Stripperland (2011) **
It isn’t unreasonable of you to ask me why, a mere 24 hours after subjecting myself to something like Sexsquatch: The Legend of Blood Stool Creek, I would step back into the ring to face Stripperland, Sean Skelding’s notionally sexy parody of Zombieland— a movie which I hasten to remind you was itself already a parody. We’ve long ago established that I can be a glutton for punishment, but surely there must be a limit to my endurance? Of course there is, but remember the aim of this update: to tackle the most eldritch abominations from my screener pile before Juniper comes home from North Carolina to resume talking sense to me about such things. There’s nothing in that stack that she eyed more disdainfully than Stripperland as I removed it from its puffy mailer, so obviously this is the time to watch it. But beyond that, there’s a psychological factor in play. That fucking space-yeti movie sucker-punched me the night before, but I was pretty sure I had Stripperland’s number. After all, I’ve seen the same director’s nigh-worthless I Am Virgin, so my guard was fully up when I dropped Stripperland in the DVD player. “That’s right, Skelding,” I said, “bring it!”
The premise is almost exactly the same as Zombieland’s: a twerp (Benjamin Sheppard) and a cowboy (Jamison Challeen, from I Am Virgin and Bury Me Again) known to each other only as Idaho and Frisco drive cross-country in a Hummer after a civilization-wrecking zombie uprising. Their journey acquires purpose when they meet Virginia (Maren McGuire, of Cell Count and Blood Creek Woodsman) and West Virginia (Ileana Herrin), two sisters trying to reach a supposedly safe place on the West Coast. There’s even a bit where the refugees wind up at the home of an over-the-hill movie star, which ends just as tragicomically as Zombieland’s sojourn at Casa Bill Murray. Here, though, it’s a washed-up action hero instead of a washed-up comedian, and Guy Gibson (Hank Cartwright, from Deep Dark and Child of Darkness, Child of Light) obviously isn’t a real person. Also, the girls aren’t headed for an amusement park, but for their grandmother’s house— and since they refer to the old lady as “Grambo,” I suspect they really will be safer there than anywhere else they might go. But the most conspicuous difference between Stripperland and Zombieland naturally concerns the symptomology of the zombie plague. This one only affects women, and it turns them not merely into flesh-eating zombies, but into flesh-eating zombie strippers.
So far, I’m sure you’ll agree that Stripperland sounds just as pointless as I Am Virgin, and maybe even a little bit more so. I mean, Skelding’s poking fun at something that already existed to poke fun at something else, and his hook is to stick a bunch of lingerie-clad girls into it as if it were a broadcast direct from the limbic systems of Beavis and Butt-Head. Why even bother, especially after Zombie Strippers! beat this film into release by three whole years? It begins to make sense, though, when you realize that Gary Brodsky’s self-help book, How to Pick Up Strippers (a copy of which is prominent among Idaho’s stock of survival gear), is a real thing that exists on Earth. An especially noisome product of the “pick-up artist” subculture, How to Pick Up Strippers lays out a system of bullet-point rules that will supposedly enable any man to con his way into the beds of women whose very profession instills in them an intimate familiarity with (and presumably immunity against) every commonplace form of masculine bullshit. The parallel with the rules of survival that Columbus constantly repeats in Zombieland probably isn’t the first thing I would have thought of upon encountering Brodsky’s tome, but it serves as a halfway-reasonable justification for Stripperland’s existence once you see Idaho getting out of scrapes with the undead by invoking the book’s dicta. Rather startlingly, however, it gradually becomes apparent that this is more than just a framework for cheap yuks. Skelding gets downright polemic about it as the film wears on, finally insisting in as many words through the voices of Virginia and West Virginia that exotic dancers deserve just as much dignity and respect as any other woman, and that Idaho (or by extension, Brodsky) is a big, gross asshole for treating them simply as the ultimate trophy fuck. The upshot is that Stripperland uses the model of Zombieland primarily to parody something else altogether, and thereby gives itself room to be shockingly not bad.
For one thing, I haven’t seen a movie so thoroughly mine out the possible variations on a seemingly simple joke since Killer Klowns from Outer Space. The zombies are easy to outrun not because they’re inherently slow or uncoordinated, but because it’s impossible to chase somebody effectively in platforms and stiletto heels. The undead can be decoyed away from their prey by scattering small bills in front of them, and they are compelled to drop whatever they’re doing and dance whenever they hear hip hop or techno music. (Stripperland has several real celebrity cameos along with the aforementioned fake one, one of which it uses to establish the latter point. Early in the film, Frisco and Idaho stumble upon the tour bus of internationally renowned rapper Double D— played by Daniel Baldwin, of Vampires and The Invader— broken down by the side of the road and surrounded by a horde of zombies. Double D and his entourage are alright, though, because the ghouls can’t get to them so long as he can keep freestyling.) Even the location of Grambo’s house in Skelding’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, is part of the joke. Notorious for having more titty bars per capita than any other city in America, Portland is obviously the perfect setting in which to climax a tale of survival in a world dominated by the disrobing dead.
Other unexpectedly winning gags grow out of the freedom afforded by borrowing Zombieland’s amorphous travelogue structure. Grambo (Linnea Quigley, from Fairy Tales and Jack-O, if you can believe that shit) and her geezer commandos are most of what you’d want them to be when they hobble into the final battle as a deus ex nursing home, and the twist revelation of Frisco’s pre-apocalypse background manages the difficult trick of being at once surprising and telegraphed as hell. Boyd Banks (of Jason X and Diary of the Dead) has an entertaining small role as a middle-aged, white pimp hiding out in a shopping mall like the cast of Dawn of the Dead. But the best thing in the whole movie is an extended riff on both The Stepford Wives and Day of the Dead. Our heroes fall into the clutches of a mad scientist named— what else?— Dr. Logan (Thom Bray, from The Prowler and DeepStar Six) who hopes to harness the power of the zombie virus to reinstate 1950’s gender roles. “Retro-wifery,” he calls it. What makes this sequence so amusing to me is that it zeroes right in on my main complaint with The Stepford Wives by making Logan a pervert who is aroused to the point of rapture by domestic labor. Oh yeah, baby— WAX THAT LINOLEUM!!!!
In short, there’s enough to like in Stripperland to leave me disappointed that there isn’t more. I’d like less time spent lazily rehashing scenes from Zombieland, especially since the original material is so much better than the direct spoofing. The message about treating sex workers like actual people should have been handled more subtly, woven less obtrusively into the fabric of the film. And at the same time, Skelding shouldn’t have shied away from having some of the zombies take their damn clothes off, since that tends to subliminally undermine his contention that there’s no shame in what strippers do for a living. Idaho rapidly becomes even more annoying than his inspiration, and while I realize that’s part of the point, it isn’t acknowledged clearly enough or early enough to make up for the fact that we’re being asked to spend over 100 minutes of our time with him. For that matter, the running time itself is a bit of a problem, since there are so many places where Stripperland would have benefited from losing a minute here, 30 seconds there, a minute and a half over that way. And on the recurring subject of brief appearances by the somewhat famous, no good ever came of putting Lloyd Kaufman in your movie, so would everyone please fucking stop doing it already? Still, the astonishing fact remains that the I Am Virgin guy made a passable flick as a follow-up. Maybe his next will be downright decent!