If you ask many people, the “zom-com” (zombie comedy) was perfected in 2004 with the release of Shaun of the Dead. I’m not entirely sure if I believe that — although I am a fan of that movie — but that’s a pretty common opinion. The idea is that the characters and tone are lighter than they would be in a traditional horror movie, which means you’re laughing just as often, if not more so, than you’re going to be scared. There are zombies, sure, but that doesn’t mean you have to be continually frightened.
I can’t remember the last time a zombie movie has taken place exclusively in a high school environment, but Detention of the Dead is such a film. Doesn’t that seem like a match made in heaven? As a filmmaker, one can draw parallels between your average teen and the zombies — and that definitely happens in this movie — and it also allows for a great deal of catharsis on the part of anyone watching the film. That teacher you hated? Well, how about you get to watch someone bash his face in for a straight minute? Will that help heal any childhood wounds?
The idea of Detention of the Dead is to take one student from each high school clique — the nerd, the jock, the bully, the popular cheerleader, the goth, the stoner, etc. — and have them work together in an attempt to survive a zombie apocalypse. They get to sort out their problems with each other, make fun of how stereotypical this situation is, and eventually be picked off one by one, because this is a horror movie and that’s how these things work.
If there’s a lead, it’s our nerd character, Eddie (Jacob Zachar), who definitely looks too old for high school, but we’ll let that pass. Along with his goth friend, Willow (Alexa Nikolas), they’re the outcasts — but also the ones most prepared for the zombies. They’ve seen a lot of zombie films, you see. The other characters include: the jock, Brad (Jayson Blair); the cheerleader, Janet (Christa B. Allen), who is Brad’s girlfriend; and the stoner, Ash (Justin Chon). There are a couple of others but they don’t survive long enough to make much of a difference.
Much of the plot, character interactions, and even cinematography are taken from earlier movies. Given the film’s comedic nature, I can only assume this was done intentionally and to make us laugh. But comedy comes from subverted expectations and when the film does nothing more with these elements than simply using them, that’s not funny; it’s just derivative.
I’ll give you an example. One of the characters — and it likely won’t even be a surprise which one — gets infected early on. He hides it from the group, of course, because otherwise they might kill him. This is a trope of the zombie movie genre. But Detention of the Dead doesn’t do anything with this. It’s there, and we know it’s there, but that’s it. It doesn’t try to poke fun at the situation or play with our expectations at all. We just know that this character will eventually turn — and will probably do so at an inopportune time — and that’s that. The whole movie is filled with these sorts of moments. It wastes its potential.
The result is a film that’s not particularly funny or clever. It’s not scary, either, but I don’t think it often wanted to be. When you’re more often thinking what would have worked than what is currently working — because not a lot is — that’s a big problem. Oh, there are a few funny lines and some of the scenes deliver the cathartic thrill I mentioned earlier, but for a near 90-minute movie, these are too few and too infrequent to take your mind off the missed opportunities.
Detention of the Dead is not without its positives. Much of the makeup and special effects work are applaudable, especially given the film’s modest budget. The character interactions are also quite enjoyable, thanks to the script giving them more intelligence than teenage characters are often permitted and the actors not phoning it in. This could easily have become a movie acted very poorly — how much work would you put in, given the premise? — but everyone seems game here.
I suppose one has to wonder exactly how much can be expected out of a silly low-budget zombie movies. This one is watchable and if you need 90 minutes to kill, you can do far worse. However, in this genre, there is a kind, and its name is Shaun of the Dead. The thing is that if you have 90 minutes to spend, you’re far better off watching the funnier, smarter, and more dramatic movie. It’s not so much that Detention of the Dead is bad — it’s not great, but, like I said, it’s watchable — it’s that a better version of it exists.
Detention of the Dead is a zom-com set in a high school. It’s far more formulaic than it should be, and while it features a couple of subversive moments, it misses far more opportunities for laughs and insights than it hits. You notice its misses while it plays, which is the last thing you should want to be thinking about. The makeup and special effects are good, and the cast is game, but it doesn’t do enough to make it worth watching over something like Shaun of the Dead.