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Dead and Buried Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    “You can try to kill me, Dan. But you can't. You can only make me dead.”

    It was 1981 and the gory merry-go-round of movie mutilation was in full swing. Splatter had mattered since Romero's gut-munching zombies in Dawn Of The Dead, but Lucio Fulci had gone beyond even Gory-George's excesses with his own offal-spewing undead catalogue of badly-dubbed, badly-acted but giddily gruesome cavalcades of evisceration. And then there was the slasher genre that was, by now, well and truly upon us. Sam Raimi was still splashing more of the red stuff about a cabin in the Tennessee wilderness before being satisfied enough to unleash the first and nastiest Evil Dead but, nipping in during the early days of this infamous period, was Gary A. Sherman's brutal occult shocker Dead & Buried. With a screenplay put together by Alien's Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon (who had only a nominal part in the writing), but based on a story by Jeff Millar and Alex Stearn, the movie was a genre cross-breed. It looked and felt like a throwback to the sadistic-yokel terrors of Herschel Gordon Lewis (2000 Maniacs, The Gore-Gore Girls and The Gruesome Twosome) with its horribly happy mob of mass murderers leering grotesquely at their stricken victims, yet it cavorted with zombies, witchcraft and the supernatural.

    Telling the story of the dilapidated coastal town of Potter's Bluff - a place where visitors are invariably hacked, beaten, burned and bludgeoned to death, only to reappear with new identities and rebuilt faces a day or two later - it provided mysteries, chills and some notorious makeup effects from a young Stan (Jurassic Park) Winston. After a truncated theatrical run in the UK, the film gained a reputation and something of a cult following on home video. Idiotically vilified by certain town councils who sought to have it banned, the film courted controversy and seemed forever teetering on the brink of making it permanently onto the dreaded DPP list of outlawed movies. Which is quite remarkable as the film is actually a very competently made, reasonably well-budgeted and distinctly up-market offering from the studio that had helped make John Carpenter's a household name - Avco Embassy. When held against the likes of Bloody Moon, Don't Go In The Basement, I Spit On Your Grave and SS Experiment Camp, this notoriety is something of a slap in the face. Gary Sherman was also the director of the excellent 1972 British-made chiller Death Line (aka Raw Meat) about cannibalistic killings taking place on the London Underground and, if nothing else, he took his material very seriously. In fact, Dead & Buried was never even meant to be a gore film - it was the studio-suits and money-men who demanded that Sherman's first cut be spiced-up with a bit more claret. Sherman had originally intended the movie to be a blackly comic murder-mystery, high on atmosphere and dark humour, but low on actual violence. Ironically - and coming from a gore-hound like myself, this should sound almost like sacrilege - the film probably would have worked much better if he had been able to hang onto his original version. For, despite showcasing some wonderful FX (state-of-the-art at the time, but now, inevitably, pretty mundane and tepid), the sheer protraction of the scenes of death and carnage lessen their potency quite considerably and, barring the very first slaying that we see, become very stale very quickly.

    Investigating the string of monstrous killings that have begun to plague his once-quiet little hamlet is James (The Final Countdown) Farentino's Sheriff Dan Gillis. Aided and hampered in his quest to get to the bottom of such unsavoury deeds is the town coroner and mortician, Dobbs, played by veteran character actor Jack Albertson. As more and more deaths occur and the two men become increasingly busy, respectively chasing down loose ends and stitching-up cadavers, the mystery thickens when Dan keeps finding his own wife, Janet (played by Flash Gordon's own Dale Arden, Melody Anderson), somehow linked to the victims. Red herrings abound, preposterous suspicions fester and a vein of humour so black it could snuff out the lights of Las Vegas pulses enigmatically at the heart of a very ambitious little horror pot-boiler. Why are the townsfolk so despicably evil? What is really in those sealed caskets? And is that really a pre-incineration Freddy Krueger sitting in the local diner?

