Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2005) review

While 'Dance of the Dead' isn't my favorite Masters of Horror episode, it's still a pretty good entry. If you're expecting conventional-horror, look-elsewhere, this is about a horror that is internal. Peggy (played wonderfully by Jessica Lowndes) is a young-girl living in the contaminated-ruins of the United States, in Michigan. She and her mother run a diner in what is left of their community, while the streets are populated with the sick, dying, and gangs of youths willing to do anything to survive. Utilities still exist, and there is food, but the social environment is every-man-for-himself, a situation very close to complete anarchy. You know, not much different than today.

Everyone in the film is dying-slowly from a terrorist-attack of a chemical weapon known as 'blitz', especially those who have been exposed-directly. In Richard Matheson's original-story, 'blitz' is exploded in the stratosphere, creating a huge corona-cloud that rains a skin-eating snow on its victims. Most of the victims have the look of lepers. One day, a gang of young 'blood-runners' comes into the diner led by a guy named Jak, and Peggy goes with them to the shunned city of 'Muskeet', where the dance of the dead is the main-event for nihilist-survivors and criminals. According to the MC of the club (Robert Englund, in a show-stealing performance), the military found that certain chemical-warfare agents would reanimate dead-troops to keep them fighting. One of the main-ingredients for this process is blood. Peggy's mother has warned her about the town ('It should be burned to-the-ground.'), with an odd-turn. She's hiding-something, like the fate of her other-daughter'll have to watch the episode.

In this bleak-future that could happen tomorrow, Tobe Hooper shows us where America is psychologically, and where it could end-up. I've actually talked to people in their twenties about this entry, and none of them could tell me why they didn't like it. I can tell you why--it paints-a-picture of youth that isn't flattering, and it makes a few comments on the counterculture (as a dead-end expression) that aren't either. We aren't really very far as a culture from the 'dance of the dead' strip-shows, not-at-all. America has become-addicted to a form of sexualized-violence in our culture, and it's a violence that is senseless and without any motivation behind-it, or meaning. Some would call this conditioning.

37-years-ago, director Sam Peckinpah tried to change this with 'The Wild Bunch', by showing-us violence for what it really was and, for-a-time, it worked. With his machine-gun editing (taken-up by Hooper here, the hour-episode has1,100-cuts), and his graphic-depictions of people dying in slow-motion, Peckinpah tried to make people sick. By the 1980s, this style had been copied ad-infinitum without any depictions of the consequences of violence. Ironically, showing these consequences is more visually-graphic, and usually earn a 'hard-R', 'X', or an NC-17 rating for a movie. So, by the 1980s, Peckinpah had been trumped by Hollywood. Today, it's even-worse.

Hooper (and both Matheson-scribes) shoves this fact in our collective-face, and he does it with a barrage of imagery that is pretty-ugly. You could take-away the setting of a post-apocalypse America, and you could still tell this story in the present about an overprotected 16-year-old girl who loses her innocence. This overprotection is crucial, and Matheson setting the story in the American Midwest is strongly-symbolic. This is the real story of 'Dance of the Dead', and it rankles the wounded-idealist in all of us. But again, he's also telling us that we are jaded, bored and dehumanized, another reason some viewers were angered by the piece.

Sadly, most of the bad-reviews of this film only prove-its-point: we have become desenitized and dehumanized as a culture. Through the use of deep-colors, incredible-composition, and an editing-style that can only be called a barrage, Hooper has a great work here. Also, most of the gore here is pretty grim, and I expect a certain level of it in most horror-films. It's my own humble-opinion that the worst horror-fans are gorehounds, but even-worse is the film-buff who expects Orson Welles to do Citizen Kane over-and-over again (you could argue he did). This is a great addition to Tobe Hooper's canon, even an exceptional one. I think the main-problem people had with this film was the editing--it never lets you rest, and that's good. What a heavy metal Weimar Republic-nightmare he has crafted, it's stunning and real. We're all denizens of the Doom Room, but gorehounds really do resemble the characters of this film.