*/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B-
starring Robert Englund, Joey Medina, Shamron Moore, Jenna Jameson
written and directed by Jay Lee
by Bryant Frazer Imagine Richard Kelly's woefully ambitious Southland Tales without that film's confused grandeur and you'll get an idea of how dispiritingly terrible Zombie Strippers! really is. Not content to merely deliver generous servings of tits and ass and blood and guts, writer/director/editor/cinematographer Jay Lee tries to class up the joint with stumblebum nods towards political satire that make latter-day "Saturday Night Live" look like Robert Benchley. (Asking this film to spell "Cheney" correctly is, apparently, too tall an order.) The dialogue wouldn't pass muster on a sitcom and the direction would qualify as adequate only by community-theatre standards. Setting this stinking bag of turds aflame is an aesthetic that could charitably be described as indifferent: It has a cheap look, and some solid make-up FX work is compromised by quick-and-dirty CG gore effects that couldn't have been any more expensive than the pneumatic handiwork augmenting the quite visible chests of the film's serially zombefied softcore-sex workers. It's not as cheerfully bad as you'd expect a movie called Zombie Strippers! to be, just distressingly lousy.
It's so dreadful, in fact, that I may be underrating it in at least one respect: Zombie Strippers! actually gives the early-1980s sci-fi porn flick Café Flesh a run for its money as the most joyless, nigh despairing movie about sexual arousal in film history. The horny but jaded men who populate its rhinoceros-themed strip club perk up immensely when the women begin to die and return to the stage as powerful, undead super-strippers. For these guys, erstwhile porn star Jenna Jameson tearing off her clothes in a hot minute is pretty good; Jameson tearing off said clothes while sporting a gaping hole in her throat and glaring out at the audience with dead black eyes is fucking awesome. The overly enthusiastic dudebros get their comeuppances one by one as they're led into a VIP room to have their faces broken, gonads bitten off, etc. As obligingly energetic as Jameson's zombie dance moves are, they're equally programmatic, signalling a Pavlovian relationship between performer and spectator that demands nothing like erotic invention or self-expression on the part of the ostensible sex object. This dehumanized display proves so popular with the club's patrons that the rest of the dancers allow themselves to be bitten so that they, too, may gain most-favoured status among the frat-boy clientele--even as their skin turns the colour of old parchment.
This is such a workable metaphor for the sex industry that, for at least a few sequences, Zombie Strippers! brought me up short. Did Lee intend to depict stripping as a subordination of the self to the needs of a slack-jawed Other driven by deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and the desire to be loved in whatever way possible? Was this a subversive, quietly passionate argument against the very idea of a consensual sex trade--and a profoundly depressing indictment of the movie's own audience at that? If so, Lee has nowhere near the chops required to pull it off; there's no indication in the film itself or the supplements collected on its Blu-ray release that Jameson's live nude death-dance is intended as anything but unalloyed boner fodder. ("That was one of the key concepts of the film," Lee explains in the audio commentary. "The more dead you are, the better you get.") Indeed, the film's female-empowerment efforts are neither sexy enough nor feminist enough to dispel the whiff of misogyny in its more violently prurient moments.
