The Neon Dead

| September 14, 2016

It’s always exciting to see the results when special effects artists get in the directing chair, regardless of the outcome. Sometimes you get something with great effects and not much else; more rarely, the final product shows a lot of heart and handmade charm. Perhaps not surprisingly, the higher the budgets the more likely the film is to end up in the first camp. Artists who specialize in making the most out of extremely limited resources, though, are more likely to make something more idiosyncratic. Torey Haas’s The Neon Dead falls squarely into the second camp. Haas, a special effects artist, has made a highly entertaining and appropriately titled debut feature well worth a look for indie horror fans.

While preparing for a job interview, Alison (Marie Barker) walks in on a ghost brushing its hair in her bathroom. It’s not just a standard translucent spirit, though–it has a physical presence and leaves green slime behind. Alison manages to lock it in the bathroom just before a little girl raising money for her troop stops by and suggests Alison call local paranormal investigators Desmond (Greg Garrison) and Jake (Dylan Schettina). While the initial undead threat is taken care of easily, it quickly becomes apparent that the three are in way over their heads. Alison’s long-dead evil ancestor Drake (Andrew Puckett) has returned from the beyond and brought an army of undead creatures with him, and if he’s not stopped a powerful demon named Z’athax will be unleashed on humanity. Also, Desmond and Jake probably need to get back to their day jobs at the local grocery store before their boss discovers that they sneaked out again.

The Neon Dead lives up to its title, with garish lighting soaking nearly every scene in bright primary colors. While many low-budget features tend to have similar simple looks, the glow-in-the-dark color schemes popping out of the screen really set this film apart. Unsurprisingly, it also features some great practical makeup and effects ranging from simple glowing eyes to a giant stop-motion demon creature. In that respect, the movie is somewhat reminiscent of Steven Kostanski’s Manborg, another super low-budget genre movie that used its rough-hewn look to its advantage. Also like that film, The Neon Dead moves at a brisk pace and clearly shows off its video game influences with touches like occasional title cards that pop up introducing characters before key fight scenes. The humor here is a lot more straightforward and less absurdist than that film, though.

This approach works well enough, and the cast is fun and charming, but the relationships between the characters are not the main focus of the action. The hasty development of the relationship between some of the characters is the biggest weakness of The Neon Dead. They’re all likable and their performances are solid–even the little girl scout is pretty good–but the story is so busy zipping from set piece to flashback to fight scene that some of the character moments feel too rushed. As much fun as the rest of the movie is, that’s a pretty minor complaint. Overall The Neon Dead is a fun, fast, eye-popping independent horror film that definitely stands out in a scene crowded with dour post-apocalypse and/or zombie movies.

Wild Eye Releasing released The Neon Dead on DVD on 13 September 2016. Special features include a full-length commentary track, bonus scenes and behind-the-scenes featurettes, and trailers.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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