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Detention of the Dead
It's time to declare a horror moratorium on that most misunderstood of former humans - the zombie. After all, how much walking, living, night of the dawn of the day of the land of the diary of the survival of that most tormented of cannibalistic corpses can we take? Every time you turn around someone is trying to reinvent the trope and, each time, the adjustments appear antithetical to what a fright film should be. Sometimes, the zombies sprint. In other instances, they are more like regular people than carnivorous fiends. We've got thinking zombie, hive mind zombies, helper zombies, baby zombies, half-decaying zombies, stripper zombies, horny zombies, comical zombies, sexualized zombies...heck, we even have cellphone commercials where zombies hope they won't be discriminated against when it comes to rate plans and upgrades. Huh? It just needs to stop. Unless you can bring something new to the table, you should trod on such overused ground. Detention of the Dead believes it is capable of such reimagining. Overall, it's all ambition and very little novelty.
It's a typical afternoon in the Savini Library of the local high school. Seven students are present for Mrs. Rumplethorp's moderated detention, and they include glorified geek Eddie (Jacob Zachar), his Goth gal pal Willow (Alexa Nikolas), a mysterious kid named Mark (Joseph Porter), Janet (Christa B. Allen), a cheerleader, her BMOC boyfriend Brad (Jayson Blair), the mandatory stoner - ala Cabin in the Woods' "fool" - Ash (Justin Chon), and another jock dude named Jimmy (Max Adler), just to up the testosterone factor. At first, everyone is upset about having to spend extra time on campus. Then Mark complains about not feeling well, turns into a zombie (he had been bitten by someone beforehand), and decides to snack on Mrs. Rumplethorp. Soon, the remaining kids are battling for their lives, discovering that the world outside has turned into one big so-so Brad Pitt Summer tentpole. They also have to find a way to survive while coming together as otherwise divergent members of various schoolyard cliques.
While it would be nice to point out some other clever critical analogy, one might as well give in to those who've previously reviewed this title and say that Detention of the Dead should actually be subtitled The Zombie Breakfast Club. Writer/director Alex Craig Mann makes it very clear in the accompanying audio commentary on the DVD release that he wanted to reference both the classic work of George A. Romero and the equally influential tropes of the late, mostly great John Hughes. In doing so, the filmmaker sets himself up for comparison, and said assessment is not always favorable. Sure, this is a fun flick with lots of nods to genre givens that have come before. But when you don't have anything new to bring to a specific creepshow category (unlike say, [REC] or V/H/S/2 or Warm Bodies), all you end up with is your homages. Indeed, Detention of the Dead plays like a skit someone came up with ("What if the gang from that one Molly Ringwald movie were attacked by monsters?") and then decided it could survive the full blown feature film treatment. They were wrong.
Not that Detention of the Dead is bad. Actually, it's quite good...for what it is. There's some decent jokes, a few novel character turns, and a wealth of welcome low budget atmosphere on display. But unlike some homemade horror films, Detention pretends to be professional, when it's really just a fan-made front. Mann understands what he wants to offer. Unfortunately, some in the audience won't like what he has to give. The various archetypes on display aren't reinvented or made meta. Willow is just a misunderstood cynic with a wealth of decent one liners while Eddie is (slightly) more heroic than his varsity lettermen counterparts. Mrs. Rumplethorp, on the other hand, is such a cliche that she should be speaking with a trombone squawk the way the teachers and adults in the old Charlie Brown cartoons did. Something this simplistic needed more than just a knowledge of the past to provide its perspective. Indeed, with everyone and their splatter lovin' brother out making their own bow to The Walking Dead et. al, invention is the key. Sadly, Detention of the Dead tries to get by on its good intentions alone. It almost does, which means it also almost doesn't.
Anchor Bay presents Detention of the Dead in a decent digital presentation. The film was shot via the same technology which means the 2.35:1 anamorphic image is fairly uniform and detailed. There are occasionally issues with blur (since many machines are used to playing Blu-rays), but for the most part, the colors are strong and the overall look polished and professional. On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix does a good job of balancing the characters with the chaos. There is some directional ambience and some multi-speaker experiences, but for the most part, we are front and center on this one. Finally, the added content included the aforementioned discussion with Mann, which really does explain a lot of the thought behind the film. There's also a 40 minute Making-of which does a good job of visualizing some of the things the director describes.
If you're as old as yours truly and have been immersed in cinematic zombie culture for almost as long (my first of such creature features ever? Night of the Living Dead, in 1970, when I was nine) something like Detention of the Dead has to really offer up some novel "wow" factors less it fall into the understandable critical category of "already been there, already seen that." While it's Recommended for those who are relatively new to the whole concept of cannibalistic corpses, a Rent It might be better for the already initiated. At this point, one hopes we've seen the last of the lowly zombie for the time being. Without anything new to contribute to the genre, the once mighty fright staple is, like Detention of the Dead, a bit stale.
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