An academy coed (Virginia Madsen) discovers a faculty plot to achieve immortality with a serum made from students’ brains.
“Zombie High” belongs to that particular little subset of school-based horror/thrillers wherein the teachers are villains and students are guinea pigs. Watching it I recalled such films as “Strange Behaviour” (aka “Dead Kids”), “Disturbing Behaviour” and, to an extent, “The Faculty” and even “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. It has something to say about conformity but never really says it. It’s a fairly forgettable film, dull for long stretches, but elevated somewhat by its talented young cast, despite giving them very little to do.
Andrea, played by the invaluable Virginia Madsen, is excited to arrive at Ettinger Academy, leaving her boyfriend, Barry (James Wilder) in the pursuit of academic endeavour. There she befriends effervescent roommate Suzi (Sherilyn Fenn), the obnoxious but likeable Emerson (Paul Feig, yes that Paul Feig) and the troubled Felner (Scott Coffey). It is not long before she notices some odd behaviours by fellow students, and soon drastic changes in the personalities of those she has befriended there.
Her professor, Philo, takes an inappropriate interest in her, inviting him to his room one night, where after some playful banter he makes a move on her. She rebuffs him but he continues to pursue her. Barry becomes aware of the attention and is irate. Meanwhile, her friends continue to change around her…
Eventually, Philo confesses the school’s secret, and his own, to her: he is actually 102 years old. He and the faculty have the ability to prolong their lives indefinitely by a injecting a serum that is a combination of “blood and brain matter”, which they extract from the students. A crystal implantation “compensates for the loss of brain function” and turns the school into the emotionless zombies she has been witnessing around her. Andrea is horrified, but Philo assures her they all lead very productive lives. He wants her to take the serum, retain her youthful beauty forever and live as his lover. She is having none of it.
And that’s all there really is. Andrea once again reconnects with Billy and, with some assistance from a reformed Philo, they team up to take down the faculty. The concept is interesting enough; the execution is exceedingly dull and rather plodding. Tonally, it is weird too. For the most part, it plays as a fairly standard mystery/thriller, but the novelty wipes and sometime jovial nature hint at something more irreverent and subversive.
There are a few decent moments, but not enough to sustain interest. A school dance in which the students dance lifelessly and in unison gets a laugh, and the image of the faculty seated around a table, tourniquets on injecting serum, has some potency to it. The final basement attack on Andrew by the horribly aged faculty, looking very much like zombies, is fun but all too brief. The brainwashed students are given orders via intonations disguised as muzak delivered over the loudspeaker. The result when Andrea and Billy replace it with rock music seems to think it is cleverer than it is, and ends the picture joltingly.
The film has more talent in it than you would expect from such a minor film. A fairly early endeavour for Virginia Madsen, her distinct appeal is already on display here, lending the picture much of its watch-ability. Sherilyn Fenn is as likeable as always but criminally underused, as is Paul Feig. His goofy, trying-too-hard, somewhat creepy but mostly friendly demeanour lends such an easy humour to the film that you can’t help but wish he had more screentime.
“Zombie High” isn’t a bad film, but it’s not a lot of fun either. It saddles itself in a weird place between genuinely scary and quirkiness. Unsure of what it wants to be, or want it wants to say, it ends up being not much of anything and saying nothing at all.