Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Jessica Lowndes, Jonathan Tucker, Marilyn Norry, Ryan McDonald, Robert Englund
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
“Dance of the Dead” was the third Masters of Horror episode to air but is one of the last to be released on DVD. Who knows why — a lot of what Anchor Bay has done with regard to marketing the series, from changing the artwork in midstream to not offering all the episodes as a box set, makes no sense to me — but one thing’s for sure: Good things come to those who wait.
When the Masters series started, it was slow going. Neither of the first two episodes set my world on fire, but “Dance of the Dead” really got to me. The images and message it sent out were creepy, unsettling, and beyond disturbing. But something about Peggy, the main character’s, actions didn’t totally convince me. It took a second viewing some ten months later for her to win me over, but win me over she did. Jessica Lowndes, a young woman with only one IMDB credit prior to “Dance,” turns in a powerful performance as Peggy — no small task considering the range of reactions and emotions the character must relay to the audience in a rather short period of time.
If you haven’t seen “Dance of the Dead’ yet, you’re probably wondering what the cause of Peggy’s woes may be. Oh, nothing much — just World War III. Our way of life is under attack by terrorists who are utilizing a new kind of chemical weapon, something called Blizz, a toxic flesh-eating, death-inducing black ash that falls from the sky. Peggy, her mother Kate, and her older sister Anna escape immediate death, but painful memories haunt Kate (Norry), whose flashbacks of when it all began are used to open up the episode. In the intervening years Peggy’s father was killed in battle; Anna, always the problem child, has become a drug addict and disappeared; and the world as we know it is forever gone. Guys like Jak (Tucker) and Boxx (McDonald) rob people of their blood and then sell it to The M.C. (Englund), who runs a wild club called the Doom Room and uses the fresh plasma to … oops, not just yet … we’ll come back to that part in a minute.
Despite the turmoil and destruction of the world around her, Peggy’s obviously still a “nice” girl, and Kate is terrified of losing her to the immoral, dangerous influences that permeate their post-war society with its brutality and “we’re all gonna die anyway so let’s party!” mindset. It isn’t long before her fears are validated as Jak, Boxx, and their girl friends come into the diner where Kate and Peggy both work. Sparks fly between Jak and Peggy (I can’t remember when I’ve seen a young couple with more soulful and expressive sets of eyes), and before you can say “apocalypse,” they’re making arrangements to secretly meet up later that night. What follows is a truly beautifully filmed, yet absolutely manic car ride with Jak, Peggy, Boxx, and Celia speeding down the road in a convertible, the wind blowing their hair, kissing and rubbing each other and ingesting all sorts of drugs and potions and god only knows what else as they head to Muskeet, home of the Doom Room and site of the final showdown between Peggy’s innocence and the truth of her situation. The car scene is at least five layers deep with anomalous things going on in front of and behind the actors. Even for just the regular, non-motion scenes, Hooper always used a multi-camera setup with the speeds set at different levels and a hand-crank camera as well, filming frontwards and backwards, to get as much coverage as possible. Editing it down to 1,100(!) cuts of no more than a few seconds each gives the film a great look and texture that makes it seem like an Impressionist painting in some places. In others, it is just as flat and bleak as it needs to be to convey the desolation and desecration of the planet by warfare. In his commentary and various interviews, Hooper is highly complimentary of Jon Joffin, the director of photography, and Andrew Cohen, the editor, for their work on the film. It obviously took a great deal of teamwork to achieve the high quality end result of “Dance of the Dead,” and all three men deserve accolades.
So, what exactly is going on in the Doom Room, and what’s to become of our star-crossed lovers, Peggy and Jak? Considering that early on in the film we’re shown a pair of lowlife types disposing of some naked, twitching bodies by burning them in a dumpster, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that someone’s been perfecting his animating — or rather re-animating — techniques on a few comely corpses. That someone is The M.C., whom Englund and Hooper liken to a post-apocalyptic Joel Grey circa 1972’s Cabaret, but to me he seemed more like a cross between a dissolute Lorne of “Angel” and a crazed Grandpa Munster. Mixing the plasma he gets from Jak with a nerve agent developed by the military to enable dead soldiers to keep fighting the good fight, The M.C. has his own stable of convulsing “Dead” to service his every need — yes, even those of the carnal variety. As for the “Dance” itself, that’s something I almost wish had been left to the imagination. What we see is worse than anything the rational mind could imagine. Hooper, you are one sick fuck. And one of the few true Masters of your craft. Horror is lucky to have you.
