Dance of the Dead (2008) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

The Dance of the Dead episode of Best Horror Movie You Never Saw was Written by Cody Hamman, Narrated by Jason Hewlett, Edited by Juan Jimenez, Produced by John Fallon and Tyler Nichols, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

Did you ever wonder what it would be like if the zombie apocalypse coincided with prom night? The dead rising from their graves, calling out for brains. Disrupting the school event that’s supposed to be a great, memorable moment in a teen’s life. That’s what happens in the 2008 film Dance of the Dead (watch it HERE). Which would have been a great sequel to The Return of the Living Dead if it were part of that franchise. And if you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw.

Although Dance of the Dead was released in 2008, the first draft of the screenplay was written eleven years earlier. Writer Joe Ballarini was attending the University of Southern California in 1997. Hanging out with a group of friends who regularly rented horror movies on VHS. One of the movies Ballarini watched with his friends was George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead… and while that is widely considered to be one of the best horror movies ever made, he was let down by the zombies. He wasn’t into the slow, lumbering flesh-eaters. He wanted to see fast zombies in a more explosive, funny movie. Something along the lines of Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead. Around the same time as his viewing of Dawn of the Dead, Ballarini was also reading the book Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Which includes the line, “And we listened faintly to the dance of the dead.” After reading that line, Ballarini was struck with the inspiration to write his own zombie movie. Dance of the Dead, about a zombie outbreak on prom night. A quickly-paced horror comedy with fast-moving zombies.

Ballarini showed the script to his classmate Gregg Bishop, who was so impressed by it that he said he wanted to direct the movie. Ballarini wanted to direct it himself, but he told Bishop that if he could find the money for it, he could do it. It took Bishop ten years, but he eventually did find the money and get the movie made.

Dance of the Dead is set in the small town of Cosa, Georgia, where a nuclear power plant stands right at the edge of the local cemetery. A leakage from this power plant is causing strange things to happen in the graveyard, but the caretaker is keeping it to himself. He just clips off the zombie body parts sticking out of the ground. Then drops the writhing appendages in his wheelbarrow. But he won’t be able to keep this secret for much longer. On the night the Cosa high school is having its prom, the living dead problem becomes a full-on zombie outbreak. A whole cemetery’s worth of dead people rise from their graves. These zombies don’t just come crawling out of the ground, though. These things burst through the ground like they’ve been launched from a catapult. Some catch several feet of air. Some hit the ground running. Running and crying out for “Brains!” That’s very reminiscent of The Return of the Living Dead – but luckily for the residents of Cosa, the zombies have the same weakness as in Romero’s movies. If you destroy the brain, you destroy the ghoul.

The characters we follow as the dead wreak havoc in Cosa include: Jared Kusnitz as irreverent pizza delivery boy Jimmy Dunn. Greyson Chadwick as Jimmy’s girlfriend Lindsey, who has decided to go to prom with someone else. And that date doesn’t go well at all. In fact, it goes bad even before the guy is torn to pieces. There’s Chandler Darby as the nerdy Steven. Who tried to ask cheerleader Gwen, played by Carissa Capobianco, to the prom. But she was hoping to go with Blair Redford’s character Nash Rambler. Lead singer of the band The Quarter Punks. His bandmates are Lucas Till as Jensen and Hunter Pierce as Dave the Drummer. None of them are going to the prom, since The Quarter Punks auditioned to play there and were rejected. The school isn’t into their type of music. It’s like the “You’re just too darn loud” moment in Back to the Future. But just like Marty McFly, The Quarter Punks do end up playing at the prom. That’s after they discover their music has a calming effect on the zombies. Ballarini was inspired to write scenes of zombies stopping in their tracks to listen to music after attending live music shows where he didn’t see anyone dancing. The audience would just stand there and stare at the band. Like zombies.

Also fighting for their lives against the living dead are Justin Welborn as redneck bully Kyle Grubbin. Mark Oliver as soldier-turned-phys-ed-teacher Coach Keel. James Jarrett as the sketchy gravedigger. And Randy McDowell, Michael V. Mammoliti, and Mark Lynch as Steven’s friends from the Sci-Fi Club.

Dance of the Dead The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

Bishop held auditions for the cast in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Six hundred young actors were up for the roles of the Cosa high students. He wanted to find kids who were good at improv, who could bring their own personalities to their roles. And who actually looked like high schoolers. He didn’t want Dance of the Dead to be another teen movie where the actors are a decade older than their characters. He did a great job of assembling a strong cast that looks age-appropriate. The one exception he made was for Justin Welborn. He was indeed a decade older than his character, but he was still the best choice for Kyle. And he steals the show when he’s on the screen.

There was another character in the script who didn’t make it into the film. Her name was Lydia – and she was actually the lead. Originally, there was going to be a completely different explanation for the zombie outbreak. There was no nuclear power plant. The story began with a cheerleader named Lydia discovering that biology teacher Mister Hammond has murdered three of her friends. He has a copy of the Necronomicon is using the blood of students to call up the dead. Lydia escapes from the devil-worshipping teacher, then the police arrive and he gets shot to death. Jump ahead a year. Lydia has gone goth. And she crosses paths with the Necronomicon again just as the dead start to rise on prom night.

