While I have never been much of a fan of dancing, I am even less of a fan of dying. In the hands of debuting director Richard W. Munchkin, though, 1987’s DANCE OR DIE combines both concepts in a cinematic mix I can get behind. There might even be some rhythmic swaying involved.
Jason Chandler (Roy Kieffer) is a twentysomething dance choreographer hustling to finish a big production under the harsh neon lights of Las Vegas. He’s also a recovering cocaine addict trying to stay sober with the help of his sponsor, Kay (Georgina Neu). To put further stress on this delicate balancing act between ambition and excess, Jason’s roommate, Alan, is a wild cocaine dealer mixed up with a dangerous crowd.
While Jason is leading a rehearsal at the dance studio, Alan and some friends are brutally murdered during a cookout by gunmen acting on the orders of a shadowy figure known as Turtle. Jason arrives home to a bloody scene with gunsmoke still in the air, and it’s crawling with cops. He gets a serious grilling from homicide investigators about his roommate’s activities, and starts getting daily phone calls from Turtle himself, who harasses him to turn over something incriminating that Alan hid away in the apartment. This is exactly the sort of vulnerable situation that would cause Jason to “stick a funnel up [his] nose and vacuum the table,” assuming that the table is covered in hardcore drugs and not dog hair or cookie crumbs. Is anything going right in his life?
Yes, actually. Jason has a promising choreography career, articulated by his “UH 5678” vanity license plate. Kay is a supportive friend, and his sobriety is currently on the right track. He also recently met Diane (Rebecca Barrington) while grocery shopping at night, and there’s romantic potential there. (Before dating apps, there were grocery stores open at night – this was how adults got together). Even though his life is teetering on the edge, there’s only one way to go, and it requires the occasional pirouette and frequent gyrating on the path to self-preservation.
By 1987, City Lights Entertainment had released only a couple of low-budget films, MAYHEM and EPITAPH; viewers watching DANCE OR DIE will need to cut the filmmakers some slack for the limited production values on display. Nowhere is this deficit more apparent than in scenes depicting violent action. The film’s signature vehicle chase in the desert has little to no sense of geometry, which is a remarkable observation considering the source, because I was also terrible at geometry. It ends in brutal fashion – a car flip, a motorcycle jump, and a pistol blast — but the run-up is awkward and confusing, like a sasquatch running through the woods with a flatscreen TV.
In both the final dance number and the film’s most violent sequence (the Daytime Drug Murder Cookout) it looks like the actors playing the victims are shot with paintballs in place of the customary exploding squibs. Instead of fatal blasts, it appears the victims are getting hit in the chest with saucy meatballs at high velocity. It’s hard to imagine that out of the ashes of City Lights rose the phoenix of 1990s independent action stalwart PM Entertainment — funny, even! The group was clearly a young buck in the film game at this point in time, and it’s endearing to watch them finding their way given what PM would become.
Most mainstream films with dance as a central theme – think DIRTY DANCING, FOOTLOOSE, BREAKIN’, FLASHDANCE, etc. — will try to feature a memorable-but-banging soundtrack. Other than the title song in the opening sequence, the rest of this soundtrack consists of the hottest film library music of 1987 – brass instruments, synths, and electronic bongo tracks. The dance sequences on display are metaphors for Jason’s emotional states as much as they are expressions of his creative mind for choreography. They’re rarely diegetic, save for the climax. The sequencing of most of the dance scenes would suggest Jason even dreams in dance. When things in his life are spinning out of control, we see a troupe of deranged hair-metal clowns dance aggressively around Jason while he’s hanging upside-down from the ceiling and locked in a strait-jacket like Harry Houdini – he has no control over himself, let alone his demons! During a love scene between Jason and Dianne, a dancing couple writhes around on a motorcycle – uh… something about the free American spirit. I dunno, psychology is hard.
There is a point in the climax — gunfire, dancing, and meatball squibs all around — where Dianne stops everything to ask Jason, “what the hell is going on?” In this moment, I felt she was speaking for all of us. DANCE OR DIE is that rare American independent film that wants us to be able to look at a table full of narcotics and say, “Ha! Cocaine! No big deal.”