The resolution of the story is predictable, yet natural. The world and everyone in it is diseased; every alliance intact at the beginning has been broken and replaced by another. There’s no other way this saga could have ended and been true to what had come before. Writing like this is a gift … and apparently genetic. The teleplay was written by Richard Christian (“RC”) Matheson, son of author Richard Matheson, who penned the short story on which “Dance of the Dead” is based in the 1950’s. RC filled out the original by expanding the world in which the characters find themselves and adding a new twist here and there. He also upped the horror ante a bit. As he explains in his interview on the disc, he understands that because of how jaded we’ve become as an audience due to all the dread and fear to be found in the “real” world, those who work in horror need to eclipse the reality and make their stories and films even more extreme. “Dance of the Dead” definitely fulfills those criteria. The depravity of the crowd at the Doom Room and the loss of humanity by Kate and everyone else around Peggy (save Jak ) were among the most horrific things I saw all season on Masters of Horror. Hooper and Matheson set the bar pretty high for themselves come Season 2 and their next collaboration, “The Damned Thing” (also coincidentally slated to be the third episode), based on Ambrose Bierce’s classic tale.
At this stage of the game do we even need to talk about the extras on the disc? The Masters series wrote the book … broke the mold … set the standard … you name it, for how DVD’s should be packaged. “Dance of the Dead” comes with two vastly different commentaries; separate interviews with Hooper, Matheson, Lowndes, Tucker, and Englund; an homage to Hooper with Gunnar Hansen, Bill Moseley, Steve Railsback, and RC Matheson; the obligatory narration-less behind the scenes that I find to be dull and useless but maybe someone out there appreciates; and the usual stills, trailers, director’s bio, etc., that accompany all the MOH releases (except, curiously, “Imprint”). Come to the think of it, the disc has trailers for all the MOH episodes — except for “Imprint.” I’m beginning to think it’s some sort of conspiracy against the needle industry… But I digress.
Hooper’s commentary is in the form of a Q&A type interview with DVD producer Perry Martin. It starts off a little dry and technical with Hooper sounding stilted and somewhat ill at ease, but after a short while he comes into his own, especially while talking about the perverse nature of the world he created. You can almost see him sitting there grinning and rubbing his hands together in delight! Martin then leads him through his casting and filming processes, and before you know it, the hour is up. Matheson, on the other hand, provides a virtual play-by-play of the action on the screen — and one of the most enjoyable commentaries I’ve listened to in a while. He is analytical, eloquent, and intelligent, all qualities that are in short supply these days — in the horror genre and otherwise. His comments about “concealing exposition” should be emblazoned in every writer’s brain. There’s no way to lose fans faster than by over-explaining everything. Matheson — and Hooper too, thankfully — have no problem letting us fill in a few blanks on our own, all to the betterment of their final product.
Working with a Master is a little heavy on the clips, but all four interviewees furnish entertaining reminiscences about what it was like working with and being influenced by Hooper. They paint him as a brilliant director, one who equally channels the visceral and the chaotic. He himself admits to a preference for shooting out of sequence. All the better to let the film tell its own story in an organic fashion. Jessica and Jonathan come across as nice kids who know how fortunate they are to be surrounded by such talent, and while Jonathan confesses he’s not exactly a horror enthusiast, he does consider working on the project an honor and shows a healthy respect for the genre. Jessica seems to be up for just about anything, and I expect to see a lot more of her in coming years. Jonathan did make sure to mention the production designer, and I have to agree with his sentiments. The sets are pretty incredible considering the budget, the tight shooting schedule, and the constraints of television. Englund is Englund, the same fellow we all know and love for consistently embracing the genre. The M.C. is a real tour de force role for him, and he eats it up without ingesting too much scenery along the way. Not an easy task. He starts off his interview extolling the virtues of horror and its audience and wonders aloud why, with all the other special interests that clog our airwaves, there is still no horror channel. That’s something quite a few of us wonder too, Robert!
With the Masters of Horror DVD releases winding down and the new season gearing up, prioritizing becomes a necessity due to limitations of time and money. If you’re not getting all the episodes individually, I highly recommend that you designate “Dance of the Dead” Priority #1 on your shopping list. With its strong performances, impressive sets and settings, and dark operatic feel (the music by Billy Corgan is another character in and itself), it is one of the series’ biggest successes and a worthy addition to any horror devotee’s collection.
Primal Screams: An interview with Tobe Hooper featurette
The Written Word: An interview with Richard Matheson featurette
Working with a Master: Tobe Hooper featurette
On Set: An interview with Jessica Lowndes
On Set: An interview with Jonathan Tucker
On Set: An interview with Robert Englund
Behind the scenes: The making of Dance of the Dead
Audio commentary with director Tobe Hooper
Audio commentary with writer Richard Christian Matheson
Tobe Hooper bio
DVD-Rom: Screen saver
4 1/2 out of 5