Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: Dance of the Dead (2008)

Dance of the Dead (2008)

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(Originally posted here)

I've seen this movie twice so far, and each time, it proved to be a great little zombie-comedy. Yeah, it plays fast and loose with its zombie "rules", it's got a couple of moments that are funny for all the wrong reasons, and it doesn't have much meaningful to say that wasn't already said by John Hughes (a pretty clear inspiration for this film), but it hits the ground running right from the start and never lets up in terms of either the bloodshed or the laughs.

Special props go out to the SFX department for making an indie zombie film that looks like it has a far bigger budget than it actually does. The zombie makeup and gore were abundant, and actually looked quite realistic. They behave according to a mishmash of the Romero and Russo "rules", often fluttering between them as the plot demands. You've got some slow shamblers, you've got modern sprinters, you've got zombies leaping out of their graves, you've got zombies smart enough to steal cars and flip tables over in search of prey, you've even got a dissected zombie frog, and all of it works. Only in a couple of instances could I tell that the ripped-off zombie limbs were plastic props. It gets quite messy from very early on, and never lets up in terms of bloodshed or creativity. Ever wonder what a zombie makeout session looks like? This movie answers that question. Guys, this is what happens when you don't drop half your budget on big-name stars. The only thing I wish I could've seen was when the zombies actually attack the prom, but hey, a budget can only be stretched so far.

Speaking of stars, the cast, composed chiefly of unknowns, is also incredibly game for both the teen comedy and for being zombie-slaying badasses. Carissa Capobianco reminded me of Buffy on more than one occasion as the ditzy, zombie-slaying cheerleader Gwen (IMDb tells me that she ad-libbed the line about shooting a machete, and the credits for My Super Psycho Sweet 16 tell me that she's also a stuntwoman), Mark Oliver was hilarious as the survivalist gym coach Keel who rants about his awful home life, and Jared Kusnitz and Greyson Chadwick both successfully carry the film as the lead high school sweethearts Jimmy and Lindsay. Chadwick in particular gets props for playing an overtly Christian character who doesn't come across as a fundamentalist nutball. The only cast member who didn't really click with me was Justin Welborn as the jock bully Kyle, who came off as one-dimensional (though that could just be a fault in the writing) and whose death scene felt rather narmy. All the main characters get a few moments to shine, and they deserve more and better work in the future than just bit parts on TV dramas.

The writing can be summed up as "what if John Hughes made a zombie movie?" As noted above, Hughes' shadow loomed pretty heavily over this film's writer, Joe Ballarini. All of the characters fit into pretty clear teen movie archetypes; you've got the slacker, the asshole jock, the geeks, the cheerleader, the good girl, the slick heartthrob, and the rocker. The film doesn't have much to say about these stock characters and the stereotypes they represent; rather, its main purpose is to take those characters, throw them into a zombie apocalypse scenario, and watch what happens. On that front, it is wildly successful. The writing is witty and fast-paced, taking us straight into doomsday and running with it. The characters make mistakes, but never come across as stupid, the script instead treating its teenage characters with respect.

That said, some moments in the film did come across as a bit too light-hearted given the subject matter. The characters take the discovery of the mass slaughter of their classmates at the prom awfully well, all things considered. The fact that so many of the people they grew up with are dead should have weighed more heavily on them, especially at the end. Plus, there was one goof that I felt to be a noticeable black mark against the production. In one scene, the characters are all climbing into a big, hulking Hummer H1, a very intimidating truck. It's the civilian version of the military's Humvee, so it's definitely got a presence. Unfortunately, we never see that truck again for the rest of the movie; instead, it's replaced with a Hummer H2, a soccer mom mobile that, apart from superficial styling cues, looks nothing like the H1. Did they seriously not have enough money to rent the same Hummer for the entire movie?

Score: 4 out of 5

It's got a few moments that don't really work, and it can be a bit too goofy in spots, but overall, it's a very solid, original, and funny take on both zombie movies and teen comedies. Check it out if you can.

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