You know you’re in trouble when the funniest thing about a movie turns out to be its title. Jay Lee’s “Zombie Strippers” is obviously designed to be instant camp, a ready-made midnight movie; but even at that hour, with all the accessories—legal or not—a theatre will allow, it’s going to seem like a long slog.
The plot’s predictably simple. One of the gung-ho soldiers assigned to eradicate a bunch of workers at a government lab who have been turned into zombies by a botched experiment gets infected and, rather than being offed by his comrades, escapes to an underground strip bar in a nearby town. There he bites one of the strippers, who becomes an enormous hit with the clientele in her zombified state; and the other dancers eagerly follow suit to win similar popularity (and tips). Of course, the customers eventually become victims, too, and pretty soon a small army of the undead is threatening the remaining unaffected souls—the owner of the joint, a few of his employees, and the virginal young girl who’s joined the troupe to get money for her grandmother’s operation, as well as the lovesick boy who follows her around hoping for some action despite his “Christian” principles.
One could imagine this scenario serving as the basis for a darkly humorous genre exercise like “Feast.” But Lee goes for a full-send up, encouraging his cast to mug relentlessly and play to the rafters. The worst offender is certainly Robert Englund, the erstwhile Freddy Krueger, who scrunches up his face and delivers his lines so frantically that you practically want to yell at him to tone it down to a scream. But then everybody’s got their tongues so firmly stuck into their cheeks that it’s surprising they can deliver the dialogue at all; let’s just say that the slightest trace of subtlety seems to have been totally ejected from the grubby set. That wouldn’t be a great problem if the script were funny; but it isn’t. It doesn’t develop the premise so much as endlessly repeat it.
Some viewers may find compensation in the ample displays of nudity as the dancers go through their paces. But unless you’re a devotee of such exhibitions, you’re likely to find that even it gets dull after awhile. (It must be admitted, though, that the women—including “media sensation” Jenna Jameson—have well-sculpted bodies, some of which we see, in cheesy special effects scenes, get blown to smithereens.)
Worse, Lee sees himself as very clever, and wants to show off his satiric bent and his erudition. So he turns the plot into a screed against Bush and Cheney, offering a prologue about the administration becoming semi-permanent and absolutist, adding war after war to the menu and thus explaining the need for zombie soldiers in an era of endless stop-loss. That’s not a bad idea, but it’s treated so sophomorically that even viewers who basically agree with it will find it half-baked. The send-up of tough troop action of the “Aliens” variety is done up with a similarly puerile hand.
But worst of all are the dumb philosophical allusions. The town in which the action is set is called Sartre. The club is named the Rhino, which is obviously intended to tie the script’s ideas about conformity with Ionesco’s play. And throughout Lee tosses in references to ontology, existentialism and the like. We get it: you’ve taken Philosophy 101. But you sound exactly an undergraduate who’s heard the words and the names and can bandy them around in bull-session references. But they remain just silly window-dressing here, with no effect but to give a patina of pretension to material that’s several leagues beneath Mad Magazine or The Onion.
“Zombie Strippers” probably sounded hilarious on paper. But it should have stayed there. Real camp has to happen by accident; when it’s as calculated as Lee’s, it inevitably fails. This cheap, crummy movie might be recommended as suitable fare for a frat-house kegger. (And if reports are correct, it should be available in DVD format for such showings a week after its theatrical release.) But in any other venue, it’s just hopelessly bad.