Nothing demonstrates that acting is a skill as well as watching someone do it badly. Good acting doesn't even seem like acting, while bad acting is obvious in the attempt. Starting out my review this way may seem to foreshadow a scathing review, but Dance of the Dead really wasn't too bad. Nevertheless, my first impression of the female lead Peggy (Jessica Lowndes) was "Wow, she really can't act," and that stuck with me for a while. To be fair, I have to say that she did better later on in the story, and this appears to have been pretty early in her career, but it's still a good thing that the cast included some actors with more skill, like the male lead Jak (Johnathan Tucker) and Peggy's mother (Marilyn Norry).
This is part of the Masters of Horror TV series, which also gave us the somewhat better Homecoming. Dance was directed by Tobe Hooper, director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist. As evidenced by Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper has the ability to disturb without relying on the supernatural at all. In Dance the supernatural is barely there; the zombies are explained briefly as a result of chemical warfare, and in this story they are the victims, not the assailants. The true horror in the story comes from the living, in a post-apocalyptic society so violent and jaded and hopeless that Jak, who forcibly takes blood from people to sell on the black market, is a sympathetic character in comparison to most of the rest of the cast.
Jak meets Peggy at the restaurant that she and her mother operate, and he is attracted to something in her that he rarely sees: someone uncorrupted by the world around her. Peggy has been sheltered by her mother ever since they lost Peggy's sister Anna, perhaps too much so, since much of what drives her to respond to Jak is simple exposure to a man who is interested in her. Jak takes Peggy, along with some of his friends, to a grotesque club called the Doom Room, where the emcee (Robert Englund) runs a zombie-based show catering to his guests' twisted tastes. Writer Richard Christian Matheson lays on the darkness with a trowel, to the point of incredulity, but it gets the point across: this is a Bad Place.
One of the things Cooper does to try to heighten the sense of disturbance is to mix in distorted visuals and sounds throughout the movie, which got to be annoying after a while. A few well placed instances of this can be artistic; overuse of it is just lazy. It's using technical tricks to convey the atmosphere you want instead of writing the scenes the way they should be, akin to filmmakers inserting a loud noise when they want the viewer to jump. I think Dance would have been just as unsettling without these tricks, and slightly less annoying.
Dance does paint a disturbing portrait, and that seems like the point more often than not, but there's still a story here about coming of age and confronting life's ugly truths. Oddly enough, the ending reminded me of Grease, another good girl meets bad boy story, although I don't remember Danny Zuko accosting old people quite as much. It's worth a viewing, despite my misgivings about Lowndes's acting ability. Just don't expect a happy ending.