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Movie/DVD Review: Dance of the Dead

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Tired of bleak, depressing zombie films? Miss the wacky, fun zombie flicks of the 1980s’? Want to see two zombies making out? Do you like me saying “zombie” so much? If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes”, then check out Dance Of The Dead.

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WARNING: Contains Minor Spoilers!

The students and faculty of Cosa High are gearing up for The Prom, but they’re having to contend with a lot of obstacles. Detention, getting dates and oh yeah, the town is home to a big, freakin’ nuclear power plant! Due to all the green smoke in the air and toxic waste in the sewers, zombies are a common occurrence at the local cemetery. For now, they’re merely a minor nuisance and half-kept secret for The Gravedigger (the film’s Production Designer, James Jarrett), who doesn’t tell anyone because he wants to keep his job.

At school, we meet the Xander Harris of the group Jimmy, played with dry, disarming wit by Jared Kusnitz (Surviving Suburbia, Otis, The Taste of Summer). He gets detention after standing up to an over-the-top, mean teacher (seriously, this guy would’ve been fired by now), gets head-butted (right in front of the Principal’s office) by the school bully Kyle, hilariously brought to life by Justin Welborn (The Signal, The Final Destination, The Crazies) and has to work at Pizza Wagon the night of The Prom.

To top it all off, he’s dumped by his prom committee girlfriend Lindsey (delightfully played by rising star, Greyson Chadwick), opting instead to date someone more serious. Enter walking tool and obvious, future date-rapist, Mitch (Jeff Adelman). Meanwhile, Jimmy’s sidekick Steven (Chandler Darby) is trying to ask out hottie Cheerleader Gwen, played with sweet sincerity by Carissa Capobianco (One Tree Hill, August, Drake & Josh). Unfortunately, his efforts are thwarted by his affiliation with the guys in the Sci-Fi Club and the moon eyes Gwen has for punk-rocker Nash Rambler (what a name!), played cool and casual by Blair Redford (The Day The Earth Stood Still, Passions, The Young & The Restless).

Resigned to their fates as losers in life, Jimmy and his buddy ditch The Prom. Steven and the Sci-Fi guys decide to video tape their alternative adventures in the cemetery (for some reason). All of a sudden, zombies attack! One of the film’s few highlights of creativity happens here. While our nerdy band of heroes run for their lives, the camera dollies along side them as zombies explode out of their graves, catapulting into the air and chasing after their victims the second their feet hit the ground. It’s actually kind of jaw-dropping, much like the now-famous, similarly-staged war scene in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

From this moment on, the characters put their personal and social differences aside to band together and kick a whole bunch of zombie butt! With the help of their military-obsessed Gym Coach, played gleefully by Mark Oliver (Stargate: SG-1, George Of The Jungle, Fantastic Four), our heroes descend upon the school dance to rescue survivors and slaughter zombies.

The acting throughout the film ranges from serviceable to surprisingly good. No one here is flat-out bad. As I mentioned before, Jared Kusnitz is charming and funny, but it’s Greyson Chadwick who more or less steals this movie. Her bright, infectious disposition really carries the picture, keeping things airy and fun. Though Carissa Capobianco can be a bit stiff in one or two moments, she really shines in her physical performance, flipping, fighting and running her way through much of the film. She has an especially noteworthy sequence where she sprints out of a funeral home, weaves her way through zombie traffic and leaps across the hood of a hearse, all in one shot.

A small casting issue comes from the fact that Jimmy and Steven look too similar, right down to sharing the same hairstyles. It’s difficult sometimes to sort out who you’re watching from scene to scene. Thankfully, Jimmy dons a tuxedo early in the picture, so that helps. Also, many of the characters are a bit too stereotypically over-the-top. The Sci-Fi Club, for example is almost insulting in its depiction of socially awkward geeks. The characters suffer from a lot of cliched, sitcom trappings, but the actors do a nice job of working above it. At least we didn’t have some fat slob clicking away on his computer, in his parents’ basement.

According to the informative commentary track on the DVD, the script was written a good ten years ago, back when zombie films were not all the rage. That’s both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the film has an old-school sensibility to it that’s quite charming and humble, much like the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Greyson Chadwick even wears combat boots with her prom dress). On the other hand, the film was made in 2008, making much of this picture feel derivative, redundant and unoriginal.

Still, the Director Gregg Bishop manages to inject the film with lots of technical creativity and energy. The editing is especially superb, particularly during the scenes shot at the High School. Joe Ballarini’s script, while sometimes dated and predictable is also clever and fast-paced. The film as a whole is reminiscent of cult-classics such as Night Of The Creeps, Return Of The Living Dead and Shaun Of The Dead. It’s not as strong as those other films, but it still has merits of its own and is worth at least a rental with friends, pizza and alcohol.

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This DVD was produced by Lionsgate, which means upon insertion of said disc, we get the requisite trailer for their latest offering in the Saw franchise. After that, however, we’re treated to what feels like 30 more trailers from the distributor, Ghost House Underground. If the other previews are any indication, this basically means they specialize in movies too cheap and lacking for theatrical release. No matter. Dance Of The Dead may be their best offering, which is good enough. However, the image on the DVD leaves much to be desired half of the time. I say “half” due to the fact that the day time scenes in and around the High School look fantastic. Shot with High Definition cameras (often using prime lenses for many attractive close-ups), they’re vibrant, clean and colorful. I was reminded of Veronica Mars more often than not.

