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Dead and Buried (Original Release Date: 29 May 1981)
Either I've seen all of Dead and Buried and only remembered the ending, or I somehow only caught the ending and never saw the rest of the movie. I think it's the former. It felt familiar to me from the beginning, but I told myself as it went along that it must have borrowed this or that element from another movie. By the time I got to the end, I knew I had seen it. It's a doozy of an ending, with a last shot right out of the Twilight Zone playbook.
This isn't to say elements aren't borrowed. I'm sure it owes a debt to Stepford Wives, Invaders from Mars, and Wicker Man, and it probably owes something to White Zombie and Lovecraft's "Herbert West--Reanimator." Dan O'Bannon, who worked on the script, adapted two of Lovecraft's works--"The Lurking Fear" and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward--so it's clear he had a soft spot for him. He also wrote the script for Tobe Hooper's Invaders from Mars remake. He gives Dead and Buried just enough black humor for it to be its own thing, so I didn't mind that I saw traces of other stories in it.
(I'm going to assume Dan O'Bannon gives it its black humor, even though he's listed last in the writing credits. Alex Stern and Jeff Millar are credited for story, and frequent O'Bannon collaborator Ronald Shusset gets the first credit for screenplay. Since O'Bannon is a pride of St. Louis and the only one of these guys I know anything about, I will [unfairly] be referring to it as his movie throughout. I feel I'm supported in my assumption that O'Bannon played a fairly big part in the script by the fact that the first character we meet is from St. Louis. Also, the protagonist's name is Dan.)
If you must see a Dan O'Bannon zombie movie before you die, Dead and Buried isn't the one I'd recommend. Knowing Dead and Buried exists may come in handy on some trivia night when you're asked for the name of O'Bannon's "other" zombie movie. (If you can't remember this title, a lenient judge might also count Dark Star's Commander Powell as a zombie.) Return of the Living Dead is the one you'll be expected to know already. It's one of the genre's crowning achievements--for its humor as much as for its gore.
If you're in a position to watch more than one Dan O'Bannon zombie movie, I'd recommend both. I'd want to qualify my recommendation for Dead and Buried. I wouldn't recommend it for its direction, which is often either lazy or incompetent. Veteran actors manage, but half the people in the cast sound like they're reading their lines off the page. It is expertly and moodily shot (you can probably thank Steven Poster, who would one day DP Donnie Darko, for that), but various jump scares and horror movie clichés detract from this. Most distractingly, it has uneven effects.
Stan Winston worked on the movie, and he was at the absolute top of his game with some of the scenes. One of the effects, on the other hand, was poor enough I was actually embarrassed for him while watching it. It was so below his par, in fact, that I decided to look into it. It didn't take me long to find out that the movie's distributor, PSO International, called for reshoots to deemphasize the dark comedy and up the horror quotient. Some other effects house did the shot in question. (It made me feel good to spot this, the way it makes me feel good when I spot a Don Bluth scene in Sword in the Stone.) You'll know which one Stan Winston didn't do if you decide to watch it. If Winston had done it, it probably would have been terrifying.
I haven't said much about Dead and Buried beyond saying it's a zombie movie, so you may not feel I've given you any incentive to watch it. Part of this has to do with me not wanting to give too much away. I should warn you that the movie's zombies aren't Romero zombies. They are generally indistinguishable from living people, and part of what's intriguing about the movie is that you become increasingly less sure who's a zombie and who's not.
Our protagonist is Dan Gillis (James Farentino), sheriff of a sleepy town where no one is used to anything out of the ordinary. When a string of deaths occur, however, he is put on his guard. He's made to do something it is suggested he hasn't had to do in a while: be a cop. He goes into detective mode and starts to notice that things aren't adding up, that the townsfolk are frustratingly placid when evidence of things not adding up is brought to them, and that his wife is hiding things from him. (I began to wonder if Hot Fuzz didn't draw some inspiration from here.)
The audience knows a little more than Dan. We see an out-of-towner murdered in the opening minutes of the movie by some kind of bizarre cult whose shtick is photographing out-of-towners as they murder them. They mutilate his body beyond recognition and stage a car accident. When a bed and breakfast owner tells Dan a man identical to the murder victim is working as a gas station attendant, Dan has to take the guy's word for it. When the same man tells him his wife knew the out-of-towner, Dan coordinates a meeting between his wife and the gas station attendant, hoping to gain something from it. Her face betrays no recognition, and he's left more confused than ever. We see it's the same man, of course, and this makes us increasingly fearful for Dan.
The results of Dan's digging may come as a surprise, or they may not. If you've seen some of the other movies listed in the above paragraph, there's a chance you may expect it to turn out the way it does. You may also be suspicious of a certain character from the moment that character shows up. I don't want to prime you to be suspicious of this character, so I won't say much more. With any luck, you'll be like Dan, and suspicious of everybody.
The Final Word: I'd be curious to see the version of this they wanted to make before the distributor intervened. I don't know how much of its unevenness is due to the filmmakers, and how much is due to meddling. It isn't a mess of a movie, but I sensed it could have been stronger. It feels like a missed opportunity, considering O'Bannon's involvement. I'm still recommending it, but mostly for the atmosphere and Stan Winston's effects.
Availability: Amazon has it on DVD and Blu-ray.
Standout Scene: There are a handful of strong scenes. The first is the opening scene, which I don't want to tell you too much about. The second is a scene where a hospitalized man who can neither move nor speak is made to watch in horror as his life is threatened. The third is a fantastic effects shot where a realistic looking dummy is brought to life with a classic switcheroo. We see a coroner put eyeballs in a corpse. The camera goes up to his face to focus on him talking to the corpse, then the camera goes back down to show the corpse again. He leaves the room and turns out the light. Someone moves in the shadows of the room. The corpse sits up and looks directly into the camera. Every care was made to sell the effect. They even position a wisp of hair just so on both the dummy's and the actress's cheek so they'll match. The only noticeable difference from shot to shot is a different crumple pattern on the sheets over the bodies. You're focused on the faces, so you don't notice this. It's the awesome kind of practical effect Hollywood used to be capable of.
Hey! I Know That Guy!: Robert Englund has a brief role as a wrecker driver. Melody Anderson, who plays Dan's wife, would have been most familiar to the movie's original audience as the 1980 Flash Gordon's Dale Arden. The coroner is played by Jack Albertson, whom you may recognize as Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or "The Man" from Chico and the Man. Here he looks and sounds a little like elderly Groucho Marx. Barry Corbin has a line or two.
Nostalgia Score: 6 / 10