Sunday, November 8, 2009

Everything Dies, That's A Fact. But Maybe Everything That Dies Someday Comes Back

Every time I watch director Gary Sherman's Dead & Buried (1981), I'm struck all over again by how nasty a piece of work it is. There's a heartlessness to the violence in this movie that I never get used to. Its fantasy elements of voodoo, zombies, and black magic gives the movie's acts of sadism a slight buffer but it ranks high as one of the most hardcore American splatter films of the '80s.

Dead & Buried was written by Ron Shusett and Dan O'Bannon, who were coming off of a big success with Alien (1979), with the posters for Dead & Buried boasting that "the creators of Alien bring a new kind of terror to Earth." Sherman had been MIA since helming the 1972 cult favorite Death Line (aka Raw Meat) but even after almost ten years, Dead & Buried wasn't a rusty re-entry to the director's chair - it's clear that he hadn't missed a step. Sherman went on to direct two more notable exploitation films - 1982's Vice Squad and 1987's Wanted: Dead or Alive - before stumbling with the troubled Poltergeist III (1988) and never quite recovering his momentum.

But Dead & Buried remains a real dark gem. This got in just before the MPAA got tough with horror films in the '80s - I can't imagine that it would've earned such a lenient R-rating even a year later. And while it's storyline is absurd and shouldn't work, it does, thanks to Sherman direction never copping to how preposterous it all is. William G. Dobbs, the small town mortician with the ability to resurrect the dead that Jack Albertson (in his last role) plays here, is a villain right out of a comic book and while his ghoulish deeds seem to have no real purpose, the movie is never less than convincing as pulp horror.

The sick joke of Dead & Buried is that it's a film about the dead desecrating the living. This isn't a zombie film about the dead mindlessly devouring the living for subsistence; it's about the dead not just taking life, but maiming and mutilating life. As directed by Dobbs' will, the undead residents of Potter's Bluff don't just kill their victims, they go the extra mile to make them into unrecognizable corpses - burning them, crushing their skulls with stones, melting their faces with acid (FX genius Stan Winston really outdid himself on this early assignment). In Dead & Buried the dead are like zealots to a cause, coming together as one to destroy and disfigure life anywhere they find it in their tight-knit community. If you want to live in Potter's Bluff, you have to die first. And even if you don't want to live in Potter's Bluff, you still should be prepared to die.

Typically in zombie films, the dead are either pathetically mimicking the living (the zombies still compelled to wander the mall in Dawn of the Dead) or else are completely inhuman (like the thoroughly rotted forms seen in Fulci's Zombie or the Rage-fueled crazies of 28 Days Later) but in Dead & Buried the dead are true works of art - their mangled faces restored post-mortem with painstaking skill by Dobbs, the Michelangelo of the morgue to whom a closed casket was a sin (one of the most striking sequences in the film is a time-lapse depiction of a hitchhiker's crushed face being reassembled). His zombies weren't a parody of life but in his eyes, an improvement. It's no surprise that he learned how to bring back the dead - he loved his work too much to let it stay buried.

14 comments:

Planet of Terror said...

Love this film. Excellent post.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, PoT - this movie still holds its own and then some!

Phantom of Pulp said...

Great piece of D&B, one of my favorites of all time. It does have a nasty edge, and Sherman's grip on the material prevents it from becoming ludicrous.

His DEATH LINE (aka RAW MEAT) is another excellent piece of work.

For what it's worth, I also blogged on D&B here:

http://phantomofpulp.blogspot.com/2009/05/unsung-hero-of-dead-and-buried.html

knobgobbler said...

The first time I saw this it was a lark, I'd heard nothing about it... knew nothing going in... and just about every surprise in the movie worked on me.
Definitely one of my favorites, but it doesn't seem all that well known.

Jeff Allard said...

Phantom, thanks! And thanks for the link to your post - your ode to 'The Pipe' is pure gold!

Knob, I agree - D&B doesn't seem that well known and I can't figure out why. It definitely has a devoted fanbase but for some reason it's never been more than a minor cult favorite. Too bad - I think it runs circles around a lot of better-known films.

Arbogast said...

I'll be the contrarian here. Dead & Buried just doesn't do it for me. There's a thundering attitude of irony at play that undercuts the tension and the dread for me and puts me at an emotional distance from characters and events. Maybe facetiousness would be a better word than irony but either way the attitude renders the piece a sort of sub-Tales from the Crypt type sting-in-the-tailer for me.

Jeff Allard said...

D&B definitely has a Tales from the Crypt vibe to it but I think the reveal concerning Farentino's character works - even if you can see it coming a mile away.

My only big complaint with the movie is with Melody Anderson's performance. Even taking into account that she might have been purposely acting stiff, I still find it hard to watch and/or listen to her in this.

knobgobbler said...

Oh, Anderson's character really worked for me... maybe cause I had a thing for her... which made it all that much creepier when stuff was revealed and I still found her mighty alluring...
The idea that it was all a game they'd played many times before really got to me.

Jeff Allard said...

Well, when everything's revealed - it's hard not to think about whether Anderson and Farentino were enjoying an active sex life. If so - ewww!!

kindertrauma said...

One of my all time favorites. Melody Anderson may be a bit off but it adds to the creepiness to me. Something about her always reminds me of a 1940's starlet. The smile she gives in the black and white snuff is devastating.-Unk

FilmFather said...

An imperfect movie for sure, but one that traumatized me as a tween watching it on HBO.

When that dude was burned alive, and one of the authorities reaches in the wrecked truck to touch him thinking he was dead, and the dude screams out of nowhere? I jumped clear out of my seat.

And then the same dude gets a needle in his eyeball from the "nurse" at the hospital? I still squirm thinking about it.

P.S. Nice touch for quoting one of 3 Bruce songs I actually like as your post title.

Jeff Allard said...

Unk, the black and white snuff footage is terrific - so creepy! And Anderson's smile is definitely her best moment in the movie for me.

And FF, I like a few more than three Bruce tunes myself but 'Atlantic City' is definitely a favorite!

Nate Y. said...

Definitely one of my favorite horror films. It would be better, I think, had the mercantile bank that bought the movie hadn't decided it needed to be more violent. If you listen to Sherman's commentary on the Blue Underground DVD, he goes into how he deliberately left the color red out of the movie -- and how the tampering late in production shoved it back in for some of the tacked on scenes of violence (the hobo's death, for instance).

Jeff Allard said...

I don't know - I can't wrap my head around a more subtle version of D&B! That's like trying to imagine what Humanoids from the Deep would've been like had Corman not stepped in to add tits and gore in post-production. I'm sure Sherman would've delivered a decent film regardless but whether he was happy with the changes or not, I think the concessions he had to make are a part of D&B's appeal.