Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2005)

We’re on to our second episode of Masters of Horror, the 2005 anthology show where famous and acclaimed horror directors get to direct one story per season. Each episode is pretty much a short movie considering they’re all around an hour long. The first episode I watched was John Carpenter’s amazing throwback to his late ’80s and early ’90s work, Cigarette Burns. For my next episode I decided to go with another director whom has made one of my favourite movies: Tobe Hooper.

mv5bmtuyntg2nti2nv5bml5banbnxkftztcwndg1ntyzmq-_v1_Tobe Hooper may not be as prolific as John Carpenter, but he’s definitely a heavyweight in the horror genre. Hooper was responsible for the greatest horror movie ever made, his 1974 masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hooper also helmed the cult classic sequel, the classic ’80s haunted house flick Poltergeist (although there are rumors that Steven Spielberg unofficially directed it, everything is credited to Hooper, so as far as I’m concerned he’s still the director), and the absolutely bonkers sci-fi movie, Lifeforce. Hooper’s post ’80s output has been mostly directing the occasional episode in a TV show or making direct to TV movies, so he’s definitely fallen pretty far from the spotlight in recent decades.

Dance of the Dead takes place in a semi-post-apocalyptic world after one of the combatants in World War 3 unleashed some kind of chemical or biological weather weapon. The time period is a little while after the end of war, but is a pretty different interpretation of most post-apocalyptic settings. It’s similar to the first Mad Max film (yes kids, Mad Max: Fury Road is not the only Mad Max movie) where there’s been a worldwide crisis that has destabilized a large portion of the world, but a majority of civilized society has kept on spinning. Dance of the Dead shows both sides of humanity after it’s been devastated by global war. We get to see how a portion of the population that tries to keep it’s civility interacts with the crazy, savage punks (these guys are more like the people in Mad Max: Fury Road) that have risen up out of the war torn parts of the world and are either just trying to survive or trying to drag the rest of the world down with them.

The story follows Peggy, a young woman who works in her mother’s diner who meets some of these deplorable punks and takes a liking to one of them. He convinces her to join him and his friends for a night out on the town, and as she gets thrust into an evening of stranger and darker events, she finds out more than she wants to know about the consequences of World War 3 and the twisted history of her family.

Dance of the Dead is a short film that kind of crumbles under the weight of it’s own world building. It requires a whole lot of suspension of disbelief, which is fine, but there’s a lot that’s brought up or established throughout its runtime that is never touched on again or is never made relevant to the story. Hooper tries to keep things vague at the beginning and fill in the gaps later on, and I can see how he was planning them to be a bunch of crazy twists and turns for the audience, but it really only comes off as confusing.

When the two main punk kids Boxx and Jak are introduced I thought they were supposed to be some kind of vampire or result of whatever toxic weapon was used on the populace in World War 3. They’ve got that late ’80s, early ’90s edgy vampire look, they’re on the hunt for blood, and when the old lady they assault tells them she screams at them “I hope you animals die!” Jak’s response is “Yeah, that’d be nice”. Tell me that doesn’t sound like an angsty, teenage vampire to you. Turns out, Jak and Boxx steal people’s blood and bring it to the Doom Room, a goth club in the destroyed town of Muskeet where the MC (played by the wonderful Robert Englund) injects it into dead bodies. When the bodies are injected with fresh blood and electrocuted, they spasm in a way that looks like a frantic dance. Apparently all the weird Judas Priest leather wearing, post-apocalyptic gothic punk kids love it, and this is their twisted version of a strip club or something. Not what you were expecting? Yeah, me either.

Dance of the Dead has a sort of Repo: The Genetic Opera vibe to it with the hyper gothic style that permeates all the sets and costumes. Between the hamfisted commentary on how we can find entertainment in the sickest and most vile things, and the sticking of needles into dead bodies, I would say this was heavily inspired by Repo if it hadn’t come out 3 years prior.

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The acting was passable. Robert Englund steals the show as always playing the super sleazy MC of the Doom Room, but everyone else was alright. Ryan McDonald, the guy who plays Boxx, the more erratic of the two main punk kids was chewing the scenery left and right, and while he was overacting his heart out, he was a lot of fun to watch. The script they were given was pretty bad, so I’m glad McDonald and Englund were there to add a layer of levity and goofiness to it all. If everybody would have been as serious and dour as Peggy and Jak, this episode of Masters of Horror would have been pretty boring and unforgettable. The script suffers from some pretty lazy story telling, mostly by breaking one of the most important rules of the craft: show, don’t tell. There’s a whole conversation and whole series of blog posts on the “show, don’t tell” method, but I’ll save that for another day. The point is that the script just feeds the audience information through verbal exposition directly rather than showing us how the characters act and behave and letting us fill in the dots. By the end of the episode when the big finale occurs, some of the characters’ motivations are pretty non-existent at worst, and shakey at best. This is the kind of script Blumhouse writes for their shitty cash grab horror flicks.

The last thing I want to quickly bring up is Hooper’s ultra stylized camera work. I know this came out just over 30 years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but his reserved and voyeuristic cinematography in that film is nowhere to be seen here. Even the more traditional  camera work in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Poltergeist isn’t used. Hooper constantly uses these sped up jump cuts and whipping camera motions throughout Dance of the Dead. I’m not talking only during action scenes, but probably once every minute or two. I have no idea what he was trying to go for, but it made the whole episode almost unwatchable. Thankfully, when the dialogue got particular heavy or involved, he would refrain from using that technique too much, but I still think only having it once or twice would make it stand out that much more than giving your audience motion sickness for an hour straight.

Dance of the Dead was pretty disappointing, especially since Tobe Hooper was responsible for one of my favourite movies ever. The script was awful, the acting was nothing special, and the directing was sometimes good, but mostly atrocious. My reaction to this episode could also be biased because of how much I enjoyed the first episode I watched (after asking my lovely editor, who did not see the first episode, she has assured me that this wasn’t a biased opinion). My perception might be coloured, but if I ever feel the need to revisit this episode, maybe I’ll enjoy it more the second time. Until then, I wouldn’t recommend Dance of the Dead to anyone other than the most hardcore Tobe Hooper fans.

-David

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