Dance of the Dead (2008)

I didn’t go to my Senior Prom. School dances were never really my thing, despite having been to several, and I didn’t see much difference between a Homecoming versus a Prom. Why go to a place to grind, get drunk, and have awkward teenager sex under the watchful eye of an old guy nicknamed “Coach” who keeps trying to slap my butt when instead I could stay home, play video games, watch movies, and not feel the bitter rejection of a dozen girls telling me to get lost when I tried to have awkward teenager sex? No, I made the better choice and grew up into an adult who likes to stay home, play video games, watch movies, and still feel the bitter rejection of women telling me to get lost when I try to have awkward adult sex…

Oh God, I peaked in high school.

Dance of the Dead is kind of like my experience, only with kids actually going to their prom and also a couple more zombies thrown in. Jimmy, your typical teenage slacker, is dating the ambitious Lindsey, a girl way out of his league and yet still finds herself attracted to his slacker charms. Yet Jimmy can’t help himself and gets in trouble, thus causing Lindsey to break up with him. While delivering pizza, he discovers people are turning into zombies. Jimmy teams up with bully Kyle and cheerleader Gwen to try and find Lindsey. Meanwhile, Lindsey ends up with the SciFi club. The two groups find each other in a funeral home and then discover the school’s punk band in a nearby garage as well as Coach, a gun-loving all-American has been who finally gets to live out his power fantasies of saving the day. They go to the high school and discover it overrun with zombies, so they decide to blow it all to Hell and save the few survivors. Most folks get out alive, thanks to a combination of rock music and a helmet. The SciFi kids find that they have something in common with the Homecoming Queen, Jimmy and Lindsey stay in love with each other, the band rocks out, and Coach takes everyone for pancakes, which is how Prom should end, with explosions and pancakes.

This movie is a product of Georgia, the state, not the country. It was filmed around North Georgia, particularly Rome, and featured a cast of younger actors from the area. Our lead, Jimmy, was played by Jared Kusnitz, who had previously appeared in Charles Band’s film Doll Graveyard as well as the quirky comedy horror Otis. Blair Redford, who plays the dick lead of the teenage rock band, later would go on to star as Thunderbird in The Gifted. But my favorite connection? Jensen, the pot-smoking hoodie-wearing drummer of the rock band, who has only bad ideas and terrible talent at songwriting, is Lucas Till, AKA Havok in the X-Men movies (yeah, two X-Men in the band) as well as the lead in the modern version of MacGyver. Also, roughly half the cast ended up in the “Dante the Great” segment of V/H/S Viral, thus making it a kind of reunion picture.

Despite being an indie production with a limited theatrical run in Los Angeles, Dance of the Dead did extremely well in the festival circuit, playing to sellout crowds at South by Southwest, as well as big crowds in the Atlanta Film Festival, FrightFest, the International Fantastic Film Fest, Fantasy Film Fest, and so on around the world. Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert personally chose to distribute the film through Ghost House Underground after seeing it. And the critics also enjoyed it, giving it an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, which, let’s face it, zombie movies don’t exactly do often. Actual audiences rank it only 51% there, but maybe they just wanted to relive the glory days when they could have gone to State and maybe even pro if only they hadn’t gotten that knee injury in the big game. You know the one.

Now, an important consideration in zombie films is what kind of zombies do we get? Well, these appear to be runners. Not exactly bright runners, but they can move with speed. One of the zombies walks around holding his head to see, so while destroying the brain takes them out, merely severing it means they can still move around like in Return of the Living Dead. The script was apparently first written in the 1990s, but I wonder if later revisions made changes after the success of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, which also featured a scene involving a running zombie child. There is also a cemetery worker who knows about the zombie problem and has been keeping it quiet and dealing with it to keep his job, which reeks of an influence from Cemetery Man, another delightful film involving a weird gravedigger and the living dead.

We also get a nice array of weaponry here, including guns, axes, guitars and drum sticks (music is a weapon of the youth), and a personal favorite, the nail bat. They also show how to improperly make a nail bat, by driving the nails directly into the bat so that it splinters and cracks, thus reducing structural integrity far more than necessary. It’s actually better to drill in a few holes first to guide the nails so they don’t cause the wood to crack. And I’m realizing now what I’m telling you, and you’re realizing I’ve put way too much thought into nail bats. How about we just stop here and call it even, ok? As for the Hobo with a Shotgun razor bat, let’s just not. You only make that when life gives you razors.

So, want all the fun of your senior prom without the awkward attempts at twerking, thinking you’re an adult when you’re barely old enough to drive, and that old guy Coach giving you weird smiles and nods from the corner of the room as your lady friend dances on you? Well, here you go. And expect a butt slap later from Coach. He’s a friendly guy.

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