Masters of Horror: Tobe Hooper: Dance of the Dead (DVD)

“Is it obscene, or is it science? Poetry or pornography? You’ll have to be the judge.”

Director Tobe Hooper is most well-known for the visceral frights of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but his career has also given us the sleazy shocks of Eaten Alive, the PG-rated scares of the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, and the sexy sci-fi craziness of Lifeforce, as well as several other cult-following films. For his entry in Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology, Hooper destroys the entire world, presenting a nightmarish post-apocalyptic vision all about pain, drugs, teen hormones, and the exploitation of death itself.

It’s the future, and America has been decimated by a phenomenon known as the “blizz.” Among the survivors is the young Peggy (Jessica Lowndes, Kyle XY), who works at a diner with her overprotective mother (Marilyn Norry, The Exorcism of Emily Rose). But when troublemaker Jak (Jonathan Tucker, Pulse) catches her eye, she sneaks out for a night of dangerous fun with him and his friends. Jak and his pal Boxx (Ryan McDonald, Fierce People) are “bloodrunners,” providing illegal substances for a sleazy nightclub owner (Robert Englund, A Nightmare on Elm Street). Throughout the night, Peggy will bring back some unpleasant memories with some drug experimentation, and she’ll experience the crazed show at the nightclub, including the madness of underground entertainment that is the “dance of the dead.”

The whole idea of the “post-apocalypse thriller” is not a new one, and every couple of years, another filmmaker tries one. Unfortunately, with the possible exception of The Road Warrior, these rarely catch on with mass audiences. Some are action-based, such as the above-mentioned Mel Gibson flick, while others are satirical (Dawn of the Dead), comical (Hell Comes to Frogtown), or bloated celebrity vanity projects (The Postman). For Hooper’s end-of-world scenario, he takes a somewhat different approach. There are no leather-clad loners wandering the desert here. Instead, the buildings are still standing and the cars are still running, but civilization as we know it is rapidly on the way out as most of the population has dropped dead. Fortunately, Hooper and writer Richard Christian Matheson (who based the screenplay on his father Richard Matheson’s short story) keep the details of this world in the background. Almost everyone’s dead, and the surviving society is descending very fast into total chaos. And then, in the midst of this insane setting, we get the story of a virginal teen girl attracted to the local bad boy.

Jessica Lowndes, who was 16 when this was filmed but looks a lot older, gives her character just the right combination of wide-eyed innocence and adventurous spirit. She has obvious curiosity about wandering into the unknown, and she does so regardless of fears about whatever horrors might be there waiting for her. I wonder if there’s a metaphor at work for her character here. Do the teen years really feel like the end of the world for girls? Also curious is how the character changes over the course of the story, especially in her relationship to her mother. Was her mother right to shelter her? Did she do the right thing by acting out against her mother? It’s up to the viewers to answer these questions on their own, it seems.

The other performers fill their roles just as nicely. As expected, Englund plays his evil nightclub emcee with maximum quirkiness. Jonathan Tucker shows just enough of a nice guy underneath his tough exterior to make for a believable anti-hero. McCarthy, on the other hand, goes a little overboard as the devil-may-care criminal. Some viewers might wish he could’ve toned it down just a little.

In the extras, Hooper said he wanted Dance of the Dead to move along at a quick pace, with a lot of quick edits. For the most part, he succeeds. This is best demonstrated in the scene in which Peggy and the others experiment with mind-altering (or is that mind-enhancing?) drugs while tearing down the road in a convertible at breakneck speed. Although this is mostly done through close-ups of the actors instead exterior stunt shots, Hooper nonetheless gives the entire scene a feeling of speed and confusion, so that viewers really feel that the characters are riding right on the edge of life and death. This attitude continues throughout the nightclub scenes, a hellhole of drug-addled sexual perversity.

Unfortunately, not all of Hooper’s stylistic tricks work. By undercranking and overcranking the camera, he creates this effect in which a close-up of an image is superimposed over a regular shot of that same image in a jerky motion, with an included audio sting for that moment. This is done to create a feeling of disorientation, and it works—the first few times. But Hooper keeps using and reusing this trick every couple of minutes throughout the entire story, and it gets to be tiresome after a while.

I enjoyed Dance of the Dead despite its flaws, but then I did a little snooping online, and I discovered a lot of horror fans disappointed with it. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I can hazard a guess. Like a lot of post-apocalypse tales, this one is bleak and downbeat throughout its runtime. These characters live sad, lonely lives, and all their actions are motivated by the pain and misery they’re feeling. The ending is likewise bleak. Even if you choose to see it as a happy ending, you have to admit a bitter streak running beneath it. This isn’t jokey like some of the other Masters of Horror entries like Deer Woman, Homecoming, or Sick Girl. If a dreary, hopeless tone fits with your mood, you’re more likely to enjoy Dance of the Dead.

Audio and video are excellent here, with vivid colors, deep blacks, and a rocking 5.1 track. A Masters of Horror season one box set is still a myth as of this writing, but until then, fans can enjoy the more than three hours of extras on this disc. I’ve always heard stories about Tobe Hooper being this raging booze and drugs-fueled anti-establishment type, so imagine my surprise to see how polite and well-spoken he comes across in the extras. He offers a commentary with moderator Perry Martin, going over various behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and script ideas that didn’t make the final cut. Matheson provides a second commentary, offering more details about the overall “world” of the story, for those who didn’t read between the lines closely enough when watching it. There’s more emphasis on Hooper in two featurettes, including a lot of humorous stories from the casts of Texas Chainsaw and its sequel. Matheson, Lowndes, Tucker and Englund all have their own interview featurettes. Englund’s is by far the most engaging and amusing, but each participant has something interesting to say. The final featurette shows a “nuts and bolts” behind the scenes look at the production. If all that’s not enough, we’ve also got a photo gallery, trailers, and the screenplay and screen savers on DVD ROM. And not that I have any right to complain about extras on a disc this packed, but why not include Richard Matheson’s original short story on DVD ROM as well?

The Masters of Horror episodes that I’ve seen to date have all been more “fun” than “scary,” so Hooper deserves credit for crafting an entry that leans more to the dark and disturbing side of the genre.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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