The slapstick zombie has been the default setting of the horror/comedy since George Romero started stacking them up on elevators and walking them into each other in 1978’s Dawn Of The Dead, and with good reason – the rules of the genre are easy to understand, and by extension even easier to subvert.
The problem is, this sort of thing went mainstream with Edgar Wright’s Shaun Of The Dead – which kicked off its own wave of imitators – and now the status of horror within popular culture has grown sophisticated enough to turn the many-layered reference-tombola that was Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods, Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland and even family-friendly animation ParaNorman into box-office gold.
2012’s Detention Of The Dead, based on the cult stage-play of the same name, clearly has its sights set on a similarly wider audience with its tale of a mismatched group of teens under siege from the living dead. It eagerly courts comparisons to The Breakfast Club, comes riddled with loud and annoying music, and that it shores the cast up with Twilight‘s Justin Chon and Glee’s Max Adler suggests there’s a keen eye toward a certain demographic.
Inviting unflattering comparisons to everything from 1999’s fiercely inventive Idle Hands, 1998’s sharp and slick The Faculty, 2011’s provocative Detention and 2008’s perfectly pitched Dance Of The Dead, Detention Of The Dead‘s dated reference points – standard high school archetypes from the weed-puffing waster to the cheerleader – and focus on slapstick set-piece comedy can’t help but feel cloven hoofed and medicated, hobbling gracelessly around the same teenage high school horror circle.
While Chon is hugely entertaining as Ash, tormenting the severed zombie head of their teacher, he also presides over one of the film’s two low-leights, a scene in which he cartoonishly breaks out a doobie in the besieged library and after a token drug debate, everyone gets the giggles and starts touching each other. It’s a scene that isn’t alone in suggesting that what Detention Of The Dead got about high school life it took from other high school movies.
The library is also home to the second nadir for a movie with only one real high (Justin Chon, we love you), in which clearly-handsome-actor-in-glasses-masquerading-as-a-nerd Eddie (Jacob Zachar) realises his dream of making out with hot-yet-secretly-insecure cheerleader Janet (Revenge‘s Christa B Allen), and she takes her top off and guides the quivering dork’s hand to her boob – presumably while his glasses steam up. This vignette moves from dull, clumsy cliché to morally suspect when survivors (spoiler alert) Eddie and ‘scary goth’ Willow (Red State and The Walking Dead Season 3’s Alexa Nikolas) embrace while the music swells, simply because that’s what people do in these movies at this particular time, regardless of the boob he grabbed earlier.
While it crashes hard as a teen movie, it has a ‘controlled landing’ as a horror comedy. It’s shot like a horror comedy, all wide angles of corridors as they sneak past zombies and ambush shots panning into the undead standing just behind them as they turn round, and plays comedy music, but often there’s nothing funny going on in the slightest. It’s almost as if someone’s reading a shopping list aloud, but with the delivery of a Christmas cracker gag, so you grin along weakly in anticipation but your brain refuses to let you laugh.
The cast have an appreciate for comic timing – Chon, it goes without saying, especially – and they’re not entirely without charm, with Janet and slightly deluded alpha-male Brad (Jayson Blair) becoming increasingly easy to warm to in the way that the more obvious POV characters of Eddie and Willow absolutely don’t.
Sadly, there’s not enough for them to do apart from scream, run and deliver laboured post-Scream/Whedon witticisms (“It looks like Rob Zombie raped the entire cast of Gossip Girl and this is their angry love child”) that frantically throw as many references as they can into the camera in the hope that one of them turns out to be a punchline.
And that’s Detention Of The Dead‘s real problem in a nutshell: it’s two decades too late in almost every respect, and despite the frequently lampshaded links to The Breakfast Club, it’s simply not clever enough to be a parody or stylish enough to be a homage.