Night of the Living Dorks

Die Nacht der lebenden Loser was the original title for Night of the Living Dorks and I kind of like the original title better. It reminds me of the onscreen titles of many of the wild Ilsa films from the ‘70s and makes it clear you are watching a foreign film. This is Germany’s entry into the new zombie comedy genre, and while a film like Edgar Wright’s tone perfect Shaun of the Dead is labeled a “ROMZOMCOM”, I’d say Mathias Dinter’s lebenden Loser is more of a “SITZOMCOM”. The paper thin characters and plot machinery resemble a half hour episode of your average sitcom more than a feature film. In fact, it really resembles the sitcom format of Scooby Doo with a trio of Shaggy’s getting into trouble with the possibly supernatural while trying to score a sandwich or, in this movie’s case, some ladies. The only thing missing is the laugh track. Although Dorks is not set in the ‘80s, it has an authentic ‘80s vibe that many films have been trying and failing to achieve lately. The film doesn’t feel retro, but rather like a script written in 1984 that was dusted off and shot last year. This is particularly because the film does not make any excuses for it’s moral universe. Dinter seems to have performed a kind of gene splice between the early films of John Hughes and the raunchier side of teen life as depicted in films like Revenge of the Nerds to come up with this odd mix, more teen comedy than horror film.

The teen comedy genre tends to play either broadly or more realistically with standard high school movie stereotypes. The jocks, the dorks, the goths, the ‘60s hippie teacher into free love and drugs and, of course, the goofy parents who pretend to be hip. The basic plot follows the formula used by John Hughes on his doppelganger films of 1986-7, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. In those films, Hughes created protagonists who were on the fringes of the cool crowd and longed for the plastic prize male or female while never noticing the real qualities of the rejected childhood “friend” who was always there to help them when in need. Weirdly, the zombie theme is only used as a device. There are no remnants of the Romero mythology or Fulci imagery here at all. In many ways, the Dorks could’ve been bit by a radioactive spider without much of the movie changing.

Dinter mixes his plots this way: Teenager Phillip (Tino Mewes) and his pals Konrad (Thomas Schmieder) and Wurst (Manuel Cortez) attend a Godless school appropriately named Friedrich Nietzsche High. They are the “dorks” of the title and are picked on by the school’s “in-crowd” led by Wolf (Hendrik Borgmann) and his blonde bombshell bitch Uschi (Nadine Germann) as well as the teachers, particularly their phys ed instructor, Coach Stalin (Tim Wilde). The girl next door to Phillip is Rebecca (Collien Fernandes) who is a Goth nihilist in training. She’s also got a thing for Phillip who can’t see her as anything but his childhood friend since he is so hung up on winning the heart and breasts of Uschi. Wurst is named after a sausage and he is mostly concerned with sex. Konrad starts off as the most stereotypical of the bunch, a real glasses and pocket protector type nerd who keeps a journal of everyone who has ever ridiculed him.

All three join Rebecca and her Goth friends at the local cemetery one night in order to get her to make Phillip a love potion to use on Uschi. However, the goths are in the middle of a different ritual using the ashes of a former zombie to hopefully raise the corpse of Kurt Cobain to play music on demand. Of course, this doesn’t go as planned and the ashes are blown all over the three friends who find themselves waking up in the morgue following a car accident on the way home.

Excited by their new found zombie powers, each of the friends merely shrugs off the fact that they are dead and will need to eat human flesh soon. Phillip shows up Wolf and catches the attention of Uschi while Wurst attempts to seduce the sexy English teacher. Konrad goes right into the deep end, eating human flesh and deciding to settle all the scores he’s kept in his diary. The main conflict revolves around the mad hijinx that occurs when Phillip and Wurst beg Rebecca to find an antidote and attempt to convince the crazy Konrad that he won’t be able to staple all his rotting body parts together forever. Konrad likes his new found strength and self confidence and doesn’t want to go back to being a “dork”.

The best thing about this movie is that it doesn’t cater to the fake morality found in most contemporary comedies which try and suggest that while sex, drugs, and rock and roll were fun for the last couple hours, our heroes know that it’s really better to live on the straight and narrow (fingers crossed behind their backs). Night of the Living Dorks doesn’t make any excuses. It plays to the classic formula in that Phillip learns that he’s been missing his true love Rebecca the whole time, but their relationship is shown to still be exciting and very sexual. Rather than the usual virginal kiss at the fade out, Dorks ends with Rebecca’s hand down Phillip’s pants. It’s also a world where Rebecca finds it embarrassing to admit that she’s a virgin. Maybe this film isn’t so ‘80s after all.

