Dead and Buried
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 chaps 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, 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.
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.