Monday, February 14, 2011

Movie Monday: Dead & Buried

I had the chance to re-watch one of my favorite horror films, the underrated 1981 film Dead & Buried, for a small (very small) piece I'm writing about it for a magazine. I ended up watching the whole thing all over again, from beginning to end, so I figured why not talk about it here...

Dead & Buried has a screenplay by Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon, their first film after writing Alien. It was directed by Gary Sherman, and suffered from a nightmarish series of productions problems: the production/distribution company that had planned to make it got out of the movie business, selling the movie to a second company. Then that company went out of business, selling it to a third company.

That company wasn't too keen on Sherman's black comedy tone, and insisted on adding more gore and more horror since that was the style at the time. They went so far as to add and rearrange scenes with the participation of director Sherman; and yet, despite this, the film still manages to retain a very creepy, claustrophobic tone.

It opens with a stranger driving into the sleepy coastal town of Potter's Bluff. He snaps pics of the scenery, when he is met by a beautiful woman who instantly flirts with him.

After posing for some pictures, she amps up the flirting just a bit
After posing topless, she asks the guy if he wants to have sex. This is still essentially the late 1970s, so of course this seems a totally normal turn of events.

But before he can plant a kiss, a gang of townsfolk show up, clubbing the guy on the head. He wakes up to find himself tied to a post, where the group pours gasoline on him...and sets him on fire, taking pictures of it as he screams in agony. Welcome to Potter's Bluff!

That night, an overturned car is found, and Sheriff Gillis (James Farentino) shows up to investigate. The car apparently crashed and then burned, for they find the driver a charred mess behind the wheel. The creepy town mortician--a man named Dobbs (Jack Albertson)--also arrives, looking a bit like a Batman villain:
Dobbs jokes and plays his big band music over his car radio, seeming almost gleeful for the new business. Problem is: the driver's not quite dead--he opens his one good eye and let's loose a piercing scream!

The next day Sheriff Gillis talks to some of the locals in the nearby coffee shop, and we see that many of them--including the kindly waitress--were involved in the killing.

More murders occur, and the photographer gets finished off--while Gillis and a doctor have their back turned--by the same woman who met him at the beach, this time sticking him in his eye with a needle:
Gillis seems overwhelmed by what's going on in this sleepy, quiet town. Even more unsettling is that his wife Janet (Melody Anderson, fresh off of Flash Gordon) seems to be acting somewhat strangely. She off-handedly mentions some of her students are shooting home movies as part of her class, but when Gillis mentions this to the school principal, he knows nothing about it.

Their relationship starts to get more brittle as she starts going out at night more, unconvincingly explaining where she's going. When she hands him another roll of film to get developed at the drug store, he can barely hide his nervousness:
A few nights later, a family lost during a vacation drive stop by the diner, and they are told they can get gas at the nearest station and then be shown the way out of town. In fact, the station attendant is right there, in the diner:
...problem is, this is the photographer who was burned and then stabbed to death. What's going on here?

The couple and their young son stop at a nearby house when their car stalls, and that's when they are stalked by the crowd from the diner. One of the creepiest things about this sequence is now cheerily and unemotionally the townsfolk committ their crimes:
One of the family members gets away, but is hit by Gillis' car as he races down the road. The victim's severed arm is stuck in Gillis' car grill, still twitching. As if that wasn't bad enough, Gillis is informed the town doctor that the flesh sample from the arm belongs to someone at least four weeks dead.

Gillis goes to visit his wife at her school, and Janet is teaching some weird stuff to the wee tykes in her classroom:
Gillis does some looking into the background of Dobbs, and learns that he was fired from his job as a Rhode Island pathologist for conducting experiments on the corpses. He picks up the film from the drug store, but we see just how many people are involved:
The doctor is murdered (in the one scene featuring sub-par effects: it was this scene added by the distributors to get more gore in), leaving virtually no one left in the town who seems to be on Gillis' side.

Gillis goes home to watch the footage, supposedly home movies shot by a bunch of 9-10 year olds, but what he sees is terribly disturbing:
Its at this point I will say no more about what happens in Dead & Buried--what follows is a series of nightmarish, terrifyingly creepy scenes that explain just what's going on, who's involved, and how.

As reality crumbles in around Sheriff Gillis, we really get a palpable feel of what he's experiencing--the fear, the betrayal, the inability of a rational mind to face something that seems unbelievable.
I had never seen Dead & Buried--or even heard of it--until my friends at Exhumed Films showed it as part of a double feature many years ago. Even having seen a bajillion horror movies, I was hooked by this film from the beginning, its foggy, dimly-lit streets and forced "small town" good cheer the perfect mask for horrific goings-on.

On the commentary track, director Sherman talks about how this film started out as a black comedy, which is bewildering to me: I find this movie so terrifying and serious that I can't see where there's room tonally for any sort of comedy. And the last-minute meddling by the distributor is evident: the aforementioned extra scene featuring some weak effects, plus there's a goof where a character is shown as part of the murderous townsfolk before she's introduced into the film.

Those things aside, Dead & Buried still works like gangbusters--a testament to the work of director Sherman and the screenwriters and actors. It deserves to be more widely seen by fans of good, old-fashioned creepy horror.


Unknown said...

Dead & Buried is a VERY under rated film. I only saw it less than a year ago myself. I remembered the one sheet quite well, however. When I watched it, I kept thinking it would be a great double feature with John Carpenter's "The Fog". (Which, BTW, is a suggestion for a review if you are interested)

rob! said...


Thanks for your comment!

I normally would love to review The Fog, but my one informal rule for these MM posts is I cover a movie I've never seen before, and I've seen that movie about a dozen times.

I loves me some John Carpenter!

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