Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2005)
In a post-apocalyptic American society, the population has been decimated by nuclear terrorist attacks and flesh-dissolving nuclear fallout. Amidst the aftermath, a naive young teenager gets involved with a drug-stoked biker and his friends, against her overprotective mother's protests. The teens hang out at the Doom Room, a punk rock nightclub, where re-animated corpses from the nuclear attacks perform courtesy of electric-charged flows and experimental drug-injected shots.
Based on a short story by Richard Matheson and adapted by his son, Richard Christian Matheson, Dance of the Dead was the third episode from the first series of Masters of Horror. I started covering them on the site a while back as they’re basically mini-feature films, with horror stories condensed into an hour-long episode format and helmed by a number of famous horror directors. Tobe Hooper is the ‘Master of Horror’ for this episode and directs a rather pedestrian entry, pretty devoid of any real meaty narrative. Though you could argue that was Hooper’s calling card for the majority of his career. After hitting it big with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper made a few passable horror films (I really like The Funhouse) before descending into pure rubbish for many years as he tried and failed to recreate his past glories. Dance of the Dead isn’t going to enhance his reputation though it was better than most of his recent efforts.
With the episodes running under an hour each, time can’t be wasted but that’s precisely what Dance of the Dead does, spending far too much early on pottering around as if this is a full-length feature film. What’s worse, the script doesn’t go into any major exposition about what happened to cause the problems facing humanity, nor does it explain the current state of affairs, though there are lots of pointers and suggestions about how life is in this not-too-futuristic society. It gets the audience working their brains a bit more than usual, though if you’ve seen half as many post-apocalyptic films as I have, you’ll easily be able to join up all of the relevant dots. This is a nihilistic world, full of depravity and indulgence – it’s not clear just how quickly and why society has taken this turn for the worst, particularly with the teenage generation.
Hooper puts too much focus on the production values of the episode to appeal to a younger audience, perhaps trying to tap into a vein of rebellion, with the drugs, drink and fast cars showing a decadent lifestyle a lot of idyllic teenagers would grab at. I’m a rock and metal fan and love the music loud and heavy but Dance of the Dead’s soundtrack frequently just comes at you from all sides. It’s the same for the visuals, almost as if Hooper had been given access to a load of new filters and crazy plugins for his editing software and he goes overboard with them during the club scenes, adding frenzied cuts, strobe lighting and lots of unnecessary ghosting moments. It’s a pity because for every overblown effect, Hooper throws in some truly unsettling images, including the sight of still-twitching ‘zombies’ being dumped into a skip before being set alight by two laughing henchmen, and the club’s owner engaging in some kinky shenanigans with a naked zombie.
Dance of the Dead does feature some solid performances. Jessica Lowndes, as the innocent Peggy, not only looks gorgeous but manages to transform her character from being weak, naïve and curious to strong and independent by the end of the episode. Jonathan Tucker also manages to play off an odd combination of character traits, as the drug-addicted biker who sells blood to dodgy dealers but who is also heroic and chivalrous when dealing with Peggy. It’s a weird pairing but it works well to sell the story. Robert Englund does his best to save the episode from oblivion with his sinister MC lauding up the applause in the club, winding up the crowd with insults and creepily making out with zombified girls in the back room. Englund can go over the top and he ventures too far over the line a few times here, but the ‘showman’ scenes contrast with the shady businessman moments and this is where he reigns it in. He’s the best bit of the episode by a long shot.
Dance of the Dead isn’t a great Masters of Horror episode, with Hooper failing to recapture any former glory and laying down his persistent weaknesses for all to see. It’s loud, depressing, and above all, not very scary or exciting. It’s not like the source material, from acclaimed writer Richard Matheson, was bad, it’s just mis-handled by someone who left their horror legacy back in the 70s.
Dance of the Dead
Director(s): Tobe Hooper
Writer(s): Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson (teleplay), Richard Matheson (short story)
Actor(s): Jessica Lowndes, Genevieve Buechner, Jonathan Tucker, Margot Berner, Ryan McDonald, Robert Englund
Duration: 59 mins