Masters of Horror is an anthology horror series from 2005. Showtime gave famous, influential, and emerging horror directors a budget to produce their own original one hour horror film. Each episode is a wildly different experience as the directors selected from the series did not hold back. What kind of film would you create if you were told anything goes and you’re not responsible for turning a profit?
Dance of the Dead is the third episode of Masters of Horror. Tobe Hooper directs one of the strangest stories in the entire series. There’s a lot to unpack. Hooper rarely got to work with a large budget and he pulls out his best low budget filmmaking techniques to explore every style, tone, and gag he wants to in this episode.
America is in shambles after the decimation of WWIII. A chemical weapon called Blizz was dropped from the sky, rotting the flesh of anyone who came in contact straight to the bone. Peggy works with her mother in a diner that only wants to cater to the right kind of clientele. Neither one has gotten over the tragic loss of their father and sister to the war and the fallout. Meanwhile, in the abandoned city of Muskeet, an underground society of illegal activity rules the world. These bikers ride into town, disturbing the peace and robbing people of their blood. They sell the goods to The MC. The MC controls the night life, promising a show unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
There is a lot of plot going on for an hour long film. Dance of the Dead jumps between its different storylines until it finally reveals the nature of the titular act. It’s not a bad approach, especially with a director like Hooper at the helm. He gets to lead these twisted little vignettes of unhappy people surviving under the harsh terrain of a lost country fighting to feel anything.
Tobe Hooper is a natural fit for Masters of Horror. He has one of the clearest styles in all of horror cinema. He made a name for himself in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a career-long calling card of excess and the power of the mind to fill in the blanks. Hooper’s approach to violence revolutionized the horror industry. He shot his scares to show the set-up to the violent act and the result of it, but never the action itself. His B-movie tales of unexpected family bonds and outsiders carried him through stories as diverse as Poltergeist, Lifeforce, and Night Terrors.
There really are two main approaches taken in Masters of Horror. Tobe Hooper, like Stuart Gordon before him, chooses to show off what makes him a name in horror. He’s given (for him) a larger budget and gets to do whatever he wants without worrying about box office figures. The other approach in the series is telling a fantastic story unlike anything you’ve been given permission to tell when your livelihood depends on ticket sales and merchandising deals. They’re two sides of the same coin and you never know if luck is going to be on your side.
Dance of the Dead is a feeling. Hooper sells this really desperate energy of a lost people. The intergenerational conflict of young and old that plays out so often in horror is heightened by regret and loss. The older generation had the luxury of growing up in a world where it was safe to go outside; the younger generation saw their peers literally ripped apart by chemical warfare. There is no safety net, no guarantee of a future, and the younger generation is doing whatever they can to feel anything. They are the monsters of the society the older generation will never see again, the results of the failed experiment of the land of the free.
The story itself is quite disjointed. Actors can feel like they’re in completely different films at times. For example, if you ever wondered what it would look like if Robert Englund starred in a production of Cabaret, look no further than Dance of the Dead. He’s performing drug-fueled camp in a sparkly top and Joel Grey-inspired makeup, complete with candid business conversations delivered to a backstage vanity mirror. Jessica Lowndes, as Peggy, is the perfectly innocent survivor girl archetype with no slasher happening around her. Marilyn Norry is channeling Piper Laurie in Carrie as the conservative mother trying to protect her surviving daughter from the evils of the world. Thematically, the separate styles work, but they present an unusual tonal conflict that feels more theatrical than cinematic.
Part of that is the source material. Dance of the Dead is adapted from a Richard Matheson short story by his son, Richard C. Matheson (another excellent writer in his own right). Richard Matheson was a master of science fiction and cinematic terror. He wrote the screenplays for some of the most iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone (including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Third From the Sun,” and “Nick of Time”). He also wrote the screen adaptions for Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films starring Vincent Price. His short stories and novels are stylized, deeply political and satirical works, exploring what he believed would happen in many worst case scenarios about the future of the world. What happens if we lose control of society and humanity? That question was Matheson’s literary playground. Much like Hooper, you’re not going to mistake a Richard Matheson story for anyone else’s work.
Dance of the Dead is profoundly weird. It’s unlike anything else you’ll see in Masters of Horror. It’s violent weird fiction in motion. The different pieces don’t all come together in a neat package, but that’s not what you look for in a Tobe Hooper film.
Content warning: nudity, gore, drug use, violence against women
Next up: S1E04: Jenifer, directed by Dario Argento.