The Film: 3/5
The prestigious Ettinger Academy, once an exclusively all-male alma mater for some of the nation’s top captains of industry and political dynasties, has finally decided to adopt a more progressive agenda and admit the first female students in the school’s history. Among them is Andrea Miller (Virginia Madsen), who is leaving her small town and jealous jock boyfriend Barry (James Wilder) behind to attend Ettinger on a scholarship. Upon arriving at the school, Andrea befriends her new roommate Suzi (Sherilyn Fenn) and charming campus clown Paul Emerson (Paul Feig - yes, that Paul Feig) and attracts the eye of handsome biology professor Dr. Philo (Richard Cox). She also can’t help but notice the strange behavior exhibited by her peers; these kids definitely ain’t alright, though their elders, including Ettinger’s dean Eisner (Kay E. Kuter) would beg to differ. One by one, Andrea’s new classmates inexplicably vanish, only to return as calm, obedient shells of their former shelves. Something sinister is going on at Ettinger Academy, a dark conspiracy whose key players include men with disturbing secrets of their own, most notably the lordly Eisner and the conflicted Philo.
Oh Zombie High, how many moviegoers and weekend video renters have you infuriated by using your inappropriate title to fool them into thinking they were about to watch a mash-up of Saved by the Bell and Dawn of the Dead, when in fact they were something closer to The Stepford Preppies? I used to come across the film’s VHS box whenever I perused the shelves of my local video store’s horror section, and there were many local video stores in my life. Every one of them had a copy of Zombie High on hand. The cover art, pleasingly replicated for Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack edition, made you expect something dark and horrifying. How many people who rented the tape felt more than a little burned when they were deprived of a full-on academic apocalypse of flesh-ripping ghouls and gallons of stage gore? Regardless of its misleading title, Zombie High is more fun than I had expected.
Director Ron Link was best known for his work in Off-Broadway theater, both as an actor and director. Hey look at that, I began and ended a sentence with the same word! Anyway, I don’t know what convinced Link to make the leap to feature film direction with Zombie High, but the experience must have been something akin to a waking nightmare since he never made a second film. Then again, Zombie High flopped pretty hard at the box office because it was too weak to hold its own against the bigger and better flicks also in release at the time, compelling the distributor to get it onto home video as quickly as possible in order to recoup some of their losses. The video box art did nothing to hide that fact, stamping a red strip with the words “Direct from Theatrical Release” in white lettering above the movie’s logo.
If you’re anything like me, you can’t help but feel a little bad for Zombie High once you watch it. Most films of the time that failed to find an audience in theaters were usually able to do so on home video, and then the cult following would form and they would be able to undergo a critical reevaluation and ultimately persevere as underappreciated classics. I’m not saying that Zombie High is a classic, but it could definitely use a little more appreciation. First-time screenwriters Aziz Ghazal (who also served as a producer), Tim Doyle (currently a television sitcom veteran), and Elizabeth Passarelli borrowed heavily from far better source material – such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives, and the novels they were based on – to craft their “original” screenplay. There is little to be found in Zombie High that you haven’t seen done before and with genuine wit and inspiration, but if you treat it as the sort of high-calorie lunch your actual school forces you to eat in lieu of a healthier option, Link’s sole feature directorial effort might seem rather delicious (but not particularly filling or memorable).
Zombie High isn’t scary or even suspenseful, the primary reason being that the central mystery is essentially resolved far too early in the film for any event that follows to be effective. Link and his writers tip their hand just as we’re still getting to know the characters, such as sullen rebel John Felner (Scott Coffey), a student being forced to attend Ettinger by his senator father (John Sack) who is among the academy’s most prominent graduates. The filmmakers try to create a satirical takedown of the Republican Party and the Moral Majority’s combined efforts to cleanse away the social and political progress of previous decades and put the rich, white ruling elite back on top, but their efforts lose their bite just as they’re getting ready to sink in the fangs. RoboCop did it so much better in the same year.
