Monday, 14 September 2009

Dance of the Dead
(Gregg Bishop, 2008)

‘Dance of the Dead’ came to my attention when I happened across a review on Critical Condition, probably whilst idly searching for info on some other film beginning with ‘D’. Now, the reviewers on that site tend to be cynical to say the least, routinely dispatching straight-to-video trash with a couple of sentences of pure disdain, as if they went in expecting a lost Howard Hawks masterwork or something. Which is ok I guess, and certainly makes for an entertaining read. So their write-up of ‘Dance of the Dead’ make an impression on me simply because it presented something almost unprecedented on that site: a positive and good natured assessment of a modern independent horror film, and furthermore one that sounded like good fun too, rather than a more challenging (read: exhausting) exercise in some weird variety of ultra-violence or other.

Believe it or not, this review alone was actually enough to send me over to Amazon to give it a whirl, alongside a bunch of other DVDs I was ordering that day. And yeah, good call Critical Condition – this one’s a keeper! Admittedly, on one level ‘Dance of the Dead’ is film without a single original idea in its entire run time, but it’s still a real breath of fresh air in the current horror landscape, simply by vestige of presenting some solid, enjoyable and uplifting fare.

Plot synopsis: there is a High School. There are zombies. The High School does what High Schools do, the zombies do what zombies do, and it all comes together rather splendidly on the night of the prom (the ‘Dance’ of the title). What more do you need to know?

I mean, I could sketch in some of the major characters and plot points for you, but frankly, assuming you’re conversant with the respective tropes of the genres being crossbred here, you could probably write the thing yourself and get about a 70% match.

Taking a seemingly deliberate decision to eschew shock value, nastiness and disruption of audience expectation, director/producer Gregg Bishop and writer Joe Ballarini set about realising ‘Dance of the Dead’ with a sense of “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” craftsmanship that’s a joy to behold in this era of cynical, sloppy faux-artistic filmmaking. The high school elements are played out as an applaudable approximation of the easy-going pathos and humanism of a John Hughes flick, whilst the zombie stuff largely aspires to the eerie naturalism of Romero, only occasionally giving way to the more campy teen/zombie formula established by ‘Return of the Living Dead’ (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Speaking as a lifelong fan of all those tropes, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Dance of the Dead’ drew me in like a big, warm cinematic comfort blanket.

The teenage cast – who actually ARE all teenagers for once – are great. After all the whacked out 60s/70s trash I’ve been watching recently, it’s nice to see a film where the cast look like they actually wanted to be there, and they’re a pretty damn good bunch of young actors too, launching into their roles with gusto, and bringing a sense of charm and believability that really helps carry the movie.

Add some energetic, excellently staged action sequences, a quietly (not uproariously) funny script, more than enough improvised weaponry and gleeful zombie splatter to satisfy the horror crowd, and a happy ending that actually succeeds in being touching, despite being entirely silly and predictable, and…. well, you’re home safe, gentle viewer. As mentioned above, most genre filmmakers would likely take ‘Return of the Living Dead’ as the benchmark against which a movie like this shall be judged, but actually ‘Dance..’ reminded me more than anything of a prime-era Buffy episode, with its pleasantly off-the-wall tone, genuine character and surprisingly high quality of execution.

If there’s a downside, it perhaps lies in the film’s aforementioned avoidance of novelty, and its decision to stick so rigidly to the conventions of its chosen genres that some may find things a bit stifling. But hey, I’m cool with that – I like genres, after all, and these are some of my favourite ones. It’s like introducing a couple of old friends to each other for the first time or something.

(I wish I did have friends who represented the living embodiments of zombie and teen movies. What times we’d all have! I guess they might look a bit like Sid Haig and Molly Ringwald, respectively. Or maybe Melinda Clarke from ‘Return of the Living Dead III’ and Joey Ramone. Hey, who knows, maybe they’d even hit it off?)

ANYWAY, enough of that, where were we? Oh yeah: it should also be noted that ‘Dance of the Dead’s tone is a little inconsistent at times – after all, its strongest suit is as a naturalistic zombie comedy ala ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (probably the recent film it most closely resembles, although obviously this is less of an out-and-out comedy and focused on a younger age group), which sometimes makes the inclusion of more overtly goofy horror stuff – dark & stormy nights, sinister cadaverous gravedigger, dodgy “I told you they were up to no good in that hastily photoshopped nuclear powerplant on the hill” explanation – seem a little jarring. Maybe that sort of thing might bug you, but again, I could care less – it’s all to the good. Overall, ‘Dance of the Dead’ probably gets my vote as the teen horror movie since ‘Ginger Snaps’ (not that there’s exactly been much competition).

Some may say zombie movies are getting a little tired (they have a point), some never liked teen movies in the first place (goddamn squares), but my god, we could REALLY do with a few more films as enjoyable as ‘Dance of the Dead’ right now, if the soul-crushing parade of omniscient serial killers, clanking chains, drained colour, crappy ‘lightning strike’ montage edits, grimy, stylized basements, rusty barbed wire close-ups and knife sharpening noises that comprise the entirety of the Ghosthouse Underground DVD’s seemingly endless indie horror trailer reel is anything to go by.

So in conclusion: not an all-time classic, not a mind-blower, not an “OMG you gotta see this” movie. But, once the bright lights of the eternal cavalcade of lurid lunatic weirdness that the world of horror movies offer me grinds to a halt for the evening, ‘Dance..’ is the kind of neat, self-contained little movie that will still be there, reminding me why I got into watching them in the first place.


Hans A. said...

Very nice review (and I enjoy visiting your blog and reading all your posts, btw) and I agree completely with your sentiments about the movie. Dance is compellingly watchable as are its characters compellingly likable. Great work.

Ben said...

Thanks Hans - much appreciated!

I've been finding 'Quiet Cool' an excellent read too since discovering it a few months ago, just to complete the mutual appreciation cycle!