Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (Television)

Episode 3

Starring Jonathan Tucker, Jessica Lowndes, Robert Englund

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Airdate: November 11, 2005

This is Hooper at his best. Gratuitous, nihilistic, and unhinged. Disengaged from whatever power that has been holding him back for so many years. Granted, Toolbox Murders was a step in the right direction after fumbling with blanks like Crocodile and The Mangler in the last decade but “Dance of the Dead” reinvigorates the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-lovin’ soul with renewed hope that Hooper hasn’t, as so many say, “lost it.” Based on a short story by Richard Matheson and adapted by his son, Richard Christian Matheson, if Stuart Gordon’s “Dreams in the Witch House” was a subtle mind-screw of a Masters entry, then “Dance of the Dead” is its boisterous, forceful opposite: an agitated, post-apocalyptic splatter punk resurrection that jitters and shakes along the line of indecency with Hooper proudly manipulating the strings. And thankfully there’s no sign of anyone with a pair of scissors in sight to ruin the show.

Similar to Coscarelli’s “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” this entry boasts a cracked narrative structure that teases us with nightmarish events that occurred in the past while bombarding our senses — and sensibilities — with a story in the present that introduces us to seventeen-year-old Peggy (played by the drop-dead beautiful Jessica Lowndes). She’s a curious, if somewhat sheltered, girl living in a post-World War III ravaged America. The town she lives in appears to be a frightened little community where abandoned cars litter the streets and reports of the rising death toll in the country come via grim radio broadcasts, but her mother’s diner remains open to those who can afford the food. It’s a bizarro slice of Norman Rockwell heaven until she meets a boy, Jak (the TCM remake’s Jonathan Tucker), a mascara-wearing, respectable biker boy who’s involved in a mean bit o’ business with his annoying partner only to make enough cash to survive.

One evening Jak whisks Peggy away to the seedy town of Muskeet. There’s a different smell in the air lingering around this place, and the dregs run rampant; without a protector Peggy would surely be devouredm and Tucker’s Jak is a lean, swift, likable anti-hero. This rugged Romeo promptly introduces his gal to the local dive, The Doom Room, which is headed up by a man known only as the MC. Robert Englund creeps into the role as only Robert Englund can, grinding every line of dialogue with a wink, a sneer, and not to mention one helluva hair style. (A moment I’m fond of: The MC recovers from a coughing fit in which he spits a mouthful of blood into a jar before his audience with the line, “Since we run an upscale establishment here…” ) He’s a necro-horny Steve Rubell who takes delight in riling up his punk rock/Goth customers, especially with his main attraction, the Dance of the Dead.

Going much further would spoil the fun, so I’ll halt right there. There’s so much that’s so right about “Dance of the Dead” that it’s hard to pinpoint who to thank, so I’ll doll out kudos to both Hooper and scribe Richard Christian Matheson. The latter’s script runs the risk of information overload, but he ultimately delivers a tale that’s damn tight. It’s hard to dig on where it’s going, but once a few key details are introduced…man, it’s a trip. The characters are a unique bunch; Matheson’s dialogue has a cool, modern noir freshness to it; and it’s painfully evident the director at the helm recognizes the strength of the material, so he assuredly pushes it to limits that are, let’s just say, prime Hooper. Garbage men pull up to a dumpster and toss a few writhing, naked bodies inside. Later, Englund has some fun with his undead talent that paints a whole new view of the “casting couch.” And a scene worthy enough to freeze your very bone marrow — involving the havoc wreaked at a children’s party – -reminds us that every good allegory often has to have a harsh air of realism.

It’s worth noting that former Smashing Pumpkin’s frontman, Billy Corgan, scored this episode, his contribution a sly and subtle mix that works in all of those metal tunes that are now available on the Masters of Horror two-disc CD (I was wondering where they were all going to fit in). I’d be remiss not to mention Jon Joffin’s photography once again. More stellar work here. There’s a “fluttering image” technique Joffin and Hooper implement at times throughout “Dance” that takes some getting used to. It does keep you on your toes, however, as does the episode as a whole, and that’s the Hooper we all know and love.

5 out of 5 Mugs O’ Blood

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Jon Condit

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