Unfortunately, this is not to last. Most of the film takes place at night, which does not bode well for this DVD. Either they couldn’t afford a digital intermediate, or they could only stretch for the first half of the picture. Chadwick’s fiery-red hair, the blood-stained clothing and the film’s one explosion pop out quite nicely. Additionally, the green and blue lighting at the dance is also bold and strongly saturated. Sadly, the rest of the look doesn’t fare as well. Colors are sometimes drab and muted. The black levels are shamefully shallow and riddled with grain. If only the entire film had retained the comic-book flair showcased in those early scenes. Thankfully, the sound is at least done well enough. Don’t expect to get much from your surround sound system. If nothing else, the dialogue and the pop-punk soundtrack are represented clearly and cleanly. The score by composer Kristopher Carter (The Spectacular Spider-Man, Justice League, Teen Titans, Batman Beyond) was fine, but kind of generic and unimpressive.

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For such a low budget production and DVD, there’s a solid amount of supplemental material. The commentary by Bishop and Ballarini is warm and lively, with friendly chatter concerning the script’s long history, filming in Rome, Georgia and casting teenagers to play teenagers (madness, I know!). There are also featurettes covering the stunts, digital and practical effects and interviews from the cast and crew on shooting the film. They’re all worth your time, especially if you’re at all interested in cheap, inventive film making.

There are two bonuses on this disc that I feel are worth the DVD rental price alone. First up, is Gregg Bishop’s student film, Voodoo. It’s a stylish, black and white comedy about the perils of dating a single mother, with a satisfyingly unconventional conclusion. The film is breezy and madcap, very much in the style of Robert Rodriguez’s short, Bedhead. Bishop also provides a quick, informative commentary about what he went through in making the film, while trying to adhere to USC project regulations.

The second bonus not to be missed comes in the form of deleted and extended scenes, all with optional commentary from the Director. These scenes are mostly pretty funny and would have made the film’s all too quick first act flow much better. Not only that, some of the characters would have been better defined had these scenes not been removed, particularly Jimmy and Steven. In Bishop’s commentary, he insists that the scenes weren’t helping to move the plot forward and he wanted to get to the zombies as fast as possible. This is a mistake to me. Once the plot kicks in, it’s harder for me to care about it or the characters if I can’t spend enough time getting to know them and their relationships to each other first.
For example, take this deleted exchange between Jimmy and the Principal:

PRINCIPAL – Why am I not surprised to see you here? Mr. Hammond wants you in detention today after school…. and every day next week.
JIMMY – Today’s no good. I have detention with Coach Keel. Um, then Miss Raines wants me in detention Monday and Tuesday…. I’ll talk to her. I’ll see if I can work it into my schedule.
PRINCIPAL – Jimmy, you really need to pull yourself together. Focus. You can’t do this out in the real world.
JIMMY (smiling) – That’s why I’m doin’ it now.

Or, this one between Jimmy and Mitch, which serves to better establish their feelings towards each other:

MITCH (trying to convince Lindsey to go out with him, instead of Jimmy) – You wanna smell like Pepperonies, or vanilla bean air freshener? Look, he’s a joke. He doesn’t take you serious. He doesn’t take anything serious…. Look at me. You deserve a serious person.
(Jimmy sneaks up on Lindsey and scares her. She laughs.)
LINDSEY (noticing Jimmy’s bruise) – Jimmy. Hi. What happened? Are you okay?
JIMMY – Yeah, I’m fine. Just a little miscommunication with Kyle Grubbin, I’ll live.
LINDSEY – Okay. Well, aren’t you supposed to be in English?
JIMMY – Yes, but I took a detour to bring you this.
(He gives her a flower.)
MITCH – Hey, Hoodlum. Keep moving. Only student council members and hotties allowed here.
JIMMY – Oh, this is where all the cool kids hang out. (looks around) Finally found it.
MITCH – Is that supposed to be funny?
JIMMY – I don’t know, are you supposed to be funny?
MITCH – No.
JIMMY – But you are.
MITCH – That doesn’t even make sense.

The only downside is that there is no “Play All” function, which would have been nice. You can also watch the film’s trailer.

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The DVD has simple, clean box art and gives you a great sense of what to expect when watching the movie. Three of our heroes in high contrast black and white, wielding weapons and banned together against a stark, white wall covered in blood. The only thing I’m not particularly fond of is the Ghost House Underground logo stretched up across one side of the image, bigger than the movie’s title, with a big, screaming skull in the bottom corner. It reminds me of when Republic Pictures first started putting out DVDs (which were usually just Laserdisc ports), and the word “WIDESCREEN” would take up a big section of the cover, in clashing, cheap-looking gold letters. But, I digress.

The main menu is simply a looped montage of shots from the movie, with the navigational text below. The other corresponding menu pages are mostly just bold, easy to read text against textured, white walls and some splashes of blood. Simple, but effective.

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** 1/2 out of 4.

With the right type of friends around, Dance of the Dead can be a fun, schlocky B-movie, but there’s not much of a reason to suggest watching it alone, especially if you have cable. There’s bound to be a better horror movie on somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, the film is quite charming, which goes a long way. But, it’s also ten years too late in a lot of respects, and if you’re any kind of zombie-horror fan, you’ve seen all this before and done better.

Having said that, the direction is stylish, the humor is amusing and smile-inducing and the actors are bright and earnest, particularly Greyson Chadwick. Keep an eye out for her in the near future. If you’re in the mood for some low budget, popcorn entertainment (the kind one could expect from Full Moon Entertainment or to a lesser degree, Troma), you could do a lot worse than Dance of the Dead. Put it on your Netflix Queue and give it a spin, at least once.

One response on “Movie/DVD Review: Dance of the Dead

  1. Seth Powell

    Dance of the Dead! This was one of my favorite movies of last year!

    You don’t get more original than zombies exploding out of their graves and rock n’ roll soothing the zombie’s hunger. I highly recommend this flick.

    Four out of four!

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