The living dead launching out of their graves, zombie frogs getting revenge on the science teacher, and one epic cover of Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night"—these are only a few of the countless elements I love about Dance of the Dead, a midnight movie masterpiece that pits a diverse group of high schoolers and their surly gym teacher against a horde of the living dead at the prom. Directed by Gregg Bishop and written by Joe Ballarini, Dance of the Dead celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2018, and while speaking with him about his new book earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of also talking with Ballarini about writing Dance of the Dead and how the cult zombie movie changed from its initial conception to its final version on the big screen.
I understand that you originally wrote Dance of the Dead in the 1990s, a decade that, other than a few films like Return of the Living Dead 3, did not feature too many people making zombie movies.
Joe Ballarini: No, no one was. This is '97 we're talking about, too. I'm in college at this point. Rod, George, and Steve—the sci-fi guys from the film—are based on the guys I used to hang out with my freshman year in college, who I'm still great friends with. Basically, watching those guys, they're such big cinema geeks. They would rent VHS tapes of Dawn of the Dead. And this is back when there was no remake on the horizon. Zombies weren't cool, horror wasn't that cool in a way.
And then I read a book by Denis Johnson called Already Dead, and he had a line in it that said, "And we listened faintly to the dance of the dead." I was on some Christmas vacation or something like that. And so I highlighted that phrase, "dance of the dead," I just thought that was such a great phrase. And then, for some reason, I was like, "Oh my God, it's a dance. It's a prom, but a zombie invasion." That's what I want to see. And here's the zombies that I want to see. I want them to be fast and fly from the ground like a cannon ball. I wouldn't do these slow, lumbering zombies.
Oh, and by the way, Return of the Living Dead: stunning movie. That's one of the best. And it still is one of my favorites. It is so good, with the tar zombie and the punk rockers. Nash Rambler [played by Blair Redford] was definitely influenced by that punk rock group. We're always talking about Dance of the Dead 2 and 3, and it would be Nash Rambler and the apocalypse. We actually wrote out a trilogy for Dance of the Dead, almost like a saga. It gets ridiculous, there's a nuclear armageddon in the third one. We go Mad Max in the third one—some crazy shit. Coach Keel was going to have a tank. It was fun to write that.
Oh wow, that sounds awesome.
Joe Ballarini: There was a whole sequence with these 12-year-old kids that they meet up with called "the sewer rats." The survivors go down into the sewers and they meet up with these 12-year-olds. And I feel like I've tried to write this in so many scripts, but it's basically just a pack of young guys and girls on BMXs. And they'd ride the BMXs as zombies are chasing after them. It was basically a version of that scene from The Blob, the '88 one with Kevin Dillon. And so they were like, "Let's go!" And they were shooting bottle rockets back at the zombies.
When you were making Dance of the Dead, were there any characters or scenes that were written on the page that didn't make it to the screen?
Joe Ballarini: Gradually, as we made the movie, we had to cut so much stuff. There was a main character in that movie called Lidia. I cut 30 pages out of that script the week before we shot it because we lost [the actress who was going to play] Lydia. That sequence in the beginning of the film was originally this girl named Lidia, going to detention with three friends and being like, "Mr. Hammond is so weird." They go into the bio room and she forgets her book. She runs back, gets her book to sit with her friends, and Mr. Hammond has slaughtered them all in the name of the devil. And she's like, "Oh my God, Mr. Hammond?" And there was a Necronomicon and he was using their blood to call up the dead, or something like that. And so then she runs out. And as she runs out, Mr. Hammond just gets blasted by 10 police officers and dies.
And then, it's like one year later, and Lidia, who was a cheerleader, is now this dark goth girl. And she somehow comes across the Necronomicon again. Thank God that girl dropped out, because it was really ridiculous. It was a great lesson in writing, actually.
The reason Dance of the Dead is a good movie and people still dig it is because it's human. The characters are teenagers. It's not about some weird, satanic book. It's about the kids.
So you just replaced the Necronomicon with the toxic sludge and you were good to go?
Joe Ballarini: Yeah. Basically, when I found out that we lost the actress who played Lidia, we had a week or two to go before shooting. We got the money and I just said, "Man, I need a six-pack of Red Bull and a pack of cigarettes. And we're gonna crack this thing right now." And I think I went to sleep and I woke up and was like, "It's Jimmy and Lindsey. Those are the main characters. They are the ones who suffer the most. It's about the two of them saving each other's lives. I can write this in three days." And it was crazy. But they were already in the story, so I just turned the volume up on them more.
That's what I love about that movie, too, is that all of those actors wanted to do really, really well. Everyone's still working, too. Look at Blair Redford: he's the star of the new Marvel show The Gifted. And Lucas Till is on MacGyver and he always kind of was MacGyver. I don't think he ever wasn't McGyver, that kid. He's awesome. All of those guys and girls are doing really well.
You mention on the audio commentary for Dance of the Dead that you'd seen a music video where people were just kind of swaying like zombies in the audience, and it reminded you of zombies watching a band, which influenced how music can control the minds of the living dead in your film.
Joe Ballarini: Yeah, that was definitely from living in Echo Park and going to Spaceland and live music in Los Angeles. A lot of times it was just from me standing in a crowd and being like, "No one is dancing to this music. Everyone sort of just crosses their arms and purses their lips like, 'Entertain us.'" They were all a little too cool for it, and I just thought it was funny.
Had you always intended to use the cover of Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night" for the prom sequence? Did you go through other songs before deciding on that one?
Joe Ballarini: We went through a lot of those. Peymon Maskan—who has gone on to do great things and is the Music Director at Media Arts Lab for all the iPhone and Mac spots—he was like, "Dude, "Shadows of the Night." That's what's up. We can get that for this." And then we had a few people cover it, but it was too thrashy. So we were like, "All right, let's just call Paul [Layton]," and he just knocked it out of the park. He crushed it.
Check here to read part one of my interview with Ballarini, in which he talks about his new book A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting.