Director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and the Masters of Horror series are both hit or miss with me. I've personally, never been a big fan of Hooper's work except for Poltergeist and Salem's Lot (TV movie). And, there are more episodes of Masters of Horror that I dislike than like. I've viewed "Dance of the Dead" (season 1, episode 3) before, but it's been so long since I've seen it that I couldn't remember my opinion of that particular episode. I mean, the combo of Robert Englund and Tobe Hooper sounds appealing, especially when it's based on a short story by Richard Matheson! So, when I found it on DVD (for only $3.50!) I couldn't pass up the opportunity to purchase it and give it another watch. I was hoping for the best, but expecting the worst so as to not be letdown. That all changed about 20 minutes in, when I realized that I did remember it, I just tried to erase it from my brain...
For this short film, Richard Matheson's son, Richard Christian Matheson, had to elaborate and make his father's short story (of the same title) more elaborate (to fill the 60 minute time slate) by focusing in on an area that wouldn't change the original material, but instead allowed for expansion. Director Tobe Hooper best described the plot when he said, "'Dance of the Dead' is about the dead dancing for your entertainment. Dead young women who are bought, black market, and they shoot them up with 'muscle tussle' that's made partially from human plasma, then hit it with an electric cattle prod and the corpse jumps and dances for a crowd of half dead people who get off on that. A 'loopy' [lifeless undead phenomenon] is the affectionate term for the dead girls that dance. When they're all danced out, when 'muscle tussle' no longer works, they put the bodies in a dumpster and burn them". It's a very political story about war, and the urge we (humans) have to cause unnecessary harm to one another. The setting is almost (but not quite) post apocalyptic, after a major war. "Bliz" is a form of chemical warfare that appears to rain down ashes, and those exposed get severely disfigured. All the freaks (fetishists and druggies) hang out at the "Doom Room", a Gothic night club that reminds me of the club in Dee Snider's Strangeland, Xibalba. The "Doom Room" is a place for "people who want to numb their pain", and The MC is none other than the horror legend Robert Englund, who plays a very flamboyant and feminine-yet masculine role, who's clad in nail polish, fake eyelashes, and makeup. A role that's semi-humorous, but very serious. The real trouble starts when Peggy (Jessica Lowndes) meets Jak (Jonathan Tucker). Peggy is a 17 year old wholesome girl who's sweet, brave, "virginal", and never been on a date before. She also works with her (uptight) mother, Gerri (Sharon Heath), at their family owned diner. Jak on the other hand, is the exact opposite of Peggy. Jak's life is void of emotion and meaning, and meeting Peggy gave him something to live for again, so in a way, they're perfect for each other. Playing Jak was a particularly fun role for actor Jonathan Tucker to play (even though he's not a fan of horror) because it's very different from who he is in real life. Jak first meets Peggy after he and his group of hoodlums (for lack of a better word) go to get something to eat at the diner owned by Peggy's mother. Jak is actually not like those who keep him company, and is more docile. He isn't as proud of being how he is, and he doesn't own it like his buddy Boxx (Ryan McDonald). Once Jak and Peggy communicate, and it's obvious that she likes him, Jak and his crew are thrown out of the eatery and not charged for their coffee by Gerri. Eventually, Peggy gets together with Jak and his crew, and they get high together while driving (out of frame the special FX crew just shook the car to give off the appearance of movement) to the "Doom Room". While tripping, Peggy has a nightmare that's more of a vivid memory (that we get a taste of in the very beginning of the flick) of her birthday party many years ago, when she was a child and the "bliz" attack happened. We see that she and her mother were inside their home and left their attendees outside to fry, and get an understanding of how serious the chemical attack was. Anyway, they end up at the "Doom Room" where they sit in attendance for the main attraction; the dance of the dead. But, there's a catch: the "loopy" is Peggy's sister! Peggy pulls her sister off stage and devoids the crowd of their much anticipated show. After held at gunpoint by the MC, it's revealed that Gerri had sold Peggy's sister (who wasn't even dead!) for money as a means to get rid of her after her near-death overdose. Some quick family drama goes down between Peggy and her mom, but the show must go on, so Peggy gives the MC her mother instead. And, the movie ends as we see Gerri a "loopy" on stage being electrocuted via cattle prod and doing the signature spazmatic gyration for everyone's entertainment, including Peggy and Jak. However, the real pleasure comes in knowing she'll be trashed and burned after her performance.
