Saturday, 12 February 2011

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2005)

Country: USA

First Transmitted - 11/11/2005

One has to admire the bravery (or possibly outright gall) of series creator Mick Garris in inviting several washed up has-beens to contribute direction to the first season of Masters of Horror. There is a certain amount of back slapping and arse kissing endemic in a project like this, because if one were to be entirely objective it about there is no way that in 2005 Tobe Hooper would qualify as a ‘Master of Horror’. Hooper has made lots of horror films yes, but he hasn’t made a single good one in my lifetime. In fact I would argue that Hooper has only made one creatively successful horror film and that was his astonishing debut picture The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Unlike his contemporaries in the 1970’s Hooper peaked instantly. His career since has been a pallid and depressingly dreary attempt to recapture the ferocity and creativity of his first film. In this respect Hooper’s later career must surely rank as the most disappointing in horror history. The promise of his first film was destroyed almost immediately with his lacklustre thematic follow up Eaten Alive (1977). Somewhat surprisingly though he did manage to direct an excellent television mini-series adaptation of Salem’s Lot (1979), proving that he could adapt to the strictures of television with aplomb. Unfortunately Salem’s Lot has proven an exception in Hooper’s career, and though some horror fanatics might cite The Funhouse (1981) (I’d prefer to watch the grass grow) and Poltergeist (1982) (Hooper pimping himself out to Spielberg whose themes dominate the film) the reality is that these films are largely inconsequential and bereft of ideas and intelligence. But based on thirty years of shocking mediocrity Mick Garris invited Hooper to take part in Masters of Horror. So we have thirty years of cinematic garbage from Hooper, what would his episode Dance of the Dead be like?…believe it or not its utter garbage!

On paper at least Dance of the Dead had potential. The episode was based upon a short story by Richard Matheson first published in 1954. Matheson has always translated quite well to the screen, and he himself had a long and fruitful relationship with the cinema. It was adapted for the screen by his son Richard Christian Matheson, whom one would hope would have an affinity for his father’s work. But any nuances and subtleties this dystopian tale of post apocalyptic struggle might have had are totally undermined by Hooper’s bag of show off formal tricks. Nevertheless it opens promisingly with a flashback to an innocent scene of young Peggy’s birthday party seconds prior to an oncoming nuclear holocaust. As the fallout rains down and melts the flesh of screaming adults and children, Peggy and her family hide in the house and watch the ensuing carnage. This sequence would have been unsettling in the extreme had it been shot with taste and patience, but for some reason Hooper feels the need to indulge in fragmented zooms and fractured editing. This is a style that permeates proceedings and I understand the director’s intention to create a sense of breakdown, the formal rupturing of the image acting as a mirror to societal collapse, but after a while it just becomes very irritating and distracting. Some years later the social firmament has crumbled away to the extent that drug addled youngsters mug pensioners for their blood, in order to sell it on to a grotesque manager of a nightclub, who uses it revive the dead in a sickening showcase of cadaverous exhibitionism.

The MC is at least played by Robert Englund who imbues his gross role with the sort of lip smacking relish to which we have been accustomed too. Unsurprisingly he emerges as the most lively aspect of this production, despite the characters own closeness to death and need for narcotic relief. The moral core of the story centres on the grown up Peggy (Jessica Lowndes) who rots away in her mothers diner and is dominated by the shrill and hypocritical matriarch who has been hiding a terrible secret. Peggy is introduced to another life, one of alcohol, drugs, fast cars, and the necrophilia tinged delights of The Doom Room. Instead of recoiling in abject disgust at the filth of humanity, it resonates because it is the new reality. Fortunately she manages to hook up with the one character Jak (Jonathan Tucker) who isn’t a total sleaze. He more than any other character represents a hope for the future, a man who has adapted to life in a chaotic and disordered society, but hasn’t lost hope or a sense of moral worth. The future is depicted as a grungy/gothic hell of heavy metal and sadism. This is complemented by a typically head splitting soundtrack by Billy Corgan. This is distinctive enough, but why? The film totally fails to explain away why youth culture has taken this turn, instead we have hollow aesthetics devoid of meaning.

Hooper does manage to create a number of nightmarish images. The sight of re-animated human corpses being dumped into a metal bin and set alight by a pair of mocking goons is one such troubling image. The sight of Robert Englund fondling twitching corpses, and the intimation that he is being fellated by one is another. But the general grotesquery of this episode (which extends almost without exception to every character) has the feel of Hooper trying on a bit of one-upmanship to the other directors in the series. Few episodes of Masters of Horror possess such a nihilistic, repugnant and irredeemable atmosphere as Dance of the Dead, but then I’d like to think the other episodes have ambitions beyond the type of mindless repulsion Hooper is after. In its favour is a sense of carnivalesque breakdown, a sense of disorder and disunity which is effectively conveyed. But Dance of the Dead never manages to escape the vanity and hubris of a director determined to show off what little talent he has.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. I hated this too, and found little of entertainment value in the handful of MoH episodes I watched some years ago (save for "Cigarette Burns" and perhaps "Jenifer"). Quite agree with your assessment of Hooper, too. But I would like to point out that the elder Mr. Matheson is still among the living!

