Saturday, April 23, 2011
5.1 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.