The role of Lydia was cast. But less than two weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, the actress decided to leave the project. Getting Dance of the Dead to the starting line had been a ten year journey, so Bishop and Ballarini couldn’t let it fall apart. They scrambled to figure out what to do about the Lydia situation. And quickly came to realize they didn’t really need that character. Even though she was the lead, she didn’t have much to do in the second act. She didn’t drive the story forward. So the decision was made to cut her out completely and shift the focus to Jimmy and Lindsey. As Bishop said, he didn’t feel connected to Lydia, but he did to Jimmy and Lindsey because “they’re the most real, the most interesting, and the characters we cared about.” Ballarini felt they deserved to become the main characters because “they are the ones who suffer the most. (The story is) about the two of them saving each other’s lives.” Fuelled by cigarettes and Red Bull, he quickly reworked the script. Lydia was taken out, and about thirty pages of script went with her. Jimmy and Lindsey were given more to do. The Necronomicon was replaced with nuclear waste. And in the long run, the filmmakers felt the last minute script changes were an improvement.

Ballarini told Daily Dead, “Thank God that girl dropped out, because the Lydia / Necronomicon story was really ridiculous. It was a great lesson in writing, actually. The reason Dance of the Dead is a good movie and people dig it is because it’s human. The characters are teenagers. It’s not about some weird, Satanic book. It’s about the kids.”

Although Lydia was removed from the script, Mister Hammond the biology teacher is still in the finished film. Played by Jonathan Spencer. He’s still a jerk, he’s just not a homicidal maniac in this version of the story. And he may be the only person in cinema history to be killed by a zombie frog.

Dance of the Dead The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

Dance of the Dead was filmed in the town of Rome, Georgia, a location chosen because it had an empty high school the production could use. Then some additional photography was done in Los Angeles. Bringing the total number of shooting days to about forty. After the movie made the festival rounds, it was able secure a distribution deal with Lionsgate, where it was chosen to be one of the first eight movies released as part of the Ghost House Underground imprint. An imprint that was headed up by Sam Raimi, a filmmaker who is no stranger to the Necronomicon. Rob Tapert, who has been Raimi’s producing partner since the beginning of his career – going back even further than The Evil Dead – explained to AMC, “Over the years, we were sent various movies so we could check out certain directors. Later we’d check back in on some of them and find out that the movie had been picked up by some company, never released, and the filmmakers had gotten ripped off. So we decided to go into the direct-to-video consumer business ourselves.” As for why they chose Dance of the Dead to be part of the Ghost House Underground line-up, Tapert said, “This was a movie that Sam Raimi and myself and another associate watched on a Sunday afternoon. We howled and we howled until Sam’s wife and kids started banging on his office door wondering if we were alright. I think I’ve watched it about five times so far.”

When a movie provides that much entertainment for the guys who made The Evil Dead, the filmmakers have clearly done something right. So Dance of the Dead received a decent amount of deserved attention when it first reached home video. It quickly gained a solid cult following, and for good reason. This low budget horror comedy zombie movie is a worthy successor to the likes of Shaun of the Dead and The Return of the Living Dead. In fact, if it had somehow been released as Return of the Living Dead Part 6, it could have redeemed that franchise after the messiness of parts 4 and 5.

Ballarini had a dream of turning Dance of the Dead into its own franchise. He envisioned a trilogy that would have followed Nash Rambler’s adventures in the zombie apocalypse. There would have been sequences involving kids riding bicycles in the sewers. Firing bottle rockets at zombies. Coach Keel driving a tank. Nuclear meltdown. But the idea of making Dance of the Dead 2 and 3 never gained enough traction to get the films into production. Perhaps it’s because Dance of the Dead never became quite as popular as it should have. By now it has kind of faded into obscurity. It’s a shame, because the movie is a blast.

Ballarini wrote a really fun script… then had to change it substantially in a hurry right before production. But nothing in the film seems like it was the result of a rushed rewrite. Everything about Dance of the Dead feels like it’s exactly the movie it was always meant to be. Jimmy and Lindsey are good, likeable lead characters, and they have an awesome supporting cast to interact with. Bishop, Ballarini, and the actors make us care about almost every character in the movie. Jimmy and Lindsey, Steven and Gwen, The Quarter Punks, the Sci-Fi Guys, Coach Keel. They’re fun characters to watch, and we want to see them make it through the zombie outbreak unscathed. Of course, there are too many characters for all of them to make it out of this alive. And when someone gets bitten or torn apart, it’s sad to see them go.

Even the bully Kyle is a great character. If we had met him on any normal school day, we probably wouldn’t like him. But he’s just the sort of person our heroes need on their side when all hell breaks loose. This apocalyptic event gives Kyle a chance to smash heads and tear stuff up… Pretty much just another day for him. And it’s really amusing to see him befriend the people he usually pushes around. Reminiscing about the good times, like when he broke someone’s arm.

As Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert could tell you, Dance of the Dead is a highly entertaining movie. It moves along at a fast pace, featuring a lot of amusing moments, fun character interactions, and zombie mayhem along the way.

Dance of the Dead The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

The best scene comes when the movie truly earns its title. Our heroes have gone to the high school in hopes of saving the kids at the prom. They’re too late for most of them. The place is full of zombies. So the idea is to blow the school up with the dead inside. While setting bombs, Jimmy and Lindsey end up in the gymnasium. Surrounded by prom-goers turned flesh-eaters. It’s looking bad for them. But then The Quarter Punks take the stage and start playing a cover of Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night”. With the zombies transfixed by the band, Jimmy and Lindsey are able to have their prom dance.

If you’re a fan of zombie movies, it’s highly recommended that you seek out Dance of the Dead. Even if you have been burned by too many sub-par entries in the sub-genre in recent years, this is a zombie movie that’s worth seeing. It’s a bit of a hidden treasure, a cult classic that needs a bigger cult to spread the word of how good it is. Some of us, including Sam Raimi, have been in the Dance of the Dead cult for fifteen years already. It’s about time you go ahead and join us.

A couple previous episodes of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series can be seen below. To see more, and to check out some of our other shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

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