The week I saw Fetish Factory, the new feature from writer/director Staci Layne Wilson, I also rewatched Anna Biller’s The Love Witch and Hillary Clinton lost her chance to be the first female president of the United States. I was very much in the mindset of seeing art through a specific prism of gender politics and sexism, which may have colored my reading of the movie. At the same time, I don’t know if that’s true. This is a movie with gender politics very much on its mind. You don’t make a movie about the male customers of a sex fetish club being turned into bloodthirsty zombies without wanting to say something about the relationship between men and women.
A group of burlesque dancers—including Carrie Keagan, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn (who also produced the film), Tristan Risk, and Jenimay Walker—report for a shift at Fetish Factory, the L.A. club where they work as dancers who specialize in unique (but mostly harmless) fetishes. Things are going well for a while, but then one of the dancers turns up dead and, before they know it, the girls are fighting for their lives as all of the customers transform into ravenous ghouls determined to eat them alive.
Like a cross between George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ The Gore Gore Girls, Fetish Factory is the kind of horror film that puts fun ahead of scares—it’s cheeky but not campy, silly but not stupid, sexy but not erotic. Like its subject matter, it is a fun and decidedly minor tease of a movie, celebrating femininity at a time in history that’s more than a little toxic for women. There are certain developments that contribute to what Wilson has to say about gender politics that cannot be revealed for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say it’s no coincidence that the men are first using women to fulfill their sexual needs before becoming monsters in the night, at which point they literally consume them. These girls exists only to meet the needs of men… whatever those might be.
As with a lot of low-budget horror movies, Fetish Factory feels limited in what it’s trying to do versus what it’s actually able to accomplish. Wilson cleverly works around some of that by building her story around a single location, but even still, the movie has some padding on it. About 30 minutes go by before the horror actually begins, which is nearly half of the movie’s 70-minute runtime. The majority of those scenes involve introducing the girls of the club, having them put on their “fetish” gear, and dance around playfully. All of this is more about dressing a part and committing to a theme, not anything sleazy or kinky; while it has some pointed battle-of-the-sexes commentary, this is generally a sex positive movie that celebrates femininity and female sexuality. These are bombshells playing at the idea that it’s fun to be a bombshell.
Being a fan of the current indie horror scene, it’s fun to spot all of the familiar faces that pop up in Fetish Factory. In addition to Blanc-Biehn and the always-welcome Tristan Risk, there’s Diane Ayala Goldner as the club’s Mistress of Ceremonies, Jesse Merlin, and Ruben Pla as regular customers, and Chase Williamson as a guy connected to one of the girls. There isn’t much depth to any of the characters, who are mostly defined by their costumes and/or fetishes, with the exception of Keagan, an obsessive horror fan who gets to spout quotes and references (Wilson, a horror producer, writer, and journalist for many years, is putting her knowledge to good use). But with such a brisk runtime, Fetish Factory barely has time for character development. That’s where casting familiar faces comes in handy, acting as a type of visual economy to make the characters distinct without having to really write them that way.
With movies like Zombie Strippers, Strippers vs. Zombies, and Zombies vs. Strippers all released in the last decade, there is no shortage of horror comedies that combine exotic dancing with the undead. But those movies all have an element of exploitative sleaze to them. They are borne out of a place of irony—a kind of “bad on purpose” mentality that uses zombies because they are popular and strippers because it’s an easy and obvious way to showcase a lot of naked flesh. Fetish Factory is nothing like that. Both the female characters onscreen and writer/director Staci Layne Wilson are in control of the women’s sexuality. It doesn’t exist purely for the benefit of men, and therein lies the problem—metaphorically speaking, it’s what turns them into literal zombies. It’s all rather slight, sure, but the film is poppy and fun and refuses to take itself too seriously. At a time when the biggest zombie stories in pop culture are synonymous with being grim and humorless, there’s nothing wrong with a couple of corsets and some laughs.
Movie Score: 3/5