[28 June 2013]
If your movie is going to reference George Romero, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the beloved genre of high school movies, it had better be good… very good. Sadly, Alex Craig Mann’s Detention of the Dead, despite its heady aspirations, is very bad. Its Etch-a-sketch characters, writing-class dialogue, and lumbering direction, not to mention its lack of internal logic, condemn the viewer to a genuine night of horror, a movie that should have been a 15-minute short that runs for more than 90.
As Detention of the Dead sets up to tell the story of a group of teens endeavoring to survive a zombie apocalypse in their school, it’s immediately immersed in clichés. First, the characters, found in both lamented and lauded high school movies: here again we have the jock, the cheerleader, the geek, the goth, and the stoner, the types locked in the school library of our collective consciousness since 1985’s The Breakfast Club. Still, John Hughes’ use of formula has merits: while cathartic revelation is inevitable, the routes to it are unpredictable, witty, and predatory. The film, once it has evoked Breakfast Club’s set up, abandons character development, and so wastes its one inventive idea.
Instead, Detention of the Dead—which is also available on VOD—turns to assorted monster movie set-pieces. As the he-men from the football team, Jimmy (Max Adler) and Brad (Jayson Blair), crumple under the strain of imminent zombiedom, super-nerd Eddie (Jacob Zachar) finds himself torn between his lust for Brad’s cheerleader girlfriend Janet (Christa B. Allen), who doesn’t want to die a virgin, and his soulful love for his best friend Willow (Alexa Nikolas). Alas, the only pay-off from this attempt at a “will they, won’t they” tension occurs in the very last, and cleverest, shot of the movie. That glimmer of originality suggests that Mann has not only watched his share of Edgar Wright movies but might have such potential, though still in need of refining (and ruthless editing) to find his own zom-com niche.
As cowriter of this film adaptation of Rob Rinow’s play, Mann also has to take some responsibility for the dialogue. Would any movie-savvy teen like Willow, who claims to love zombie films, really take an hour to grind out the banal observation that high schoolers are like zombies, all unthinking, all conforming? For the hard of thinking, she helpfully editorializes that, “If this isn’t a commentary on the current state of public education, I don’t know what is.” One or two lines do zing with a little poetry, such as Eddie’s declaration of war, “It’s time for this paladin to cast a 21st level spell of zombie whoop-ass!” Alas, arriving near the end of the movie, this bit comes far too late for its revelation of Eddie’s self-image to have any meaning.
Almost every zombie exemplifies Bad Acting 101, even allowing for the fact that the film focuses on the shambling, mono-focal breed of zombie. The gore is weedy, and not in a campy or ironic way, either. Trailing intestines look like links of undercooked butchers’ sausages, while the zombies’ bloodied faces recall the survivors of a State Fair pie-eating contest rather than monsters’ raging lust for human flesh. And the cutting is slack, especially in the dialogue, when pauses at the end of every line suggest the actors are waiting for an audience’s response.
Thematic or not, such slowness doesn’t enliven the filmmakers’ plain enough knowledge of film. We’ve seen other versions of this knowledge trotted out in movies as diverse as Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 What’s Up, Doc? and Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, both of which famously hone their pop culture references to express character, kick the plot up a gear, catch the audience unawares and, at their best, create an almost Brechtian sense of estrangement. Here, the references can’t disguise the total collapse of logic by movie’s end. This collapse has a survivor suddenly able to combat the zombies in ways not previously allowed, and miraculously escaping a horde of them unscathed while the camera is looking elsewhere.
Such failures, of course, often have to do with budgets, lack of time or funding and the necessity to get it done. And indeed, one thing in Detention of the Dead‘s favor is its production cost. Unlike the millions other films have frittered on blockbuster doozies, this modest picture announces itself as such. That said, you may find yourself wondering distractedly as you’re waiting for this one to end, how these half-a-million dollars might have bought a lot of lunches for needy kids, financed a free medical clinic (or two) or given a boost to the eradication of malaria worldwide. Or maybe you’re thinking about the more generally escalating costs of entertainment, from pro sports to multiplex movies, and questioning whether the transient release from quotidian anxieties we celebrate is really worth the price we—and other people—pay.