The strained "Dance of the Dead" makes it easier to appreciate what "Shaun of the Dead" effortlessly achieved years back. A clunky, low-budget zombie send-up, "Dance" has heart and a few surprises, but it swallows patience by the pound, reheating screenplay leftovers and trying to disguise the results under the forgiving blanket of the horror genre.
As Cosa High prepares for its prom, the students are getting ready for the party of their lives. Unfortunately, pollution from a nearby nuclear power plant has reanimated the dead, bringing about a zombie apocalypse. For a small band of teens, including detached Jimmy (Jared Kusnitz), sci-fi nerd Steven (Chandler Darby), cheerleader Gwen (Carissa Capobianco), bully Kyle (Justin Welborn, "The Signal"), and booster Lindsey (Greyson Chadwick), the night becomes a combat zone as the dead try to eat the living. Fending off the zombie army, the kids sort out their social differences, learn to appreciate their teachers, and try to blow up the prom before the deadly plague spreads out of their town.
"Dance of the Dead" is tone-deaf, attempting to be everything to everyone, but leaving itself shortchanged at nearly every turn. Director Gregg Bishop and writer Joe Ballarini clearly have affection for the dog-eared zombie genre, and "Dance" has numerous moments of striking invention, including my favorite: zombies who literally launch from their graves and hit the ground running. Heavens, I could watch that all day.
What "Dance" doesn't have is a nice, steady focus. It's horror, teen melodrama, winky comedy, and sci-fi all rolled up into one movie, covering material other genre riffs have already claimed. While watching the feature, the queasy feeling that Bishop is haphazardly piecing the film together as he goes becomes a little too real, leaving the critical sense of fun the movie craves dangling in the wind. The ambition is there (along with plenty of gruesome effects), but the filmmakers take on too much with very little money, having a ball dreaming up ideas, but little in the way of resources to pull them off with flair.
I know, I know, "Dance" is one of the million or so DTV "little films that could" that deserve a kinder appreciation simply because of their independent origin. That mindset only gets the picture halfway, with goofy ideas such as zombies who are hypnotized by rock music (they prefer Pat Benatar) and a bathroom make-out session between a few of the newly-minted undead being the few shards of cleverness to make it out alive. The rest of "Dance" buries itself in formula, including: a hard-ass gym teacher who turns out to be a militaristic saving grace, characters who hide their death-sentence bites, and a backyard weapon-building montage. "Dance" isn't sharp enough to reignite such displays of tiresome familiarity, and while the cast is game, their performance limitations are felt.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), "Dance" wasn't necessarily intended to be a barnstorming visual feast, but the image on the DVD is disturbingly lacking in detail. Heavy grain greets the evening action, along with lousy, smeary black levels and inconsistent fleshtones. Matters are better in daylight, but with zombies on the prowl, there's precious little sun to enjoy.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix on "Dance" is heavy with gore sound effects, squishing around the surround channels delightfully. Soundtrack selections are also given plenty of heft during the movie and remain comfortably separated from dialogue.
English and Spanish subtitles are included.
A feature-length audio commentary from director Gregg Bishop and writer Joe Ballarini kicks the supplements off on an animated note. Describing the film as a "Rock-n-roll zombie film," the pair discuses their teen flick and horror influences, personal high school experiences, and their attempt to return some verve to the zombie genre. Expectedly, the duo swear the script was written before the cinematic resurgence of zombie films many years back, so, if you can swallow that and some overtly congratulatory squealing, the commentary is a satisfying listen.
"Making of 'Dance of the Dead'" (23:14) covers some of the same historical beats as the commentary, but here the viewer receives a chance to watch it unfold. Interviews with cast and crew show enthusiasm and entertaining footage of pre-production training is a refreshing change of BTS promotional pace. However, for those sensitive to spoilers: watch the film before the featurette.
"Deleted and Extended Scenes" (7:14) showcase short character moments taken primarily from the first act of the film. The excised moments can be viewed with or without commentary from Bishop, and, because nobody told the DVD producer it's 2008, have no option for a "Play All" viewing, making the interface quite cumbersome.
"Blood, Guts & Rock-n-Roll: Effects & Stunts of 'Dance of the Dead'" (5:00) highlight the technical achievements of the film. It's a great little primer on how the gorier moments of the film were created. Hilariously, Bishop rails against convention for the zombie graveyard arrival sequence, yet keeps his mouth shut for the rest of the hackneyed screenplay.
"Voodoo" (5:23) is a 1998 B&W short film from Bishop's student days, produced and shot by Jonathan Ke Quan (best known as Data from "Goonies" and Short Round from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"). It can be viewed with or without a marginally boastful commentary from Bishop.
Finally, a Trailer for the film is included on this DVD.
Prom-fueled teen angst during a zombie war? That's gold. So why isn't "Dance" more engaging, innovative, or funnier? It's all done in the name of tribute, and the shadowing grows wearisome long before this stunningly short picture (78 minutes) is over. "Dance of the Dead" is harmless candy for horror fans, but it remains disappointingly stale candy.