More Than Meets The Mogwai

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Nothin' But the Dead and Dying Back in My Little Town: DEAD & BURIED (Gary Sherman, 1981)

Unsettling, effective, and ultimately one of the more fatalistic horror films of the early 1980s, Gary Sherman’s DEAD & BURIED has a neatly encapsulated premise: a small coastal town overrun by members of the unknowing undead, forced not to munch on the brains of the living, but to prey upon any trespassers, disfiguring and burning the victims beyond repair in order for the town’s mortician (Jack Albertson, in his last role) to artfully reconstruct them. The opening’s startling revelation alone – a nature photographer thanks his lucky stars when an attractive blonde (Lisa Blount) quite willingly poses nude for his camera, before the rest of her unruly mob tie him to a stump, place steel-mesh over his face, and immolate him – sets up the central quandary almost too well. What the hell are we dealing with here? Who are these psychopaths who reside in this comfy little town of Potters Bluff? And, why is the lady who lit the match almost joyously -- completing the ungodly deed -- so unemotional yet pleasant while serving coffee in a local diner in the very next scene?

Steely-eyed Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) investigates further after more dead bodies turn up -- on the case as our official “unraveler”. Suspecting and questioning his wife’s involvement after finding a Witchcraft book in their home, he trails her to her classroom, where he witnesses an animated lecture on the principles and practices of black magic. It seems no one in the town is completely sane, and with no allies, but some supernatural proof in the form of particles of living-undead flesh scraped off of his front grill after a hit-and-run and word that the scene-stealing Dobbs (Albertson) was booted from the last town he worked in, Gillis confronts the big-band loving artiste-cum-mortician, and gets an answer he’s probably not looking for.
Lisa Blount returns the gaze.

Screenwriter (well, really, script doctor in this case) Dan O’Bannon’s careful to elaborate on the featurette accompanying disc two of Blue Underground’s release of DEAD & BURIED that he was very conscientious to not step on George Romero’s toes in terms of handling the revivified corpses, insisting he would never partake in blatant thievery because of the artistic aims of Romero’s work (jocularly adding that he wouldn’t care if he was paid to rip off more unabashedly capitalistic fare, like a Chuck Norris film). His approach must have worked, because I never once thought of the pasty-blue zombie cretins of Romero’s then-recent DAWN OF THE DEAD, what with the painstakingly maintained bodies that Dobbs labours over (every two weeks, he says in the film, which leads one to play devil’s advocate for a hypothetical sequel: what would happen should the elderly Albertson pass away, leaving a seaside town full of cheerful, decomposing half-living “things”).

In the doc, O’Bannon professes a genuine love for thrilling suspense sequences that don’t involve gratuitous gore, and one needs only to think back to the deserted house permeating with shadows in DEAD & BURIED, or the careless hitchhiker who grabs a ride from a rowdy resident of Potters Bluff to bear out how truthful this is (the eye-stabbing actions of the nurse notwithstanding, probably left over from the original draft by Jeff Millar and Alex Stern). There’s also a curious pessimistic side to everything: the situation goes from bad to worse, as Gillis feels alienated from his townspeople before the final zinger reveals he may already be in line with them. It’s a tragic denouement, one which is relished over with maniacal delight by Albertson, truly his last hurrah as he was to pass away shortly after ADRing his lines.
Sherman’s direction is workmanlike, as it was possibly messed with by Avco-Embassy (he speaks of a few tracking shots vetoed and broken-up by the higher-ups on his audio commentary), and the comedy that was apparently so prevalent in the script has been stripped to all but a very few instances. (But all that remains makes a loopy kind of sense if one were to think back over the last ninety minutes: the townspeople appear to be dopey and lethargic as the undead would perhaps behave, due to being pawns with limited brainpower, proffering bone-headed answers and reactions to the simplest requests or exchanges.)

The finale is highlighted by several projection screens showing some crucial black-and-white footage that clears up everyone's relation to one another in Potters Bluff; the immediacy of this hand-held footage gives off only glances as Albertson’s at his altar, but its startlingly effectual, much like the rest of DEAD & BURIED: where the unexpected meets the expected, and the dead have no choice but to be playthings for a maniac, for everyone in the town must go through the same rituals, and for Farentino, the end has already been written.

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