"When there is no room in hell, the dead go to detention!" I've been a fan of the original Night of the Living Dead for a long time and also love the 1970s follow-up Dawn of the Dead (a must-see just for the 70s shopping mall) but with the recent resurgence of zombie movies, I sort of feel like the genre has been done to death at this point, no pun intended.
Still, Detention of the Dead, which began as a stage play, figures there's room for a comedic take on the whole zombie apocalypse thing. Here we have a group of six high school students who are sentenced to detention after school: nerdy and often picked-on Eddie (Jacob Zachar) who is in for taking unprescribed pills to help him do better in school, his goth-chick friend Willow (Alexa Nikolas), popular cheerleader Janet (Christa B. Allen), her jock boyfriend Brad (Jayson Blair), stoner Ash (Justin Chon), and one more jock for good measure, Jimmy (Max Adler). Yes, that includes Brad and Janet as in Rocky Horror, and Ash as in The Evil Dead. It's just a normal day when they check in for detention, but a seventh detainee Mark (Joseph Porter) isn't feeling quite right after being bitten by someone outside and suddenly goes rabid, biting Mrs. Rumblethorp (Michele Messmer), the teacher in charge of watching them. The other students fight him off and soon realize that everyone outside the classroom has become run-of-the-mill zombies, as we've seen in countless other movies. The rules for them are the same as usual: they wander aimlessly in search of humans to eat, and any unaffected person they bite becomes a zombie themselves.
Our heroes bring the teacher into the library (officially called the Savini Library, get it?) which is a safer place and where much of the movie is spent. Unfortunately Mrs. Rumblethorp starts to "turn", so they have no choice but to cut her head off but at least her head is kept alive on a shelf, snarling for additional comic relief. From then on, they try to figure out what's going on and plan their escape from the school, bonding a bit in the process a la The Breakfast Club.
On first viewing I didn't think too highly of Detention of the Dead, but appreciated it a bit more after watching it a second time with the director's commentary track, which I'll discuss later. It was disappointing mainly because there were no real "laugh out loud" moments, but did have some more subtle humor that made it worthwhile. Willow gets some of the best lines and starts setting up the zombie thing before it happens, bringing in a PSP showing Night of the Living Dead and telling Eddie "If I ever get to meet George Romero, I'm gonna seduce him and bear him little zombie babies, but then they'd probably eat us which would be kinda sad because that'd mean no more Living Dead movies, but it would be a great metaphor for what kids end up doing to their parents when they turn into teenagers." Later in the film she compares normal high school students to zombies in the way they desperately try to fit into cliques and try not to show any individuality, which is as good a message as Dawn of the Dead's hinting at consumer culture turning people into zombies. It's also quite satisfying seeing the nerd character Eddie take charge during the crisis and earn the respect of the jocks who normally tormented him. Cheerleader Janet gets a few laughs for her stereotypical bimbo behavior, including being upset at blood getting on her cheerleading outfit because it's hard to clean, and later looking at herself in the mirror telling herself she's too pretty to die.
Shot in 4k digital and presented in a 2.35 ratio, Detention of the Dead looks about as good as it can on standard DVD (there does not appear to be a Blu-Ray release available), with some aliasing being the most prominent limitation of the format here. Details (such as the titles of books in the library) still seemed clearer than on other standard DVDs I've watched recently, and I did not see any obvious compression artifacts.
Audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1, with restrained but sometimes effectively used surrounds. There are a few good LFE effects as the zombies attack, and dialogue is very clear.
English SDH subtitles as well as Spanish subs are included.
A feature-length commentary with Executive Producer / Writer / Director Alex Craig Mann is included, which does much to strengthen one's appreciation of Detention of the Dead. He emphasizes that he was going for several "homages", including George Romero's Dead series and most of John Hughes' work especially The Breakfast Club. He also talks about how shooting in Michigan, despite the cast and crew being based in California, saved an infinite amount of money, and that he wanted the movie to "embrace, not hide" its low budget. He even points out a flaw that even I didn't notice at first (and I'm the type of person who looks for these things), that of the sound man being visible onscreen for a second- I've heard commentaries for other movies where things like that happen and aren't even acknowledged, so Mann gets my respect for this.
There is also a rather lengthy 40-minute making-of piece on the disc, with a lot of production footage and reflections from the cast and crew. This was interesting but didn't really increase my appreciation of the movie as much as the commentary did.
Detention of the Dead could have been a lot funnier than it is and doesn't score many points for originality, but it still gets enough right for me to recommend it. Those who go in not expecting an all-out laugh-fest should end up having a good time.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.