Saturday, April 23, 2011

5.1 DANCE OF THE DEAD (2008)

Dance of the Dead (2008)
Dir. Gregg Bishop

Wow, is my thumb not on the pulse of contemporary horror critics.

This film has been garnering a LOT of praise across the Internet and was chosen by Sam Raimi for distribution through his Ghosthouse Underground label for Lionsgate.  Even those who haven't been that impressed still find a lot of good things to say about the film.  In fact, I've only found one or two reviews that really didn't like it after a few minutes of Googling (which, I know, is not a statistically reliable research method).

So, I'll go ahead and mention the good and then get to the bad below the break. 

Gregg Bishop shot this film on HD cameras for under a million dollars (I can't find more exact numbers) in Rome, Georgia.  The direction is solid.  Bishop has a good eye for staging a scene and the film looks like a lot more was spent on it than actually was.  Based on seeing this film, I actually do want to see his earlier film, The Other Side (2006), which he also wrote.

A brief look at the credits for this film shows that he got a lot of community support for the making of this film, which partially explains how he was able to put a huge number of zombies on the screen.  Really, the credit list for the zombie extras seems to go on for nearly as long as the feature itself.

There are a number of nice gore scenes, and all of the actors play their roles naturally and believably.

And that's where the trouble starts.

Most, if not all, of the problems I had with this film can be tied directly to the script by Joe Ballarini, although the problems are exacerbated by Bishop's seeming inability to maintain a consistent tone.

Some reviewers have said that this film has everything one might like in a zombie film.  All the bases are covered, as it were.  There are fast zombies, slow zombies, some want brains, some are entranced by music, some burst out of the ground in explosions of dirt as if on wires, some creep from the ground after thrusting hands up out of the grave.  Some even steal a car and drive away in it.

It's being generous to say that this is "something for everyone."  I say it's sloppy structure and actually weak film making.  It shows that the makers of this film had no distinct vision for what they were doing beyond making each scene seem "cool".  Plot and character suffer, because there is no real plot and no real character.  The scenes are structured in a way that they could have come from any number of other random films and then been spliced together to make this one.  The narrative logic of one scene has nothing at all to do with the narrative logic of the next.

In a way, it's not surprising that Sam Raimi liked this.  His latest, Drag Me To Hell, suffered from the exact same problem.  If you're going to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a film, you need to establish that that sort of craziness is the norm, not just in a couple of scenes here and there.  And here, as in Drag Me To Hell, when the craziness does happen, it's not really even crazy.  It's just weak and usually borrowed from other, better, movies.

With Dance of the Dead, after an opening scene that recalls the infinitely superior Dellamorte, Dellamore (and I don't buy for a minute the claim by the makers that the reference was unintentional), where a cemetery worker has apparently been going around "killing" the undead as they rise in order to keep things under control (which is, you know, the entire plot of Dellamorte, Dellamore), I had high hopes.  But then the film shifts to follow a group of high school cliches as they prepare for prom.

Only one of these kids is even remotely likeable, and that's just because he's the "lovable loser" cliche, pining away for the cheerleader cliche who won't give him the time of day.  Every character is a smart ass, hateful, condescending cartoon and not a one of them actually grows or develops over the course of the film.  Which isn't a bad thing, if we're supposed to root for the zombies.  But we're not.  These are our heroes.  A bunch of assholes I wanted to see die.

Well, that's not entirely true.  The school bully, played by Justin Wellborn (lead actor from the infinitely more enjoyable, The Signal), is given the chance to show that while he is a true bastard son of a bitch, has a little bit of humanity in him.  But it was brief, and Wellborn is wasted on the part.

Actually, when I think about it, the main thematic thrust of this film, what little coherent theme there is, seems to be that the nerds (the sci-fi club - again, all entirely unlikeable asshats) and the geeks who are ostensibly our heroes here, are actually going to end up relying entirely on the people that abuse and mistreat them in their everyday lives if they want to survive.  The bully who traumatized them, the abusive coach, and the condescending rockers end up being the ones who actually save their lives and the day, while the nerds stumble around being foolish and ineffectual.

In the end, nothing is earned and nothing happens for any reason.  The few brief flashes of creativity (the zombie make-out scene, the dance amongst the undead, um, yeah, that may be it for the flashes of creativity), are overwhelmed by a huge load of nonsense as scenes are almost randomly strung together.

From what I understand, the theatrical version had a run-time of 95 minutes, which has been cut down to 87 for the DVD release.  Maybe they just decided to cut all the good stuff, the connective tissue, and give people what is essentially the same as one of those compilation pornos with all the story cut out.  What we end up with is the least intelligent, least fun, least ambitious film of the marathon so far.

But for some reason, people love it.  I really don't get it.


  1. A bunch of assholes I wanted to see die.
    This was exactly how I felt about Cloverfield.

  2. Anonymous7:50 AM

    Yeah, Paul, it’s very safe to say that your thumb is not on the pulse of the contemporary horror critics. LOL ;) Or for the general audience, for that matter.

