Around October, there were some pretty big sales on a few of the biggest cult distributors' titles. One of those distributors is William Lustig (director of Maniac and the three Maniac Cop films) brand Blue Underground. When it comes to BU, I'll almost grab anything without much concern for what it is–it's probably good. I snagged a number of titles during that sale, and one set that I was intrigued by was a 2-pack of the limited editions of Argento/Romero twofer Two Evil Eyes and this film. I started to hear things about this one, that it was a lost horror film that really should be more well known, that it had great atmosphere, effects and plotting, so on and so forth.
I try to hold back on going through my BU titles I've yet to watch, or through any of the genre stuff I've got stored up to watch still, because it's always a treat for me, because it is my bread and butter. As much as I might like straight dramas and other "normal" films these days, I can take enjoyment out of almost any kind of genre film, especially the kind that were clearly made with love for the genre–which explains my preference for films from the 80s, which, even whan made with an eye toward the commercial, seemed to have a sort of life to them, an interest and a passion.
I saw Dead & Buried described as another "town with a secret" kind of film, and that is a pretty good encapsulation without giving too much away. We witness multiple gruesome murders (effects by the great Stan Winston, incidentally) with no clear motivation, leaving town Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) baffled, as this is a town "small as a postage stamp," with no history of murder. Strange characters populate the town–some we recognize from murder scenes, some just odd, like Gillis' wife Janet (Melody Anderson–yes, the 1980 Flash Gordon's Dale Arden!) who is clearly hiding something from her husband, has strange interests and a generally bizarre manner about her–all leading back clearly to whatever this is she's hiding. Enthusiastic mortician William G. Dobbs (Jack Albertson) is not pleased with the fact of the deaths, but is more than happy to have bodies to restore and use his "art" on. Horror fans will of course note the presence of Robert Englund as otherwise faceless tow-truck operator Harry, and some folk might find Dobbs' redheaded assistant Jimmy to look familiar–he is, in fact, a much younger, less-bald, skinnier Glenn Morshower, later Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce on 24. It's a satisfying mystery with nice red herrings, confusion and strong acting. I've never seen Farentino before, but I was quite impressed with him as the Sheriff who watches his idyllic town slowly being reduced to something bizarre, violent and unpleasant that he can't seem to recognize. He broods through a lot of it, clearly trying to puzzle out the madness around him, but occasionally bursts out when pushed and prodded by the people around him into fits of believable passion.
The atmosphere is overly foggy, with one scene unfortunately screwed by child labor laws–fans used to keep the set cool under a blanket to mimic nighttime were too loud and so all dialogue was re-recorded in the scene–quite noticeably. But this is nothing to ruin the film. Knowing there is a reason, certainly, lets me ignore that pretty thoroughly. But, I just lost my last sentence. The atmosphere is foggy–literally and figuratively. Everything is blurry during the more horrific and nighttime scenes, coated in thick fog, smoke and darkness. Not to the point of irritating obscurity, but definitely adding to a feeling of murkiness and the unknown, very appropriate here, because we are not quite sure what is going on throughout most of the film. We know who is speaking, to whom they're speaking, what physical actions they're taking–but we're often at a loss as to why, not thanks to poor writing, but thanks to smart writing that is intentionally hiding this from us.
The screenplay is actually by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the two men who came up with the basic essence of Alien, Shusett later adapting "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" into Total Recall and O'Bannon writing and directing the only good running zombie movie*, 1985's Return of the Living Dead. I bring that up especially because it reminds me of this film in a way. I read that humour was sucked out of most of this film at the distributors' request, but there is still a little bit floating through here, and it reminds me of some of the humour and tone of that great film. It's subtle and mostly within characters. Some of it is in some ways actually not even close to subtle, yet it comes off as such anyway. It works out as a sort of subtext, it's there but it isn't, and it's hidden in an extremely dark plot otherwise mired in nihilistic tones. I like that a lot, it's a strange thing when the horror is so melded with the comedy. O'Bannon can leave you laughing nervously at jokes. People talk about laughing nervously to hide fear, and that's almost the same thing–but here, here it's something else again. The humour itself sort of makes you nervous, because there's an overbearing sense of dread. I like separated humour and horror (see: the best werewolf movie of all time–An American Werewolf in London) but there's something about this kind–perhaps its exotic rarity is what attracts me, I can't be sure, but it's something you just don't run across very often.
*I don't count 28 Days Later when I say that, because those people are not dead and thus not zombies. Call this semantics if you must, then say there are two good ones. It doesn't matter all that much.