    A lot of film critics love to slate him, but I've always been a fan of James Farentino. He's got one of those hangdog pugilist's faces that carries a part, no matter how slight or clichéd it may be, and he always seems to be giving his performance one hundred and ten percent. Admittedly, his film career doesn't have that many entries in it - for a variety of surprisingly dodgy reasons - but he has been a stalwart presence on TV and is still one of those richly recognisable actors. Here, as Sheriff Dan Gillis, he is allowed to run the gamut of emotions. His sheer incredulity at the weird occurrences taking place in his town is terrific, especially when Dobbs informs him, in rather accusatory fashion, that one of his bodies has gone missing on top of everything else. “And now body-snatching! What the hell is going on around here???” Farentino roars in total, over-the-top, hand-wringing exasperation. He essays some fine suspicions, too, when something doesn't seem quite right on the home front, yet his plain adoration of Anderson's Janet is written believably on his chops when he spies her teaching the kids at school. Cutting a likeable figure of authority about town, he nevertheless manages to be both surly and gung-ho when the time comes and the impression of him having quite a short fuse is well signposted. This was a part that could so easily have been done in another actor's sleep, but Farentino defiantly wrestles with it to make it his own and I can't help but applaud him for that. He even walks down the street with one palm sort of hovering just over his holster like some old frontier lawman.

    As the wife who may, or may not, know a little more than she is letting on, Melody Anderson is sweetly saccharine and so Stepford Wife-ish that we just know something sinister has to be lurking behind that angelic smile. They make a strange couple, she and Farentino's Dan, the kind that is all light and roses on the outside, but you get the feeling that the blokes in town snigger behind the Sheriff's back and this soap-opera-ish aside, although almost subliminal, is another nice little flavour in the unholy brew. Anderson isn't the greatest actress in the world, but she does have some curious and quirky scenes to perform and she does so with some grace and, when it is required, gumption.

    But the film is possibly better populated by its supporting cast. The afore-mentioned Jack Albertson is a ghoulish delight. Charming and eccentric, his jalopy (a Cadillac-hearse) playing old school jazz and big band ballads loud enough to wake the dead - which, in his profession, is a thoroughly unsavoury thought - he alters the course and the tone of the film whenever he is on-screen to one that permits the gallows-humour that Sherman so longed for us to experience all along to come sizzling through. There is something of the wizened old elf about him, or the fantastical elderly grandfather - all coy, knowing quips and an air that makes you think he really has seen something of the other side. Of course, having played Charlie Bucket's Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory and The Man in TV's Chico And The Man helps this tingling association no end. Sporting a pair of Coke-bottle spectacles only adds to his eccentric demeanour, and his odd little head-movements make him seem like some crumpled old owl lent human form. And then there is Linda Turley, as the waitress whose semi-cute, semi-surly attitude and arrogant smile certainly make her stand out from the crowd. Always there at the forefront of the butchery, she strikes (literally, in one case) an image of small-town resentment and deep-seated suspicion. It is hard to work out how we are supposed to feel about a character such as this. Whilst the other murderers come across mostly as retarded gurners, mere pawns in some bloody chess-game, Turley seems to have some sort of elevated status. Another stand-out (or “pop-out” given her brief, ahem, exposure) is the attractive Lisa Blount, whose sweet assassin-nurse provides some colour and spice to the film, and is certainly responsible for its most wince-inducing murder - at the end of an agonisingly long hypodermic needle. Gremlin-faced Robert Englund crops up too, in a pre-Freddie bit-part. And then, amongst the fishermen, you can see Barry (The Sand Pebbles, Wargames, Lonesome Dove) Corbin, using that jowly grin of his to give visitors entirely the wrong impression of the town's hospitality. Funnily enough he would go on to portray another oddball from a cut-off town in the great Northern Exposure. It is quite an eclectic bunch of ne'er-do-wells, that's for sure.

    “Just put 'em in a box and bury 'em, Dobbs!”

