Friday, May 11, 2012
While its title suggests a cheesy Grade-Z horror film, Zombie High (1987) is in reality an extremely smart and savvy look at the disturbing conservative-streak that swept through much of America's youth in the Reagan-ruled eighties. Featuring a wonderful cast, including the always dazzling Virgina Madsen and a pre-Twin Peeks Sherilyn Fenn, Zombie High is one of most surprisingly topical and resonate horror-satires from the eighties in existence and has always been deserving of a much larger audience.
Young Middle-class liberal Andrea has been given the seemingly golden-opportunity of being one of the first female attendees at a posh up-state boarding school, Ettinger Academy, previously only filled by upper-class males. Andrea's initial excitement turns more and more to dread when she begins to notice a robotic conformity sweeping over her fellow students, including the once free-thinking and free-wheeling friends she had made upon her arrival.
Zombie High was the first, and final, film from Ron Link, an artist who worked for most of his life in the theater. The late Link (who passed away in 1999) was in his mid-forties when he shot his low-budget, but ambitious, film, which has much more in common with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives rather than Night of the Living Dead or Zombie. Link's direction is hampered by his budgetary limitations but Zombie High still stands as an impressive first-feature and it's a shame he didn't direct for film again.
Zombie High was the brainchild of troubled USC film school graduate Aziz Ghazal, an aspiring filmmaker who committed suicide in 1993 after murdering his wife and daughter. Ghazal wrote the savvy script for Zombie High while he was a student at USC and would end up producing the film along with several others including Elliot Kastner. Even though Ghazal's life ended with a horrific tragedy, his script (which featured some additional pre-production input from television writer Tim Doyle and relative novice Elizabeth Passarelli) has a real spark to it and shows him as a talented man with a real flair for topical humor and clever dialogue.
While it is so incredibly clear today that Virginia Madsen was one of the great American actors to come out of the eighties, when she shot Zombie High she still had almost two decades to go before her skills were properly recognized (via a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Sideways). It was mostly Madsen's stunning looks that were focused on in 1987, but she was always much more than a pretty face with a luscious figure and she actually gives one of her best performances as the young liberal looking to keep her spirit and sanity in Zombie High. Her work as Andrea is incredibly strong and stands among the best genre performances of the period and is certainly the equal to her more popular performance in Bernard Rose' Candyman about five years down the road.
The entire cast of Zombie High is quite notable with special mention going to the equally charming and creepy Richard Cox (who had been so memorable in Friedkin's Cruising earlier in the eighties) and, of course, young Sherilyn Fenn (sporting a huge eighties hair-style) seen here a year before he break-out role in Zalman King's Two Moon Junction. Fenn is granted some of the film's wittiest dialogue and it's clear that really special things are just around the corner for her.
Zombie High is far from a perfect production but most of the problem's on hand can be correlated back to ambition exceeding its budget. The film's final act, which features a few too many chase sequences, doesn't measure up to the sly first-hour and the film's soundtrack by Daniel May dates it much more than the clothes or Fenn's enormous hair. Regardless of its shortcomings, there is a lot to love about Zombie High and anyone who felt disheartened by the creepy conservatism that affected so many youths in the mid-to-late eighties will probably feel more than a little affinity with the film.
Zombie High has a had a troubled release history to say the least. Very briefly released in a few theaters in 1987, where it would gross less than $25,000 the film would appear on VHS in 1988 where it would gather dust on the shelves of many mom and pop stores for years after. Never released on disc Zombie High is now available thankfully for rediscovery streaming on Netflix. I must admit, despite the fact that Virginia Madsen is one of my favorite actors, I only recently saw the film for the first time due to my mistaken belief that it was just going to be a schlocky cheese-fest. The title Zombie High might have been the film's undoing as it's misleading on a number of levels. Title be damned though, Zombie High is a really perceptive film and still stands as a great message for young people to embrace individuality and open mindedness, and to not become just another one of America's conservative douche bags whose only motivating factor is the almighty dollar.