Tobe Hooper Keeps Dancing…
Jak and Boxx (Ryan McDonald) are post-apocalyptic rebels without causes, living the dropout life in a world that has given the cold shoulder to notions of civility, decency, and human survival. While Jak is a sincere foil to Peggy’s small-town-girl skepticism, his wide-eyed optimism is shrouded in a questionable, drug-propelled haze. In one sequence, bright-colored rear projection, quick cuts, and the roar of a car engine – while characters try to scream above the noise – effortlessly captures the dissociative feeling of a drug high. And it’s a great example of Tobe Hooper’s audio-visual madness.
The blood Jak and Boxx (ha-ha) siphon from the population’s remnants is sold to the MC and used to reanimate corpses (typically young women) who “dance” in a mix of epileptic seizure and electro-shock, for the entertainment of a salivating crowd of degenerates. The suggestion that hedonism is the opiate of the irradiated masses is strong, but Tobe Hooper isn’t just looking to tell a tale of debauchery and excess.
In a seemingly peripheral scene early on, the corpses of used-up dancers are presented with a crass “disposability” that resembles cruel pornography: topless, dead-eyed female bodies are unceremoniously tossed into a back-alley dumpster and set ablaze. An explicit statement is made: even the new lease on life that accompanies re-animation – however far-removed from actual notions of “humanity” – has a fleeting sell-by date.
Like Texas Chainsaw and Poltergeist, the buried core of “Dance” is its focus on family dynamics. Peggy has grown accustomed to her position as Mother’s Perfect Angel, but it raises questions as to why Kate is so overprotective. Conversely, what does Jak see in Peggy, besides an uncorrupted soul to – in his own naïve, uncomprehending way – bring down to his degraded level? Is the greatest gesture of “caring” to keep a person confined, or to set them loose in a world on fire?
As the story progresses, we see the truth of the matter is far more dire. Therein also lies the unfortunate position of being the coveted child when another goes missing or dies. I like how the grownups here convey authority, wisdom, and confidence – all in service to obscuring transgressions they’d rather forget. To that end, the MC – who’s as sleazy and morally bankrupt as they come – is ultimately a more honest character, as he never tries to justify or excuse the corruption of his trade. He knows he’s pandering to a bunch of drugged-out misfits – why belabor the fact? Near the end of “Dance,” he casually drops a revelation about the fate of Anna that is damning for all within earshot, and the irony of the closing images is in how each generation consumes and exploits the previous generation, whether for financial, political, or personal ends. There are notes of genuine tragedy and despair amid the incoherent club noise, stuttering imagery, and strobe-lit interiors of the episode’s final minutes, to the point where “Dance of the Dead” becomes the most emotionally resonant of all the Masters of Horror episodes.
A Distinct Experience
There are other, smaller tidbits that contribute to “Dance” being a distinct Tobe Hooper experience: the décor of the club, which has the same dumpster-dive aesthetic of the abandoned amusement part in Chainsaw 2; the halved water bottles the punks drink A Clockwork Orange-style drug enhancer from; feral performances from a cast let off the leash (McDonald – a dead ringer for Jack Black – embodies this particularly well); and the way the actors find a pathos amid the chaos. Jak may be “protecting” Peggy from the dangers of an unfamiliar world, but by the end, she has become her own person – something that was stifled for years. She may be going down a path of self-destruction, but imbued with a greater understanding of the harsh realities of the world, has become a stronger and more knowing individual.
Even in the opening moments, set against the over-saturated colors of the idyllic suburban birthday party, 7-year old Peggy exhibits the bud of a rebellious streak by correcting her mother when she calls her “Peg.” And if we want to further that notion (alongside the Jack-in-the-Box naming convention), it can be said that she’s a square “peg” in a round hole, left to “fit in” with a world that’s been decimated; where social contact – in addition to being greatly reduced – carries the risk of contagion.
Without fail, Tobe Hooper created worlds that were distortions and perversions of the one we know. His approach to cinema was unlike that of his horror peers – or any other director who came before. Imbued with an intuition toward what makes people get loopy under the all-encompassing light of a full moon, he forged one of the most distinctive filmographies in the history of motion pictures.
All the rest is cattle prods, screaming, and the compulsion to laugh hysterically in the face of inexplicable, mind-bending horror.
(Gif of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre via giphy.)
Crash Analysis Support Team
(Aka Jonathan Weidler), he only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.