    The setting is magnificent. Although the fictional Potter's Bluff is set on the Atlantic seaboard in Maine, it is actually the northern Californian coastline, as exemplified by John Carpenter's The Fog, Joe Dante's The Howling and, ahem, Jessica Fletcher's Cavett Cove in Murder She Wrote, that has been used and, as evidenced here and by these others, it is a hugely evocative area. The region drips with scenic splendour and it actually harbours a terrific sense of isolation that the likes of LA, the ubiquitous Midwest or any other American setting cannot hope to match. Even the inhospitable sunspots of The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw do not manage to manipulate the senses quite like northern California, and this is because, with its cliffs, its greenery and its rugged bays and coves, it actually resembles the British coastline and this, of course, is something that automatically creates a ghostly shiver and an otherworldly ambience. And with Potter's Bluff, Sherman builds a place that is, perhaps, the most eerie and disquieting. Why? Because it is the dirtiest and most depressing-looking enclave of the lot of them. Check out the windy, but sunny aspect of The Fog's Antonio Bay. Luxuriate in the wooded beauty of Patrick Macnee's werewolf sanctuary in The Howling. Have Eggs Benedict in one of Cavett Cove's lovely little picture-postcard eateries. But set one foot outside the car in Potter's Bluff and you'll be up to your knee in mud and blood. This place is so heavy with rainfall, wind and fog that it could well New Brighton - which is just down the road from me, folks - and the sense of weathery menace is just as ever-present. If you look at Police Chief Brody's awesome 4 x 4 in both Jaws and Jaws 2 (blue in the first and beige in the second) it positively gleams. Then check out Sheriff Dan's jeep in Dead & Buried - phew, what a mess! Potter's Bluff must have been twinned with that farm in Emmerdale! Hey, and guess what, both Dead & Buried and Murder She Wrote were actually filmed in the same place - Mendocino in California - yet they couldn't look more different, could they?

    “How do you do it? How did you bring them back to life?”

    “Call it black magic. Call it a medical breakthrough. I'll take my secret to the grave.”

    But this squalor and earthy pungency only adds to the disturbing quality of the film. When night falls, the fog rolls in and this fog isn't of the supernaturally glowing John Carpenter variety - ohhhh no - this is thick, wet and clammy. You can feel it and even smell it coming through the screen, its slimy wetness all-pervading. The crazy thing is that the fog also seems to permeate the interiors as well. Just look at the weirdly hazy, diffuse lighting that cinematographer Steve Poster uses for the scene when the Sheriff goes to visit his wife at the local school - the imagery is purposely obscured and gauze-like. Lucio Fulci would often do the same sort of thing - fogging his interiors, that is (as in The Beyond, City Of The Living Dead and The House By The Cemetery) - but, in his case, he would often use the very gore, itself, to light-up such scenes.

    The celebrated haunted house sequence is still deeply unsettling. It flirts very precariously with farce when seen nowadays, but this remains the most disturbing set-piece that the film has to offer. Partly because of the dodgy notion of a family about to wiped-out - an earlier moment when the little boy (who looks just like a younger version of Michael Baldwin's teenage morgue-investigator in Don Coscarelli's awesome surrealist-nightmare Phantasm) is almost enticed into the kitchen of a diner filled with killers is acutely skin-crawling - and also partly due to the sheer pantomimic nature of the gathering assailants, themselves. But Sherman doesn't let such innate lunacy hamper the dread that we feel as we watch helplessly as the family attempt to flee what, to us, was very obviously a death-trap. Another acutely uncomfortable thing about the murders is horribly prescient to a terrible ongoing, real-life trend. Each mutilated victim is photographed extensively by their killers as they suffer, something that is disturbingly akin to the happy-slapping modus operandi of some of today's scumbags who derive pleasure from capturing the moments of their casual thuggery on camera. And, coupled with the mob-mentality of the random acts of violence, the film takes on a very distinct personality in terms of the horror genre. The self-righteous darkness in the piece is also vaguely reminiscent of The Wicker Man. Witness the scene of Janet teaching her young class about “Voodoo And The Undead”. Man, I wish I'd had that kind of schooling! But this interpretation of small town mentality and the isolation that allows such communities their own sort of “once-removed” ideology is a definite nod to the common American fear that straying from the beaten track can only result in, well, doom. 1981 would also see the release of both The Howling and An American Werewolf In London which, besides their lycanthropic bond, were two films that would also share the same deep-rooted suspicion of secluded communities.

    “Welcome to Potter's Bluff!”

    My advice ... keep driving.

    But the film has a great many flaws too. In fact, the story just doesn't work as a full-length feature at all. Far better suited to the instant mystery and enigma of a Twilight Zone or an Outer Limits episode, where the situation does not need a tight and convincing denouement, and where the shock-climax is all that matters. But Dead & Buried pitches-in too much else that doesn't properly add up. Why do the townsfolk seem to enjoy the butchery that they inflict? If so many people are going missing and contriving to end up in Potter's Bluff, then how come nobody else has been snooping around? Exactly what is the point of killing folk off just to bring them back from the dead again? And the loose end of another mysterious figure involved in the process (actually a studio-imposed addition that almost derails the plot) just serves to bewilder all the more. The concept is terrific, the execution of it all is also very assured, but the plot is hokey and just falls apart at the seams at the end of the day - just like the flesh on those reanimated bodies.

