"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead / The Damned Thing

Dance of the Dead is Tobe Hooper’s first episode of the Masters of Horror anthology TV show – it was the third week of the series, November 2005, airing after episodes by Don Coscarelli and Stuart Gordon. Made in the throes of the Bush years, one could argue that the wars overseas and upheaval at home subconsciously gave it its apocalyptic flavor, much as TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE has been said to have been marinated in Vietnam era angst.

Not that it’s as good. Or even close. Like all Masters of Horror episodes, its TV budget, schedule, locations and crew dull the edge of any cinematic flair or authorial vision. That’s a bad mix with Hooper’s decision to go a little Tony Scott with the Avid farts and camera shakes. That style might’ve been intended as a translation of the showy writing style in the short story by Richard Matheson (whose son Richard Christian Matheson wrote the adaptation), but I found it cheesy and forced, with the exception of a long convertible joy ride sequence, where the camera movement effectively conveys the high speeds the characters are moving at both physically and mentally.

The story takes place in one of those painfully generic small towns of television cliche, where a nice girl named Peggy (Jessica Lowndes, ABATTOIR) works as a waitress at her mom (Marilyn Norry, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW)’s old timey All-American diner, one of those places where everyone has known each other for years and comes in every day and etc. Except for these giggly drugged out punk kids who cause a mild scene and get kicked out by Mom. But Peggy is drawn to the misunderstood bad boy qualities of their ringleader Jak (Jonathan Tucker, Boon from Justified), so at night she sneaks out to hang with them and attempt to find a good balance between having fun and not giving in to peer pressure. (They do get her to shoot up in the car, though.)

I thought they were vampires, because they robbed an old couple of “the red” and they don’t eat food, but I guess that’s just their job in this world in which much of the population were burned alive by chemicals in a terror attack on Peggy’s 7th birthday. Peggy and her mom survived partly by shutting the door on the friends at her party, which only Peggy seems to feel guilty about.

There is one incredibly fucked up scene that underlines how shitty the world is: burly dudes in jumpsuits like sanitation workers dump several naked female zombies into a dumpster and light them on fire. It’s hard to watch these brutes tossing real naked stunt women like they’re dummies. Even crazier, Hooper and company used a newly invented burn gel to light them on fire for real.

If you think that’s gruesome though, this club called the Doom Room has chain link fences and strobelights, and there are people firejuggling outside! You will be so scared! It’s where Peggy’s new friends drive her to, which is unfortunate because the the corny forced shock value of the place drags down the episode. Emcee Robert Englund (EATEN ALIVE, Freddy’s Nightmares, NIGHT TERRORS, THE MANGLER) introduces metal bands while surrounded by pierced strippers, and occasionally coughs up blood or gets a blowjob, but his biggest act is bringing out a zombie to twitch around on stage while being cattle prodded – the titleistical dance, I assume. Peggy struggles to be comfortable with this taboo subculture, but then she notices the zombie is her dead sister!

The story picks up at the end when they try to save her sister, and there’s an interesting plot twist that I didn’t expect, something that shows the judgmental pre-apocalypse traditionalist culture as more cynical and cruel than they let on. But mostly it’s a formless stumble through this world, not enough of its details made coherent, too much of its time wasted with corny shirtless people trying to act scary while electric guitars blare on the score by Billy Corgan. I didn’t regret that it wasn’t feature length.

Hooper’s other Masters of Horror episode was the second season premiere, The Damned Thing. This one was also scripted by Matheson, this time based (sort of) on a story by Ambrose Bierce. Sean Patrick Flanery (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) stars as a small town sheriff haunted by a fucked up childhood tragedy, seen in the opening scene: during a birthday dinner his dad (Brent Stait, DRIVEN TO KILL, HUNT TO KILL) suddenly snapped, killed his mom (Georgia Craig, “Anchorwoman,” DAWN OF THE DEAD reamke) and tried to kill him, but was turned inside out by a mysterious invisible force (a great FX moment). As the sheriff is about to turn the same age his dad was, other people in the town start to have sudden fits of violence, a possible curse.

