Zombie High is the kind of high concept that seems like a hit just waiting to happen. Contrasting the social Darwinian brutality of high school with horror just seems like a natural. However, the danger of such an idea is that you have to handle it perfectly or there are several different ways it can go awry… and that unfortunately is what happened with this film.
Zombie High starts with earnest student Andrea (Virginia Madsen) accepting a scholarship to an exclusive prep school that is admitting female students for the first time. She befriends boy-crazy Suzi (Sherilyn Fenn) and witty nerd Emerson (Paul Feig) as she tries to get her bearings in this new environment. However, she notices many of the students have an odd, robotic affect to their behavior – and her new friends start to take on the same behaviors. As our heroine tries to figure out this mystery, she crosses paths with Philo (Richard Cox), a professor who is attracted to Andrea for unusual reasons and knows everything about the school’s odd, horrific state of affairs.
The problem with Zombie High is that it never settles on a clear direction for its concept. The script has some interesting ideas, particularly the explanation behind the zombiefied behavior of the preppie students, but it never uses those ideas in service of a particular theme other than “snobs aren’t nice.”
The film also takes a distressingly long time to get going, with thirty minutes passing before the horror elements pop up and the major excitement laying dormant until last twenty minutes. Ron Link’s direction is visually slick but otherwise just goes through its paces in a kind of antiseptic style. The humor is pretty low-octane throughout and the horror moments have a T.V. movie safeness to them. As a result, the film never has the satirical bite or the rollercoaster blend of shocks and laughs it could have had.
On the plus side, Zombie High has a strong cast for a vintage indie effort: Madsen gives a likeable performance that shows off the talent that would give her a long career and Cruising alumnus Richard Cox gives an unexpectedly strong and heartfelt performance that makes his stock character more interesting than it would have otherwise been. Elsewhere, Sherilyn Fenn does her best in an early role as a generically written man-eater and future comedy director Paul Feig shows good comic timing that makes his nerd character more interesting than usual.
In short, Zombie High has the right concepts but lacks the vision that would have made it a cult classic. It’s the rare ’80s horror that could actually benefit from a remake.
Blu-Ray Notes: This title just made its high-def debut via a blu-ray/DVD combo set from Scream Factory. The results can be a little soft in spots, particularly during the first half, but the second half looks really good and the source material is colorful and free of defects. The mono audio track suffers from an odd issue where music overwhelms dialogue in scenes involving both but this might be a quirk of the original mix as it comes and goes. The only extra included is a trailer.