Dance Or Die

Director: Richard Munchkin           
Roy Kieffer, Rebecca Barrington, Georgia Neu

Dance Or Die was one of the first efforts by PM Entertainment, back when producers Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi called their company City Lights. Watching it, one can see that since making this movie, they have made great leaps in every aspect of filmmaking that you can think of. In fact, it's so radical a leap, you have to wonder how they ever got beyond this point. Even though it was easier to sell an independent movie to video stores in the '80s, Dance Or Die and their other movies of this period are so bad, you'd think they'd had quickly made a (bad) name for themselves. Maybe they did, which would explain the change in the name of their company. Even the awful movie Chance, which they made just two years later, had nothing on this numbingly bad effort.

I have questioned to myself with other early Pepin/Merhi movie if they were actually shot on film, for they seemed suspiciously like they were originally shot on video but placed through that process that makes video look like film. With Dance Or Die, there is absolutely no doubt. I don't know what they call that process, but it's the worst example of its kind I can ever recall seeing. It looks like gauze or something was placed over the video camera lens, and despite the process, the intensity of the lights and the speed of things racing past the screen all scream that they were videotaped and not filmed. So right away, we are faced with cheapness. Actually, I got an idea that this was going to be a cheap film even before I put the video into my VCR. On the video cassette, the label states that the movie is called Dance Or Di - apparently, they couldn't afford an extra "e".

The movie takes place in Las Vegas, but with almost all the movie taking place in indoor locations or outside in the suburbs, the movie only shows us unmistakable Las Vegas locations a few times in the entire film, and only as background scenery. The events that happen in the movie could have taken place anywhere, with absolutely no change to the script needed. They center around this dimwitted loser named Jason Chandler, a guy who is a recovering drug addict and regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings around the city. He's a very poorly written character; what happened in his past, how he got addicted, hell, even what drug he was addicted to is never revealed to us. All that we do find out about him is that he's some kind of dance director, who is struggling to keep his addiction down while directing some new wave dance presentation. We only see some minor uncostumed rehearsals occasionally, though eventually we get to see it presented at the end. It's hard to describe it in just a few words - hell, even just in words - but I'll try. The dancers (in big '80s hairdos and wearing gigantic sunglasses) shake their shoulders around, shuffle side to side, and stretch out their arms and legs and pause repeatedly. Oh, as the dance progresses, squibs in their chests bloodily explode one by one to make it look like they were shot, and they keep dancing with these bloody "wounds".

I guess it comes as no surprise that only about 10 people are seen attending the show at the end. Some people might think it's because of the budget constraints, but I think it's to show that Jason isn't financially secure, and has to have a roommate sharing his big house with a pool at the back. Though this roommate also adds to Jason's stress, because he happens to be a drug dealer, casually weighing the coke in their kitchen but being conscious enough to slap Jason's hand away from the drugs, knowing that Jason is a former addict - friends keep friends away from drugs, you know. At least Jason doesn't have much time to get all stressed up about his roommate; shortly afterwards, while Jason is away to rehearse his presentation with his dancers, armed thugs break into the backyard while the roommate and his friends are having a barbecue. In one of the worst edited sequences I can recall, the action cuts back and forth again and again and again from the slaughter at the barbecue (where guests later in the carnage are kind enough to pretend to the killers that no slaughter is happening around them, for they are still standing nonchalantly around) to Jason and his aerobic-dressed dancers making asses out of themselves, with a routine that's a cross between ballet and aerobics. And all of this slaughter and dance is set to a peppy synthesizer score, even when the innocents at the barbecue are blasted with the biggest and bloodiest shotgun wounds you can imagine.

