Dec 9 2009

Dance of the Dead

This week marks the FINAL FILM DUEL in its regular sense. Yes, that’s right, Benn and I have decided to retire the format in favor of solo reviews for now. This allows us to review more of the movies we want, offer you more content per week, and does away with that pesky problem of us agreeing on everything. If we do find we disagree strongly, there’s always room for rebuttal reviews, right? This doesn’t mean you’ll never see a Film Duel review again, but we’ll save them for times when we know the movie is truly fitting of the treatment. In the mean time, please savor the column in its final death moans, as we review the ultra-low-budget film Dance of the Dead. It’s zombies at a high school prom, what could go wrong?

Dance of the Dead
Year: 2008
Directed by: Gregg Bishop
Written by: Joe Ballarni
Starring: Jared Kusnitz, Greyson Chadwick
Genre: Horror (Zombie)

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

Some low budget movies can be a nice surprise, excelling past the limitations of their production values to deliver story and character that can often even be better than your standard Hollywood movie. The independently funded films can even have the freedom to go places that movies made within the studio system cannot. Unfortunately, Dance of the Dead is not one of these diamonds in the rough.

Dance of the Dead, the 2008 ultra-low-budget film directed by Gregg Bishop, has a promising concept: zombies at a high school prom. I mean really, if a movie can be explained in six words, you know you’ve got a good handle on your idea. And yet, it also means you know pretty much what to expect from the movie. Zombie films have enjoyed a certain level of popularity in the last decade or so due largely to 28 Days Later… spurring a resurgence of the genre. But the reason these films have done so well is not just the zombie action, but rather the brilliantly executed story, character, and if we’re really lucky, a good underlining allegory. Even though it was apparently written before this resurgence, Dance of the Dead offers nothing new to the genre. What it gives us instead of these things is essentially a genre mash-up between a middling zombie film and a sub-par high school comedy.

The first twenty minutes of this film are almost wretchedly painful. After a short prologue to drop us into the zombie action, the movie remains zombie free for an unbearable amount of time. In the mean time, we’re treated to lengthy introductions to a dozen or so high school archetypes. Each of these characters embodies these archetypes in the most hackneyed and cliché ways possible. The sci-fi club members shout “use the force” at their friend who’s trying to ask out the cheerleader, the cheerleader is a shallow bitch, and the one mother who appears in the film has nothing to say but, “Don’t get too crunked,” a completely unfunny mistaken use of teenager’s slang. All of the jokes in the film seem to center around the most obvious stereotype they can possibly target, and in turn, all of them fall flat. These characters are all so offensively boring, that even so early on in the movie, I couldn’t help but begin hitting the “display” button to gauge my progress towards the end of the film.

While these characters had nothing unique to offer as written, they’re pulled down even further by the acting in most of the roles. The main female character, Lindsey, as played by newcomer Greyson Chadwick, can’t even keep a straight face in a scene in which she’s breaking up with her boyfriend. Wearing a stupid grin on her face, Chadwick fails even to match up the basic emotions of the scene on the most literal and unsubtle levels. The pretentious high-achiever, Mitch, who tries to steal Lindsey away from her boyfriend, also performs with all the subtlety of a wheel of cheese rolling through a den of mice. Once again, the nerds come off as equally unsubtle and the rockers emit angst like water from a hose. Even in the lead role, Jared Kusnitz’s Jimmy comes off at best as a poor version of Jesse Eisenberg, who we saw do great work in a similar role in Zombieland this year. The best performance in this film is from Justin Welborn, whose Kyle manages to be a bully and simultaneously hint that there may be more interesting things going on with his character under the surface. He’s the only one doing anything interesting with the role. The two “adults” in the film at least seem to realize that they should be shooting for the stars in terms of tongue in cheek, and so the Gravedigger and the P.E. teacher actually manage to be quite entertaining if only because they are so over the top.

Luckily, counter to what the first half hour of the film would have you believe, this film is not completely without merits. In fact, almost immediately as the zombie infestation begins, there is marked improvement. The zombies literally leaping from their graves looks simply awesome, and the aesthetic of girls in prom dresses drenched in bright red blood and wielding axes is too striking not to find some pleasure in. The effects here are actually quite incredible considering the budget of the film, and the action works pretty well all around. A scene on a front yard in which some teamwork and a baseball bat are utilized is quite fun, and music’s effect on zombies is a gimmick that almost could fit in with a movie of the caliber of Shaun of the Dead. The climax of the film delivers a pretty cool zombie fight in the middle of the dance floor as expected, and while it doesn’t quite have the body count and franticness I would’ve hoped for, it does provide a great level of dynamicism through the interplay with the “performance” going on simultaneously. I’d even hazard to guess that this film was shot closer to chronological order than most, because almost every performance improves as the movie progresses, and by the end actors who I couldn’t stand at the beginning become quite bearable, and some of the interactions and jokes begin to actually work.

