Black Friday comes loaded with potential, but ends up roughly as enjoyable as visiting a Wal-Mart on the titular holiday.
Casey Tebo’s Black Friday, a horror-comedy centered on the titular post-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza, accomplishes the near-impossible in taking a foolproof premise and likeable cast and delivering what is essentially the film version of salmonella poisoning. Let’s start by getting the requisite holidays jokes out of the way: this film is a real turkey. An undercooked one at that. It’s also lazier than a snoring uncle tripped out on tryptophan, and one is left to ponder what a better filmmaker could have done with the likes of Bruce Campbell, Michael Jai White, and some impressively gooey practical effects courtesy of the great Robert Kurtzman. Conceptually, it’s actually rather surprising that no one has ever thought to build a horror flick from the nationally recognized shopping free-for-all and real-life nightmare, a day when individuals operate according to their basest animal (and capitalist) instincts; by now we’ve all seen footage of rabid shoppers punching and kicking their way across big box aisles in pursuit of savings, exhibiting little humanity as they desperately try to nab the last $200 off-brand flat screen.
But for all that built-in potential, Tebo and screenwriter Andy Greskoviak do absolutely nothing to maximize a premise so ripe for satire. George A. Romero covered similar material over 40 years ago with Dawn of the Dead — consumer as zombie, undead patrons stalking mall walkways and shopping corridors, their desire for human flesh analogized to their capitalistic lust. By setting the action during the frenzy of Black Friday, where money-hungry corporations are at their most heartless, one would assume the stakes would be even higher here, the satirical targets obvious but still worthy of a good goosing. Unfortunately, Black Friday is as lifeless as the antagonists at the heart of its story. A meteor shower has brought some sort of cosmic goo crashing through the roof of a corporate toy store in Any Town, USA. Anyone who comes near it becomes a snarling, zombified beast who craves flesh and blood, and will stop at nothing to obtain it. The employees of We Love Toys must band together to stop the outbreak from leaving the store premises, a motley crew that includes wussy manager and corporate shill Jonathan (Campbell), middle-aged divorced dad and all-around fuck-up Ken (Devon Sawa), germophobe Chris (Ryan Lee), bad-ass Archie (White), and, of course, the pretty-but-tough young female, Marnie (Ivan Baquero).
It would be nice to report that they dispose of these ravenous beasts in fun and inventive ways; they do not. It would also be fantastic to discuss the crackling chemistry shared by this not-entirely-unimpressive cast, but that too isn’t in the cards. Indeed, it’s been awhile since a horror-comedy has been quite this inert. It’s too much to even decry the film as stuck in neutral, as it doesn’t even seem like anyone has found the keys. Everything here feels distinctly half-assed, as if the entire enterprise could get by on cast and premise alone. Even the production design of the store itself is pathetic, half-empty store shelves filled with obvious empty boxes, and that’s even before the sale-hungry mobs decimate the aisles. The sterility of the surroundings could be seen as a more accurate reflection of personality-free corporate stores, but such a reading fails to highlight the much-needed dichotomy of the foregrounded zombie action and twinkly toy surroundings, with the resulting mayhem simply looking like slapdash cosplay between bored participants on an underpopulated set. The impressive effects work courtesy of Kurtzman keeps hinting at an ‘80s alien throwback a la Invaders from Mars or Night of the Creeps, but such fun never materializes. Sawa gives a surprisingly nimble and committed performance — let it be said I am here for the Renai-Sawa-nce — but the underutilized White looks as uninspired as his surroundings, while Campbell goes for half-hearted scenery chewing, no doubt wishing he was managing an S-Mart instead. And the end of the day, a film like Black Friday doesn’t even bear much contemporary cultural currency, neither reflecting COVID’s impact on such shopping shenanigans nor riffing on that present reality, the final nail in the coffin of this DOA project. Online shopping has never looked so good.