Monday, September 25, 2006

Dead & Buried (1981, SPOILERS) review


"Welcome to Potter's Bluff, a New Way of Life"

This is one of those horror films that defies categorization, it is just that good (and enigmatic, it keeps its secrets). Not really written by Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett, the story was created by Jeff Millar and Alex Stern. O'Bannon and Shusett did a minor rewrite of the screenplay, with backer interference that added a few more scenes of gore. Yes, in the golden age of slashers (1978-81), films like The Fog and Dead & Buried had gore added for commercial-reasons only. Gary Sherman's original cut was supposed to be more comedic, a black comedy about American small towns. Still, I think the film overcomes this interference overall, though it gets pretty serious as it progresses. Reagan referred to America as "the city on the hill", a place with a special mission, where traditions never die.

Potter's Bluff was Gary Sherman's parody of Reagan America, and it still resonates with the mindless insanity of today. It should, he began a lot of the mess we're in. The Gipper always looked half-dead anyway, like all those Soviet Commisars, a relic of a dead era.I cannot honestly think of many horror films that are this grim, this hopeless, and there you have some of the social commentary about dead-end life in Main Street America. In the early 1980s, those of us who were paying attention  really thought the world was going to end, and soon. We were off by two decades, apparently. Contrary to what you've been told, Reagan didn't get elected by a landslide and the divisions between Americans from the 1960s simply went underground. Dead & Buried reflects this undercurrent of rage, the death impulse underneath the everyday, the reality bursting-forth, a force resisting change. It's a desire for cultural-limbo, which is cultural death. When things don't change, literal death is certain.

You really have to look for this subtext now, but Sherman's skill allowed it to survive the cuts and additions by PSO International, the corporation that bought the other two backers. Out went the satire, in went some shoddy gore. It was 1981.But, it's still an incredible story, and there's some great horror here. Sure, it owes some debt to George Romero (especially in its original form), but it takes us places we really wished we were never taken to and shown. It seems that every time a stranger comes to Potter's Bluff they're brutally murdered only to mysteriously reappear as a resident of the coastal town. No, this isn't a surrealist film, and these oddities accumulate and become very unsettling as the film progresses. Events that defy explanation escalate, as Sheriff Dan Gillis (played by James Farentino) investigates the murders, and the reappearance of the strangers. His humorous-foil is the local coroner, William G. Dobbs (Jack Albert in his final movie role, best known as the lovable grandpa in 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), who seems only mildly concerned about the murders. As the story progresses, Dobbs becomes the center of what and why strange things are happening in Potter's Bluff. Yes, even the name of the town is a dead giveaway, pun intended.

This is probably Stan Winston's best work, insofar as gore is concerned. One murder victim's face is totally reconstructed by the Dobbs character (really Winston's hands, fast-cut) in what is almost a one-take scene! It looks completely real, and if you love gore, this is YOUR film. People die in some of the most disgusting, and heartless methods in Dead & Buried. The money shot is the scene in which a victim is stabbed in the eye with a hypodermic needle, and it goes DEEP. You can have gallons of blood, but THIS is really effective! Robert Englund also has a small part, and the cast is pretty good overall. The film also has a great cinematography, and Sherman is no slouch as a horror director--he really should be doing a Masters of Horror Episode, since he is one. Dead & Buried is a film heavy with atmosphere, and dread, and is a must-see for true fans of horror. It even has a touch of Lovecraft, and the setting is supposed to be New England (probably O'Bannon's addition). The fact that the movie doesn't entirely explain everything is why it's so weird and unsettling, not just because of the gore.

SPOILER: As the film reaches its end, it becomes clear that the Coroner Dobbs has been practicing some form of necromancy, and derives a power from resurrecting the dead. Sheriff Gillis, unbeknownst to himself, was murdered earlier by his undead wife (this is revealed in Super- 8mm footage shown by Dobbs, the wife stabs Gillis in the back, nice). Dobbs controls all the dead in Potter's Bluff, and has chosen Gillis as the instrument of his own demise--so he can "live" eternally with his zombies. This, then, is a story of a lust for power! When I first saw this film in 1982 on HBO, it completely freaked me out, so I had to inflict it on my brother and some friends. It's so creepy and freaky, they were angry with me for months...

PS: The Blue Underground 2-DVD set is the best! I got it as a promo when it hit and it is incredible. As usual, their transfer is excellent, widescreen, and has three commentaries. The second disc has some great interviews with Stan Winston and Dan O'Bannon that have to be seen. You must own this film, if only to anger your family! A really great horror film leaves one feeling violated.