I found this one much more compelling and visually appealing than Dance of the Dead, other than a bunch of terrible white flash lightning strikes. There are some genuinely disturbing scenes, especially the opening domestic murder and the scene where a guy we’ve never seen before laughingly hammers himself to death on a sunny afternoon. There are a few visual allusions to TEXAS CHAIN SAW, whether conscious or not, such as the look of the house, the opening dinner table scene and the kid (Ryan Drescher) being chased through tall grass at night. There’s a part where the camera lingers on a young woman’s legs, which seemed gratuitous and made me question my celebration of CHAIN SAW’s legendary butt shot. Later the character loses her lower half in a car accident, and I realized that Hooper knew what he was doing the whole time. Hooper should be trusted.

Some of the dialogue seems to be going for kind of a Joe Lansdale quirkiness. I like the jokey and nerdy kid version of the sheriff, who talks about charting his protein intake, though that personality doesn’t seem to carry through to adulthood. I want to like the goofball deputy (Brendan Fletcher, FREDDY VS. JASON, GINGER SNAPS 2, LEPRECHAUN: ORIGINS) and his dream of selling his cartoon character “Mickey the Rat,” but my picky comedy mind disagrees with the execution. I hate the generic style of his drawings, but they’re way too professional. If his art is gonna suck, it should be a funnier type of sucking, a crudeness instead of polished garbage like a guy that draws ads for animation schools in trade magazines. And I wish I could rewrite the line where he says he has to get his drawings to “Steve Jobs at that Pixie company.” In my amateur opinion, that type of “ha ha the redneck thinks that Pixar is called Pixie” is not funny, but if he had just said he had to get it to Steve Jobs, no explanation offered, it would’ve been funny.

I’m also not a fan of the nosy reporter character, who confronts the sheriff with some shameful thing about his family’s past, but not in the manner of an intrepid investigator – he has to be played as just a total asshole getting sadistic joy out of smearing a guy. It’s just a bad cliche and not believable at all. Or at least not to me, although I’m sure this is exactly the non-existent human that the brainwashed Trump cultists picture when they complain about The Media.

I’m not totally sure what’s going on in this story, but it seems to have to do with a literalization of people refusing to face their past sins and demons until they inevitably drip from the ceiling or burst to the surface. For example, the cool CGI oil monster that comes out of the ground and eats our protagonist (spoiler).

This episode is pretty muddled in that lesser-Tobe-Hooper sort of way, but it also has an enjoyable weirdness and a potent sense of creeping doom. I mostly liked it.

These were Hooper’s last TV work, and among his last work period, done around the time of his penultimate feature, MORTUARY (which I remember kinda liking, but I guess I didn’t review it). After this he was quiet for years, until the novel Midnight Movie was published in 2011 and DJINN premiered in 2013. I guess I didn’t necessarily expect more big things from him, but I always took it for granted that he was out there. He was still an interesting voice when he got the chance to speak up.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 30th, 2017 at 1:34 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead / The Damned Thing”

  1. Man, those DVD boxes, with the faces of the director, were awesome! I remember seeing them during my first trip to Canada back in 2006 and became kinda obsessed with them. (Too bad that when the series made it to Germany, they not just used different artworks, several episodes were cut and all in all the show was pretty much a disappointment.)

    That gel, that makes naked stuntpeople burn without hurting them, is awesome shit, btw. I saw that years ago during a broadcast of the Taurus World Stunt awards (do they still exist?). Can’t remember the full context, but they did a bit about a fashion show, which started out normal, with models walking across the stage, but the last few were shirtless dudes who were on fire! My mother and I nearly lost our minds about that. (Note: Burning stuntpersons are my favourite anyway. I can imagine everybody has a favourite stunt. Mine are people, who are set on fire. )

  2. I know this is a Tobe and George Memorial thing but when you at it you should watch the IMPRINT episode which was directed by our beloved crazy, massdirector Takashi Miike. His episode was the only one which was banned by the Showtime executives due subject matter so it never got aired (which is funny cause they wanted to show horror and gore but not in that fucked up disturbing way that Miike delivered in the end).

