One of the best things about watching shorts at film festivals is being able to catch gems like DEAD ENDERS. This hilarious, gooey story about night shift convenience store clerks facing off against giant parasitic bugs is a pitch-perfect horror comedy. The short boasts a long roster — directors Fidel Ruiz-Healy and Tyler Walker co-wrote the film with Jordan Michael Blake and Conor Murphy — but it feels like one cohesive vision of evil critters and wild humor. DEAD ENDERS is an ideal palate cleanser, whether you’re looking for a wacky short to watch in between heavier features or you just need 12 minutes of sticky monster mayhem.

At Luckee’s Petroleum & Frack Shack in Tanglewood, Texas, workers drilling for oil ignore EPA regulations and drill too deep, unleashing a horde of parasitic bugs. Right down the street, Maya (Skarlett Redd) does as little as possible during her shift as a convenience store clerk. Her manager Walt (Jeff Murdoch) scolds her for her lack of ambition, telling her she should leave their dead-end town and make something of herself. When he heads to the basement to get high, he discovers a glowing hole and is attacked by one of the bugs, which attaches itself to his face. Maya is left alone to deal with the invaders, and they offer her a deal: accept the role of bug host and continue slacking off for the rest of her life, or choose a different path and start fighting back.

Maya’s an engaging protagonist, and her ambivalence toward her easy yet unfulfilling job is highly relatable. The whole cast is great, including the crooked cops (Lilliana Winkworth and Joseph Rene) who loiter at Luckee’s and provide some of the biggest laughs in the film. The gags fly fast and furious in DEAD ENDERS, and viewers might be tempted to rewatch and/or freeze-frame to catch all the jokes. The attention to detail is impeccable, from the rattlesnake audio stings that accompany the energetic camera movements to the sight gags that populate the entire film. The whole short is lit with scuzzy fluorescents and neons that perfectly encapsulate the small-town night shift vibes. This is a movie with personality to spare, and it all adds up to a hell of a good time.

Short films usually don’t get as much attention as their feature-length counterparts, which is a shame for a number of reasons. There’s a specific kind of joy to be found in movies that can execute an idea in less time than it takes you to scroll through a streaming service to find something new to watch. With wit, energy, and plenty of fake bug goo, DEAD ENDERS is surgically effective at being incredibly silly, making it the ideal horror comedy short.

DEAD ENDERS had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Make sure to read our SXSW coverage here.

Jessica Scott
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