Talk about a misleading title. You would be forgiven for thinking this movie, based solely on the name, is a comedic tribute to the works of George A. Romero. (I mean, the living dead as high school students? How could it miss?)
That’s not what you actually get.
18-year-old Andrea (a very young Virginia Madsen) receives a scholarship to attend an Ivy League-type secondary institution in her senior year. Her jock boyfriend Barry (James Wilder) is right to be concerned. He’s done some digging into the school’s history and has discovered that it was founded by some maniac who was kicked out of the military for brutalizing First Nations people.
That’s not the full story, of course. But just that little troubling nugget of information alone is unable to convince the very blonde Andrea that maybe it was a big mistake to switch schools. Also not bothering her, at least at first, is that one of her teachers (Richard Cox) wants to bed her. In an early scene, he holds up a framed photo of himself with a woman who looks exactly like her. Shades of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This greatly alarms the ancient Dean Eisner (the late Kay E. Kuter who converted George Costanza to the Latvian Orthodox religion on Seinfeld) and with good reason. You see, the faculty at this high-falutin’ academy are keeping a big secret, one that requires employing a huge suspension of disbelief. When that big secret is inevitably revealed it makes no sense. More on that in a moment.
The constantly smiling Andrea becomes friends with the obnoxious Emerson (Bridesmaids director Paul Feig in his first movie), an annoying classmate who hits on the few women invited to attend this traditionally rich white guy-only institution including Andrea herself. She’s the only one endlessly amused by his hack material. Even the boy-obsessed Suzi (the underappreciated Sherilyn Fenn), one of Andrea’s roommates, is repulsed by him. And she’s not smart, either. (She thinks it’s PSM, not PMS!)
Another classmate, the grumpily rebellious, spiky-haired Felner (Scott Coffey) resents his father so much for sending him here, the latest high school he’s been transferred to, that he gives everybody a hard time including Andrea who thinks he just needs Latin tutoring. He eventually softens towards her after explaining that he’s not stupid (he knows how to translate), he just refuses to be a “fascist” like dear old dad. (He graduated from this particular academy.)
At one point, after apologizing to Andrea and thanking her for her kindness, Felner decides to bolt. But not that long afterward, he’s back in class, now a docile, highly obedient student. That’s weird. Even weirder is what happens to Emerson. One minute, he’s being completely unfunny as usual, the next, the Dean announces to the entire school that he’s dead.
What’s going on here?
The answer lies in the school’s infirmary. Finally realizing that something untoward is happening right on campus, Andrea sneaks in one night (couldn’t they afford decent security?) and finds Emerson’s body. She finds a whole lot more in the basement. Let’s just say she owes Barry a big-ass apology.
Zombie High was released in 1987 to little fanfare. This isn’t surprising. It’s one of the dullest horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s so low energy you think Jeb Bush directed it.
It’s also a lazy comedy with no laughs. There is zero attempt to make a satirical point about Ivy League schools. (A campus statue wearing a tie isn’t cutting it.) God knows there’s plenty of material in real life to draw from.
Angela is a middle class student entering an institution populated with the Jaguar set. (In contrast, her boyfriend drives a shittymobile that overheats.) We’re talking stiff rich kids with gold watches and fancy suits who devour The Wall Street Journal every day and dance like wooden robots to any kind of music. They all look and sound the same. Anyone with an actual personality like Angela’s roommate Suzi will eventually lose it not because of peer pressure but because of a ridiculous medical procedure.
As it turns out, the faculty of this supposedly revered centre of learning need the students to stay alive. The way they accomplish this is so ridiculous it’s no wonder they want it kept secret. Which leads me to an unanswered question. If the only reason for this school to exist is to prolong your life, why would you want to prolong your life? It’s not a good trade-off.
The Dean makes a speech early on claiming that a number of graduates have gone on to great prominence including one who became President of the United States. But if the goal is to live forever without ever fearing death, why would you let one of your lobotomized students achieve power through your dumb procedure? Why wouldn’t you want to become President? Or at the very least, pull the strings in secret, which doesn’t appear to be happening.
To keep the student drones in line, The Dean keeps a running loop of a violin and a piano playing constantly throughout the school. (It sounds like something out of Ken Burns’ Civil War.) When Philo, the teacher that wants Andrea, suddenly decides he’s had enough of The Dean’s shenanigans and gives up on pursuing his confused student (who for a while can’t determine whether she’s attracted to him or not), he tells her to find a replacement tape he’s hidden. Once it starts playing, the students will revert back to their former selves.
We never do find out what’s on that tape because Andrea loses it after being nabbed by The Dean. Chances are, based on what happens in the film’s final scene it probably doesn’t feature bad 80s rock and roll. (To be fair, I did like the first track during the opening titles.)
I’ve never seen a film so hesitant in its execution. There is no serious attempt to be terrifying. There is absolutely no confidence in the comedy. Actors are selling jokes that land with the impact of a Nerf ball. You have to feel for Sherilyn Fenn and Virginia Madsen, two charismatic cuties saddled with dumb characters to play. They somehow manage not to embarrass themselves but imagine what they could’ve done with smarter material.
In the end, Zombie High feels like a blown opportunity. There are no flesh-eating monsters patrolling this stupid campus at a sluggish pace, just a bunch of boring characters stuck in a dead-end story.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, June 27, 2016