  3. Grimgrinningchris

    October 30th, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    The band RATT was originally called MICKEY RATT.

  4. I was obsessed with MASTERS OF HORROR when it was airing, as a budding young horror fan it was like catnip to see all these titular Masters given free reign to make an hour long episode.

    While overall the show was inconsistent and some episodes flat out sucked especially when the director’s claim of being a “master of horror” was very dubious (the director of BONES? really?) but when an episode was good it was a ton of fun and I miss the sheer variety of it, you really never knew what was next (especially if like me you avoided much info on the episodes), I miss that excitement of seeing the next episode previews so much, I can’t believe the show has been over for over a decade, I wish the show could have gone on for at least another season or two, I remember some guy on imdb posting “should such and such direct an episode of Masters of Horror?” threads on various director’s message boards as if this was going to be a long lived institution.

    But anyway, on to the two episodes Vern has reviewed, I haven’t seen either their initial premieres (I’ve revisited a handful of MoH episodes over the years, but not all of them) I remember them not being very good, but having aspects that made them interesting enough to save them from being total stinkers.

    The more interesting to me was DANCE OF THE DEAD and it’s depiction of a near future post-apocalyptic America, this was definitely informed by the Bush years, dramatizing what people were fearing where the Bush years might be going, what’s interesting the most about it is how aspects of normalcy remain, namely the diner, while things fall apart around it, that strikes me as more true to life than your usual post apocalyptic genre fare.

    What’s also interesting is the dates, checking Wikipedia the episode is supposed to be set in 2018, while things aren’t as bad as in the episode obviously, at the same time with Trump in the White House maybe they weren’t too far off the mark, it’s just kinda eerie to think we’ll soon be living in the year the episode was set in.

    I don’t remember too much about THE DAMNED THING other than I still remember the quote “Did Mickey Mouse sing? Well Mickey the Rat does!” over a decade later, but I remember getting the impression that the oil monster was literally meant to be a metaphor for oil itself, with the townspeople becoming insane and violent a metaphor for how oil starts wars, 2005/2006 was peak “no blood for oil!” era and a lot of episodes of MoH were informed by the Bush years, with the most blatantly obvious one being Joe Dante’s HOMECOMING of course, but I think both Hooper episodes were also in some way about it.

    There’s also the episode THE WASHINGTONIANS which while obviously ridiculous and silly, is nevertheless kind of fucking chilling if you really think about it.

  5. I haven’t seen THE DAMNED THING (great, very Lansdalian title, though) but TOBE HOOPER’S JUST SEEN TONY SCOTT’S SEGMENT OF THAT BMW ANTHOLOGY was not a good look for an established maestro. His style has always adapted to the times but this time it just seemed so slavish and blatant. He later said that he was very proud of this episode because he had total freedom for the first time since CHAIN SAW, and I can see how it would be a lot of fun as a filmmaker to let loose with all these new techniques, but I think all the finished product proves is that all the showoffy stylistic conceits of the previous decade are actively unhelpful in terms of storytelling, in that they distance the viewer and overwhelm the narrative. I’m glad Hooper got to let his freak flag fly and try out some new tricks but that style was a dead end.

  6. I can honestly say one of the best 1st Seasons episodes for me was The Fair-Haird Child. By a non master of horror. Fear.com.? Terrible. but really cool episode.

  7. Slightly off topic, but SHUDDER started today in Germany. They even have a better-than-expected movie catalogue. I expected lots of Z-grade amateur crap and Asylum productions, but they even have some Mario Bava’s, festival hits, SOCIETY, DUST DEVIL and a few MASTERS OF HORROR episodes (See, not fully off-topic!) among other things. Okay, also some weird misplacements like WINTER’S BONE or THE GUARD (I’m okay with their inclusion UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, since it’s close enough to horror IMO), but I’m positively surprised.