For starters, I feel that everything that Tobe Hooper attempted to portray just didn't come across properly. For example, in the scene where Peggy is with Jak and Boxx in the car and they're tripping on their way to the "Doom Room", the background is so ridiculously fake that it's impossible for me to look past it. If there's one thing that I have a major pet peeve about, it's having convincing moving car scenes. It's embarrassingly bad. When characters in a movie are supposed to be driving and the background looks unrealistic, it takes me out of the picture. What I find to be the worst part about that scene is that it was actually intended! Hooper said that he filmed it with quick flashing lights as a means to make audiences focus in tighter on the shot. First of all, if you have to explain it, it didn't go over well. And secondly, it still looks poor and was a definite bad choice. Especially with how there are distant outside shots of the car driving wildly (in which it's obvious the actors aren't in), and you see a real setting (woods). It's moronic for anyone to not see that these scenes were done separately, and are not seamless. It's almost offensive to me that Hooper thought (thinks) audiences are that dumb that he could get away with such ineffective camera work. What baffles me is that one of the producers said that the car scene is his favorite part. Clearly it was a conscious effort to film the scene like this, I just personally don't agree with it nor like it. I think there's too much screen time spent on showing the fake background, and that a convertible was a poor choice of vehicle to pick. If there wasn't the entire top of the car open to show the stupid flashing lights I think it would have gone over better and would be more forgivable. Also, the fast time lapse shots that are all through the movie aggravate me. I'm sure this isn't the case, but it comes off like Hooper just learned how to use that technique and got a little carried away with it. It's used entirely too much and gets very annoying. On top of everything else, I found the ending to be overwhelmingly predictable, and I believe the plot to be sloppy. It just unravels as the story goes on, which is lame. Also, the whole short builds up to the big twist of Gerri selling her daughter and Peggy's sister, but it's not even that big of a deal. I think by that time I'd lost any and all interest in the story, so the plot twist did nothing for me, although it probably would have been a good one if not for everything else going against "Dance of the Dead". After watching with commentary by the director, I found it most intriguing to hear that Peggy (by the end of the movie) is on her way to becoming a "loopy". Maybe I missed something, but that's not how I took it or interpreted it, again proving my point that Hooper's intentions didn't come across the screen clear. And lastly, the settings (most noticeably the goofy fence entrance to the "Doom Room") and the cheap FX put the nails in this episodes coffin, making it both (probably) my least favorite episode of the Masters of Horror and something I'll probably never waste my time on again.
Ultimately, this is another effort by Tobe Hooper that's wasted on me. It goes right over my head. I've never read the short story by Richard Matheson, but if I did I can guarantee it's better than this adaptation. Matheson himself (before death) saw the set of the film and literally said "what have you done?" He was completely turned off by how his story was being interpreted and thought it was "too dark". This is by far my least favorite adaptation of a Matheson story I've viewed. Stir of Echos, I Am Legend, The Omega Man, and The Last Man on Earth are all better and more worthy live action versions of Matheson's work, even if most of them are different versions of his "I Am Legend" story. I can't say that I would honestly recommend this but, take my word on it, if you haven't viewed "Dance of the Dead" with commentary yet, don't bother because there's nothing worthy or informative you'll learn. Just watch the other bonus material, it's shorter than having to sit through the commentary and it's more educational on the filmmaking process and in-depth looks into the characters and backstory like the third World War that the story takes place after. To end this negative review on a somewhat positive note, I'm going to be giving away the two (2) identical Tobe Hooper trading cards that came with my DVD purchase to anyone who wants them. Just leave a comment saying you want one and I'll give them out to the first two people interested!