It is not scary, but I do not think it is trying to be. It’s hip.
The Neon Dead has a cool retro vibe in its cheeky zombie setting, but its irreverence grows tiring when the characters fighting the paranormal threat are thinly drawn.
The film follows Allison Hillstead (Marie Baker), an unemployed college graduate living in a mansion that was inherited to her. When getting ready for a job interview, she walks into her bathroom only to find what appears to be a neon-eyed zombie brushing her hair. She gets in contact with a couple of self-proclaimed paranormal hunters, snarky Desmond (Greg Garrison), who quickly develops a crush on Allison, and nerdy Jake (Dylan Schettina). As they try to combat the menace, Allison discovers the mansion she lives in has a dark past, and that past is coming back in the shape of disco-eyed zombies. She and the two paranormal hunters must work to stop the zombie threat from spreading outside the walls.
The Neon Dead is exactly what its title suggests: It’s about the dead, and there is a heck of a lot of neon. The film is filtered with so much glossy light you’ll feel you are at an ‘80s synth party. Really, the color aesthetic is a representation of the entire film: a lights and effects show with thin characters and glitzy production. It’s fun for a while because it does not take itself seriously but becomes a little too numbing as it draws to its conclusion.
The film is at its most entertaining when it focuses on the zombies. For a film with a small budget, there is actually a lot of time spent on zombies that look cool. Sure, their trademarks are the lifeless, glowing eyes, but the skin design is gnarly as well. Visual effects artist Torey Haas directed the film, and you can tell he has an eye for stylish detail. The skin color ranges from cartoonish greatness to genuine uneasiness. The way they walk and react has been thought out. These zombies are crazy cool to look at. Combine their look with the neon lighting (kudos to director of photography Nick Lauinger), and there’s a retro and chill tone that is easy to get into. It is not scary, but I do not think it is trying to be. It’s hip.
But what the film is missing is some life to its actual living characters. We learn more about Allison’s crazy ancestors than we do about Allison herself. She can kick butt, but there are no other shades to her. Baker does what she can, but the dialogue she has is not helping her. The same underdevelopment goes for our hunters, with Desmond’s smarmy personality becoming grating and Jake’s background relegation keeping him from doing anything in the story. With no humans to root for, it is hard to feel any tension, especially when doom and gloom seem inevitable.
There is life to the film, but when it reaches act three, all the glitz and glam becomes too superficial without any feeling. It is a bunch of characters you don’t care about fighting green-screen effects while a too-radical-for-its-own-good score by Hsian-Ming Wen blares in the background. This could have been something cheeky, but there’s no weight to the proceedings. Sometimes neon parties get boring. This was one of those parties.
The Neon Dead is shiny and colorful with zombie designs that impress. However, an underdeveloped human center keeps this from being the midnight masterpiece it could have been. | Bill Loellke