    “You bring me a body that smells like burnt steak. You force me to keep it until it begins to rot ... and you have the nerve to call me sick!”

    The essential thing, of course, is whether or not the film delivers atmosphere, chills and enough of an idea to keep you intrigued. And these are the elements in which Sherman definitely comes up with the goods. A frightening search for a midnight runner in the mist is handled superbly well, with Farentino having already been clubbed by a man with a severed arm (awesomely, the amputee even stops to retrieve his errant limb before hot-footing it into the shadows) and then poking through some very creepy barns and outhouses to the incredibly soul-numbing moan of a distant foghorn. A bizarre moment of self-burial is rendered exquisitely creepy despite the inherent silliness of the scene. A stunned allegation from the curiously accented and somewhat effeminate hotel proprietor about having seen one of the murder victims working at the local gas station is quite a jolter, too, his wildly shaken-up behaviour actually hugely convincing. “You ask your wife!!!!” And Poster's deliberately scummy photography matches the mood of the movie expertly. This is not a film of Dean Cundey-style tracking-shots, or Argento-esque Luoma Crane movements, but rather a sedate, slow-burn visual meander into the moral and the supernatural murk. Poster seems to frame many shots within a mask of both shadows and mist - the exact principles that stage magicians always employ - and his direction from Sherman was to make the image as uncomfortable as possible for the viewer, the idea being to skew everything just enough out of whack to create an itchingly surreal experience. But the style is deceptive and it may take a couple of viewings to fully appreciate just what he does with the filming. For instance, there are a number of times when a car pulls up outside a building - usually Dan's mucky jeep outside his own fog-enshrouded house, but even the family car pulls up outside the diner in exactly the same manner, from right to left - and this kind of stock TV show establishing image begins to take on an almost hypnotic power, a sort of visual reference to things going around and coming around again. Shallow-focus pulls the action in close, denying us the sensation of space and “breathability” and that dirty-brown palette can only have been devised to give the impression of stifling-away in the grave.

    Joe Renzetti's score is another fine component. Apart from his mournful, lonely piano-led title theme, he constructs his music out of pure horror standards. We get tremendously deep, rolling chords of ominous build-up and then shrill, jarring, stabbing motifs for the carnage once it becomes inescapable. He plays about with eerie tonal textures and these juxtapose quite cleverly with Dobbs' swing-time records, particularly in a couple of scenes that embrace both the horror and the ridiculousness of it all in one chillingly camp melding.

    With all this good stuff going into the pot, it is a shame that the film, ultimately, fails to completely satisfy. What we have is a terrific little voodoo-hoodoo mystery that has been needlessly embellished with trendy gore and violence. The resulting hodgepodge manages to make both sides of the bone-chilling coin enjoyable, yet denies the “whole” a true chance to shine.

    Sherman would go on to helm the lousy Poltergeist III and the experience, it seems, would prove enough to put him off big screen horror outings for good. His career in TV, however, continues. The promise that he showed with Death Line appears to have been fleeting and somewhat random, with only Dead & Buried measuring-up to the raw and slightly off-kilter template that he created. Farentino would descend into television, Albertson, who was terribly ill during the production, sadly died shortly after the film was completed, and only Englund would prosper within the genre with the immortal Freddy Krueger lurking just around the corner and the super-celebrity status that ol' Pizza-Face would bring. Dead & Buried remains a firm favourite but, as with the likes of Friday The 13th (see separate BD review), the cult fascination for it revolves more around the whole nostalgia that fans have for the era in which it first surfaced. But, be that as it may, Sherman's film has a tremendously dark and depraved atmosphere. It offers a unique setting, a quirky story that goes on some unexpected tangents, and a cluster of splendid shocks. Stan Winston's career would certainly take off in the film's wake, with his next mission creating inside-out huskies for John Carpenter's The Thing, a directorial opportunity coming along with his own crafted Pumpkinhead and, of course, awesome and iconic inventions for The Terminator, Aliens and those dinosaurs that Spielberg loved so much. Sadly passing away in 2008, his contribution to celluloid make-believe cannot be overstated and it is great to see some of his earlier work here in Dead & Buried.

    Good, ghoulish fun and, after the BD release of Friday The 13th, another nostalgic trip down dismemberment lane.

    The Rundown

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