    This is one of my favorite movies & my girlfriends and I have seen it a hundred times… so let me explain.

    The reason this film receives a lot of praise and everyone loves it… is for the lovability of the characters. It’s the fact that you love all of these kids and you don’t want them to die. The big rave from every critic about this movie is you are actually pulling for the characters and not for the zombies. So how did you react differently? I think you are confusing the character ARCHITYPES with stereotyopes, or “clichés”. For example, the cheerleader is not a cliché. The cliché stereotype would be if she’s a dumb blonde. But she’s not. She’s a smart (yet innocent) girl.

    Which main character is hateful or condescending cartoon?

    You really think that not one of them develops or grows over the course of the film? ARE YOU KIDDING?

    The lead guy Jimmy grows in a major way. His archetype is the loser who doesn’t take anything seriously. He has no responsibility for anything… but he grows into a leader who leads these group of kids to save their friends at the prom. The school bully develops and grows. He used to kick all of these nerd’s asses everyday and in the end he ends up saving them. When he tells Jimmy “sorry I punched you today” as he’s dying? C’mon. That someone who’s gone through a major transformation.

    The entire movie are all about these character’s growth. They’re the misfits and losers who end up saving the day. Zero to hero. The band who couldn’t play the dance because they’re too loud, finally get to play the dance (after they get a five hour practice session keeping zombies at bay, of course) The sci-fi geeks (who are lovable and hilarious) grow from boys into men. The unlikely heroes.

    I mean, it’s a zombie movie!! Do you really want the movie to stop and for all the kids to sit around and talk about their family or flashback to when their dad left them? I certainly don’t.

    The tone was consistent and spot on, I thought. Specifically what point did you think it ever waivered?

    No real plot? How about “go to the school and save our friends”??? Pretty straight forward.

  3. Anonymous7:52 AM

    PART 2:

    Give me one example of how you say “The narrative logic of one scene has nothing at all to do with the narrative logic of the next.”

    You completely missed the theme. It isn’t that the nerds DEPEND on the people that mistreat them to survive. It’s that when the shit goes down, that all of the social barriers fall and don’t matter anymore. It’s kind of like THE BREAKFAST CLUB… but with zombies. The geeks are now friends with the bully. The nerd gets to kiss the girl, etc.

    How were the nerds foolish or ineffectual? As I recall, the nerds got to kick a lot of ass themselves. I remember the kids fighting off zombies with mallets, bats, & axes…. and what about the kid that kills that zombie with a shovel as he’s attacking the cheerleader? The kid with the football helmet that his friend gave him? I’m beginning to wonder if you were paying attention.

    Nothing is earned? Nothing happens for a reason? REALLY? They risked their life to trap all of the zombies into the gym so that they could blow them up… they were able to rescue some survivors. They lost a few of their own. Through this extraordinary event, Jimmy reconnected with the girl he was losing and regained her respect, the nerds got to be heroes and get the girls for once, the band got to play the dance, the coach got the kick some ass, etc. Get it?

    Few brief flashes of creativity? How about the zombies rocketing out of their graves? The zombie frog? Them blowing up a high-school? The bleacher scene? The power of rock soothing the zombies hunger? I could go on.

    P.S. – I saw the film in a theater and it is the same running time as the DVD. 87 minutes. Not sure where 95 minutes came from.

    That is why everyone loves it, Paul. We love the characters and are with them on this journey. It’s wish fulfillment of getting the girl you couldn’t get in high-school, being a hero, saving the school, etc

    Least intelligent, least fun, least ambitious film? No way. If anything... intelligent, fun and ambitious is exactly what it is. ;D


  4. Like I said, I just don't get it.

    The main character says things about being heroic, but he fails at everything he does and has to be saved by the people who were cruel to him in his everyday life. And the only kid who was likeable gets to kiss the girl, but only after she's turned into a zombie and they eat each other's faces off (which was done better in Dead Alive).

    They're not archetypes because archetypes are larger than life and mythic by definition. These are stereotypes because they provide a short-hand way of introducing the characters and never really move beyond that.

    The members of the sci-fi club, who I should be rooting for, don't actually develop. In the end, the leader of the club is still a spaz who tries to get a girl to like him by pretending to be a hero. And his friend still won't give up his helmet to the girl he likes. They're just there to be cliched jokes, not characters.

    Even the plot line of going to the school to save the prom is a failure since just about everyone is dead before they even arrive. Sure, some get out, but all the heroes do are open the door and have them follow them. They aren't needed at all, except to help lock the doors. The obnoxious coach's explosives save the day after the band has to save the incompetent geek.

    Nope. This movie just mindless explosions and weak characters. A good zombie movie has to have good characters and internal logic, otherwise it's just cotton candy and dismissible.

  5. Justin Wellborn as the bully is the only bright spot. He does grow. Then he dies and they all take out their old hostility on him by beating and kicking his zombie self back to death.

  6. The zombies exploding up out of their graves was another problem for me. There's no explanation for that. And they hit the ground running at full speed? WTF?

