Ghost House Underground: Dance of the Dead (US - DVD R1)
Gabe Powers watches another movie about high schoolers fighting zombies
The teens of a small nuclear-powered town are wracked with angst on the night of the High School prom. When everything that can go wrong already has, only one thing could possibly happen—the dead rise from their graves to devour the living. A rag-tag group of misfits wearing their prom night best find the courage to fight back with shovels, scythes, machetes, baseball bats, football helmets, machine guns, and rock and roll.
There are too many zombie movies on the market. The genre has been reduced to a staler point than even the slasher genre in the early ‘80s. I’m always up for championing the genre, but at this point even I get an unpleasant twinge in my gut when I’m given a new one to review. Dance of the Dead is a fun-time crowd pleaser, but it doesn’t have much new material to offer fans. In fact, this is the third high school zombie movie I’ve reviewed in two years, which is kind of ridiculous. Dance of the Dead isn’t the exact same movie as Boy Meets Girl or Night of the Living Dorks, but close enough. Besides, My Boyfriend’s Back got there first.
I’ll break it down quickly here into what works and what doesn’t. First the good: the zombies in Dance of the Dead don’t only run, they literally rocket out of their graves at one point, in a scene that almost makes the movie worth watching alone for its Sam Raimian energy. Later we're treated to a solid and genuinely affecting slow dance with the two main characters amongst the living dead, which manages to capture some of the sense of warm levity and romance that made Braindead and Shaun of the Dead sub-genre classics. The acting is uniformly much better than expected, and the actors themselves are close to age appropriate for their roles. Dance of the Dead is also a physically well made movie, featuring a really solid sense of motion, action, tone and structure.
Now the not so good: the script is tightly plotted and well paced, but it’s full of banal bits of ‘been there, done that’ (I’m trying to think of a clever way of writing ‘cliché’ because it’s a word I know I overuse in my reviews). The film really owns a few of the old hats, like the Vietnam vet coach, and the group of geeks that pull it together when the chips are down, but it’s still consistent problem. Even the majority of the funny bits are second hand jokes, such as zombie lovers eating each other's faces ( Braindead), guitars as zombie killing weapons ( Wild Zero), and zombies that stop attacking to dance after hearing music (the little seen zombie bee movie Infested). I was excited by what I thought was a Cemetery Man homage very early in the film, but the commentary track reveals that the similarities are apparently accidental.
Dance of the Dead looks better than its under a million script would normally dictate. The pallet is colourful without veering too far into the abstract. For the most part the overall tint leans towards green, which helps to bring out blood reds. The colours are very vibrant and don’t noticeably bleed into each other. The bright red lights of the prom are particularly fantastic. DP George Feucht really does for broke on the harsh shadows (shades of 28 Days Later), which are visually stimulating, but are sometimes victim to compression noise and generally off black levels. The compression noise isn’t too big a problem for the brighter shades, but there’s a whole lot of grain everywhere in every scene.
Even more impressive than the above average cinematography is the score, which was recorded using a full orchestra. The music is gigantic on the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, warmly blasting from the front channels with a nice tweak in the rear channels. When drums come up during the rock music and on a few moments during the score, the sound of the kick drum is heavy but punchy, and the snare sound is levelled perfectly, as to not overpower or become lost in the mix. The score is so derivative that I originally assumed it was taken from other films (there’s one cue that near on identical parts of the original Aliens score), but it sounds very good. The sync during the rock bits is pretty far off on everything but the vocals, but I’m sure most viewers don’t care enough about such things to even notice. The non-musical parts of the track are a little inconsistent, specifically during dialogue, which fluctuates volume-wise, but the rear channel zombie moaning action is pretty cool.
Of all the Ghost House Underground releases Dance of the Dead has the heftiest and most extensive extras collection. Things start with a commentary featuring director Gregg Bishop and writer Joe Ballarini. The tone of the track is a tiny bit frat boy, but in a genuinely fun and inclusive fashion. This is a full figured track with few blank spots and a lot of spirit. The commentators get points deducted for generally getting down on old school zombies. I’m not talking running zombies versus shambling zombies here, because both are fine, but the fellah talk about ‘60s/’70s zombies from a point of view that sounds suspiciously ignorant. I’m not trying to be that geeky guy that can’t handle objective criticism, and it’s actually important for genre filmmakers to work outside of fandom, I just can’t fully endorse this kind of behaviour (because I’m that geeky guy that can’t handle objective criticism).
Also, they keep referring to Evil Dead as a zombie movie [nerd voice] which it clearly is not[/nerd voice]. I wanted to complain about the commentators praising the originality of the song ‘Shadow of the Night’ because I thought they honestly didn’t know that it was an old Pat Benatar tune. Eventually I realized it was a joke.
Our making-of featurette is an entertaining mix of what appear to be press kit interviews, on-set footage, audition and production meetings, stunt training footage, make-up effects production, some bits from the SXSW film fest (where the film was sensation this year), and pertinent footage from the film, running about twenty three minutes. If the film wasn’t a blast to make the participants are really good at making it appear otherwise.
There are nine deleted and extended scenes presented in finished anamorphic widescreen, and all featuring optional director’s commentary. Mostly these are made up of largely unneeded character developments, though the characters are a strong element of the final films, so perhaps keeping them in and removing some of the zombie footage would’ve made for a better film overall. Unfortunately that would mean less zombies, which would probably have made the film less popular on the horror film fest circuit. There’s no ‘Play All’ option, and none of the scenes run more than a few minutes, so watching the films is a bit of a pain.
‘Blood, Guts, and Rock and Roll’ is an additional behind the scenes featurette concerned more directly with special effects, both digital and practical (mostly mixed actually). The featurette blends behind the scenes and before and after footage augmented with a director’s commentary. The films effects aren’t photo real for the most part, but are very impressive given the budget constraints, and this five minute featurette is a very enlightening how-to discussion.
The coolest extra is Bishop’s five minute film school short Voodoo, complete with director’s commentary. Voodoo is a cute black and white flick about a little girl that attacks her mother’s new boyfriend using a little homemade voodoo doll. It features broad slapstick moments enhanced by cartoony sound effects and super dramatic little score. The disc is finished with a series of trailers for other Ghost House Underground releases.
I’ve personally reviewed sixteen zombie movies now (eighteen if you want to count Lamberto Bava’s Demons films), plus two articles about some of my favourites, and I’ve pretty much run out of anything to say about the genre. Generally middling films don’t help inspire me. Dance of the Dead looks good for its budget, features some decent performances, and is generally pretty entertaining, so if you’re really desperate for another zombie flick feel free to give it a shot, you probably won’t be disappointed.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 14th October 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Extras: Commentary, Featurettes, Making of, Deleted and Extended Scenes, Short Film
Easter Egg: No
Director: Gregg Bishop
Cast: Jared Kusnitz, Chandler Darby, Greyson Chadwick, Justin Welborn, Carissa Capobianco
Genre: Comedy and Horror
Length: 86 minutes
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