The dead have risen...
and they're voting Republican!*
Our initial hope upon seeing the title of this film was for a movie featuring mind-altering chemicals and reanimated corpses. You know, kind of a Dazed and Confused meets Night of the Living Dead sorta thing. That might have been funny, especially since stoners and zombies are both desperately in need of the same thing: brains. We would call such a movie The Grateful Undead. Instead, we ended up with boarding-school brats threatened with experimental brain surgery that converts them into Young Republicans. Think of it as Undead Poets Society.
When Andrea (a 24 year-old Virgina Madsen) arrives at Ettinger High on an unexpected scholarship, her initial thoughts are of schoolwork, roommates (including super-hottie Sherilyn Fenn), and her boyfriend Barry, who still attends public school a lengthy drive away. Soon though, she becomes concerned about the doings of the faculty. It seems that normal, fun-loving American kids are turning into cold, success-oriented robots, which usually doesn't happen until their early thirties. Andrea soon gets wind that a medical operation is involved in this process, and is horrified when one of her friends dies on the operating table.
Virginia Madsen in a rare role where
she doesn't take her clothes off.
So what's a girl to do? Why, start a romantic relationship with her history teacher, of course! The teacher, Dr. Philo (vaunted tv and film actor Richard Cox), whose on-campus apartment resembles a leftover set from Miami Vice, begins to court Andrea despite their age difference. Andrea finds herself attracted to the older man, especially after he introduces her to the mysteries of the pin screen -- a sure sign that this film was made in the late 1980s. She realizes, however, that Philo is part of the sinister plot to deprive the Ettinger students of a crucial part of their brains so that the faculty might live forever. And in an amazing coincidence it just happens that after the school's surgeons remove that vital bit of brain they can replace it with a crystal which allows the school faculty to control the newly zombified students via radio waves. To paraphrase one of the policemen in the film, it's the craziest damn thing we ever heard. Will Andrea escape the clutches of Philo and the evil Dr. Eisner? Or will she be subjected to the operation and thus buy a minivan and begin reading Women's Day years before her time?
"But my HMO doesn't
About a half-hour into Zombie High, we realized two things. First, this movie hates closeups. Dozens of can scenes go by without a single camera angle nearer than a medium-close shot. This makes it difficult to get a good look at Virginia or any of her friends, which would facilitate the process of telling one from the other. Sherilyn Fenn had been on screen for five minutes before Chris realized it was her, and that's really saying something.
The other thing we realized is that the screenwriters watched a lot of other, better movies and tv shows while they were writing the script for Zombie High. Not only do they rip off a Woody Allen joke in the first twenty minutes, but later scenes put us in mind of Coma, The Stepford Wives, The Dukes of Hazzard, and The Streets of San Francisco, just to name the ones we wrote down in our notes. The plot was also suspiciously like that of the second Night Stalker movie, The Night Strangler. Zombie High features people from the Civil War era gaining functional immortality by consuming brain chemicals, which is pretty much the plot of the Night Strangler, and in both films the protagonists discover what's going on by stumbling upon a painting. It's one thing to steal a premise, but individual plot elements?
Just as we were prepared to suffer meaninglessly for another 40 minutes or so, the strangest thing happened to Zombie High. It became mildly funny. Almost as if the filmmakers sensed the true movie badness for which they were headed, they decided to go for self-parody after an hour of deadly-serious screen time. Scenes like the school dance, in which the zombie kids all boogie in step, actually relieved the sheer boredom that had plagued the beginning of the movie. But hey, let's not kid ourselves. We still gave the movie just one lava lamp.