Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Film Appreciation - Running with the Shadows of the Night

Film Appreciation goes to prom as Cody Hamman discusses the 2008 zombie film Dance of the Dead.

Director Gregg Bishop's zombie movie Dance of the Dead doesn't have any official connection to Dan O'Bannon's classic 1985 zombie movie The Return of the Living Dead, and Bishop wasn't trying to make an unofficial sequel with it. He and screenwriter Joe Ballarini were crafting their own, original story of the living dead here. The fact that I view Dance of the Dead as something of a follow-up to Return is entirely on me. It's not part of the Return franchise, and yet it's a better sequel to The Return of the Living Dead than a lot of the actual, official Return of the Living Dead sequels.

Rather than the government-created chemical 245 Trioxin, the reason that the dead rise from their graves in this film appears to be some kind of leakage from the nuclear power plant that stands right at the edge of the cemetery in the small town of Cosa, Georgia. This problem is brewing as soon as the film begins, when we see that the cemetery's gravedigger is handling the early signs of the impending disaster. As he makes his rounds among the tombstones, the dead attempt to come out of the ground and the gravedigger ends up with a wheelbarrow full of writhing zombie appendages - just like in The Return of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead Part II, the body parts of these zombies keep moving after they've been chopped off.

We're then introduced to the main characters, a bunch of teenagers who are preparing for the Cosa High School prom. Our hero is irreverent pizza delivery boy Jimmy Dunn (Jared Kusnitz), whose girlfriend Lindsey (Greyson Chadwick) breaks up with him because he doesn't take anything seriously, choosing to go to the prom with a preppy kid named Mitch (Jeff Adelman) instead. Also dealing with issues of the heart is the nerdy Steven (Chandler Darby), who makes an unsuccessful try at asking out a girl who's out of his league - cheerleader Gwen (Carissa Capobianco), who is more interested in Nash Ramble (Blair Redford), lead singer of the band The Quarter Punks. The Quarter Punks is rounded out by Lucas Till as Jensen and Hunter Pierce as Dave the Drummer, and none of them are going to the prom since The Quarter Punks auditioned to play there and were rejected. The school isn't into their type of music. One of those Back to the Future "You're just too darn loud" situations.

Also introduced at the school are Justin Welborn as tough redneck kid Kyle Grubbin, who makes Jackass-style videos in his down time, and Mark Oliver as former military man turned phys ed teacher Coach Keel. All of these characters, plus Steven's friends from the Sci-Fi Club (Randy McDowell, Michael V. Mammoliti, and Mark Lynch), will play a part in the mayhem that is to come.

Night falls, prom begins, but some of the characters find themselves in the cemetery rather than at the dance. The gravedigger is there, of course. The Sci-Fi Club is there on a ghost hunt. And Mitch turns out to be not such a gentleman when he drives Lindsey there, because it has the best view in town, and tries to force himself on her. These characters have gathered there just in time for the living dead problem to reach worst case scenario: just like in the first two Return movies, a whole cemetery's worth of the dead come rising from their graves. These zombies don't just come crawling out of their resting places, though. These things burst through the ground as if they've been launched from a catapult. Some catch several feet of air. Some hit the ground running. Running and crying out for "Brains!" That's very Return, the gravedigger reveals that they have the same weakness that the walking dead of George A. Romero's films do - "Hit 'em in the brain, it's the only way to kill 'em."

Soon every dead creature in Cosa has returned to life to feed on the living, and I do mean every dead creature. This includes the dead frogs that are in a Cosa High classroom to be dissected. This is the only movie I can think of where someone is killed by a zombie frog.

The people the zombies kill also rise up as brain-hungry zombies, and soon the whole town is overrun with the dead. The teenage characters have to join together in their effort to survive the night and escape the zombie menace, with the help of Coach Keel. Unlikely alliances are formed; relationships are mended; Kyle gets to bash heads and tear shit up, pretty much just another day for him; and The Quarter Punks get to play the prom, just like Marty McFly.

The prom is the reason for the title, this movie doesn't actually feature zombies dancing "Thriller" style, but the music of The Quarter Punks does have a sort of soothing effect on the dead. When the band plays, the zombies go docile and listen. This allows for a great moment where Jimmy and Lindsey are able to have their prom dance in a gymnasium full of the living dead while the band plays a cover of Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night".

Putting aside all Return of the Living Dead comparisons and references, Dance of the Dead is a highly entertaining, amusing film that moves along at a quick pace and features some great characters who have really fun interactions with each other. This low budget independent production was very well put together, resulting in an impressive finished film.

Dance was impressive enough that it landed distribution through Lionsgate, with Sam Raimi choosing it as the first film to be released through his company Ghost House's collaboration with the distributor. When Sam Raimi wants to help present your indie movie to the world, you have obviously done something right.

The first time I saw Dance of the Dead, I was blown away by it - I thought I had just seen the breakthrough of a whole lot of great talent that was going to blow up from there. I thought Gregg Bishop was going to be making movies left and right and that several of the actors were about to become big stars. It hasn't quite turned out that way. Nearly ten years would pass before Bishop would make another feature, and I haven't seen the actors who stood out to me the most turn up in other projects as often as I would have liked. I have seen Justin Welborn here and there, which makes sense since he steals the show when he's on the screen. Still, I wouldn't have guessed that the biggest star to come out of this movie would be Lucas Till. Some involved haven't had the careers I would have expected after watching Dance eight years ago, but they do a great job here and I'd be glad to see them in more films.

Dance of the Dead as a whole deserves to get more recognition than it does. It received some attention at the time of its release, but has faded into the background since. If you're a fan of zombie movies but have been burned by too many sub-par entries in the sub-genre in recent years, I would strongly encourage you to seek out Dance of the Dead. It is a bit of a hidden treasure, a cult classic that needs a bigger cult to spread the word of how good it is.

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