For 90 unbridled minutes Dance of the Dead, director Gregg Bishop’s lovingly over-the-top riff on the ever-malleable zombie genre, had the Alamo Drafthouse crowd in a persistent, giddy state of beer-fueled uproar (the first round of drinks having been provided by the savvy filmmakers themselves). The film is a pulpy, blood-drenched gas from beginning to end, hitting the ground running and never looking back or kowtowing to common sense.
Loaded with a slew of standout, genuinely electric sequences (including one graveyard assault with spry zombies exploding up from their graves wire-fu style) the film also features a host of game performances by, wonder of wonders, teenager actors actually playing teenagers. Sometimes the best innovations are the most obvious, you know?
Concerned with a spread of typical personality types (misunderstood bad seed, student government queen, bully, sci-fi loving outcasts) called on to save the day when the dead start springing back to life en mass (a pre-credit sequence leads us to believe this has been an on-going problem, just not on the scale seen later in the film), Dance rockets from one outrageous set piece to the next, culminating in an elaborate rescue staged at the prom.
Owing a sizable debt to Dan O’Bannon’s classic punk gut-muncher Return of the Living Dead, Dance manages to offer a few new ideas while mostly just taking those we’ve seen time and again to gonzo levels of execution. It’s a spin that works here – with so much energy and love for the genre on display, it’s hard to nit-pick the plot or the film’s inconsistent approach to zombie behaviors (the undead can, in Bishop’s world, still drive and swoon over screamo - one of the pic's better gags). The film’s warped sense of humor extends the length of the runtime – it isn’t just tied to the bloodier elements or limited to the early establishing scenes. That balance of laughter and gore – exceedingly tough to pull off and prone to failure – is part of what makes Dance so charming and an exemplary midnight movie selection.
Jared Kusnitz, also in SXSW ‘Round Midnight alumnus Otis, pulls another enjoyably deadpan performance from his hat here. The rest of the cast – mostly unknowns from Bishop’s home state of Georgia (where the picture was shot) – have fun with their shop-worn roles.
Make-up and gore effects run the gamut from passable to outstanding, while the film’s look and feel is buoyed by a bubbly mixture of highly-stylized lighting schemes and kinetic camera work. The score is propulsive and surprisingly robust-sounding, given the film’s small scale.
Dance of the Dead’s future appears bright based on the raucous response to last night’s screening. With the right handling Bishop’s film should live a long, happy life on the cult circuit. One of the best times I’ve had in at the theater in a long while – with a number of creative takes on the genre out there right now, it’s a great time to be a zombie fan.