Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Zombie High

(R, Cinema Group, 93 mins., theatrical release date: October 2, 1987)

No, Virginia...just no! Bad Virginia Madsen!!

Oh, I can't be too hard on you, sweetie. Hell, I'd be in the fetal position, too, if my rising star led to this.

Zombie High features no zombies, nor is it set in a high school. We had Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a Teen Wolf (Too), even a Monster High by the end of the 1980s, but whatever huckster who threw the darts landing at those two words clearly didn't watch the same film as I did. When plucky heroine Andrea (the staggeringly overqualified Virginia f---ing Madsen) uncovers the occultist malfeasances of her shady boarding school, she even explicitly calls them vampires. This is an October 1987 release, keep in mind...was there a sort of foolish pride which kept the producers from wanting to be associated with the likes of The Lost Boys and Near Dark?

That blatant misnomer of a movie sets the tone for Zombie High, which unspools like a generic facsimile of a factory-tooled B-movie (Charles Band isn't even gone, but consider this a token to his eventual grave-rolling) and is every bit as dead in the head as the pod people preppies spewed out from the hallowed halls of Ettinger Academy.

I've got it...Brainwash Academy! Not only is that a more apt title, but it works as a nice pun, as well, you know, B.A. Oh, this is going to be a pain.

The combined forces of Madsen, soft core siren Sherilyn Fenn (nothing to see here, boys) and Paul Feig, the future creator of Freaks and Geeks and the director of Bridesmaids, cannot conceal the student film-caliber pedigree behind the scenes. The film even credits as co-writer and co-producer one Aziz Ghazal, a notoriously irritable USC film school equipment manager who bungled a major motion picture deal with both Oliver Stone and Jodie Foster, eventually murdering both his ex-wife and daughter before taking his own life after a manhunt was formed. Zombie High resembles a hurried class project (note the certain allergy to close-up shots) more than a passionate, D.I.Y. magnum opus on the level of The Evil Dead or even The Deadly Spawn.

Madsen's Andrea is one of the several new lady freshmen studying at Ettinger Academy, formerly exclusive to males, and her annoying jock boyfriend Barry (James Wilder) frets over the prospect that she'll become just another pencil-necked geek (Chill, bro, you aren't dropping her off at Adams College!). She is committed to her studies, though, rooming with a boy-crazy ditz named Suzi (Fenn) and befriending lanky quipster Emerson (Feig). Their biology teacher, Dr. Philo (Richard Cox), becomes the most enamored with Andrea, inviting her to a meet-cute at his apartment residency (nice pin screen!), but he gets nowhere with her. Tough luck, but he can always leer at her as she goes swimming.

Andrea's new classmates, also including an unruly senator's son named Felner ('80s geek magnate Scott Coffey), start exhibiting wild swings in personality. This sets her on the path of breaking into the campus infirmary and uncovering the shocking truth, one which her possessive boyfriend warned her about from day one. The faculty, led by Dean Eisner (Kay E. Kuter), have been surgically harvesting their students' brain tissue for a serum of immortality, with the not-so-secretive Philo implanting a crystal which allows for the kids to continue living, learning and leading productive lives.

Gonna get their Ph.D.s, they're all Teenage Lobotomies!

The script itself seems eager to devolve into a go-for-broke Troma movie (oh, how I wish, for then we'd get some real cheap but blessed thrills), but one flick wonder Ron Link hasn't the disreputable heart for the material. Whenever a scene threatens to become satirical, like the school social where the students clod and waltz to the vamping sounds of a bad Ready For the World cover band, the equally lock-step filmmaking and easily-distracted editing stifles the hilarity. The only consistently funny element to the film is Paul Feig's performance of hapless joker Emerson, a supposedly straight man who is played like a coded gay character out of 1950s cinema.

Virginia Madsen, meanwhile...My heart always breaks whenever I watch intuitive, intelligent actors forced to sell dumb material. The same feeling occurred when I saw Rosario Dawson in Eagle Eye, for the record. And Madsen, who would give a career-best performance in Candyman prior to her Oscar nod for Sideways, is constantly left stranded. When Andrea demolishes the wine cellar wherein the death-defying elite keep their precious serum, the choreography is slapdash and Madsen resorts to blatant Sarah Connor-isms in the dialogue. In fact, a lot of her line deliveries seem to land with a wet flop, especially the aforementioned revelation scene ("You can't replace human emotions with a crystal!").

A lot about Zombie High feels oppressively fourth-rate, from the leaden campiness to the many stalking set pieces (the kids all look like they might graduate to work for Silver Shamrock, if anything) to the plot contrivances involving Muzak and eerily skeptical cops. Even the requisite car accident is treated with workaday indifference. The soundtrack doesn't help things, either, with random songs (all from the same three hired gun composers) that try to sound like Journey, Timbuk 3 or B-boy rap/rock. The movie's closing tune, "Kiss My Butt," (see, there's your truth in advertising the title fails to honor!) is a bald rip-off of Anthrax ("I’m the Man") and The Beastie Boys ("Fight for Your Right") with lyrics that are both asinine and non-ironic. And it drags at the end just as interminably as Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda."

Zombie High has a clever premise, one which prefigures 1998’s Disturbing Behavior (which would have at least been halfway right if it were named "Zombie High"), but it's handled in such a trite, dopey manner that I would just as soon get a crystal in my skull and lurch onto the next Netflix watch. On a side note, I will point out that the bogus romantic entanglement between Andrea and the 102-year-old Dr. Philo, so creepily infatuated that he jeopardizes the Dean's Brotherhood of Eternal Knowledge ("What are you going to do? Cut off my serum dosage? You would, wouldn't you?"), makes Stephanie Meyer look like Shakespeare by comparison.

Your homework: Watch Class of 1999, instead. I couldn't find the trailer for Zombie High, anyway.

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