may be dubbed as a “romance”, but understand that it is anything but. What we have here is a bold take on the zombie genre that sinks its teeth into the flesh of something that isn’t love, but a dark obsession. Think Return of the Living Dead III without any of the camp or teenage passion and a depressing vibe gnawing away at the edge of every frame.
The relationship at the center of The Funeral is one that’s as fascinating as it is uncomfortable. When Cemal discovers that the body he is transporting is in fact still breathing, he doesn’t freak out. Hell, he doesn’t even seem all that surprised. Instead, he takes the girl, who we learn is named Zeynep (Cansu Turedi), cleans her up, buys her new clothes, and sits with her in his hotel room. She can’t speak, reduced to an eerie wheezing, making for a lot of one-sided conversations. What follows feels less like a budding romance and more like a symbiotic bond. Zeynep fills the void of Cemal’s loneliness, whereas he provides the human flesh she craves (occasionally his own). It’s like The Graduate, but with a zombie. Two characters using each other to meet their needs, with reasonable questions about what they really feel for one another.
Needless to say, The Funeral is an exercise in the weird that may lose less patient viewers early on.
Part of the issue is that there’s so little of a connection between the two to allow for the audience to fully engage with their relationship. Sungar is exceptional at playing a man plagued by an internal darkness he doesn’t seem to understand, and Turedi consistently steals the show with a creepy performance that’ll have viewers shuddering. Yet despite that, there’s little chemistry between the characters. A suffocating coldness exists between them, and perhaps that’s the intent. After all, Cemal has more or less kidnapped Zeynep and forced her into “being with him”, a commentary on the obsessiveness of men and the voracious hunger of lust, love, whatever the case may be. But without any prior relationship or sense of why Cemal so suddenly commits his entire existence to this undead girl, moments of him allowing her to feed on him and the like come off as more silly than relatable. Again, I don’t think we’re supposed to empathize with Cemal all that much, yet once you get past the oddness of it all, the icy air that hangs between the two makes for a monotonous experience difficult to buy into.
The dreary nature of it all doesn’t do the film any favors, either. The Funeral is so bleak that it becomes almost overpowering for the audience. Some subtle humor like Cemal dragging bloody bodies out into the open in bright daylight as if no one will see him offer up the occasional laugh as well as further insight into his delusion, but these moments are few and far between. Behram’s film matches the vibe of Cemal and Zeynep’s relationship, so quiet that it might as well be dead. A pacing that shambles along like the undead does little to draw the audience in, regardless of a few moments of bristling tension and nightmarish horror (shout-out to the production design team for creating the hallway from hell). Of course, the overly brooding nature of it is intentional, so how much you enjoy The Funeral depends on the patience you’re willing to give it.
For me, there just isn’t enough development of either the characters or the plot to propel The Funeral beyond a curious though unsatisfying watch. Too little of the lore behind Zeynep’s zombification is introduced to leave the audience anything but perplexed, and the emotionless “romance” between she and Cemal remains interesting for only so long. Zombie connoisseurs looking for fresh flesh in the sub-genre will want to attend The Funeral and give it a shot, just don’t expect it to leave you feeling any more alive than the dead.