While preparing their high school prom, small town teenager Jimmy (Jared Kusnitz) has a spat with his manically gleeful girlfriend Lindsay (Greyson Chadwick) who decides to go with somebody else instead. Video geek Steven (Chandler Darby) gets stuck with the Sci-Fi club when he’d much rather take comely cheerleader Gwen (Carissa Capobianco) to the prom, although she has designs on conceited rock guitarist Nash (Blair Redford) who could not care less. Come prom night, the local power plant unleashes a radioactive goo that brings the dead back to life as flesh-eating zombies that promptly descend upon the partying teens. It’s up to Jimmy and his friends to stop this ravenous horde and save the town.
Yet another retro-Eighties zombie comedy, while Dance of the Dead has received the expected comparisons with Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Return of the Living Dead (1985), the whole “teen rom-zom-com” angle has more apt precedent in the oft-overlooked Idle Hands (2001). Screenwriter Joe Ballarini - who, in addition to doubling as second-unit director and zombie extra, gets a pre-title credit (wow, how’d he manage that?) - and director/effects supervisor Gregg Bishop race through the set-up, indulging an array of amusing teen movie references from Pretty in Pink (1986) to Back to the Future (1985) and rapidly introduces the characters before getting down to the crowd-pleasing, zombie slaying stuff.
The high school satire is broad with obvious targets (prom-obsessed teen queens, vindictive teachers, a war veteran-turned-gym coach), but at least avoids the usual tiresome clichés of popular kids being pure evil while geeks are saints, pretty girls being useless zombie bait, etc. If there is a fault it’s that the dorkier members of the sci-fi club remain unappealingly self-centred and do not seem to merit their climactic encounter with a prom queen in distress. On the other hand, lead hero Jimmy is refreshingly no downtrodden nerd but a smart, confident class clown, while there is a moment of unexpected pathos when gun-toting bully Kyle (Justin Welborn) goes out apologising to all the kids he has wronged. The young cast are uniformly likeable and believable as real teens not photo models and the various romantic subplots, though feather-light, are sweet.
After 28 Days Later (2002) it’s evidently impossible to make horror movies with slow-moving zombies. These ones run, leap and bounce. Ballarini’s gags raise wry smiles rather than big laughs, but occasionally prove rather witty: e.g. the band who discover rock music lulls the zombie hordes; the heroes realising they’re barricaded inside a funeral home; cheerleader Gwen turning cartwheels to escape the ravenous dead; zombies slow-dancing at the prom - a scene that cleverly re-imagines Romero’s window-shopping mall zombies from Dawn of the Dead (1979).
Inventively shot by newcomer Bishop, this does nothing you haven’t seen before but entertains and wisely doesn’t outstay its welcome.