Written by: Richard Matheson (original story), Richard Christian Matheston (teleplay)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Jessica Lowndes, Robert Englund, and Jonathan Tucker
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Let me caution those of you whose nerves are not what they used to be - get the fuck out now!"
I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw Tobe Hooper’s name attached to the third episode of Masters of Horror; after all, in 2005, it’d been twenty years since he’d done anything to earn that title, and this is coming from a guy who genuinely likes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and even Eaten Alive. For most, Hooper has always been a one or two hit wonder, depending on what you believe about Poltergeist. At any rate, his Dance of the Dead episode at least does a couple of things to get me in its good graces (at least in theory), as it pairs Hooper with long-time collaborator Robert England (whom Hooper has unfortunately wasted ever since casting him as the legendary anal sex-starved Buck) and features music from Billy Corgan (who is far from a one hit wonder, though, like Hooper, has spent many years chasing former glory).
In some vaguely apocalyptic future, Peggy (Jessica Lowndes) works in a diner with her mother (Marilyn Norry). One day, a group of hooligans wanders in, and their leader, Jak (Jonathan Tucker), takes an interest in Peggy, which her mother doesn’t like since he’s a disrespectful drug addict. Because teenage girls are invariably attracted to coke-fuelled guys in hoodies, Peggy takes off with the group to Muskeet, an urban wasteland full of delinquents and nu-metal clubs (so, basically, modern day L.A.). One of these clubs (emceed by Englund) holds a secret that connects to Peggy’s tragic past.
Said past involves family secrets, terrorist attacks, World War III, and reanimated corpses, all of which are ungracefully shoved into the film’s 50 minute runtime. The worst part is that they’re all tossed in on the back-end, as we spend a good chunk of this thing wondering just where and when we are; we sense that something is amiss when the mother has dreams involving chemical terrorist attacks during Peggy’s birthday as a child, plus everything just looks haggard and ragged. Lawlessness and anarchy apparently abound since these thugs can attack old people on the street and steal their blood, leaving you to wonder if they’re associated with vampires in addition to just being plain assholes. In short, you’re left disoriented and confused, perhaps because Hooper wanted to replicate the experience of being in a rave (which probably explains why he shot this thing so frenetically and loudly).
There’s almost no benefit to taking this narrative approach, either; hiding the particular secrets among the characters is fine, but casually revealing information like a Third World War and terrorist attacks (involving a chemical airborne agent called “Blizz”) is an odd turn. Had we known up front that Peggy is living in such a desolate shithole, it might help us to understand why she can find some appeal in this crowd she eventually throws in with. But even that’d be stretching it, considering the spasmodic levels of obnoxiousness on display here, as we’re forced to hang out with a bunch of reprehensible lowlifes. The club that’s headed up by Englund is like a Mecca of douche-dom, where these futuristic meth-heads go to get their rocks off by watching naked, undead girls dance. Even Englund himself can’t really escape this morass, despite his attempts to somehow be delightfully silly and creepy as he fondles naked corpses and such.
Dance of the Dead is a clunky adaptation of an original Richard Matheson short story, so it’s not like the source material is especially bad; interestingly enough, his own son did the adapting honors here, and he really brought out the schlock in Matheson’s original story, which feels like a bleak funeral procession for 50s Americana. This, on the other hand, feels like the last dirt being thrown onto the grave of Tobe Hooper's career. He does the script no favors by turning in a loud, clanging affair whose horrors are beaten into our skull from the outset; even Corgan’s soundtrack (which gets an assist with some “additional music” from Nicholas Pike) is generic industrial riffs that sound like something Marilyn Manson or Trent Reznor would have cooked up in the 90s.
Pretty much everything about Dance of the Dead is terribly generic; it’s not as agonizingly bad as something like Night Terrors, if only because it is only 50 minutes long (whereas Night Terrors felt like it was approximately 5 hours long). You may recall (and if not, good on you) that Englund played Marquis de Sade in that flick; I only bring this up because Dance of the Dead is something that the infamous sadist might have dreamt up as torture. Shrill, obnoxious, and needlessly mystifying, this is the first Masters of Horror episode that I just couldn’t get into on any level. Maybe your mileage will vary; if so, Anchor Bay’s disc has a fine presentation and is full of extras, including multiple on set interviews with the cast and crew, a making-of feature, trailers, a still gallery, a storyboard gallery, and audio commentaries with both Hooper and Matheson. It would probably take you about three hours to get through all of the extra material--which is about three hours more than you should spend with the actual episode. This is one dance you should refuse an invite to. Trash it!
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