Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Dead and Buried

1981
Dir. Gary Sherman

This original and atmospheric horror flick comes courtesy of the director of cannibals-in-the-London-Underground shocker Death Line and the men responsible for penning such classic genre titles as Alien, Return of the Living Dead and Total Recall (Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett). It should come as no surprise then that it unravels as a rather unconventional and off the wall yarn with more than a few surprises up its bloodied sleeve.
When a number of vicious murders occur in the sleepy seaside town of Potter’s Bluff, Sheriff Gillis (James Farentino) suspects that something sinister is afoot. The further he submerges himself in the investigation, the more he realises that all is not what it seems in Potter’s Bluff, nor has it been for some time…

Opening with a shot of a black and white photo of the town that dissolves into live action, Dead and Buried immediately evokes contemplative notions of yesteryear and its roots in the past. This concept underpins the sense of loss and creepy nostalgia that becomes clearer as the narrative progresses and eventually reveals its true depth in the dark, downbeat finale. An eerie, mournful piano tune plays over the credits, which adds to the sense of mourning and remembrance of fonder times. The opening scene depicts a photographer meeting a young woman on a beach (Lisa Blount) and photographing her after a strange, oddly-uncomfortable-though-we-don’t-quite-know-why conversation. Just as she disrobes and offers herself to him, the hapless chap is seized by a group of locals brandishing pointy things, beaten senseless and then set on fire. The shots of him desperately writhing under heavy fishing nets are quite distressing to watch and the almost ethereal reaction of the detached mob adds to the unsettling atmosphere. They appear to absent-mindedly smile while they photograph the carnage, and the film instantly establishes intrigue and queasy suspense.



Echoes of The Wicker Man drift throughout, as it soon becomes clear that the inhabitants of Potter’s Bluff are all in on something and when outsiders are unfortunate to pass through the town; they don’t tend to last long. As mentioned, the fact that all is really not as it seems is obvious early on, as we catch glimpses of the people from the beach-burning going about their every day routines in the quiet town. Those present at the murder of the photographer are apparently just regular townsfolk, including a waitress and several dock workers (including a young Robert Englund). What adds to the eeriness is their false concern when they hear of the murder from the sheriff.

Just as it seems to be unfurling as a sort of ‘town full of occultists who sacrifice outsiders’ narrative, a number of things occur which really open up the story and heap more intrigue into the plot; including the WTF!? moment when the photographer’s charred body shows up inside a smouldering car and he’s still very much alive. What makes matters even more interesting is that after he is eventually bumped off in a stressful hospital ward scene, he shows up again seemingly alive and well and working as a gas station attendant in the town…



The quaint seaside town takes on a much more foreboding atmosphere after daylight, and the film gradually exudes a creepy Lovecraftian atmosphere; fog shrouded docks and piers, lone fog horns and cosy suburban homes in which devastatingly violent murders occur. At times the film also echoes Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, particularly in its atmospheric and fog-enshrouded depiction of the town at night. When they occur, the murders are effectively disturbing, in part because of the sudden violence, but also because of the cold detachment of the killers as they photograph the violence, juxtaposed with the frantic and futile struggles of their victims. It is also incredibly suspenseful at times, particularly during one scene when a young family stop off in town to ask for directions, are run off the road in a strange accident and wind up seeking refuge in a seemingly abandoned house with shadowy figures congregating at the windows. When they realise the extent of their predicament, with increasing numbers of townsfolk gathering outside with flood lights, cameras and sharp things, a deftly constructed chase scene unfolds.

Dead and Buried also proves immensely satisfying because of its wit and sly humour. A wry conversation between two characters about the murders plaguing the town ends with one noting how it ‘Just kills the tourist trade.’ Geddit? There is also a darkly humorous moment when the sheriff is involved in a hit and run only, to discover the injured party is missing an arm which is revealed to be writhing around on the grill of his jeep.

Spoiler Alert 


In the third act when things really begin to hurtle towards the climax, an interesting twist reveals the sheriff’s wife Janet (Melody Anderson) has a book on witchcraft which opens the story out and thickens the plot nicely. There’s some talk of the necessity of violent death, Voodoo, and ancient religious practices. School teacher Janet even conducts a class on zombies for her young pupils. Far from being the reanimated, flesh-eating corpse-ghouls popularised by George Romero, the zombies in Dead and Buried are something altogether more ‘traditional.’ Yes, they’re dead, but they are still conscious, if not entirely in control of their own actions. By going back into the traditions of zombie lore, with witchcraft and Haitian voodoo and a zombie revealed to be someone whose will is totally subjugated by another, the film feels different, offbeat and original. Even the last twist, which you may or may not see coming, in no way diminishes the impact made by this unique, strikingly original and weirdly touching film.

12 comments:

Wes M said...

