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 Amazon.com at this link.)