Of course, the removal of this roommate this way just adds to Jason's stress, and the investigating detective, the standard slightly overweight asshole cop that insanely accuses the hero adds even more. Jason has a nightmare that night where he is hanging upside down in a strait-jacket, and as we hear "Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho etc." in the background, big white-haired '80s rockers in S&M leather prance around him, make wild poses, and beat him with sticks in an overly theatrical manner. Heavy symbolism - though what it symbolizes, I don't have a hell of a clue. The next day, Jason is beaten up by some guy when he's alone at the dance studio, and is told, "You have something we want!" Then the guy leaves. He later gets phone calls that are equally as vague and quick, never giving Jason or us just who these guys are, or what they want. Well, anyone who has seen a movie would put two and two together and determine Jason's roommate was hiding something. I guess Jason doesn't get out that much. Also, I guess these bad guys aren't in that much of a rush to get what they want if they don't specifically tell Jason what they seek.

There's not a real rush of anything in Dance Or Die. It's not just these vague threats that prevent the movie from advancing in its story. There are a number of filler bits that just seem to be there in order to stretch the movie to a 90 minute running time. I can't count how many shots there are of Jason driving around various parts of Las Vegas, sometimes not even heading anywhere important. This is also the kind of movie where they will show us a guy pulling off the highway, driving into a parking lot, finding a parking space, pulling into the parking space, stopping the car, then getting out and walking to a building. Another scene has Jason finding out that a code name involved in his slow investigation is "Turtle". Looking into his refrigerator, he finds a box of Turtles chocolates from his roommate, and he proceeds in the lengthy task of completely destroying the box in order to possibly find something, ripping apart the cardboard and the liner inside, dumping the chocolates on the ground etc. etc. It turns out there was nothing hidden in the box after all, making it a complete waste of time for both Jason and the viewing audience. Even the scenes where something does happen are stretched out. A motorcycle riding friend of Jason is chased around the desert suburbs in an exceedingly long and unexciting chase. He eventually manages to wipe out his pursuers, then as he prepares to leave, a second car of bad guys suddenly pulls up and kills him. When it takes so long to kill a "he's gonna die!" character, you know you are in trouble.

To call the script thin would be a kindness. I might have given director Richard Munchkin some slack for working with such a script, but it turns out that he wrote it. The movie is incredible in that there are so many scenes that abruptly end, with either no proper explanation or that Munchkin edited out for the final cut. For example, one phone call has the caller telling Jason that he left him something in his pool. The scene quickly ends, and we never find out what was in the pool. We see shots throughout the movie of a professional audio recorder that is monitoring Jason's phone calls, but we never find out who owns it. So little time is spent with some key characters, that their eventual actions sometimes could mean one thing or another. Near the end of the movie, Jason whines, "I don't know who are the good guys anymore!" I shared his complaint.

Munchkin shows absolutely no visual flair, and uses the distracting fade-to-black transition so much, the movie soon plays like it was originally made to have commercial breaks. Aside from the dance sequences, and a fantasy sequence when Jason imagines two imaginary people dry-humping each other in various positions and poses on a motorcycle (while he's engaged in sex with a beautiful blonde!), Munchkin doesn't even make the movie so bad it's funny. All the actors are left to their own devices, and Roy Kieffer is simply awful, coming across as a whiny little boy instead of someone feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place. There is, however, one performance of note; it is that of the character of Kay, who is Jason's counselor at the Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She is good enough to actually manage to generate some chemistry with the awful acting Kieffer, not just when it comes to arguing about how to stay sober, but when she admits that despite being significantly older, she is attracted to him. She is convincing in whatever she is given in the script to read, though fortunately for her Munchkin's script shows some competency here with her character. She believes in God and that He can intervene in mysterious ways, tells interesting stories to Jason about this to show he may be getting help for his addiction that he doesn't realize, and has a good speech as to why that, although she is attracted to Jason, she can't sleep with him. In all of her scenes, the actress who plays Kay does very well. If I could, I would tell you the name of this actress and mention that she is the one good thing about Dance Or Die. Unfortunately, the end credits just listed the actors, and not the parts they played, so she'll have to stay anonymous. If the woman who played this role is reading this, sorry.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Chance, Timebomb, Video Violence