Rodrick Pocowatchit’s The Dead Can’t Dance (2010) is a comedy/zombie film about a Comanche family that must band together and fight for survival as the world’s non-Native population inexplicably turns into flesh-eating zombies. The film is the first in the now-exhausted zombie genre to feature main characters that are Native American. Similar to Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls, The Dead Can’t Dance uses the horror genre to broadly trace a whole history of experience involving Indians’ experiences in North America.
Comanche everyman Dax Wildhorse (writer/director Pocowatchit) is driving his teenage nephew Eddie (T.J. Williams) to college. Along for the ride is Dax’s brother and Eddie’s alcoholic, wayward father Ray (Guy Ray Pocowatchit), who’s been absent for most of Eddie’s life. The film opens at a rural Kansas rest stop when all of the people around them suddenly drop dead. In a panic, they leave, but their car runs out of gas. They wander into a nearby small town, where they come across a spaced-out white stoner named Clooney (Randall Aviks). The four men band together to fight the growing hoards of Caucasian zombies.
The Dead Can’t Dance is like a Creation Story in reverse. In a complete reversal of tragic history, non-Native people are decimated and turned into the walking dead by a disease that doesn’t affect Indians. The film is also about the destruction of the world witnessed by Indians who already have experience dealing with the End Times. The film reshapes horror conventions to talk about loss in many of its forms, which are infused with cathartic humor. Like Barnaby’s Rhymes, the film’s characters look for ways to stare loss in the face and keep charging forward.
We’re the first ones here and the last ones to leave. Now that’s poetic justice.
After the four men take refuge in an abandoned school, a bickering Ray and Clooney are sent out to search for a gas can so Eddie, Ray, and Dax can continue on their way and Clooney can reunite with the woman who left him. But they become stranded at the school when Clooney and Ray are unable to find gas. The hordes of mostly-caucasian zombies slowly close in. Not only must they fight for their own survival, but they must confront the tangled messes of their dysfunctional family life and their newly found places in a world that hasn’t existed since pre-European contact.
Ray frames the end of times in his own smart-ass way: “We’re the first ones here and the last ones to leave. Now that’s poetic justice.” Ray reaches for a high-five from Dax, who rolls his eyes in response.
The Dead Can’t Dance is also a family film in the way it focuses on the bonds between the three Comanche men. The plot is driven by the strained dynamic between Eddie, Dax, and Ray, and not zombie survivalism. Their fractured family is forced to come together and fend off a grave threat and their cohesion is the key to saving their own lives. Against the backdrop of the predominantly-white apocalypse of American society, they continue to carry around the heartbreak of the incidents that caused the rift between them, but the film is empathetic towards the characters who have severed bonds with their families and have caused others pain.
In the opening moments of the film, freeze-frames and subtitles introduce each main character by revealing a secret they are keeping from the others. Through this device we are introduced to Ray as a man secretly heartbroken over the lost relationship with his son. Ray isn’t a perfect father, but the device used to introduce each character via their secrets acts as a kind of plea for him, in light of his irresponsible nature, which has driven Eddie out of his life. The non-Native world ends all around them, but Ray and the others are given a chance for reconciliation in its ruins.
The film is full of subtle, sublime Termite-Art moments that eat away at its functionally low-end aesthetic to reveal its sincerity in small, fleeting moments: while Ray and Clooney nervously stare down a school hallway full of zombies lurching towards them, they very briefly pause the film’s narrative to talk about being left by women they love. It hurts, Clooney reveals, dejectedly, and Ray agrees. The moment is short-lived and will go unnoticed by most viewers, but it sums up the turmoil the characters dwell in and ties into the film’s themes of forgiveness. Clooney alludes to a bad relationship with the woman he is trying to reunite with, and Ray’s immature nature and estrangement from Eddie speaks volumes about the nature of the relationship with the woman who left him. They are flawed men, but misunderstood. We’re never shown the mistakes that destroyed the relationships they are trying to bring back to life, but we do see both men reaching towards forgiveness, trying to pick up the pieces.
In the beginning of the narrative we are introduced to Dax via subtitles that say he is secretly sick. Another fleeting moment alluding to this secret is equally great in its own peculiar, almost unnoticeable way. After Ray and Clooney leave the abandoned school to find gas, Dax nurses Eddie back to health after a diabetic attack. During the scene, Dax tries to convince Eddie that his father does love him, despite his absence. Eddie questions the apocalyptic events unfolding around them, and asks his uncle Dax if the world is coming to an end. Dax tells Eddie, no, and, “Besides, you’ll be dancing long after I’m gone,” a statement that puzzles Eddie. Dax then tells him the only reassuring thing that comes to mind: “Whatever’s happening around us, there’s a reason for it”. Something else looms in his mind. The moment is filled with uncertainty. We look back on the moment when we realize he is keeping his sickness a secret from everyone else. This is the film’s other, authentically revealing moment, breaking loose from the intentionally-or-not slapstick, amateurish style of the film.
The film’s low-end visual style serves its comic tone quite well and emphasizes the inherently ridiculous nature of the zombie film and its cliches. The extras’ caked-on white makeup make them resemble the zombies of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Some of the undead also have veins stenciled onto their faces. The obvious artifice of the film’s makeup FX creates a sense of alienation from the work, transforming the zombie menace and the very notion of the End Times into a kind of joke.
