Dead & Buried: Neglected Film Broadens Treatment of Zombies in Cinema

The other day I was reflecting again on how certain movies are considered good films, sometimes classics, of a given genre. Others that appear to be just as good, for a variety of reasons, just don’t capture the attention and imagination of the viewing public like other films do. I’ve posted on this in the past in regards to The Legend of Hell House (1973), a top-notch horror film that never received the attention it deserved, possibly because it was swallowed up in the attention given to The Exorcist that same year, and because audience horror preferences may have shifted away from haunted house stories to supernatural and demonological horror in the 1970s.

As I perused a zombie title on the book shelves at my local Barnes and Noble bookstore in the film studies section, and followed this up with a review of my DVD collection, Dead & Buried (1981) struck me as another film that was well done as a horror tale that has never received the praise or attention it deserves.

Dead & Buried tells the story of the citizens of the small coastal town of Potter’s Bluff, a community with a welcome sign that greets its visitors with the phrase, “A New Way of Life.” As the story develops, the viewer soon comes to realize that this greeting is far more than a small town slogan. Instead, it is an announcement of a soon-coming invitation to a horrific definition of life that is extended to all visitors and transients who end up murdered in brutal and diverse fashion by the local townspeople. The citizens of Potter’s Bluff include the local sheriff (played by James Farentino), and a mortician (played by Jack Albertson in his last film role), who end up in a game of cat and mouse as the sheriff seeks to find an explanation for not only the murders, but claims by some that those seen dead have somehow returned to life to live in Potter’s Bluff.

This film includes a lot of positive aspects that should have brought it to the attention and appreciation of greater numbers of people.

*It involves a frightening story by Dan Shusett and screenplay that was slightly modified by Dan O’Bannon who brought us the original story for Alien.

*The director, Gary Sherman, did a good job of creating a strong sense of atmosphere for the town through the fog and weathered look of the houses of Potter’s Bluff. As O’Bannon notes in an interview on the bonus disc of the two DVD set for this film, this helps create a general sense of fear that transforms the gore effects of the film into something truly frightening and which then transports this film out of the category of a 1980s gore-fest and into an atmospheric tale of horror which also includes gore.

*Farentino and Albertson turn in good dramatic performances in a film that wants its horror to be taken seriously, and they are surrounded by a good cast of co-stars including then-unknowns like Robert Englund and other character actors.

*The makeup effects were done by Stan Winston, which includes some of his early experimentations with puppetry. This film is perhaps best known among horror gore fans for a chilling scene where a bandaged from head to toe burn victim lies helpless on his hospital bed as his nurse jams a hypodermic needle into his eye. In the bonus materials included with this film Winston reveals that the “actor” in this scene was a full-body puppet, an amazing fact in light of the emotion and fear that is conveyed by the special effect as he contemplates his murderous nurse and her instrument of death.

* Finally, Dead & Buried concludes with a Twilight Zone-esque type of ending that serves as a final and fitting twist to a a frightening story.

Digging a little deeper into the film, the mechanism for bringing the dead back to life is somewhat sketchy in this film, but it involves an interesting synthesis of witchcraft and voodooism that also bleeds over into contemporary science. As Albertson’s character says when confronted by the sheriff over his mechanism of reanimation, “Call it black magic. Call it a medical breakthrough. I’ll take my secret to the grave.” Regardless of the specifics of the method for bringing the dead back to life, the film tapped into the esoteric aspects of witchcraft and voodooism that provided inspiration and story elements for so many horror films previously, particularly in the 1970s.

Dead & Buried might also have been expected to do better with audiences in that it is properly construed as a zombie tale. Yet it is a very different expression of the zombie that is in many ways closer to the Haitian zombie motif than the popular American construction of the zombie popularized and given iconic status by George Romero. In Dead & Buried the dead come back to life, and for the most part, live “normal” lives in their small town, until the next visitor or transient arrives which leads to acts of violent murder. The zombies of Potter’s Bluff appear quite natural and normal in appearance, so long as the town mortician is able to touch them up frequently, and they do not wander around town seeking the consumption of the living. Unfortuantely, although Dead & Buried makes a unique contribution to the zombie in film that broadens the treatment of this creature, it is this very different depiction, one fine-tuned by O’Bannon in a desire to stay away from Romero’s iconic zombies, and it is this different zombie conceptualization that may have contributed to the film’s lack of large scale resonance with viewers.

