It’s great to see films by Philadelphia filmmakers. It’s better to see films by Philadelphia filmmakers about Philadelphia. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, is both of these. It’s also an excellent, entertaining documentary (no it’s not a zombie film).
If you’ve never heard of them, the Toynbee tiles are literal tiles that are placed all around Philly – and as we also learn in the doc – in other east coast cities and places in south and central America. They all read “Toynbee idea in Kubrick’s 2001 Resurrect Dead on Plant Jupiter,” or something quite similar. The doc follows a few self-proclaimed fanatics and investigators as they try to solve a decades-old mystery: the identity of the tiler.
Like most investigative docs, director Jon Foy’s piece strings together everything from talking head interviews, to graphic art, to reenactment. Less dramatic than a Thin Blue Line-styled film, there’s also less at stake here. At the heart of Resurrect Dead and its main character Justin Duerr, is an empathetic ode to the loners and outsiders of the world. The film is a space where paranoia isn’t ultimately to be mocked and misfits aren’t outcasts, but rather one where beliefs – however absurd – are taken in the context of the person.
Foy structures his films around a classic detective film format: introduce the detectives (Duerr and company), introduce the goal (find the tiler), and introduce gradually more lucid clues (checklists of suspects). What makes Resurrect Dead so successful is not only the magnetic energy of Duerr and the cinematic and archaic-philosophy at the heart of the Toynbee phrasing, but also the world into which these investigators descend. Maybe ‘descend’ implies a more violent form of mystery. This isn’t the case. Though Foy’s aesthetic is one that strongly (one beef with the film: sometimes too strongly), implies lurking danger, that paranoia belongs only to the anonymous tiler, and not to any actual, imminent potential harm. Instead, Duerr and his cohorts – Colin Smith and Steve Weinik – find themselves in libraries, south Philly bars and row homes, and short wave radio conventions. When they’re given clues in overly (almost comically) clandestine manner it adds to the aura of mystery surrounding the affair – and Foy structures it so as to force the audience to hold its breath – but it never threatens to lead them anywhere dangerous. These clues – a short wave enthusiast whispering about a lead…which turns out to be more for his own amusement than anything else – are treated so seriously by director and subjects that the mystery becomes closer to a whodunit than to a goose chase.
There are a few technical beefs with the film that pull against its overarching, and dominant mood. The reenactments that Foy chooses to employ – Duerr reliving a moment where, when coming out of a Wawa, he almost saw the tiler face-to-face – cheapens the immediacy of the chase. Duerr’s no actor and the sight of him standing in the middle of the street and awkwardly running around is less effective than any of the other techniques – real time footage, graphic interpretations – that are littered elsewhere. At times, particularly when cutting back to his “checklist” of clues, the sound awkwardly drops and the pacing slows unnecessarily. A moment towards the end, where Duerr has a chance to confront his suspect but decides against it, is too subjective and one of the few parts of the film that relies on the word of its not-necessarily-reliable subject, instead of what we see and can legitimately believe. There are sections with strange, misplaced close-up reaction shots of Duerr. The framing is too tight and at odd angles and they feel culled from a different time and place entirely.
But for these few faults, Foy keeps the film moving, funny, and sympathetic. His decision to humanize his characters – both Duerr and the suspected tilers are or have been victims of bullying in some way, both have a connection with birds – makes the film richer and gives it its heartbeat. The dedication of detectives (and filmmaker) is remarkable, and its beyond entertaining to see the mystery start to unfold via everything from wild theories, to happy accidents, to actual fact-finding.