It’s time for #TrashOrTerrorTuesday
…when I examine a film that’s been languishing in my personal library to determine if it is #Trash or #Terror
– or more importantly, if it deserves to stay in my collection.
And so, out from the dusty shelves of #VHS tapes & DVDs comes…
A coed uncovers a plot of secret surgeries on students’ brains.
“The incredible story of a hard-working student and the warped way of life that made her go wacky.”
I first saw Zombie High (1987) back in the ’80s. It’s reputation, thanks to critics, was not good – but I enjoyed it anyway. It was kind of a throwback to old 1950s movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), or maybe Invaders from Mars (1953). Unfortunately, it was called Zombie High at a time when audiences had just been thrilled by The Return of the Living Dead (1985). In terms of horror comedy, that pays homage to an older movie (or two), it simply doesn’t get any better than that. Not to mention the insane, over-the-top zombie action (and gore) that was as hilarious as it was impressive in The Return of the Living Dead.
Zombie High has none of that. No zombies, no over-the-top gore – nothing. You could say that Zombie High is very understated. I’m not even sure if I knew it was a comedy the first time I saw it. Looking at it now, it’s obvious that there is a sense of humour at work just below the surface – but it’s incredibly subtle. It’s not the kind of movie with clear jokes that pay off with big laughs. I smiled and chuckled a few times, but Zombie High is so straight-faced that some scenes actually work as serious drama (or 1950s horror/sci-fi).
This was director Ron Link’s only feature film. He was apparently more of a theatre director (and actor), and worked on several plays by Tom Eyen, who was known for campy parodies like Women Behind Bars (1975) – which Link directed. This may give us some clue as to where Link was coming from when he made Zombie High. Unfortunately, that campy style didn’t totally come through in the movie.
The cast includes Sherilyn Fenn, before she became a star on Twin Peaks (1989-1991), and Virginia Madsen, who was, at the time, almost a superstar. She had been in some high profile movies with a lot of potential, some of which failed to pan out, like Dune (1984). Zombie High would have done nothing to help her, I’m sure. She did eventually achieve some of the success she deserved with Candyman (1992), and has since done a lot of other good stuff.
I bought a VHS copy of Zombie High sometime in the ’90s, and watched it at least a couple of times. When I wrote my own high school zombie comedy musical I Was A Teenage Zombie, I looked at Zombie High as something that might inspire me. As much as I enjoyed it, I was always left with the feeling that it wasn’t quite all that it needed to be. Still, I hung onto to it, as if one day it might finally age just enough to be truly great. So, after not seeing it for a good fifteen years, I decided to put it to the #TrashOrTerrorTuesday test.
So what’s the verdict?
Zombie High (1987) is a very, very mild terror. And what I mean by that, is that it has moments that work, and is oddly likeable in a very understated way – but it’s not really scary. it’s not serious enough to ever be scary. it’s also not funny enough to work as a comedy, although it might occasionally elicit a smile. I can’t call it trash, because it’s not trashy enough to be trash. It’s so tasteful it’s almost strange. It has none of the campy blood, gore and nudity of movies like The Return of the Living Dead and Return to Horror High (1987). It’s also just a little too good (at least in terms of its cast and production values) to be called trash in a Garden of the Dead sort of way. It’s actually a decent little movie, that could be an acceptable time passer for the right person (such as teenage and twenty-something me). Having now seen it about four times over the years, I can probably retire it from my collection. But someone who’s never seen it may find enough ’80s amusements within its reasonable 93 minute running time to warrant adding it to theirs. As long as they don’t let the title fool them into expecting a spectacle of zombie carnage – and they manage keep their expectations reasonably low.
Zombie High (1987) by #RonLink
A coed uncovers a plot of secret surgeries on students' brains.
— Angus Kohm (@AngusKohm) October 12, 2021