Director Alex Craig Mann’s horror zombie comedy would probably like to be considered an amalgam of “Shaun of the Dead” with “The Breakfast Club.” And while those attempts at claiming both territories are admirable, his film never quite lives up to aspiring for both heights at all. Mann’s film starts out respectably, taking beats from “Shaun” with moments of school activity interrupted by zombies lurking in the background and stumbling in to class. And then suddenly everything goes to hell. The problem is while it seems to enjoy “Shaun” very much, it’s never as humorous or clever. When it has the chance to compensate for that flaw by focusing on rich and complex characters, it doesn’t do that as well as it should, either.
“Detention of the Dead” aspires to be a new kind of “Shaun,” but also relies on the typical Romero crutches we see all the time in these zombie movies. Character Willow shows her friend Eddie a scene from “Night of the Living Dead” on her phone, and mid-way the characters flee to the library. The Library known as “Savini Library.” During the finale, we’re told by Willow and her friend Eddie that they’ve seen every single zombie film and played every zombie video game, so they’re encyclopedias on the monsters. And yet no one notes the irony of The Savini Library? Also, you assume zombie experts would realize that destroying the brains almost always works on the walking dead. And yet, they do everything but hit their heads as hard as humanly possible. A group of kids are sent to detention after school, and discover one of their classmates has been bitten mysteriously.
When he dies and awakens as a zombie, he attacks the teacher. In an effort to get her help, they are shocked to see their entire student body are the walking dead, and are feasting on victims in the halls. Holed up in the school library, they try to find a way to escape the dead plagued school while keeping their lives. “Detention of the Dead” definitely isn’t the worst zombie movie ever made, as it seems to have the right ideas for what it’s trying to convey. There are some very entertaining moments, including character Ash’s reversion to his Asian language as he angrily kills a zombie, and Ash’s attempts to free a zombie arm from character Eddie’s crotch. The cast of characters, whether intentionally or not, are broad and bland high school movie archetypes, many of whom don’t have much depth to them.
In the end, the jock is still the jock, the cheerleader is still the cheerleader, and the Asian stoner is still just a token. Which is a shame, because the acting is very good. Especially by Alexa Nikolas who is a stand out as Goth horror geek Willow, the only character that makes wise decisions, and garners some semblance of emotion and complexity. Hero Eddie is much too superficial to root for most times, and everyone else feel like cannon fodder, in the end. “Detention of the Dead” has a golden opportunity to write great characters in place of the low budget and minimal zombie carnage, and sadly doesn’t deliver too much in that regard. While it’s a perfectly fine horror comedy, this kind of fodder has been handled better in films like “Dance of the Dead,” and “Shaun of the Dead.”