There are like, what, more zombie movies than there are fans of the horror genre? And that's probably a gross understatement, right? So how do you, in 2016, attempt to bring something new to the overly worn table of the dead? You do a mashup; and while this doesn't guarantee a completely new experience (or good one), it can mean the difference between stale/tired, and unique/interesting. Visual effects artist Torey Haas - known for his work in 2014's V/H/S Viral - takes the director's chair for the first time in the colorfully fun paranormal zombie romp, The Neon Dead, which is one part Night of the Living Dead, two parts Ghostbusters, with shades of Clerks, wrapped in a heavily post-processed neon visual style that strikes me as cross between Argento's Suspiria, and Refn's Neon Demon. So yeah, a mashup.
The setup is where the aforementioned Ghostbusters inspiration comes into play. With actress Marie Barker playing a sort of Dana Barrett-esque character in her portrayal of Allison Hillstead, she calls upon the paranormal extermination services of Desmond and Jake. Greg Garrison playing Desmond similar to a Peter Venkman type (read: brash, sarcastic, and overly confident) while the more scientifically inclined Jake (Dylan Schettina) comes across as the Egon Spengler of the group. Together, the trio work together to send the unwelcome dead and their well-dressed demonic maestro back where they came from, lest a more powerful far more sinister evil, is called forth to destroy all life on earth! It isn't the most original story, but it's a great foundation (and inspiration) that allows for some highly entertaining, highly comedic situations.
The Neon Dead is very much a self aware tongue-in-cheek horror film that leans mostly towards light and silly (usually through Desmond's douche bag quips and Jake's pedantry) only really ratcheting up the tension, stakes, and dark mood when shit hits the fan during the film's final act. The cast exhibit good chemistry and play off each other fairly well, with the paranormal-bustin' duo being the prime example of this, allowing for the later scenes to land with more gravity. Greg Garrison, while sometimes awkwardly delivering his lines, does a good enough job with his role that by the time Desmond come around from being a complete wanker, to a somewhat like-able chum, very little suspension of disbelief is needed to buy it (you even start to feel a little bit sorry for him too). Dylan Schettina does a fantastic job as Desmond's partner in crime, though granted Jake being a much more one note character possibly makes that an easier task, he does experience a (hilarious) transformation of his own that while mostly being physical, still demands a bit more range from Dylan than would have otherwise been needed.
Oh, and then there's Allison Hillstead.
The fresh out of college doe-eyed client, that initially starts as the helpless damsel-in-distress, quickly turns out to be one of the most effective characters at disposing of the evil dead. Played like a fiddle by actress Marie Barker, she was easily my favorite character in the film (outside the cool looking neon zombies themselves). There was never a moment in the 80-minute runtime where I questioned any of Barker's dedication to the film's shenanigans, from body language to line delivery, her performance was authentic and believable in it's sincerity (thanks in no small part to her expressive eyes), not only doing Torey Haas' script justice, but elevating it as well.
The supporting cast pepper the film with extra flavor. In particular, Mark Ashworth's brief appearance early on as Desmond and Jake's employer, Dunsmore, makes for an entertaining little moment of back and forth quipping between him and the boys. There's also the too-smart-for-her-age wise cracking little girl scout, played by the talented and adorable Josie Levy. Scenes between her and Marie Barker were a joy to watch, especially considering how effortlessly she punched above her weight as an actress in playing her character and delivering her lines (keep an eye on her career).
With director Torey Haas' background as a special fx artist, and the film's heavy reliance on this specific neon aesthetic theme, I was expecting some clever visuals to take front and center in The Neon Dead, but unfortunately I was left a little bit disappointed here. While there's no denying the visual design's heavy play on the neon aesthetic, I would have preferred if more restraint was shown with it. Initially that appeared to be the case, what with the film's bouncing back and forth early on between natural looking lighting and color (whenever the dead were off-screen) and the piercingly vibrant reds, greens and blues (whenever they appeared). But then it felt like all we saw for the last two thirds of the film were those same red, greens and blues - non stop - even when it felt like the scene didn't call for it; because of that, there was no way to use the neon colors as an effective mechanism for building tension or even foreshadowing since they were always on screen.
Now, I don't want to sound overly negative here, because there were certainly many positive aspects to the film's visuals. Some really awesome, uniquely designed zombies that are highly reminiscent of the neon graffiti goons in Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever. There's also a pretty convincing visual effect regarding a talking decapitated head (that doubles as a funny gag), and even what looks like some stop-motion animation used on a crazy looking alpha demon, in a scene that plays out like a video game straight out of the 1980s. And while I usually harp on excessive use of CG and post-processing, it's completely appropriate here given the visual style that The Neon Dead aims for. So while I wasn't as blown away as I anticipated I would be, the work done by Sean Michael Patton, Torey Haas and the rest of the art, makeup and effects departments is still greatly appreciated, with all these contributing factors adding up to a film that's as visually striking as it is fun, if a bit flawed in execution.
Fun little tidbit - Video game fans (especially Zelda fans) pay close attention to how the final battle between our heroes and the maestro demon is presented ;-) Let's just say it's clear the production crew are fans of the classics.