  2. Oh dear that is something of an oversight...I thought he was worm food. Thanks for letting me know Will, I will change that immediately.

  3. I'm not so down on Tobe that I haven't enjoyed anything he's done in the last ten years or so ("Mortuary" was brainless fun) but I do agree that "peaked instantly" is a tight two word summary of his career overall. As for "Poltergeist", there seem to be conflicting stories as to the level of Spielberg's on-set involvement, but it doesn't look, feel, or move like anything Hooper has done before or since. It's just a different level of film, so much so that I really don't even think it can be fairly counted as being "his".

  4. your quite correct about hooper of course, he can make anything and slap the " by the director of the texas chainsaw massacre" label on it and he's gauranteed to make some money

  5. I totally agree about POLTERGEIST Bleaux. It fits far more comfortably in Spielberg's filmography than it does Hooper's. I'm not entirely down on him either, I thought SALEM'S LOT was really good. He's managed to make two decent horror productions, which is still more than many modern horror filmmakers can lay claim too.

    I couldn't agree more Cal - but I don't begrudge Hooper living off the reputation of his debut film, because it was such a great movie. I just question his inclusion in a series like Masters of Horror. If the show had been produced in 1979 or 1980, then unquestionably yes he'd be there. But Hooper is totally irrelevant to modern day horror.

  6. Ouch, Shaun. This was SCATCHING! While I was a big fan of the Masters of Horror series, I'm the first to hold my hands up and say, yeah, a lot of it was hit and miss. That's to be expected though of a series featuring the work of so many different people. Every episode was as different (tonally, in terms of quality etc etc) from the next. I haven't actually seen Hooper's offering, but it's widely accepted as one of the lesser episodes.

    Also, I find Hooper's career one of the most (morbidly?) fascinating of any horror director. Yes, he peaked instantly, and pretty much everything he’s done since has paled in comparison. His later work still manages to be interesting in what he attempts to do. Like you pointed out, Salem’s Lot was great. As a loving homage to Italian horror, The Toolbox Murders actually works. TCSM 2 kinda works as a really bawdy black comedy. Lifeforce and Mortuary had their moments. Crocodile… No, wait. Yeah, Crocodile was shit.

    I do think he will always be known as a ‘master of horror’ off the back of TCSM. And why not? It’s one of the most groundbreaking and important horror films ever made.

  7. Thanks for the comment James - I hope you continue to avoid this travesty. The only genuine contemporary Master of Horror to feature in the series was Takashi Miike in my view, the rest were either washed up old pensioners who should know better, or filmmakers with barely a credit to their name.

    You're far more generous towards Mr. Hooper (or should that be charitable?), I can't remember watching a Hooper film made in my lifetime that interested me. I thought THE TOOLBOX MURDERS was an abomination, it actually managed to be worse than the original!!?? which looked like CITIZEN KANE in comparison. He deserves his place in the annals of horror just for his first film I agree, but I just feel that a so called 'Master of Horror' should have provided audiences with more than one decent horror film.

  8. With arguable fan favorites like Poltergeist, Salem's Lot, Lifeforce, and Invaders from Mars under his belt, he has accomplished more than the greater number of genre directors thanks to his success on TCM. Not a great director, but a notable one in the genre. The directors chosen for season 2 are a joke.

    I thought the editing and stylism in this film was abysmal. One of the least entertaining episodes in the season, only trumped by The Damned Thing Hooper directed in S2.

  9. Arguable is the operative word Carl when it comes POLTERGEIST, LIFEFORCE and INVADERS OF MARS. I'm stunned by your inclusion of the latter film...its utterly abysmal! SALEM'S LOT I think is genuinely impressive. He is notable, but now he is more noted for being a running joke. I thought THE DAMNED THING was marginally (I admit its a close run thing) better than DANCE OF THE DEAD.

  10. Good on you for telling it like it is, Shaun. Hooper, etc. have been enjoying the Emperor's New Clothes for far too long.

    Actually, I'm shocked that SALEM'S LOT receives the praise it does: terribly dated, uninteresting TV fodder. I suspect that its reputation more broadly is the product of childhood sentimentality immune to critical objectivity.

  11. Thanks for the comment Johnny. I half agree with you about SALEM'S LOT creating a reputation based on childhood nostalgia and sentimentality. But it does have some genuine aspects of interest; the performance of James Mason, an unforgettable vampire in the shape of Mr. Barlow, the kid scratching at the window, and a very effective haunted house/gothic space.

  12. What movie older than 20 years doesn't benefit from a certain degree of nostalgia? Considering the budgetary and artistic limitations of a typical late 70s TV movie, I think Salems Lot actually holds up quite well!

  13. INVADERS was stretching it, and under a big assumption that it holds some value to SciFi junkies from the 80s ;)


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