It’s extremely difficult to pull off a good horror comedy. There needs to be a perfect balance between laughs and scares, but too often, the jokes aren’t funny and what could have been a decent horror film on its own gets ruined by a sad attempt at humor. It doesn’t necessarily need to be scary, but the horrific elements need to ring true, or the horror crowd will tune out. The Three Stooges and Abbot & Costello perhaps provided the best early examples, providing the template for what would come later, particularly from Roger Corman. The ‘70s brought The Vampire Happening, which added a Jerry Lewis touch to the fold, while Children Shouldn’t Play with Death Things blended smart humor with some of the scariest zombies ever seen on film. In the ‘80s, Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, and Charles Band reigned supreme, and Lloyd Kaufman turned Troma into the gross-out icon we know and love today. It was Shaun of the Dead, though, that set the standard for the new millennium. Newcomer Scott Dunn not only understands this history but also gets it right with his impressive new offering Mandao of the Dead.
Jay Mandao (Dunn) lives off royalty checks from his deceased father’s cereal company while supporting his thirty-year-old slacker “nephew” Jackson (Sean McBride), who practically stalks his ex-girlfriend Maeve (Marisa Hood) with the help of their cab driver friend Fer (Gina Gomez). After several strange dreams, Jay discovers that he has a talent for astral projection. A smarmy new age cousin (Sean Liang) helps him hone his skill, but some guy named Darth (David Gallegos) keeps popping up in his visions, leading him down a path of deceit, murder and time travel.
“After several strange dreams, Jay discovers that he has a talent for astral projection…”
With little more than a strong screenplay, Dunn beats the odds and delivers an impressive horror comedy that hurls the classic duo dynamic into ‘90s slacker culture. He keeps the horror simple, using it as a backdrop to play his straight man to McBride’s dimwit through non-offensive innocent humor that’s actually pretty funny. As with any great comedy, heart plays a strong role, particularly in Jay’s connection to his father’s legacy and Jackson’s blind devotion to everyone around him. The cast of colorful characters adds a quirky human touch that’s difficult to get right.
Dunn truly appreciates his craft. He elicits strong performances from every actor while his shots are both effectively simple and visually appealing. In doing so, he breaks from the mold of groan-worthy low-budget horror comedies and gives us something entertaining, memorable and original.
Scott Dunn may not have much experience – this is only his second feature – but he makes a better film than contemporary directors with twenty-plus features on Amazon. His brand of passion and dedication cannot be imitated or learned. You’re either born with it, or you’re not. With Mandao of the Damned already slotted for 2020, it’s obvious he’s not slowing down. That’s a good thing.
Mandao of the Dead (2018) Directed by Scott Dunn. Written by Scott Dunn. Starring Scott Dunn, Sean McBride, Marisa Hood, Gina Gomez, David Gallegos, Sean Liang, Alexandre Chen.
8 out of 10 stars