Here we are: the first Masters of Horror episode from my favorite filmmaker of all time: the late, great Tobe Hooper.
Season 1, Episode 3: “Dance of the Dead”
Director: Tobe Hooper
Original Air Date: November 11th, 2005
One of the coolest things about the Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror is that, in addition to codifying who many of the genre “masters” were (though it didn’t cover all of them; there were no episodes directed by Wes Craven or George Romero or David Cronenberg or a handful of other greats), the series gave opportunities to filmmakers that had fallen somewhat out of the pop culture consciousness to remind fans that they still had it—they just had to be given the chance. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the case of Tobe Hooper, who was something of a punching bag in the horror genre when his season 1 episode aired. His last theatrical effort, The Mangler, had been released 10 years prior to nonexistent box office results and a scathing critical response; his follow-up, the 2000 direct-to-DVD movie Crocodile, had made the great director something of a laughingstock. Sure, Toolbox Murders was a return to form, but it was initially dismissed as a case of Hooper slumming with a remake, one that hadn’t yet found its audience, having been released just one year prior in 2004. No other director “needed” Masters of Horror as much as Tobe Hooper.
Though it’s the lesser of Hooper’s two Masters of Horror episodes (he directed “The Damned Thing” in season 2), there’s a lot to like in “Dance of the Dead.” It’s bleak and nasty in a way that only a Tobe Hooper movie can be. The screenplay comes from Richard Christian Matheson, adapted from a short story by his father, the legendary Richard Matheson. It reunites the director with Robert Englund, who had been a favorite collaborator of Hooper’s dating all the way back to 1977’s Eaten Alive. Perhaps the most notable aspect of “Dance of the Dead” is that it boasts a score by Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, a fact that I feel like wasn’t talked about much in 2005 and is never mentioned now. This is an episode with an impressive pedigree.
Jessica Lowndes stars as Peggy, a teenage waitress in a small town living in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event—a chemical weapon attack of something called “Blizz” that kicked off WWIII—that claimed the lives of many residents while she and her family watched from inside their house. Years after the attack and the deaths of both her father and her sister, she falls in with a trio of delinquents and drug addicts who supply blood to a heavy metal club called The Doom Room, owned and emceed by Robert Englund. The club specializes in a special type of performance in which drug addicts who are more or less dead are reanimated by the blood packets to “dance” on stage or be shocked with cattle prods. Some people have a strange idea of entertainment.
While not especially representative of Tobe Hooper stylistically—more on that in a bit—there are so many of the director’s pet themes and obsessions present in “Dance of the Dead” that it’s immediately identifiable as his work. The film is characteristically bleak and nihilistic—leave it to Tobe Hooper to open with the apocalypse and only get worse from there. Like a lot of his work, it deals with the dismantling of a particular kind of family and the construction of another; think of his Texas Chainsaw movies or the way films like Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars (1986), and Mortuary all address the idea of assimilation, creating a “family” of like-minded beings by tearing down the traditional family. In the case of “Dance of the Dead,” it's the teenage waitress played by Lowndes whose family goes to pieces in the aftermath of Blizz and WWIII and who makes a surrogate family with a group of punks. The meaning of “family” is quite central to the film, though elaborating on precisely why would require spoiling certain elements of the episode that should go unspoiled.
What is the Tobe Hooperiest element of “Dance of the Dead,” however, is its use of what Stephen King once identified as “The Bad Place.” In his book Danse Macabre, King identifies the “tarots” of the horror genre: The Vampire, The Werewolf, The Thing, The Ghost, and The Bad Place. While many of Hooper's films have mixed and matched King’s tarots, the one he returns to more than any other is The Bad Place: it’s the house in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the motel in Eaten Alive, the funhouse in The Funhouse, the underground caves in Invaders from Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, the apartment building/basement in Toolbox Murders, etc. Here it’s The Doom Room, the nightclub that serves as the epicenter not just for the town’s illegal and immoral goings-on, but also the secret that will throw Peggy’s entire life into chaos and disillusion. It may not be the only place bad things happen, but it’s a place where only bad things happen.
But where “Dance of the Dead” departs from the rest of Hooper’s work—and the choice that almost derails the whole movie—is in its aesthetic. In an attempt to create a sort of “nightmare-scape” (his words), Hooper, cinematographer Jon Joffin, and editor Andrew Cohen employ a very specific stylistic technique that was big for a short period in the early 2000s thanks to stuff like Saw and Tony Scott’s Man on Fire. It’s something that the film writer known as Outlaw Vern coined as “Avid farts,” which uses all kinds of fast editing and zooms and stutters and flashes to create a sort of visual chaos that’s meant to be extreeeeeeme, but which is really just irritating. (I consulted Horror Movie a Day author, professional editor, and horror journalist Brian Collins for a better explanation of Avid farts: “Basically, the Avid dazzles you with all these tools and people use them even though they don't know how, so you get these horrendous cuts, sometimes with unnecessary color filters or speeding up/slowing down the footage for no discernible reason, making everything look tacky as f--k.”) The technique is overused to a point that “Dance of the Dead” threatens to become unwatchable, and while I understand the aesthetic that Hooper is trying to create, it feels like him chasing a trend rather than forging his own path as he had always done.
I remember not being crazy about “Dance of the Dead” when I first saw it over a decade ago. Now that I’ve seen it a number of times—because it’s Tobe Hooper, I’ve watched it more than almost any other episode—I’ve come to appreciate just how dark and nasty it is and how it fits within TH’s overall filmography. I don’t think I can ever come to terms with the stylization because it’s so aggressive and so irritating, but once I look past that, I can see what is a distinct and unmistakably personal entry from a great filmmaker gone too soon. I miss you, Tobe.
“Dance of the Dead” Score: 3/5
Next time: One of the greatest horror filmmakers of all time directs an episode written by the guy from Wings!
Editor's Note: To read all installments of this series, check out our Masters of Horror Rewatch hub!