For those interested in good storytelling in their horror that accompanies the gore, I recommend Dead & Buried as a neglected horror film. (Those interested in a preview can see the trailer here, and the film can be added to a film collection through at this link.)

Comment Pages

There are 13 Comments to "Dead & Buried: Neglected Film Broadens Treatment of Zombies in Cinema"

  • EegahInc says:

    What you said and more! I caught this when it first aired on HBO and have never been without a copy since. One of my all time favorites.

  • John W. Morehead says:

    It’s good to find a fellow D&B fan out there. I’m glad others don’t find my perspective on the film off-base.

  • Johnny says:

    Look here !

  • Absinthe says:

    I read the book before seeing the film. As a result I prefer the book but the movie is very good also. I like to compare the creatures to more of a Stepford Wives reanimated corpses instead of zombies. The mortician took care to make them his own version of perfect – like the men did in Stepford with their women with the end result being the same, the characters are dead but now perfect in the eyes of their creator.

  • John W. Morehead says:

    Johnny, thanks for making us aware of the film available for free online at the link you provided.

    Absinthe, I agree with you on your assessment of the film for the most part. For me the film is like a combination of Stepford Wives meets Night of the Living Dead meets 80s horror film gore-fest, all coming together to form something unique. But even though these zombies are very different from their Romero counterparts, if we define zombies as the dead returned to a state of reanimation in a state of living death, then this is still a zombie film.

  • Vince Liaguno says:

    Thanks for the trip back to Potter’s Bluff, John! Definitely an underrated treasure of the era. The outstanding movie poster art should be noted, as well.

    I think the DVD treatment the film received was excellent, and I’d further suggest Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s novelization as the perfect companion piece.

  • John W. Morehead says:

    Vince, thanks for your thoughts on D&B. When I looked at this film in my collection I hoped there were others who appreciated this neglected horror treat. Glad to see you’re a fellow fan.

  • kindertrauma says:

    Count me in a giant D&B fan. It's one of the most original films out there and it's opening scene is still just as powerful today!

  • John W. Morehead says:

    Glad to hear of another D&B fan. Thanks for weighing in. Out of all my posts this neglected film seems to have generated the most comments yet.

  • B-Sol says:

    I keep hearing about this one, especially lately with the passing of Stan Winston. Never seen it, but I might need to change that.

  • [...] as well as the remake or re-envisioning of Invaders from Mars. He also wrote the screenplay for the neglected horror film Dead and Buried, which involves an interesting take on the zombie mythology. O’Bannon died today in Santa [...]

  • Big Gus says:

    With all due respect, the relative inattention received by Dead & Buried over the years most likely results from one key obstacle: it simply isn’t very good. I saw it in my teens during its initial release, yet even as a gullible wee gorehound (and staunch devotee of Dan O’Bannon even!), I still remember the fury I felt after enduring that 90-minute stream of insults to the intelligence. I do admit I chuckled when you refreshed my memory of the mad mortician who cured death then took his secret with him WHEN HE DIED (?!?), and the mumbojumbo secret formula he could administer but not explain due to its obvious inanity. The movie did indeed offer a few gruesome scenes that succeeded as disturbing set pieces — but these stray moments of effectiveness, for me anyway, somehow made the overall experience all the more repugnant, like shiny golden corn kernels accentuating the repulsiveness of the fat brown turd from which they peep. Scattershot direction, ridiculous storyline, made-for-tv cinematography… well, maybe some forgotten films end up that way cuz they just weren’t very memorable. But then again, hey, sounds like a lot of you really dug this one and I’m just some guy so what the hell do I know? Apologies for the nitpicking, and I hope you all live to see D&B get all the recognition it deserves or more.

  • admin says:

    It’s ok to disagree. I obviously believe that at times there are good yet neglected pieces of horror cinema, and Dead & Buried is one of them as I’ve argued.

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