An excellent look at the film James. I've never thought this film was entirely successful but yr review has given me a desire to go back and revisit the Anchor Bay DVD (which is one of grainiest, gauziest DVDs I own). I think the film has something of a TV movie look about it (which does give the violence an unexpected kick) and the point about City of the Living Dead is well made - a film I hadn't previously thought of, but the analogy works. The film sometimes reminds me of The Fog for its seaside setting, and I imagine Stephen King fans would enjoy the film, it has a certain resonance with King's small town horror tales. Incidentally, I once owned the tie-in novel which seemed to be in almost every second-hand bookstore in the late 80's. Sadly I never did get 'round to reading it and it's now long gone, which is a shame as a lot of these tie-ins were adapted from early screenplay drafts and contained many seqeences that never made the final cut...

James Gracey said...

Hey Wes. This has been on my 'to watch' list for years now. I finally got to see it when it aired on the Horror Channel a few weeks back. I agree with your point about its TV movie feel; I pretty much felt that, too. For me the central mystery was so tantalising and the slow build up to it was well crafted. Sure, it's not perfect, but I still think as a zombie movie, it stands (severed) head and shoulders over many of its peers. I really liked the return to more traditional concepts of zombification, with voodoo and witchcraft as catalysts. That felt fresh to me.

That’s really interesting what you said about novelisations often using early screenplay drafts and including sequences not even filmed. The only tie-in I ever went out of my way to obtain was The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. It added more layers to various characters and really enhanced the whole Twin Peaks experience for me.
I may be guilty of owning a couple of Alien and Nightmare on Elm Street novelisations, too… Shhh.

Aaron said...

Haven't seen this in a few years but I remember loving the setting, which reminded me of THE FOG and MESSIAH OF EVIL to name a few. I love films that take place in coastal towns, horror or otherwise. I need to revisit this one!

Jon T said...

Great review, James. I've never managed to catch this film but you've whetted my appetite to see it, so I will have to put it on order. On the subject of novelisations, I used to love Blue Sunshine (which in some ways I thought better than the film) and who can forget the lurid cover of Squirm, with the worms eating into a man's face? One novelisation I'd love to read is Susanna Sparrow's one of Romero's Martin, but I've never been able to find it.

James Gracey said...

Yes Aaron, I'm also a sucker for coastal based horrors. I love small seaside towns (I lived in one in Wales for three years), but there can often be something unnerving and darkly exciting about them; especially during stormy weather and you're completely at the mercy of the elements and feel so isolated. Perfect horror movie setting.

Alas Jon, I'm a total stranger to the work of Jeff Lieberman. I really want to check out Blue Sunshine, Just Before Dawn and Squirm. There was a wonderful feature on his work in The Dark Side a while back that really made me want to dive into his films - especially Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn. I've read about the novelisation of Martin, and it sounds like it'd be worth tracking down. Every time I consider novelisations though, I hear the stern voice of my high school English teacher chastising me for reading Batman Returns... ;)

Aylmer said...

Nice write up James. I love D&B, some of O'Bannon's best work I reckon. You're spot on about how disturbing the opening scene is, and of course the hospital scene too. Poor guy has a pretty rough time!

The Wicker Man connection never occurred to me, but now you mention it, I'm surprised it didn't. It's pretty obvious I guess. I always got a real Shadow Over Innsmouth vibe from it personally.

James Gracey said...

He does have a pretty rough time, doesn't he!? The hospital scene was so distressing.
I completely agree with you about the Shadow Over Innsmouth vibe; there was a distinct waft of the Lovecraftian throughout D&B.

Aylmer said...

Forgot to mention that it's one of my favourite posters ever. As a kid it used to really fascinate and disturb me.

psynno said...

I think most people mentioned the gloomy, cold atmosphere. I think some gauze filter was used similar to tv mocvies at the time, but more effective. I love this film and always admired it for being unapologetic; a real horror film which leaves a strange feeling after watching. You mention the creepy detachment, just the overall commitment to giving you the creeps... Also agree about the sheer cruelty of some of the killings: the burning, the hospital scene, the family. I love the mortician's reconstruction montage too somewhere halfway through. I always had this in my VHS collection. I agree about the striking poster too, I remember it in the newspaper adverts wondering about the ALIEN link, as if it was another otherworldly horror? ... Glad you are covering some of my favourites in such vivid detail as always.

James Gracey said...

It has a vaguely TV movie feel about it in certain places doesn't it? Though not where the violence is concerned! My only regret is not watching this years ago - I used to see it on offer in various video shops but for some reason never snapped it up. For shame! I suppose the important thing is that I finally got to see it and I loved it.

Dr. Theda said...

Dan O'Bannon was also the one who conceived the "B52" segment of the movie "Heavy Metal" .... "Fantastic Films" Magazine showed some of his Story-board art from preproduction.....

Dr. Theda said...

I even have the paperback novelization of this creepy film... the scene where they are examining the "Burnt dude" and suddenly ...He screams... That scared me when I first saw it .... Really Great Review...