    Haven’t signed up yet, because I’m still a bit burnt out on horror. Its success in Germany will depend on two things: Good movies that you can’t find on Netflix, Amazon and Co (so far they deliver) and uncut version of their movies (Don’t know about that yet, but I expect that if a movie never came out uncut in Germany, it won’t be uncut in Shudder).

  8. That’s funny, I was just talking with Dan Prestwich about Malone, whom I consider “a somewhat underrated C-level Master of Horror” due to movies like SCARED OF THE DARK, CREATURE, and FEAR DOT COM, which I damned with faint praise by calling it “the best entry in the Avid Fart Horror subgenre of the early-to-mid-oughts.”

    Unless THIRTEEN GHOSTS counts. If THIRTEEN GHOSTS counts, then THIRTEEN GHOSTS is the best Avid Fart Horror.

  9. I always considered Malone’s HAUNTED HILL the unofficial 3rd TALES FROM THE CRYPT movie and I’m very fond of its sound design.

  10. I’ve always had a soft spot for Malone’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and his episode of MASTERS OF HORROR was a good one, so I’m ok with calling him a “master of horror”

    By the way, what exactly is an “avid fart”?

  11. You know, I don’t remember a damn thing about it, but Netflix tells me I really liked The Fair-Haired Child. So I guess that thing I don’t remember counts as my favorite Malone project.

  12. Griff: I can’t remember when Vern coined the term, but an “avid fart” is when an editor will insert a few random frames of black and white, some white flashes, closeups, slow motion etc., coupled with some loud noises or metallic screeches, all to try and make the movie seem more stylish and energetic. Like in the SAW movies, for example. Avid make digital video editing software, which has made filling your movie with that kind of crap much easier. It’s not as much of a thing these days, but was all over the place in the mid-2000s.

  13. Oh yeah, I remember that.

  14. Grimgrinningchris

    November 5th, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    So it’s not just a really enthusiastic passing of gas by a real fan of poots?

  15. Grimgrinningchris

    November 5th, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    So it’s not just a really enthusiastic passing of gas by a real fan of poots?

  16. God I loved those Masters of Horror episodes when they came out. I would eagerly pick them up the day they hit DVD, watch it, then watch all the bonus features on the director, giving a really great retrospective of their careers. The special features were extremely well done, and often more interesting than the movie itself.

    If I remember correctly, some of my favorites were John Carpenter’s “Cigarette Burns” and Don Coscerelli’s “Incident on and off a Mountain Road.” It seemed like just about all of them had at least one or two memorable scenes though. The only real stinkers I remember were Mick Garris’s episodes both seasons.

  17. I’m bewildered that a horror TV show would put on a story called Dance of the Dead, all about the extreme lengths people will go to to keep a Dance of the Dead going and how wildly popular it is with everyone who watches it… and the dead are just regular folks who haven’t tanned! Haeckel’s Tale had full-fledged zombies just standing around, checking out some boobies. They couldn’t spring for a little of that exposed rib, robbing flesh action here?

  18. The Damned Thing is a lot better–Hooper using the constraints of the TV format to basically do a movie, only leaving off all the boring parts in favor of constant monster attacks, gore effects, and people going mad. In that context, I even like the ridiculously over-the-top journalist. Why have four scenes of this character progressively becoming more of an asshole when you can have one scene where he’s the worst human being of all time? It’s a beau.

    (All the world-building is essentially done in one montage over the credits–I don’t think there’s any establishing shots after that.)

    Demerits only for the cruddy-sounding stock monster roar that wouldn’t pass muster in even the last season of The X-Files and the lack of a real ending. But, again, it’s in keeping with the all-thriller, no-filler ethos of the story. Do they get away? Nope! Now get the fuck out of here, that was a whole sixty minutes, what more do you want?

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