Note: This review is also featured on Send More Cops.
There’s more to a zombie movie than brain-eating, dismemberment, and finding clever ways to dispose of the zombie threat.
Granted, there are a lot of people out there who want nothing more out of their zombie flicks. No matter how idiotic the rest of the movie, if we get a good crowbar-through-the-forehead gag, they’re satisfied. They’re also stupid, and probably enjoyed the Day of the Dead remake.
What made George Romero’s zombie films as successful as they were had a lot to do with a very important point that a lot of people tend to skim over: What happens when the zombies are off-screen. Because if you can’t give a shit about the characters involved, what’s gonna make you care when they’re threatened by some flesh-eater?
That’s not to say that Dance of the Dead should be compared to a Romero zombie flick (nor should any other zombie movie; Romero’s are in a class of their own). But the filmmakers (writer Joe Ballarini and director Gregg Bishop) make it a point to create likable characters who you’re going to enjoy following for 90 minutes. The film takes place on prom night, so when the inevitable zombie invasion begins, the only people available to save the prom-goers from becoming zombie lunch (200 teenagers in a single room? Zombie smorgasbord) are the ones that couldn’t get dates to the prom. The losers, the weirdos, the geeks.
And maybe that’s what make you love ’em so much. Because let’s face it: most zombie fans are, to some extent, geeks or outcasts of some kind. I may not have been in the Science Fiction Club (gimme a little credit here) but I was, ya know, one of those weirdo art students. It’s easy to relate to the heroes when you yourself may not have been the prom king/queen.*
The first 20 minutes are funny and entertaining enough that I’d have been happy spending the evening with the geek heroes even if the zombie attack had never happened. But happen it does, and the filmmakers waste no time in changing the mood from funny to downright creepy. From then on out, it’s pretty much your typical zombie plot — get to cover, board the windows, find weapons, etc. — until the outcasts decide to make a visit to the high school to rescue the rest of the student body, but the script manages to stay funny enough that you don’t mind the fact that, well, you’ve seen a lot of this before.
All of that stuff that I mentioned at the beginning of this review? The stuff that you expect to see in every zombie movie? Well, it’s all here too. In loads. And for a movie with a budget as low as this one, the effects (mostly practical, with the odd CGI effect thrown in here and there) look incredible. And oh yes, lots of blood, guts and gore.
I’m not going to go out and say that Dance of the Dead is the greatest zombie movie you’ll ever see, and it’s light years away from achieving the greatness of the horror comedy of, say, Shaun of the Dead. The movie’s got its issues. After getting off to a strong start, the movie slows down a bit in the second act, as if the filmmakers decided that they needed to throw a few cliches in just so that the audience doesn’t feel disappointed. The aforementioned boarding up of an old house, the weapons-building montage, the crazy gym teacher who turns out to be a militaristic nutjob (just the person to have with you during the Apocalypse) are all things that you’ve seen in countless other films. But it’s got enough of its own flourishes — including zombies literally launching themselves from their graves and hitting the ground running! — to make the movie more worth your while.
While most of the horror hitting your local mulitplex is little more than marketing trash designed more to sell tickets than to actually, uh, entertain, it’s good to know that excellent, entertaining and fun horror flicks are still out there to be found.
*Note: While I did go to the prom — twice — I kind of hated it and think that a zombie invasion would’ve probably been a vast improvement over the night’s events.