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Zombie High

Shout Factory // R // December 15, 2015
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 16, 2015 | E-mail the Author
Oh, Zombie High, you had me at "zombie". And again at "Virginia Madsen". And at "Sherilyn Fenn". Geez, and at "Paul Feig" too! It's enough to make a guy wonder how Zombie High dropped off the face of the earth the way it did, limping into just a couple dozen theaters in 1987 and never even scoring a DVD release until now.

...and then I watched it. I pretty much always get a little giddy when Scream Factory rescues a movie from total obscurity like this, but I think I'd be okay with letting obscurity have Zombie High back.

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To get this out of the way, we're talking about zombies in the figurative sense here (as opposed to, y'know, the very real undead variety). ...but, hey, that's Ettinger Academy for you! Senators, gaggles of CEOs, and even a president or two once walked the halls of this prestigious institution. Sorry, but you don't get a seat in the Oval Office with an untucked Clash tee or by snickering at the headmaster (Kay E. Kuter) as he bellows the school motto. Greatness isn't born; it's made, and that's Ettinger's stock-in-trade. Andrea (Virginia Madsen) is thrilled to be a part of it all, having earned a full ride to the school as one of its first female students. She's surrounded by all sorts of lovable oddballs: her Southern-fried roommate Mary Beth (Clare Carey), Suzi the sexpot (Sherilyn Fenn), sarcastic cut-up Emerson (Paul Feig), and the punk-as-fuck Felner (Lynch mainstay Scott Coffey) who's another angry phone call away from being disowned by his senatorial father. They're a welcolmed distraction from all the stuffed shirt yuppies-in-training who refuse to put down their Wall Street Journals and have an actual conversation for a change. But then Mary Beth drops the accent, starts wearing nothing but blue blazers, and turns her nose up at Andrea. Felner was all but kicked out of Latin one minute, and the next, he's the clean-cut star pupil. One by one, all of her friends wind up being Stepford-ized, and....oooohhhhh, just wait until Andrea uncovers what the faculty at Ettinger is really hiding...!

I guess you could call Zombie High a satire, but that's mostly to give it an excuse for not actually being funny. The movie's basically one swing and a miss after another for 90 minutes straight. Feig is likeable enough as the comic relief, but pretty much none of the gags really land. Some of the cast chimes in with reasonably solid performances -- scene-stealer Scott Coffey in particular -- but the lack of experience beams a bit too brightly for others. Clare Carey's stab at a Southern drawl is so cartoonishly over-the-top that I thought it was a joke at first, only she kept talking that way, and...yeah. As much as I like Virginia Madsen, she's completely miscast here. Partially that's because, as lovely as she is, a good bit of disbelief would have to be suspended to buy Madsen as a college student, let alone a high schooler. She's saddled with a tough role too since her circle of friends is overflowing with personality, and Andrea herself is just...kinda there. She's just not even a little bit engaging in the lead. Even though Andrea spends a sizeable chunk of the movie on the run, including an aerial, explosive car chase, the thriller elements are about as exciting as a room temperature glass of water. Neither the school, its sinister staff, nor even the soulless students inspire any sense of menace or dread. None of the action is cut together with any verve or energy either. Actually, the editing overall is pretty lousy, particularly its embarrassing overuse of gimmicky transitions.

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If you're aching for more traditional zombie action, there are about 45 seconds of something kinda/sorta in that ballpark near the end, but it's really poorly staged, and the not-actually-undead look like they're wearing fright masks from Walgreens. Too many ideas are half-baked or don't really work. It's mentioned repeatedly that female students are being admitted to Ettinger for the first time, which you'd think would have some direct bearing on the plot or its characters, but...nope, not really. Zombie High writes itself into a corner in the climax, and the movie finds just about the most eye-rollingly convenient way possible to back out of it. The final denouement winds up being absurdly large in scope, as if it was driven more by a taste for certain sight gags than in wrapping up the story.

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The elevator pitch for Zombie High would probably have been pretty phenomenal, especially if the true nature of the Ettinger faculty had come up in conversation. With the right execution, its premise could easily have had the makings of the next Night of the Creeps: a stone-cold cult classic. Instead, Zombie High is almost aggressively forgettable, and younger versions of a few extremely familiar faces are just about all the flick has going for it. If you're really only interested in the general Stepford Student premise, you're better off waiting for Scream Factory's release of Disturbing Behavior in March. As for this one...? Rent It, and even that's probably being too generous.

Scream Factory has lavished Zombie High with what sure does look like a brand new high definition remaster. That hypersaturated, unmistakably '80s palette leaps clear off the screen and is a total knockout. I'm bowled over by nicely detailed the image is, and its coarse, gritty texture has been faithfully preserved on Blu-ray. The AVC encode looks rock solid to my eyes as well.

Totally out of curiosity, I fired up Zombie High on Amazon Video afterwards, and this Blu-ray disc is in a whole other league altogether. The version streaming on Prime is in standard definition and non-anamorphic widescreen, the whole thing is awfully fuzzy and bizarrely cropped, and its colors are dull and lifeless. Even if you've given Zombie High a look somewhat recently, I can guarantee it looked nothing like what Scream Factory has delivered here. (For what it's worth, it looks like a version based on this newly-minted master is also available on Amazon Video, although it's not "free" for Prime subscribers the way that the older version is.) I threw together a comparison if you're curious. Look at how Mary Beth is cropped almost entirely out of the streaming version!

Amazon Prime VideoScream Factory BD
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Zombie High takes full advantage of the capacity of this BD-25 disc, and this presentation has been lightly letterboxed to preserve the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Oh, and seeing as how this is a combo pack, it kinda goes without saying that an anamorphic widescreen DVD is along for the ride as well.

Zombie High is rockin' a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack in 24-bit, two-channel mono. For the most part, it's okay, not marred by any annoying clipping and steering clear of intrusive background noise. The biggest headaches revolve around the film's dialogue, as the levels can vary a good bit from scene to scene. One sequence will be clean, clear, and perfectly balanced, and the next might sound kinda dialed down and a little tough to make out. It's clear that some shots are meant to have the dialogue largely drowned out by music, but other times, it almost sounds as if someone tripped over in the mixing booth and knocked down a whole row of faders. The actual recording does shoulder some of the blame, particularly the cavernous reverb that muddles a few lines. At its best, Zombie High sounds terrific, but it's not nearly as consistent as I would've liked to have heard.

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English (SDH) subtitles are riding shotgun if you want 'em or need 'em.

The only extra on the disc itself is a minute-long theatrical trailer.

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Zombie High has scored the combo pack treatment, though, and some brief liner notes are printed on the flipside of the dull-as-dishwater cover art. (Hey, it's not Scream Factory's fault that the original poster is so boring!)

The Final Word
A lukewarm thriller/comedy that fails to deliver on either side of that slash, Zombie High should either have been a whole lot better or a whole lot worse. At least a truly incompetent version might've accidentally gotten a laugh or two. Not recommended.
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