The movie doesn’t look great overall, largely due to its budget, but there are scenes and moments that do impress in a visual sense. Its effects and action do in fact go above and beyond the cost of the film, unfortunately there’s still no story here that I haven’t seen a hundred times before, and the characters are about as wooden as they come. Even in the archetypal sense, there are moments, like the conclusion of the nerd/cheerleader dynamic, that seem to ring false for me. While the movie does improve in its second half, it’s not enough to make it a recommendable film, even for b-movie or zombie film fans.

Benn says:

What could go wrong? Everything.

Most zombie films, particularly those with a small budget, succeed due to the cast and crew’s resourcefulness; take a simple plot, and build on it. Add satire, tongue-in-cheek humor, character dynamics, and dystopian survivalism and you could potentially have an entertaining, if not well made, zombie film. You can also have a jumbled mess of incongruous styles. You can also have a cinematic debacle that makes you want to eat your own head. Dance of the Dead is that kind of film.

Dance of the Dead begins like any Nickelodeon high-school drama, in which we are forced to endure the ramblings of flat, stock high school characters, such as the class clown, the mean teacher, the over achiever, the nerd, and stoner musicians. You might expect that these characters would reveal some kind of depth as we get to know them, but we don’t. Due to a nearby power plant, zombies start popping out of their graves and head towards the local high school’s prom, killing the entire town in the process. The only people left to stop the zombies are those who opted to stay in during prom night.

Dance of the Dead is, essentially, Degrassi meets Goosebumps, in which the acting is terrible, the all-encompassing drama of high school trumps anything relevant going on in the real world, and the thrills and chills are delivered in the most predictable of fashions and the lowest of budgets. Not that I have anything against low budgets, but if I’m going to sit down and watch grey-faced zombies who bleed red paint, by all means, make it interesting for me to watch. Give me some extreme violence, or some funny dialogue, or a few bizarre characters… something that doesn’t resemble a high school play.

Some will say that this film isn’t trying to take itself too seriously. After all, films like Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead proved to filmgoers everywhere that a zombie film can be a comedy too. The problem is that those films had a few things Dance of the Dead did not. One of those things is talent in any element in the creation of this film. The other is that, while Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead did poke fun at the genre’s rules and plot expectations, both films took their respective storylines seriously; they managed to include moments of suspense and depth while having a blast with zombies. Dance of the Dead didn’t take many things seriously, like film direction, screen writing… the making of a film in general.

I couldn’t help but think how much the film really reflected tween dramas about high school and how flat, boring, and predictable it is. All the conflicts are blatant maguffins, the characters are mere placeholders with stylish hair, and every solution is solved quickly without anything really being done in the first place. I felt like I was watching scenes from High School Musical. In fact, I wish I was watching a zombie-infested High School Musical. Think about it: Zac Efron sings about how zombies are gross while burying his tap shoes in zombie’s skulls (and in perfect time to the music too!) while Vanessa Hudgens, taking yet another series of nude photos of herself, is ripped apart by a pack of tween zombie girls decked out shirts that read “I run with vampires”. For it’s bullshit premise, a zombie musical is campy, original, and would sure-as-shit hold my attention for an hour and a half.

By now you have probably realized that I talked little about Dance of the Dead, and just referenced a bunch of other teen-based television programs, and you’re half right. I didn’t talk much about the featured film because there’s little to talk about; it’s unwatchable crap that should remain undisturbed in the five dollar bin at Wal-Mart. However, you can’t help but think about other high school-related programs because it takes the worst elements of those programs and simply throws zombies into the mix. Could director Gregg Bishop have created some kind of spoof or satire on these phony-bologna representations of high school? Probably, but that would meant having to write dialogue and scenes that would have a point other than showing teenagers running from zombies because, dude, teenagers and zombies in one film is totally awesome. If you have an ounce of self-respect, please, avoid this film like undead.

Benn’s rebuttal:

Unlike James, I found no redeemable quality to this film. I was so overtaken by apathy and self-loathing (this film was my choice) that watching zombies jump out of their graves and infest a town instantly had no effect on me. I would have gladly paid someone to hit me on the head with a cricket paddle to avoid wasting my time with this movie.

One thing I truly object to in James’ review is it’s length. 1000+ words on Dance of the Dead James?! I”m not sure if I should be impressed or concerned. Then again, I suppose writing the phrase “Blow yourself instead” would have been too crass and brief for our last regular film duel, but it would summed up the film quite well.

James’ rebuttal:

I would totally watch that zombie musical.  The scene in Shaun of the Dead where they beat zombies to the rhythm of the music is one of my favorites ever, so seeing a whole film of that is an idea that really excites me.

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