Archie is a “brain” at a small town high school who works part-time at his uncle’s mortuary and is harassed by a few of the popular kids because of it. His harassers die in an automobile accident, and the bodies are taken to his uncle’s mortuary. Archie is pulling a late night at the mortuary when he sees a storm brewing. Lighting strikes! They’re alive! The preppie bullies continue to torment him – as zombies.
Director: David Acomba
Starring: Scott Grimes, John Astin and Cheryl Pollak
Archie is a “brain”…even before the credits have rolled, a quick read of that description sets up the theme of this campy 80s horror, leaving little room for misinterpretation. This is The Goonies Halloween Special, or The Zombie Massacre Breakfast Club. The only major surprise here is that the soundtrack does not include Huey Lewis and the News, or the fact that there isn’t an upbeat montage to set the scene.
Night Life asks very little of its audience. The only truly intellectual commentary that can be said about it is that there is an age-old status quo in place (jocks are jerks, nerds are victims) and that it promotes a good work ethic for the benefit of a younger audience (the more endearing teens have jobs, whereas the jocks just booze and cruise). These are hardly revolutionary concepts, and it doesn’t toy with them in any way.
It doesn’t have any sort of agenda; its primary function is simply to entertain. And to that end, it works. The pacing should feel familiar as it goes through pretty much all the same motions as films such as Hocus Pocus. A relaxed pace for the first 45 minutes in order to establish characters, and then the roller coaster plunges, with one fun and breezy set piece after another as Archie battles ZOMBIE JOCKS!
In Scott Grimes, we are presented with a very likable Archie. He’s no Marty McFly, but at least he has a personality that isn’t a flat and flavourless cut-out. He gets by on the sort of quips that Spiderman would be proud of, and it is difficult not to root for him when so little is going his way. The jocks torture him, he has no girl and his future hinges on a part time job at the mortuary, with his crotchety Uncle Verlin.
It’s a little strange how natural the film makes ‘a part time job at the mortuary’ feel actually! Only a film with this sort of tone could manage it, as the notion of zombies and dismembered limbs is treated with little more reverence than the Addams Family. A lot more could have been made of the earlier scenes between Archie and Verlin, as they have a lot of wonderful material to work with. Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein comes to mind, but we are never treated with that sort of inventive hilarity.
It is only when the zombies rise from the dead (explained away extremely flippantly with ‘lightning makes things alive’) that the film comes into its own. From the mortuary, Archie flees to a mechanics garage, then to an old warehouse, then has a run-in with an oncoming train, followed by a swamp-lake scuffle before finally reaching the finale in the local graveyard. It is an admirable undertaking to fit so much into a short space of time, and the action hardly lets up.
The zombies themselves are, ironically, a lively bunch as well. The fact that there is only four of them leaves a little room for characterization, something most zombie movies lack. They are a playful bunch, still retaining a degree of their jock sensibilities. This comes across beautifully when they rise first and attack the mortuary. Between listening to loud music on the radio, breaking things and jumping into sack for quickie, it is only the rotting flesh that reminds us that this is a zombie invasion and not a house party out of control.
It’s a fun little movie that doesn’t require a lot of thought to engage with. There isn’t much to love here, but plenty to like. And if watching a zombie pump a guy full of engine oil until he explodes doesn’t seem like a good time to you, well, you shouldn’t even be reading this.
Night Life (1989)