What it clearly isn’t is a zombie movie. Outside of surface details involving flesh eating and body rot, these zombie stooges look more hung over than dead. This is really a sex comedy with a zombie theme. The opening scene is the only moment of standard zombie action in the film and stands out like a sore thumb as a result. It’s set in Haiti and features characters that never appear again fighting a standard zombie who breaks into their home. It’s shot like someone just finished his latest viewing of a Peter Jackson fest and has virtually nothing to do with the tone and content of the rest of the film. If anything, it creates an expectation unfulfilled by the movie.

The rest of the movie is a fast paced comedy with the best house party scene since Hughes’ Weird Science. It seems like literally hundreds of people have descended on Phillip’s house since his parents have gone away for the weekend and the zombie dorks plan on using their undead charm to finally achieve their sexual goals. Phillip’s moment of truth with Uschi is probably the movie’s best moment of comedy and horror as he realizes that something vitally important has rotted off and slid down his pant leg. Grab that staple gun! Truthfully, although Anchor Bay is trying very hard to market the film as an American horror comedy, it is the native German aspects of much of the film’s humor that I find the most interesting. When Coach Stalin castigates Konrad for his lack of enthusiasm on the Rugby field by saying, “With an attitude like that, we would’ve lost the war for sure.” Konrad answers bluntly, “But we DID lose!”.

The ending of the film that played the festival circuit has been completely changed and this is a real lesson in pop filmmaking. The new ending, while not entirely successful is a massive improvement on the original “Summer Dance” ending. It seems that on paper, Dinter really believed that he was making a zombie movie and needed a big CGI filled battle between the dork zombies and the cool zombies. This would be correct, had the previous 75 minutes been more about the whole zombie angle. In any case, the new ending is fascinating in how it rearranges the same set of dialogue and basic circumstances of the previous ending into a more effective focus on the main characters and their relationships. The “Summer Dance” ending is available as an extra on the DVD.

While the film isn’t going to change anyone’s life or sit side by side with that unchallenged masterpiece of comic horror, An American Werewolf in London, it’s not a bad way to spend 90 minutes and has a certain charm of its own. Just don’t expect hordes of zombies attacking the high school. Maybe that’ll happen in the sequel. Anchor Bay has continually done a fine job in bringing independent and European horror to DVD in fine form. This is no exception. From a visual perspective, Dorks isn’t exactly a Mario Bava classic, having been lit more or less like your standard teen comedy with bright colors and flat staging, but it’s a good transfer nonetheless. It’s a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image with a low key Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. You have your choice of the original German audio track or a really goofy Kung-Fu Theater worthy English dubbed version. Some might really love this track as it turns everyone into a cartoon with American voices calling out for “Uschi!” and “Wurst!” The fact that the DVD defaults to this track instead of the original German audio shows that Anchor Bay is hoping for a larger audience than just the foreign horror connoisseur.

As for extras, we are treated to an interesting making-of featurette (which is only in German, so turn on the subtitles here), a collection of bloopers (called "Fun Scenes" here), and a look at the theatrical trailers, both American and German. The best features, however, are the collection of deleted and extended material. While most of this edited content is enjoyable, it doesn't really add much to the movie. The most interesting element from a filmmaking standpoint is the original “Summer Dance” ending which, when examined in comparison to the new ending, is very illuminating of the storytelling process. It’s unfortunate that Dinter did not at least record a commentary for this section to explain the reasons and methods he employed to transform his ending.

Very few filmmakers have a real understanding of the tightrope walk of tone that is required to pull off a successful horror comedy. Skilled craftsmen like Roman Polanski, John Landis, and Peter Jackson have had varying levels of success in this form themselves. At their best, films like The Fearless Vampire Killers, An American Werewolf in London and Dead Alive capture the fantastic collision of the funny and the scary in ways that energize both elements. But the genre is littered with the failures, neither funny nor scary. Night of the Living Dorks succeeds better than most because it never really intends on being scary and as a comedy it’s never less than amusing.