Sunday, December 22, 2019

Off Script: Dance of the Dead

Films: Dance of the Dead
Format: DVD from Manhattan-Elwood Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

As the zombie genre expands into different styles and different subgenres, it was inevitable that it would be crossed with teen movies multiple times. And, of course, it has. There are teen romance zombie movies, comedies, and splatter movies. It was only a matter of time before we got something like Dance of the Dead, a film that has a zombie apocalypse occurring at a high school prom. Kind of.

An issue that is going to be prevalent in many a movie in a thoroughly-explored genre is the ability to point at its influences. Dance of the Dead is going to take its cues from pretty much every zombie movie released before 2008. There are elements of films like Cemetery Man and Return of the Living Dead here, for instance. This is very much a movie that wants to be seen in the same way. It’s clearly a horror movie and clearly a comedy and wants to be both.

Like many horror comedies Dance of the Dead has decided to focus more on one aspect than the other. It pushes far more for comedy than for horror, and the horror choices it makes are almost entirely aimed at splatter rather than real scares. And it’s not really that splattery. It sounds like I have a lot of problems with this movie, but I don’t. It’s not a great film, but it’s not bad for what it wants to be.

As the film starts, we learn that the local cemetery has a zombie problem that is regularly handled by the caretaker (James Jarrett). Following this, we get a little bit of the students at the local high school. There are the nerds from the science fiction club, the student council kids, a cheerleader or two, stoners…the standard mix. The characters we are going to be dealing with for the most part are Jimmy (Jared Kusnitz), a pizza delivery guy and Lindsey (Greyson Chadwick), his student council vice president girlfriend. We’ll also spend some time with cheerleader Gwen (Carissa Capobianco) and sci-fi nerd Steven (Chandler Darby). There are plenty more—high school hardass Kyle (Justin Welborn) and stoner bandmates Nash (Blair Redford), Jensen (Lucas Till), and Dave (Hunter Pierce) are going to be front and center for a lot of this, too.

Anyway, the undead arise and are in all general ways the standard Romero zombie, albeit not so slow. This means that they devour not just the brain but the whole body, infect with a bite, and are destroyed by destroying the brain. Evidently, these zombies also can continue to move body parts that have been detached. Based on what we see, they are also frequently physically fragile—it seems very easy to pull off their arms, for instance. We also learn that these zombies are quelled by music. If there is music playing, they will stand and listen rather than attack.

What I’m about to say is going to seem like a very strange comment given that I’m writing about a zombie movie, but it’s an important thing, at least to me. The biggest issue with Dance of the Dead is that it is inconsistent in the world that it creates. I’m not suggesting that I want a realistic zombie apocalypse here. What I am suggesting is that internal consistency—verisimilitude with the world that has been built—is important. And as frequently happens in films like this one, that basic idea gets passed over if there might be a good laugh to be had. In theory. The actual truth is that this basic idea gets passed over for a lot of really dumb jokes, too.

Clearly, if I say something like this I should offer a few examples. Multiple times, people who are bitten instantly turn into zombies, at one point in the middle of doing something else. It happens for a particular moment to occur, but it feels like a cheat, especially when other bodies don’t animate for hours after death. The independent body parts doesn’t make sense, either. One of the zombies is decapitated, but carries his own head around for part of the film. So when the head is finally destroyed, how does the body know to stop moving?

I realize I’m nitpicking a dumb zombie comedy and I probably shouldn’t. Dance of the Dead isn’t going to light the world on fire, but it’s not bad. It’s got some good ideas tucked away in it even if the concept itself felt like it was always going to happen. As a last note, it’s also really short. The running time is about 87 minutes, and that includes a massive end-credit sequence.

Why to watch Dance of the Dead: The inevitability of a prom-themed zombie movie.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t fully understand its own zombie mythos.


  1. This movie is pretty obscure, so I'm a bit psyched to see it make the cut for your "Off Scripts"... I'm not going to argue that this is a hidden gem, but it's the kind of pleasant surprise I'd sometimes find back in my Bargain Bin days. The thing I appreciated about this movie is that it actually shakes up a lot of the teen comedy arch-types: Traditionally, the go-getter Lindsay would never date a slacker like Jimmy (or their getting together would be the entire plot of the film), the bully Kyle would just be a simple antagonist, etc.

    1. I mostly agree with that. On Letterboxd, three stars is, for me, the "I think this is worth seeing" line, and that's exactly where I put this. It's interesting enough that I think it's worth seeing.