What we are left with is a charming little genre trifle that never succumbs to a flagging pace and manages to generate a great deal of fun in spite of being absolutely predictable most of the time. The only time the plot progression stops cold is when Link and the writers feel the need to have a character spout pages of exposition on an unsuspecting audience rather than allow us to come to those surprising revelations organically. This was likely due to them not having enough money in the budget to shoot these scenes because they would have required expensive locations and effects, but info dumps will never replace simply showing us as the best storytelling device. At least there were enough finances to give us a ridiculous finale that crams together a car chase (complete with WTF-inducing flaming wreckage), Wilder fleeing a mob of murderous Reaganites on his trusty used motorcycle, and the unforgettable sight of a bunch of old white men recoiling in horror at a black R&B group performing at Ettinger’s annual student social.
Virginia Madsen is way too talented for this sort of movie but she never lets that infect her performance; she’s a terrific heroine with plenty of smarts and sympathy. Also, Madsen’s beauty is eternal. Maybe it is her character’s refreshing lack of stupidity that enables her to figure out what is really going on at Ettinger almost right away, especially since the villains don’t have enough functioning brain cells to avoid discussing their devious plans on the school’s campus early in the evening. Richard Cox (Cruising) probably gets the most-rounded character to play as Philo and he gives a fine performance to give the slightly strange professor some ethical and emotional grounding. The future creator of Freaks & Geeks and Hollywood’s top comedy director, Paul Feig naturally provides Zombie High with what little humor there is to find, some of which appears to have been improvised. Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks) and James Wilder (Melrose Place) get little to do but look pretty and go where the plot requires them to be, but Kay E. Kuter (Guys and Dolls, The Last Starfighter) hams it up with royal panache as the diabolical dean. I wish the aforementioned Coffey (Mulholland Drive) had stuck around long enough for his potentially interesting character Felner to develop into a good protagonist.
R. Christopher Biggs, an alumnus of both the Roger Corman and Charles Band schools of low-budget indie filmmaking, supervises an effects team that whips up a few ghoulishly great make-up gags (including some wonderful aging effects used for one character towards the end), but I could have done without the horrible-looking creatures that chase Madsen around during the busy finale because it looks as if they were created under a tight deadline in a matter of mere minutes. Bob Ivy, who played the title role in Don Coscarelli’s cult classic Bubba Ho-Tep, worked as a stuntman on the production of Zombie High, and Daren Dochterman was employed as an assistant sound editor before going on to serve as a storyboard, conceptual, and visual effects artist on films such as Deep Blue Sea, The Chronicles of Riddick, Tron: Legacy, and the upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Star Trek Beyond. He also supervised the updated visual effects on the 2001 restored director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Zombie High looks better than it ever has on home video thanks to the AVC encoded 1080p high-definition transfer on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release. Framed in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the film was transferred in HD from better-than-average source elements and boasts greatly improved clarity and a vast array of vibrant, saturated colors and an absence of print damage. The meager budget and frequent use of soft focus in the cinematography by Brian Coyne and David Lux (the latter now a storyboard artist for major studio animated features) are most apparent in the picture upgrade, but the grain structure is balanced and kept at an acceptable level. Faring somewhat worse is the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track. Although the serviceable music score by Daniel May (American Ninja 5) and rip-off soundtrack packed with a small army of bland clones of better bands is given room and volume to dominate the mix, that often comes at the expense of the low-pitched dialogue during the first two acts. Things start to balance out as the frenetic finale kicks into gear, but viewers will feel fortunate that an English subtitle option has also been provided.
The only extra feature is a brief trailer (1 minute) that plays up the film’s humor. Scream Factory has also included a DVD copy with a standard-definition transfer presented in anamorphic widescreen.
It may not be able to live up to its promise, but Zombie High remains a fun and diverting blast of late 80’s horror hilarity served up with a lumpy slice of half-baked satire on the side. It’s a movie that doesn’t deserve to go ignored even though it rarely amounts to much, so hopefully the new Scream Factory Blu-ray will help this campy little charmer gain a few loving fans. Some bonus features would have been nice though.