The action is brutal in the horror-comedy B-movie Black Friday, which offers audiences gruesome delights with a distinctly campy spin. Produced and starring the legendary Bruce Campbell (best known for playing Ash Williams in the Evil Dead franchise), Black Friday is a fun subversion of the typical zombie survival subgenre, replacing the traditional undead creatures with an alien lifeform that takes over frenzied shoppers. It’s a painfully obvious metaphor for retail and consumerism, and the story is hampered by more than a few glaring flaws. Thankfully, it still offers plenty of what viewers are really there for: cheap thrills. Black Friday is a solid camp thriller that blends hilarious visual gags with some seriously grisly — if problematic — guts and gore.
Black Friday centers on a group of retail workers at a large big-box toy store, preparing for the expected Thursday night rush of deal-seekers. However, a mysterious, throbbing pink lifeform infects the shoppers, leading to a chain reaction that causes violent mayhem. With only a handful of workers left — Ken (Devon Sawa), Chris (Ryan Lee), Marnie (Ivana Baquero), Archie (Michael Jai White), Brian (Stephen Peck) and store manager Jonathan (Campbell) — the group must put aside their differences in order to survive the night against the violent, mindless customers.
The characters in Black Friday are deliciously hammy. Campbell is in top form here, making every scene he’s in more entertaining just by virtue of his presence. The veteran actor understands the medium possibly better than anyone else in the industry, and he knows how to milk a performance. Peck is another standout as the over-the-top Brian, who serves drama like a soap opera villainess. Sawa instills a lot of charm into his slacker-dad character Ken, who serves as the film’s lead. Unfortunately, not every actor gets a chance to shine. This is especially true of White, who’s an icon in the action industry. The actor feels misused in Black Friday, robbed of the opportunity to showcase his impressive martial arts skills despite the many action set pieces in the film.
To his credit, director Casey Tebo strikes a good balance between silly and scary in Black Friday. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously but avoids the trapping of being overly dumb or cheesy. It’s impressive how much Tebo squeezes from the material; there are several laugh-out-loud moments in the movie that are purely visual sight gags that are expertly timed with reaction shots. The movie’s direction doesn’t skimp on the frights either. The horror visuals are perfect; the movie uses a lot of practical effects like prosthetics and throbbing, bulbous masses, which are scary and gross in all the right ways. The alien parasite monsters are pure B-movie joy, feeling inventive while also echoing iconic titles like The Blob and The Thing.
The movie was written by Andy Greskoviak, and while it shows promise — the opening scenes, in particular, are strong — the major story issues prevent Black Friday from being an otherwise must-see indie horror flick. The movie’s conceit is to use a zombie-like parasitic outbreak as a not-so-subtle condemnation of the capitalist frenzy that is “Black Friday” — but the movie fails to execute this in a meaningful or intelligent way. The characters are all underdeveloped (and in some cases, blatantly offensive), and have little to no motivation. The story itself chugs along by its own obscure logic and there are several moments in the plot where it feels like entire scenes with pertinent exposition are skipped over. It’s never clear what’s going on, why the characters are doing what they’re doing, or where exactly the narrative is going.
In terms of the actual story, most of Black Friday feels a little too much like a bitter man’s power fantasy. The transformation of the already-awful (and almost exclusively female) customers into violent, faceless, monsters feels shallow and meanspirited. Generally, there’s a persistent misogynistic note that sours the whole experience. The sole female hero is the romantic interest of the lead, and she has no real personality or discernible characteristics. Conversely, the human villains in Black Friday are all unpleasant shrew harpies or effeminate/femme males. The sheer number of times a woman is physically struck is baffling — having so many of the victims of violence be obviously female was a choice, and it was a bad one.
Ultimately, Black Friday is an idea more than a story. Sometimes this benefits the film; the action sequences are fun to watch, and the special effects are perfect for this kind of intentionally campy horror movie. Nothing in the movie is believable, but the practical effects and overwrought performances are convincing. In terms of mindless entertainment, Black Friday checks the right boxes. Unfortunately, the movie also tries to have a message, and in that regard, it completely fails.