An unapologetically funny, gooey, gory, silly, slathering bloodfeast, Dance of the Dead is a full-bore party movie. If the idea of rocket-launched zombies rioting in an apocalyptic graveyard doesn't make you giggle, there is no hope for you.
The ideal setting to watch the movie was probably the world premiere at SXSW on Sunday night, where countless members of the cast and crew were in attendance, copious amounts of beer and other adult beverages were consumed, and the energy level remained on overkill throughout. (It made such a deep impression that my colleagues Scott Weinberg, Eric D. Snider, and Kim Voynar have already posted about it.) Even so, in the quiet of the (second) morning after, I'm convinced that Dance of the Dead delivers on what it sets out to do. There is no pretense of social relevance and no hint of talking down to the audience. Director Gregg Bishop (The Other Side) and writer Joe Ballarini simply want horror fans to have a good time.
The movie is so irreverently funny, even non-horror fans can enjoy themselves, though they'll have to watch while peeking between their fingers. When I describe Dance of the Dead as a "bloodfeast," understand that the screen is soaked red with severed limbs, gushing streams of blood, and body parts torn asunder. But because the film is set in an alternate universe -- you know, the one inhabited solely by wisecracking teens, clueless adults, and zombies -- it's impossible to take any of the violence seriously. Forget about torture porn; you never feel like anybody is suffering excruciating pain, though it's to the film's credit that you feel pangs of regret when certain characters are enlisted in the army of the dead.
The prelude features a gravedigger character that I wish was used more extensively; it's the only missed opportunity, because Dance of the Dead proceeds to wallow happily in setting up every teen movie cliche imaginable. Jimmy (Jared Kusnitz) loves Lindsey (Greyson Chadwick), but he doesn't take anything seriously, including her, so she dumps him on prom night. Steven (Chandler Darby) pines for his buddy Gwen (Carissa Capobianco), but she has eyes for the dreamy rocker Nash Rambler (Blair Redford). Jules (Randy McDowell) is president of the ultra nerdy Sci-Fi Club, but has greater ambitions. Kyle (Justin Welborn) is an older bruiser who loves to fight and pick on the geeks, but has no other purpose in life. Coach Keel (Mark Oliver) mercilessly tortures his students with physical punishments, but is apt to drift into bitter memories of his ex-wife before snapping back into consciousness.
The opening sequences move at lightning-fast speed and are very funny, precisely because we recognize all the stereotypes that are being skewered. Of course, there's no deep "exploration of character;" we know the movie is just setting up people to root for or to razz, to kill or be killed. Yet the young and fresh-faced cast evinces a core of credible realism that lays a foundation for the insanity to come. When they come under attack, we want them to survive en masse, even though we know that's not going to happen. The characters are real enough that, late in the movie, they get away with saying and doing goofy things that defy logic because we have a sense that they just don't realize how dumb they're acting.
In short, we care about these sweet kids.
In my mind, that's the #1 requirement for a horror movie that deserves repeated viewings. Too many movies assault us with loathsome, incredibly stupid, charmless characters that we want to die. Dance of the Dead easily meets that challenge. It also succeeds with the #2 requirement: endless, unbridled, imaginative carnage.
The zombies rocket-launched out of their graves are only the beginning. That's part of an early, truly impressive sequence where the dead begin rising to life in a graveyard lying in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. It looks like dozens, if not hundreds of zombies start bursting forth, shambling around, crying out for "Brains!" (only one of many, many movie shout-outs). It's an iconic sequence, a turning point in the narrative, and a test for the filmmakers. If they failed to execute it properly, it would derail the entire movie. Director Bishop and his talented team hit the bull's eye with funny, horrific variations on what you might expect, and from there the game is on.
I won't spoil any more surprises, but I hope that every horror fan (and more adventurous non-horror viewers) get the chance to see Dance of the Dead -- preferably in a packed theater with a group of like-minded friends and a case of beer.