‘The Civil Dead’ Asks the Perpetual Question: What Do You Do When Your Friend is a Ghost?

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An incredulous-looking man wearing a button up shirt and purple raincoat stands next to a confused-looking man with bowl haircut and black spectacles, wearing a blue denim shirt and matching jacket.
In ‘The Civil Dead,’ Whitmer Thomas (L) plays Whit, a ghost who won’t leave his old friend Clay, played by Clay Tatum (R), alone. (Utopia)

It’s best I get this out the way early so we all know what we’re dealing with here. The Civil Dead is a movie about a struggling photographer in Los Angeles who one day runs into a childhood friend of his who, it turns out, is now a ghost.


The Civil Dead is not a horror movie, though there are unnerving moments. It’s not a straightforward comedy either, though I did laugh out loud more than I thought I would. It’s also not some deep metaphor about long-lost childhood comfort, or the way things from our past can reemerge in times of crisis and haunt us.

Nope. The Civil Dead is simply a movie in which screenwriters and lead actors Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas explore what might happen if a person suddenly found themselves with a ghost friend. What would you do? What could you get away with? What would you hate about it? The end result is absurd and a bit sad and will make you sympathize with ghosts more than probably any other movie you’ve ever seen.


Tatum plays photographer Clay, an unmotivated, dishonest man who thinks a purposely bad haircut is a sensible substitute for a decent personality. Thomas plays his needy ghost friend Whit with an endearing vulnerability and quiet resignation. Both characters are flawed and a bit selfish. Both are bored and unfulfilled. Both, on some level, deserve one another.

The brilliance of The Civil Dead lies in its insistence on presenting this ghost story in a way that is thoroughly rooted in the everyday and mundane. The film is realistic about how this scenario becomes tiresome for both of its protagonists, and Thomas and Tatum’s real-life friendship grounds the more ethereal aspects of the story.

In many ways, The Civil Dead is refreshing and surprising. For one, the film’s “ghost rules” are a little different from what moviegoers have come to expect. Here, ghosts can’t float through walls or open doors or move objects on purpose. If Whit wants to go somewhere, he has to walk to it which, stuck in LA, makes for an arduous existence. Poor Whit is thoroughly at the mercy of humans and the humans have a habit (Clay included) of dehumanizing him on account of his deadness.

If there is a lesson in The Civil Dead — and I’m not 100% sure there is — it might be that life is cruel, but death is worse. Or perhaps the lesson is to value even the smallest, silliest things in life. “I miss driving,” Whit ponders to himself at one point. “I miss sweating. I miss being hungry and thirsty. I miss burping and farting ... I wish I had done more fucked-up shit when I was alive.”

The Civil Dead also reminds us to treat others with kindness, even when they’re annoying; even when they’re trying to hang out with us for all eternity. It’s a strange little movie that never quite does what you’re expecting it to. Most delightfully, the movie’s ending is one that, like a ghost, you won’t see coming.

‘The Civil Dead’ opens at the Alamo Drafthouse on Feb. 4, 2023, with a live Q&A with Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas. The movie will be available on demand starting Feb. 17.