Instead, Lee's subtext leans heavily towards the obvious. Zombie Strippers! takes place during a hypothetical fourth term of the Bush presidency--and the attendant heyday of the Halliburton-like "Cheyneyco"--thus ensuring it will feel oddly dated within months of its release. Keen-eared viewers will note that the name of Robert Englund's strip-club owner sounds a lot like "Ionesco," and the Blu-ray extras reveal that the movie was conceived in part as a riff on the late Eugene Ionesco's play Rhinocéros. Lee also name-checks Nietzsche, Camus, Jean Genet, and Sartre. To what end? On the entertaining commentary track, amid wisecracks and anecdotes from co-commentors Englund, Jameson, and Joey Medina, Lee tries to squeeze in some explanation. Medina, a Bronx-born comedian who plays the film's aggressively stereotyped Mexican character, counters with a précis on the problem with Lee's self-described "existential parody": "People that like titties and zombies pretty much don't give a fuck about commentary." (Englund, meanwhile, sums up the acknowledged audience for this stuff as one zombie stripper gets her head blasted off, conspicuously leaving behind only pairs of shoulders and tits: "That's the cover of FANGO right there!") This yakker suggests that the movie was a lot of fun to make, yet it points to a fundamental problem on set and behind the camera: In the face of Lee's undergraduate-existentialist aspirations, nobody involved with Zombie Strippers! was prepared to take anything in the script remotely seriously. It's a boobs-and-blood extravaganza that fails to meet its pretensions halfway.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The "Titillation and Sass" pop-up trivia track provides not just ample information gleaned from Jameson's PR kit but also a crash course in French existentialism for people who don't know who Camus and Sartre were--in addition to, hilariously, a relatively sober analysis of the film's schoolboy dramaturgy. ("In Zombie Strippers," one pop-up bubble helpfully declaims, "Gaia's need to ultimately conform due to her self-loathing, inadvertently sets free the caged zombies, thus releasing the ensuing chaos.") From a design standpoint, I'd like to see a more consistent effort at keeping these pop-ups from obscuring key action in the frame. The graphic designers seem to be restricting the pop-ups to a TV-safe area in the centre of the screen rather than using the full width of the HDTV aspect ratio, which cramps things further.
Visually, Blu-ray discs from Sony Pictures are generally beyond reproach, and I assume this one is no different--certainly there's nothing visible that could be interpreted as a flaw of the encode. Zombie Strippers! was shot on high-definition video, though, and it has a more electronic sheen than other HD projects. Lee's camera sees fairly well into the shadows, but the film's 2.35:1, 1080p transfer has a noticeably uneven image quality. Some shots look pretty good, others seem awfully fuzzy or drab for a HiDef picture, and the harshness of some of the lighting set-ups is highlighted. The sound quality is surprisingly flat, too, probably owing to severe limitations of time and money. (Like Starship Troopers 3 and Felon, this is one of the ultra-low-budget films from Sony's Stage 6 division.) Dialogue is hollow and a little tinny, and while all of my surround channels were firing much of the time--and a generic low-frequency rumble appeared to always be at the sound mixer's fingertips--the soundstage is never truly enveloping. Even the soundtrack tunes from the likes of garage-rocking The Dirt Bombs and L.A.-metal sexpot Roxy Saint (she plays the goth-inflected stripper, Lillith) fall flat. (I was listening to the 640 kbps core of the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track.)
The disc also contains two standard-def featurettes. "The Champagne Room: Behind the Scenes of Zombie Strippers" (8 mins.) is your standard-issue making-of, with Jay Lee and producer Angela Lee, his sister, discussing the film's genesis--the gist is that they selected a title based on perceived commercial appeal, then reverse-engineered the project around that title--and its location shoot in an abandoned V.A. hospital that's been widely used for low-budget horror movies. The takeaway is meant to be that these filmmakers are much, much smarter than their material (a guy in bloody fatigues mentions Ionesco and a girl in stripper garb invokes the doctrine of theosophy), though we're assured, repeatedly, that it's OK if the viewer is a masturbating troglodyte. And "The Dressing Room: How to Glam a Zombie" (5 mins.) highlights the work of the film's special FX supervisor and puppeteer, Patrick Magee. BD Live features weren't functional at press time; the package is rounded out with the usual complement of HD trailers for Sony properties: Resident Evil: Degeneration, The Fall, Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, Lakeview Terrace, Hancock, Casino Royale, Felon, 88 Minutes, Pineapple Express (greenband version, for some reason), You Don't Mess With the Zohan, and The House Bunny.
More than once on the commentary track, Lee claims that this or that will make sense only when viewed in the context of the 40 minutes (!) of deleted scenes included as (again, standard-def) bonus material; one wonders if Lee the director holed up in the cutting room with Lee the editor with a padlock on the door to keep crestfallen Lee the writer from seeing how they were despoiling his screenplay. Most of this footage consists of longer versions of scenes that did in fact end up in the final cut, such as a few more moments of dancing and some extra bits of gore that are actually less effective for the camera lingering on them. There's a lot of talky stuff as well that offers more insight into what Lee thought he was doing, like the downbeat conclusion to the stories of the film's two naively devout, and therefore unfortunate, Christians--but 94 minutes of this stuff is too much already. Originally published: October 20, 2008.