Dance of the Dead
by Jason Coffman
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Dance of the Dead is one of those horror films that borrows liberally from various sources and jams them all together into something new. There are hints of classics in the zombie film canon: a bit of Cemetery Man to start off with, some clear references to Return of the Living Dead sprinkled about, and bits of Shaun of the Dead, Night of the Creeps, Wild Zero, Dead Alive, etc. etc. It’s the kind of film that will irritate a certain kind of horror fan to no end. That kind being the fan who sees only what’s lifted and not how it’s skillfully assembled into something that both offers clear homage to what’s come before and has its own charms as well.
The film opens with a brief altercation between the caretaker of the cemetery in the smallish town of Cosa Valley and some uncooperative corpses. At the end of the scene the camera pans to the telltale cooling towers of the local nuclear power plant, and the stage is set. The action soon moves to Cosa High, where Jimmy Dunn (Jared Kusnitz) is having a very bad day. After being sent to the principal’s office to get his detention assignment (for mouthing off to his hateful biology teacher), he has a run-in with redneck Kyle Grubbin (Justin Welborn, “Ben” from The Signal in a very different role) and ends up pissing off his girlfriend Lindsay (Greyson Chadwick), who then refuses to go to prom with him.
Jimmy’s friend Steven (Chandler Darby) isn’t doing so well, either. His attempt to ask cheerleader Gwen (Carissa Capobianco) to the prom is thwarted when she reveals she wants to ask out Nash Rambler (Blair Redford), singer/guitarist for high-school punk outfit Quarter Punks. Dejected, Steven takes up the Sci-Fi Club’s suggestion that he go with them to the cemetery to try out a piece of equipment invented by one of the club member’s brothers. What it does exactly, they don’t know, but it seems to become highly active right shortly before the first round of zombies attack.
Meanwhile, at Cosa High, the prom goes on. Can the Sci-Fi Club and their newfound cohorts stop the zombie apocalypse before it ruins the big night?
Once Dance of the Dead gets started, it rarely slows down. Lindsay and the Sci-Fi Club end up together while Jimmy, Kyle, and Gwen meet up and try to get everyone together. The zombies in Dance of the Dead are mostly very fast and very strong, but often seem to come apart with surprising ease when the scene calls for a splatstick laugh. As in any good horror comedy, though, the focus is on the survivors and how they deal with the situations in which they find themselves. There’s a lot of very funny dialogue, and the performances are great across the board. Especially funny is Mark Oliver as the seemingly insane gym coach Mr. Keel, who suddenly finds his military training extremely useful.
Unfortunately, Dance of the Dead loses some of its shine watching it at home on DVD. This is a film that’s truly meant to be played on a big screen in a dark room full of horror fanatics, and it’s a damned shame Lionsgate didn’t give the film a theatrical release before sending it straight to DVD. Director Gregg Bishop keeps the film moving at a pace quick enough to keep the ADHD crowd in thrall, the whole works constantly pushing forward in a gleeful teenage sugar rush of blood, brains and rock ‘n roll. Even on DVD, though, it’s easily one of the most fun films of the year, and an instant classic that deserves a spot among the best zombie horror comedies.
Dance of the Dead was released on DVD by Lionsgate/Ghost House Underground on October 14th. The DVD includes a feature-length commentary with director Gregg Bishop and writer Joe Ballarini, “Making of” and special effects featurettes, deleted and extended scenes with optional director commentary, a short film (Voodoo) by director Gregg Bishop with optional commentary, and a trailer gallery for other Lionsgate and Ghost House Underground releases.
Jason Coffman is a freelance film critic living in Chicago.
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