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Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Dance of the Dead

Dance of the Dead
(2008) - Lionsgate/Ghost House Underground

By my reckoning, the horror-comedy has been around since about five minutes after the first scary story was told around a campfire. I haven't finished all the research necessary to substantiate that claim but I'm pretty sure that's an accurate timeline. As filmmakers and critics are so fond of pointing out in DVD extras, comedy and horror are closely connected. On any good ride, you scream, then you laugh when you realize you're OK. Not so coincidentally, horror is a favorite target for parodists. Any time you have a genre with a relatively limited bag of tricks, it's bound to get sent up more than once. But the most successful horror-comedies are those that respect the form. They're able to scare you and make you laugh simultaneously. These are relatively few and far between. The video store shelves are cluttered with the unrented boxes of dozens of movies that tried and failed to combine laughs and scares. Dance of the Dead, while not exactly a home run, doesn't deserve to languish in horror-comedy obscurity.

Any horror movie fan that's been stuck watching a sub-John Hughes teen comedy has had a moment where they've felt the movie would be improved if a plague of zombies suddenly burst into the prom scene and laid waste to the entire cast. Basically, that's exactly what Dance of the Dead is about. It's the night of the living prom and lo and behold, the dead are bursting from their graves with an appetite for brains. Who would be safe in such a scenario? Naturally, the kids who didn't go to prom... the rebels, the geeks and the dateless wonders. It's a wish-fulfillment scenario horror geeks everywhere should be able to appreciate.

Director Gregg Bishop and screenwriter Joe Ballarini do a whole lot of things right. Their cast of mostly age-appropriate teenagers is very good. They're confident, charismatic and more than able to hold their own whether they're acting like kids or dispatching the undead. The effects are slick and Bishop knows how to stage both horror and action for maximum effectiveness. The scene with the zombies emerging from their graves is great stuff, especially for a low-budget indie. But the movie isn't quite sharp enough to be Superbad meets Shaun of the Dead. The flick it most resembles is Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead. Bishop and Ballarini owe more than a slight debt of gratitude to O'Bannon's 1985 cult favorite. Perhaps too much because for all its charms, Dance of the Dead never quite emerges from the shadow of its predecessors. Still, it's enjoyable enough on its own terms and a pleasant surprise if you approach it with an open mind and no expectations.

Dance of the Dead is one of eight new horror movies released by Lionsgate under the new Ghost House Underground moniker. The idea behind this seems quite similar to the After Dark Horrorfest albeit with a fancier pedigree. Ghost House Pictures is the horror film shingle begun by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert responsible for such fare as 30 Days of Night. The eight movies grouped into the inaugural Ghost House Underground collection are ostensibly personally chosen by Raimi and Tapert. I'll be checking out a few more of these titles in the weeks to come. For its part, Dance of the Dead looks and sounds reasonably good on DVD and comes packed with goodies including an audio commentary by Bishop and Ballarini, deleted and extended scenes, an above-average documentary that details the making of the picture from concept to its premiere at South by Southwest, and an additional featurette focusing on the impressive effects and stunt work. Also included is Voodoo, a short film directed by Bishop at USC. It comes with an optional commentary as well and both the short and Bishop's commentary are well worth checking out.

For my money, horror movies work best with low budgets, limited resources and infinite amounts of creativity. Unfortunately, the last few years have been hard on independent filmmakers with distributors drying up and theatres less willing than ever to screen anything that comes from outside the studio system. That may be starting to change with imprints like Ghost House Underground. First impressions are important and Dance of the Dead is a fine introduction to the label. It's never less than entertaining and at its best, is an original, energetic little horror picture. If even a few of the other movies in the Ghost House Underground lineup are as good as this one, it'll be a terrific addition to the genre.

Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/B+

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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