The Neon Dead
An unemployed recent college grad hires two freelance paranormal exterminators to combat a monster infestation in her new home.
D. Dylan Schettina
The Neon Dead – from writer/director Torey Haas – is a tough film to categorize. It’s got zombies (although the film’s characters would rail on me for saying so), elements of fantasy and even a little bit of swashbuckling swordplay. And yet, even with all of these mix-n-match pieces, it somehow gels, and gives us a unique and enjoyable film-going experience – one you might not initially stop to investigate. The film has no big names (above or below the line), no massive marketing campaign to garner your attentions and eventual affections. But here I am, telling you to give it a shot. And to spread the word. The Neon Dead is far from perfect, but still worthy of your time.
Recently graduated from college with a degree in business management and currently unemployed; Allison (Marie Barker) finally (and mercifully) lands a job interview. Thing is, the same morning, she finds a ghoulish, red-eyed zombie in her bathroom – with the terrifying promise of a much larger undead infestation problem. She calls upon a duo of ghost exterminators going by the company name of “Desmond and Jake: Professional Paranormal Investigators” (Greg Garrison and D. Dylan Schettina; respectively) and together, the three work to uncover the history of Allison’s inherited mansion and the pending apocalypse via a possible return from the powerful demon known as Z’athax. Chaos ensues, secrets are revealed and a lengthy (and flashy) battle commences.
Believe it or not, some of the zombie images felt like Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and the flashback sacrifice reminded me of Romero’s Season of the Witch and the oversaturated lighting in (yes) neon colors made me think of some of the transitional and/or ultra-violent sequences in Creepshow.
The performances are all quite endearing. As Allison, Marie Barker is wide-eyed and innocent and an easy person to follow. She’s not your typical damsel-in-distress, but an equal match for her potential love interest in the film. Speaking of which… As Desmond – Greg Garrison can’t help but be adorable. Desmond is appropriately cocky (his first phone conversation with Allison – as she attempts to hire him – is priceless) and overly confident; especially for having so few “satisfied customers”.
And you’ll see the chemistry immediately between these two actors. They’re both as green as can be – IMDb touting a very limited resume for both – but there’s a quick attraction to both of them, and their seemingly untouched innocence (character and actor-wise) is very engaging. They make a cute couple and we’re happy to spend 80 minutes with them (the actors and the characters). We love our two leads. What more could you ask for?
The ghoulish masks of the many demons are all infused with neon-light eyes. They’re particularly effective at a distance, but up close, they look like what they are; three little LED lights in a triangle (not a total win there). But the angular and harsh lines of the masks are nightmarishly eerie.
There are a couple of good “boo” moments, but the film is not big on suspense. It’s all so cartoony, that even the moments which are supposed to be spooky (the reveal of the servants – old school “Voodoo Zombies” – is a good example), are bathed in the inorganic and sometimes distracting lighting.
And that lighting is a key part in the look of The Neon Dead. And while it was quite clearly an easy way to wash out the very “video” quality of some of the daytime sequences, overall, it’s oddly effective. That’s not to say it doesn’t overstay its welcome at points.
The stop-motion effects at the end of the film, during the big battle are a great deal of fun. The fact it’s clearly stop-motion adds to the film’s charms. Writer/director Haas’ IMDb page shows that he’s held many positions on many films, but holding the most weight is his work under the title Visual Effects. He’s co-credited with the visual effects on this project (he also did visuals on VHS: Viral). I think the true joy of The Neon Dead is that the filmmakers don’t try to hide their $17k budget, in the lighting, effects or anything else. They proudly tout their resourcefulness and determination, and that is commendable. And no, that’s not meant to be a “pat on the head”. Indeed, it’s more of a “tip of the hat” for what they accomplished with so few dollars at their disposal.
If I had to really complain about anything, it’s that the cartoon feel doesn’t allow for a great deal of character development. But in a picture like this, it’s not about depth or character history and nuance. But for me, any film needs a little bit of that. Had the film taken just a brief respite from the wackiness, it might have succeeded just a smidge more.
The music by Hsiang-Ming Wen is appropriate to the feel of the film, but it becomes repetitive. That track for the lengthy final battle frankly began to irritate me. The whole score is very “garage-band” sounding – perfectly matching the semi-homemade feel of the rest of the film.
Finally, one of the supporting characters is a pseudo-Girl Scout; Ashley (Josie Levy) – who first offers Allison the suggestion of calling Desmond and Jake. And as things become dire in the film’s climax, we see her and her troop camping out nearby the cursed mansion. I was pleasantly pleased (okay, giddily overjoyed) to find actress Caitlin McPhail as the troop’s adult leader. Anyone who has been on the horror festival circuit over the past year or so, may recognize her as the woman in Brian Lonano’s hysterical horror short and festival darling, Crow Hand!!!
The Neon Dead is by no means a masterpiece, but it’s just goofy enough to be worthwhile. It’s produced on a dime, but the filmmakers are very resourceful, very creative and ultimately they succeed in doing what they set out to do – they entertain an audience.
Originally titled Invasion of the Undead; The Neon Dead is now available on DVD/VOD.