Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) of The Evil Dead franchise just might be the most famous retail worker in horror history, and one of the most celebrated working class anti-heroes of the genre. When Bruce Campbell announced he was officially retiring the character at the end of Ash vs. Evil Dead’s three-season run, it definitely left fans wanting more. Enter Black Friday, Casey Tebo’s slim 80-minute horror film about a group of retail employees who face off against alien-parasite-infected shoppers ransacking their store on the biggest sales night of the year. Campbell plays Jonathan, the power-obsessed, yet mostly harmless store manager who wants the capitalist show to go on even as his employees begin to battle the hordes. For folks looking for Campbell to portray an Ash stand-in, they won’t find it here, as Jonathan isn’t anybody’s cosmic “chosen one” to defeat the zombies, but the film still gives Campbell room for his signature charismatic humour. Fans also won’t find the energetic action and dark-as-night humour of Ash vs. Evil Dead and other similar hyper-violent comedy horror films. What they will find is a fun film that doesn’t quite live up to its solid premise, but still delivers some goofs and gore for fans of zombie flicks.
Although it’s tempting, it isn’t fair to compare Black Friday to Ash vs. Evil Dead and stop the analysis there. After all, it’s its own thing. The film centres on Chris (Ryan Lee), a young and naive employee with severe germaphobia; Ken (Devon Sawa), a single-father who feels divorced not only from his ex-wife, but his kids as well; and Marnie (Ivana Baquero), a young woman who brings a sense of compassion to the group. Michael Jai White also stars as Archie, a stapler-gun wielding co-worker, and Stephen Peck plays Brian, the floor-manager who tries to enforce Jonathan’s demands. Although they aren’t the most developed of characters, the movie gives them room to form bonds and understand one another in the midst of crisis. Ryan Lee in particular as Chris gives a believable performance as a terrified germaphobe out of his depth, and Devon Sawa as Ken feels grounded and earnest.
The cast of characters and the way they interact may remind some viewers of the 2014 film Cooties, where a group of elementary school teachers band together to survive a cannibalistic virus outbreak among their students. Unlike Cooties which leans heavily into gore and shock, Black Friday serves up some blood and guts but remains relatively tame and shies away from its violence until late into its runtime. Black Friday might have benefitted from some more attention to action, particularly to elevate the survival stress and fight-or-flight moments for its characters.
Black Friday suffers the most in structure and pacing, especially in terms of when it introduces the zombie invasion to the store (a little too late in its short run-time) and how it does so (without much pomp or pulp). The characters, including Jonathan, seem underwhelmed in the face of the circumstances at first. Although the film seems to be trying to critique capitalism and the need to persist in money-making enterprises even at the beginning of a pandemic (COVID commentary, anyone?), the message is sporadic and patchy and doesn’t fully land. At times, it seems like not a lot happens in Black Friday until its final act, and even then, the action doesn’t pack the weighty punch you’d expect from it until the last ten or so minutes. This might be due to the small budget, but it still might have been possible to stretch the dollar for a few more thrills. For zombie devotees looking for a fun holiday-themed movie, Black Friday might deliver, and will obviously be a much-watch for Campbell completionists. For those looking for a film that floors the gas pedal of its concept, the film doesn’t quite cash in.
Black Friday is out in select US cinemas and on VOD now
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter