The moment the clock hit 12:01am, most of my social media had flipped from Halloween content to Christmas. Out with the spooky and in with the jolly! Skipping over the fact that Hanukkah starts sundown November 28th this year (slow your Mariah Carey rollout, pleaseandthankyou), there’s Thanksgiving on the 25th — a whole *other* holiday entrenched in questionable historical relevance that we need to celebrate before any others. Sadly, though, as the years have gone on, Thanksgiving has gotten less and less room on the calendar as capitalist needs have shifted the Day After sales to the morning after, to the evening of, to the midday of. At some point, making DVDs available for $5.99 was more fulfilling for corporate than actually giving their workers time to spend with their families and, perhaps, even a decent night’s sleep. Coming from someone who’s worked multiple Black Fridays in a variety of industries, it’s one of the most unpleasant days in retail, with Christmas Eve and December 26th right on its heels. All the tension, frustration, and entitlement retail workers experience is the perfect basis for science-fiction horror tale Black Friday, directed by Casey Tebo (Barely Legal) and written by Andy Greskoviak. Black Friday is always about survival, they just give it a spin that makes it more literal.
It’s Thanksgiving Day and while most families are spending the day together in one form or another, basking in the traditions that run from the overly complex to merely hanging out on the couch, there are others who find their relaxation cut short, called to work on the most unholy of capitalist holy days: Black Friday. On this day, the workers of We ♥ Toys leave their families to head to work so they can prepare their store of the coming onslaught of bargain shoppers. But there’s something else lurking in the aisles, changing the malcontent shoppers into vicious, barbaric killers, forcing the staff to gather together in a fight for their lives.
Black Friday is a film which is distinctly set on Thanksgiving, but is very much a Christmas film. It’s not just because there’s a Santa with his own village set up in the store, it’s that those in retail know that Black Friday is all about kicking off the official Christmas Shopping Season. (If you’re thinking “But what about Chanukah?”, allow me to inform you that (a) it’s a minor Jewish holiday and (b) gifts are given primarily to reduce exclusion from Christmas.) Impressively, Greskoviak captures the often tense relationship between employees who know they’re getting screwed by corporate and the self-serving customers who crave discounts. Even when the script goes a tad off book (the store lights being off just to set a mood is an odd choice), it captures the rest of the tone perfectly. The number of times Greskoviak’s script offers customer-employee or employee-co-worker conflicts that reeked of my own experience was enough to make me shudder and be grateful for the end of those days. Sure, we’re all in it for a paycheck and it’s the responsibility of management to boost morale to hit their numbers, but there’s a line you don’t cross where humanity is lost and the corporate monster takes over: this is where Greskoviak and Tebo really dig in, using that as a constant harbinger suggesting that maybe getting converted into a soulless murderer isn’t so bad if it means corporate can make budget. Sure, sure, you come to a movie like Black Friday looking for bloody mayhem, which you get, but that they so perfectly nail the underlying disgusting nature of capitalism at the same time is just ::chef’s kiss::.
Chances are that you’re not heading to the theater or renting Black Friday because you’re looking to commiserate about the retail worker’s plight, you want body counts. On this, Black Friday delivers, even if not in the ways you’d expect. Though the central cast starts out with a decent eight main characters with a few additional side characters, plus customers, things get dwindled down quickly and not much is on-screen. We do get to see a few attacks, but they are primarily off-screen and away from the attention of the central cast as they deal with what they think is a rogue employee going off on a customer. During this period several of the interpersonal conflicts get set-up so that, once they realize what’s happening on the sale floor, the action can kick in more fiercely. Rather than opting for supreme chaos, Tebo keeps things simple which enables the emotional investment to stay tight, especially when the inevitably thinning of the herd sets in. Some might get frustrated that there appear to be no rules in place for what the infected become, but, frankly, it doesn’t matter. They crave violence and bodies, their reasoning for who and why only becoming clear as the story goes along. Between answers, though, the violence is staged well so that we can easily follow it and the prosthetics and applications only grow in complexity the further into the film we get. This sets up a nice amplification of terror as it all starts with the usual boils and skin lesions before jumping to straight-up body modification.
It’s not all moonlight and blood spray, as there’re a few elements that don’t seem to track much, which either comes from trying to keep things simple or from the hazards of editing. For instance, after the aforementioned incident with the “rogue employee,” all the shoppers are asked to leave and we see them run out. Except they don’t all leave and there’s a sense that this isn’t a result of either entitled shoppers or growing numbers of infected. It’s just what happens and no one addresses it. Then there’s Michael Jai White’s (Black Dynamite) character Archie who is suggested to be of a military background given the terms and directions he offers, something which isn’t unheard of in retail at all. It’s just a shame that White isn’t used more effectively than to raise tension when the group’s greatest weapon is reduced. There’s also a really interesting moment involving Ryan Lee’s (Super 8) germophobe Chris that could’ve been something awesome and natural, but mostly seems to be accidental and not in any way laying the foundation for something unusual to the narrative. They do nail the absolute pettiness that oddly amplifies in traumatic situations, using interpersonal conflict to continually find ways for the co-workers to make surviving a monster apocalypse even harder in ways that fit perfectly within the expected “zombie” subgenre of horror.
Especially if you’ve worked retail, Black Friday is a good time that delivers exactly what you expect without adding in any fluff to pad the runtime. Tebo, keeping it at a tight 80 minutes, sets up the conflicts and characters, makes the reasonable out of the otherworldly, and offers just enough from his increasingly narrowed cast so that each one of them is given time to shine — even if they’re *super* shitty when they have it. You get exactly what you pay for with Black Friday and that’s perfectly fine. You don’t watch a film like this unless you’re looking to be entertained, to be afforded a few precious minutes to just relax and giggle at some heavy-handed ridiculousness. Sometimes, that alone is worth the price of admission.
In theaters November 19th, 2021.
Available on VOD November 23rd, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Black Friday website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.