Fifty years after a zombie apocalypse wreaked havoc in Seabrook, the cheery community now keep their brain-eating impulses under control using digital devices called Z-bands. With zombie citizens kept isolated in the rundown district of Zombietown, the rest of the town can safely concentrate on their twin obsessions: high school football and cheerleading. Teen zombie Zed (Milo Manheim), a charming and talented athlete, yearns to break the mold and become the first zombie to play on the football team but faces an uphill battle. When Addison (Meg Donnelly), a pretty cheerleader, finds herself unexpectedly falling in love with Zed her eyes are opened to the town's blatant anti-zombie discrimination. Realizing zombies and humans are not so different after all, Addison befriends other zombies and encourages them to pursue their dream of integration. Meanwhile Zed discovers altering the frequency of his Z-band endows him with a zombie-enhanced footballing prowess. His new-found sporting super-stardom riles Addison's cousin Bucky (Trevor Tordjman), an egomaniacal cheer captain, whose mean-spirited revenge prank wreaks havoc for the entire zombie community.
Has the long over-saturated zombie genre finally run its course? Not only is The Walking Dead still flogging a dead horse (pun intended, damn it!) on television, but we now have this tween musical made for the Disney Channel. Z-O-M-B-I-E-S began life as an unsold sitcom pilot before co-writers David Light and Joseph Raso reworked the premise into Disney's latest attempt to ignite another sing-along tween phenomenon like High School Musical (2005). Filmed in day-glow pink and lime green pastels, it is aggressively cute and perky with cartoonishly broad humour geared towards the under-twelves that lap up the usual inane Disney Channel sit-coms. However, what sets Z-O-M-B-I-E-S apart from the majority of disposable tween musicals is a sincere albeit ham-fisted attempt to tackle themes of prejudice, social inequality and segregation. It actually expands themes touched on in independent horror films like American Zombie (2007) and Freaks of Nature (2015), the latter of which coincidentally features several former Disney stars.
Featuring scenes where zombies are unjustly harassed by law enforcement, held back from climbing the social ladder, corralled in ghettos or subject to plain old intolerance in their daily lives, Z-O-M-B-I-E-S pulls off a few moments of genuinely disarming social satire. The filmmakers take pains to balance their cast with multi-racial performers on both zombie and human sides (including one minor character coded as gay who actually sides with the bullies) but the allegorical statement seeps through. Unfortunately the story lacks the courage of its convictions and too often settles for uncomplicated feel-good slogans, though given we are dealing with the Disney Channel here maybe that is to be expected. "Humans are bad" gripes militant zombie rights activist Eliza (Kylee Russell). "But cheerleaders are evil." Which dilutes the allegory down to the most trite popular kids versus nerds angle. Opening with an animated prologue establishing the apocalypse was sparked by a freak accident involving lime soda (!) (arguably no more far-fetched than the root causes behind Night of the Living Dead (1968) or 28 Days Later (2002)) the plot glosses over whether the zombies are mutants or actually undead. Which would make Addison's relationship with Zed basically necrophilia.
As a musical Z-O-M-B-I-E-S is a mixed bag. Lead actors Milo Manheim and Meg Donnelly are personal, peppy and engaging with genuine talent. Their energetic dance routines are easier to admire than the sugary pop tunes which are cheerfully inane, saccharine fluff although the big duet "Someday" is one of the better songs. Working with choreographers Christopher Scott and Jeffrey Hornaday, Disney TV movie veteran Paul Hoen stages a handful of tight, eye-catching sequences, including the inevitable nod to Michael Jackson's Thriller, taking advantage of the young cast's remarkable flexibility and evident enthusiasm. In the end this is closer to Teen Wolf (1985) than an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but at the very least has its big sappy heart in the right place.