The appearance of Stupid (Wade Hampton), a friendly, dim-witted zombie who maintains a fixation on a handheld radio and later becomes a key character, is a parody of Day of the Dead‘s Bub, a zombie who was experimented on by scientists in that film. In an obvious way, Day of the Dead tried to garner sympathy for Bub by giving him living-human characteristics, feelings, and memories. However, Day of the Dead takes a darkly cynical view of actual, living humanity and its capability to do good in a dying world. Romero wanted to create sympathy for walking cannibalistic corpses while showing contempt for the living members of humanity, which seems like a confusing moral framework to work within. A film ever-hopeful about the dying world, expressed through the notion that surviving indigenous people will inherit the earth, the presence of Stupid in Dead Can’t Dance thumbs its nose at past films’ use of the zombie movie as a vent for the cynicism of filmmakers like Romero. The Dead Can’t Dance is one of the few modern zombie movies with a hopeful view of the post-apocalyptic world.
Having Native people immune to the virus wasn’t just a comical device. I also wanted to comment on how Native culture was massacred when the European settlers arrived. They did bring rampant disease that wiped out Native people. The outbreak of the zombie virus in the movie reversed all that.
Writer/Director Pocowatchit uses the zombie film in a way that is informed by history. He said in our interview that the question, “What would reverse the situation?” involving the circumstances of indigenous populations being wiped out by disease, and, “what would wipe the slate clean?” were the inspirations for the story, in regard to reconciling the mistreatment of Native Americans in boarding schools and for the use of diseases to kill them off.
A prop history textbook found in the abandoned school introduces the theme of historical revisionism through Pocowatchit’s Comanche perspective. The cover has the title History Re-Written. The film highlights the poor relationship between indigenous people and the educational systems established by colonizing entities. The decision to have the main characters take refuge in an abandoned school was not an arbitrary decision, according to Pocowatchit. The film has a similar attitude to Rhymes for Young Ghouls in regard to Indians’ status in their respective country’s educational system. The Dead Can’t Dance places its three Comanche characters in the school to underline the mistreatment of Indians in American’s educational system while tying historical allusions about disease decimating indigenous populations to the threat of infection in a zombie film. As a filmmaker conscious of how genre elements can be bent in order to conform to a director’s peculiar vision, Pocowatchit knows that the zombie film has been used to comment on societal aspects since their inception: “Having the film set in a school was a very conscious decision. The great thing about zombie films is that they’re ripe for commentary, so yes, I did want to speak about how Native people were mistreated in the mainstream school system and that history was taught wrong.”
The film is loaded with references to history, especially in the anxiety-ridden fantasies of Eddie, in which he is being humiliated by a teacher for not knowing which state was the last to grant the right to vote for Native Americans. Pocowatchit had clear goals in mind for using the zombie movie to address history: “Having Native people immune to the virus wasn’t just a comical device. I also wanted to comment on how Native culture was massacred when the European settlers arrived. They did bring rampant disease that wiped out Native people. The outbreak of the zombie virus in the movie reversed all that.”
The world in The Dead Can’t Dance comes to an end, but the film is hopeful about what comes after it’s all gone. The three Comanche men who witness the end of the world around them are already survivors. Dax, Eddie, and Ray come from a people, the indigenous population of North America, poised to survive the destruction of their colonizers’ world because they are the kinds of dystopian survivors Sidner Larson described in his theory of Post Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome. Larson wrote that Indians are the only people to have seen the end of the human world. Contemporary Indians are only several generations removed from the ancestors who saw their tribal cultures destroyed by colonial expansion, war, and disease. Their descendants are feeling the effects of these catastrophes in the forms of alcoholism, poverty, crime, the dissolution of family ties, all of which, according to Larson, are all a kind of PTSD that reverberates throughout time. In this way, the three men struggle with the ripple effects of the end of the world. The survivors bring knowledge necessary for propagating the next civilization. The three principal Indian characters’ use of the Comanche language throughout the film makes them vital for bringing valuable knowledge into the Newly Indigenous World. As a filmmaker, Pocowatchit is aware that the end of one world is not equal to the end of existence, as long as we have people to carry traditions to other generations. This reasoning preserves the Comanche language in the contemporary world. Pocowatchit says, “I… liked that society and mankind lived [on] because of the graciousness and knowledge of Native people.” Their use of the Comanche language shows the importance of cultural survival.
I want to tell contemporary stories about Native people living in today’s world, even if it’s in a zombie movie. Especially if it’s in a zombie movie.”
The characters in The Dead Can’t Dance and Rhymes for Young Ghouls walk across the land of the dead, and the survival of characters in each film is meant as an imperative for all indigenous people. Rhymes had a mournful tone, and while its protagonist did survive, there was no hope of a better world to look forward to. That film suggests survival for its own sake in a world where indigenous people have nothing left to fight for. The Dead Can’t Dance would be a creation story for those reclaiming a world once lived in by their ancestors. As a film, it gives Pocowatchit an opportunity to establish the relevance of Indians on the pop culture landscape. Like many indigenous filmmakers, he has the tendency to use the film medium to consciously establish a place for Native Americans in the American moviegoing conscience. In regard to films by and about Indians, Pocowatchit says, “When I see something that I connect to on a personal level, it makes me feel valid, that I count. One of my goals is to see Native people represented more in mainstream pop culture. I want to tell contemporary stories about Native people living in today’s world, even if it’s in a zombie movie. Especially if it’s in a zombie movie.”
The Dead Can’t Dance shows that hope for Indians lies in the rubble of our world’s destruction.
Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.
The Dead Can’t Dance can be streamed for FREE on skinsplex.com, a new distribution platform for current films by and about Native Americans.