    It looked cool, but it's all flash with no substance. The writer and directer saw it in another movie, probably something Chinese, and used it without actually incorporating it into the internal logic of the film.

    This would work in something like a Troma film, where right from the start we know that they're embracing their low-budget and every scene is as crazy/offensive as possible. But here, the film makers are trying to make a real comedy, not a low-brow one. Poltrygeist is a great example of that.

    For a film to succeed as a film and not as something you just put on in the background at a party and mostly ignore, there has to be some sort of internal logic, and if that breaks down, there needs to be a way of addressing that or working it into the narrative. The TV show SUPERNATURAL is great at this. There are rules for how things work, and when something doesn't fit the rules, they have to find out why and figure out what's going on.

    The opening two minutes of this week's episode, for example, was better plotted, acted, and directed than the entire film Dance of the Dead.

    It's all about the storytelling.

  7. Anonymous8:15 PM

    Interesting point of view. But no offense, but there is a reason 95% of the population disagrees with you. LOL

    1) It is incorrect to say the lead character fails at everything he does and has to be saved by the people who were cruel to him in everyday life. Isn’t it the Coach who accidentally drops the remote into the gym and the main character is the one who has to go into the lion’s den to get it? “It’s a one way ticket, son. But you’ve got to buy it.” I can’t think of anything more heroic than that. Him & the girl are kicking ass in there, dropping zombies with bats and axes. Yes, the band does come to their rescue, but aren’t they the understood misfits too? And doesn’t the lead girl convince the band to stop playing so they can make a run for it? “but this is the best set of our lives!”. LOL. I mean, c’mon! :D

    2) No, the kid actually gets to kiss the girl before she turns and he chooses to STAY. He’d rather die for this moment with this girl than save himself. That’s character. That’s conflict. That’s drama.

    3) Look at the definition of archetype: Archetypes are not “larger than life” or “mythic by definition”. Archetype refers to a generic version of a personality. A stereotype is an over-simplication of that personality, which this movie moves beyond. For example, the bully character. He’s a bully, but he also reads the Bible, he has a code, and when the main character finds him he’s been crying, etc. He’s a bully on the outside, but on the inside he’s different and quite heroic. The only character that comes close to a stereotype I would say would be the Coach. He doesn’t go quite beyond being a crazy gym coach. LOL. But I did love that bit about his dog and his ex-wife.

    4) The fact that most everyone is dead when they arrive at the prom is a “turn” in the story. It's where act 3 starts, in a way. It’s called DANCE OF THE DEAD! LOL. Wouldn’t it have been disappointing if there were no zombies at the prom?? It’s not a failure because they rescue the group of survivors. And they do more than just open doors. Remember them escaping in the hallway? Where zombies are popping out and the kids are taking them out, therefore clearing the way out for the survivors?

    5) You are right, the members of the sci-fi club don’t become ass kicking superheroes. But if they did, wouldn’t that be completely inconsistent with their characters? They do actually develop, but they don’t have huge arcs like the main characters because they are supporting characters. Not everyone in a movie has to arc. They are simply the losers who got picked on who step up when the shit hits the fan and save the day. They get to be heroes. The kid who takes his helmet back from the girl he likes is consistent with his character. He’s a scared 16 year old kid!

  8. Anonymous8:17 PM

    6) What do you mean specifically with “internal logic”? What isn’t working for you? Are you talking about the zombies? If you didn’t notice, the old zombies move slow, the recently bit zombies move fast, which actually makes a lot of sense. Muscle tissue would deteriorate in the older zombies.

    7) Yes, they kick the bully’s ass. It’s wish fulfillment of high-school kids. Kick the bully’s ass. Kill your teachers (after they turn into zombies, of course) and blow up the school. Did you really not get this? Or were you home-schooled? ;D

    8) Name one movie you’ve ever seen with zombies exploding out of their graves. It has never been done before this film. It is pretty clear in the movie that the power plant is affecting the zombies. That’s why some can launch from the graves & move fast.

    9) I can’t comment on SUPERNATURAL, I don’t watch tween CW shows.

    9) You’re half right. It is about storytelling, but it’s also about character. Which is the primary strength of Dance of the Dead.

    And that is why it has such a huge following. :)

    LOL Great discussion!


  9. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. Right from the start I didn't like any of the characters, so I'm not inclined to give them the leeway you are. I'm being harsher than is probably necessary and I think you're giving it too much credit.

    It's more likely to be right in the middle, objectively. I'd be interested to hear what you think of some of the other films we've been watching.

    Actually, I misspoke. I liked the bully. Anybody in a film who throws headbutts around earns my devotion. Plus, I loved The Signal, and he was pretty cool in that.

    I really wish I could remember where I've seen the dead exploding out of their graves. I'd swear it was a Chinese film, but I've watched so many of these movies over the years some of the details have vanished from my head.

    Anyway, you should check out Supernatural. It's not like the other CW shows, even if the ads make it look like it should be called SuperSexual or Sexinatural. It's really good stuff, although it's probably a bit hard to get into at this point. It's been building story and history for six seasons now.