Derivative grade school scares. Shout! Factory's Scream Factory releasing arm keeps the obscure 1980s horror titles coming with 1987's ZOMBIE HIGH, from Cinema Group and Palisades Entertainment, starring Virginia Madsen, Richard Cox, Sherilyn Fenn, James Wilder, Paul Feig, Scott Coffey, and Kay E. Kuter. Released for the first time on Blu-ray and standard DVD (both available here in Scream's two-disc combo), ZOMBIE HIGH has one or two bright performances going for it...but that's about it amid the lackluster thrills, little gore, lame Reagan-era satire, and lack of any nudity. Scream's okay anamorphic transfer offers one tiny extra: an original trailer.
Small-town girl Andrea Miller (Virginia Madsen, CANDYMAN, THE NUMBER 23) is determined to make good at the exclusive, formerly all-male Ettinger Academy. Smart but poor Andrea scored a scholarship to Ettinger, a prestigious prep school that has produced captains of industry and political bigwigs for America for over 100 years. Andrea's hot-head boyfriend Barry (James Wilder, CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC, TV's MELROSE PLACE), however, isn't similarly enthused; he doesn't want her to go to such a snobby place because he just knows she's going to find someone else — like intense biology teacher/Bob Geldoff clone Dr. Louis Philo (Richard Cox, CRUISING, KING OF THE MOUNTAIN), who takes a sudden and inappropriate romantic interest in his (ahem) "young" student. Andrea's new friends include boppy little wannabe tramp Suzi (Sherilyn Fenn, TV's TWIN PEAKS, TWO MOON JUNCTION), country girl Mary Beth (Clare Carey, WAXWORK, SMOKIN' ACES), and po-mo dork Paul Emerson (Paul Feig, SKI PATROL, TV's SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH). She's gonna need them, because everyone else at Ettinger seems to be uptight preppy creeps who wear blue blazers, listen to classical music, and read The Wall Street Journal. When rich-boy rebel punk John Felner (Scott Coffey, FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF, MULHOLLAND DRIVE) suddenly straightens out and dons Ralph Lauren's latest summer line, Andrea knows there's something strange going on at Ettinger...and imposing Dr. Beauregard Eisner (Kay E. Kuter, WARLOCK, THE LAST STARFIGHTER), Dean of the school, is right at the center of it all.
Despite some name talent and promising newcomers behind and in front of the camera, ZOMBIE HIGH came and went without a trace in 1987. Produced by Cinema Group (a tiny indie that generated two hits — 1984's CHILDREN OF THE CORN and 1988's JACK'S BACK – before they disappeared) and distributed by equally small Palisades Entertainment (1986's WITCHBOARD), ZOMBIE HIGH had HARPER and WHERE EAGLES DARE Hollywood big-timer Elliott Kastner for a producer (since he was also guiding that year's Mickey Rourke opus, ANGEL HEART, who knows how much time he actually spent on ZOMBIE HIGH). Future TV producer Tim Doyle (DINOSAURS, THE BIG BANG THEORY) co-wrote the script, and then-talked-about actress Virginia Madsen (DUNE, FIRE WITH FIRE, SLAM DANCE) was a surprise snag for the leading role. Unfortunately, all three credited screenwriters were first-timers (Elizabeth Passarelli and co-producer Aziz Ghazal), as was the movie's director, Ron Link, who had a reputation for Off-Off Broadway productions...but nothing else in terms of moviemaking (this was his only movie credit). Opening October 2, 1987 on a paltry 25 screens (no doubt as a test for a possible wider release) against titles like HELLRAISER and FATAL ATTRACTION, ZOMBIE HIGH couldn't even crack a measly $500 per screen average, and it was gone by the end of that week (to be fair: chances are good it made at least as much as its $21,000-and-change big-screen gross through its VHS release, during the heyday of horror video rentals).
Not much works in ZOMBIE HIGH, some of which can be chalked up to the inexperienced production staff (apparently much of the back ranks were aspiring USC film students), budget limitations (the embarrassing sound-alikes for groups like Timbuk3, Journey and the Beastie Boys), and then-faddish filmic conventions (the laughable MTV-edited credit sequence). A couple of funny lines pop up here and there (bad boy Coffey gets the best, in response to a truculent Latin teacher: "I got your Gallic Wars, dickhead, right here!"), and you can spot some bright actors trying to wrangle performances out of the sorry script and fuzzy direction. Sexy, energetic Fenn should have been the lead instead of too-old, too-sluggish Madsen, while Tony-nominated Cox is assured, veteran Kuter is enjoyably (and appropriately) hammy, and Feig is funny and raring to go if only he had more lines and screen time (center stage Madsen and Wilder are the least interesting characters here, ironically).
Unfortunately, those pleasures are too few and far between. While some aspects of the too-familiar storyline are promising, such as Kuter's ages-old character having learned his quasi-"zombie" trade from an old Indian medicine man, there's absolutely no further development of this intriguing fragment: we hear this crucial bit of info in one sentence of exposition almost at the end of the movie, and that's it. Had they elaborated more fully on this element (or explored the crystal implants-as-brain tissue nonsense), we might have forgotten how warmed over ZOMBIE HIGH feels, with wholly borrowed elements from much better pictures like the original THE STEPFORD WIVES and THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS leading inevitably to unflattering comparisons. As for the movie's "political satire" context, by 1987, cliched attacks on the so-called "Reagan era" were old hat anyway, so ZOMBIE HIGH's feeble spoofing of preppy conservatives as brain-dead zombies guided by a sinister power, falls utterly flat.
Worst of all, ZOMBIE HIGH perpetrates the most egregious sin any low-budget cheapie horror movie can commit: it's boring. Director Link completely fails at creating a menacing atmosphere for the Ettinger prep school (even earlier zero-budget TV movies like SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS and THE POSSESSED nailed the "something's evil at the isolated all-girls school" subgenre). Scares and suspense are absent as the movie takes forever to get going...only to wind up nowhere with a protracted finale that evidences little blood and gore, and even less thought (Chris Biggs' special make-up effects range from excellent — Cox's Dick Smith-like headgear at the finale — to woefully thin, such as the flimsy "zombies" Madsen battles). If a movie like ZOMBIE HIGH can't transcend its budget limitations with some genuine wit or invention, then it had better at least honor the basic genre conventions it's tied to: in this case some bread-and-butter spookums amid the splatter and gratuitous nudity (the closest we get to the latter is a clearly uncomfortable Madsen in a one-piece bathing suit, covered by a towel. Whoop-dee-doo there, Mabel!). Which ZOMBIE HIGH doesn't. If ZOMBIE HIGH couldn't generate a yawn from a 1987 pre-teen...who's it gonna scare now?
The Blu-ray 1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen transfer looks as good as can be expected, considering ZOMBIE HIGH's variable elements. Shot (occasionally) in that distinctive 1980s gauzy style, whenever the DP's filters come out, the image goes soft and lacks fine detail. Grain structure is quite distracting during these scenes (the video noise level is considerable during the movie's first half). Later, some shots done with a fisheye lens harden the image quite nicely. Blacks are on the other side of firm-ish, while color and contrast look a bit blown-out, if generally accurate. Bump everything down a notch for the anamorphically enhanced standard DVD transfer also included here. The DTS-HD mono audio master is clean, with perfectly fine dialogue clarity. English subtitles are available. (Paul Mavis)
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