[25 January 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s hard to reinvent archetypes. By their very nature, they are so representative of a concept or idea that they tend to wholly define it. This is especially true in horror films. A vampire is a vampire, no matter how you dress it up, romanticize it, or otherwise reconfigure its thirst for blood. Same with werewolves, ghosts, serial killers, and most importantly, zombies. The undead have a certain set of inherent limitations that make them simultaneously the most and least creepy villains around. Their hunger for human flesh is definitely disturbing. Their relatively slow rate of attack can, on occasion, be almost laughable. Of course, when filmmakers try to overhaul the genre, they only work in style, or speed. They never consider substance. That, oddly enough is where the 1981 fright flick Dead & Buried finds its freshness.
In the small town of Potter’s Bluff, some unsavory things have been going on. Anyone new to the remote coastal locale is immediately struck by how run down, gloomy, and inhospitable it seems. Of course, they don’t get to savor that reality for long since the citizenry appears intent on killing anyone who happens to wander by. As the sheriff in this insignificant postage stamp of a burg, Dan Gillis is starting to worry. The dead bodies keep turning up, and he’s finding it harder and harder to explain their deaths. Even worse, it appears that some of these corpses are “arriving” back up in the town - the same people, but with new personalities. All signs point to oddball mortician William Dobbs, and his unusual obsession with the funereal process. But the problem may be bigger for the underhanded lawman - it may have its roots right in his own home.
Without giving most of the major plot points away, Dead & Buried is one exceedingly creepy experience. It’s a gruesome, slightly gory take on the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers/Night of the Living Dead dynamic. Clearly, without spoiling the experience, Potter’s Bluff is unstuck in time. The overall look of the city is dirty, unkempt, and rotting. Everywhere, little hints at what actually could be happening are just visible in the corner of the frames (store shelves inundated with cobwebs, boarded up buildings in supposedly active areas). The population appears to be living in a combination of eras. Some - like the local diner staff and the gas station crew - are carved out of the late ‘40s/‘50s. Others appear like fantasy version of various decades, a queer combination of Victorian and contemporary, old world New England and new world modernity.
Jammed in the middle of this mystery our the two leads, James Farentino and Jack Albertson. The former plays Sheriff Gillis like it’s the last act of some hyperactive Hamlet. Every gesture is over the top, every line reading threatening to chew off what’s left of the scenery. The latter’s William Dobbs, however, is a faultless interpretation of unsuspecting evil. We’re not used to seeing Albertson like this - bizarre, obscure, intense. It’s one of those head spinning turns that changes your perspective on an actor. While Farentino can come across as incredibly hammy, his co-stars studied performance keeps things in check. Elsewhere, the cast is filled out with familiar ‘80s faces like Melody Anderson (as Gillis’ weird wife), Barry Corbin, and in a minor role, future Freddy Krueger Robert Englund. Thanks to the rest of the mostly no-name company, Dead & Buried keeps its sense of ambiguity.
Yet what stands out today - and even more so thanks to Blue Underground’s revamped Blu-ray version of the title - is how moody and atmospheric the film is, both internally and externally. As part of the three (!!!) commentary tracks available, cinematographer Steve Poster discusses the unusual look the he, the director Gary Sherman and their movie hoped to achieve. Supervising the remastering of the print onto the high definition format, he made sure that the low lighting, rampant grain, purposeful darkness, and overall gritty tone were meticulously maintained. While some may argue with this approach, it does give the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image a truly unearthly feel. Dead & Buried may not look like some brand spanking new Hollywood horror film - and that, apparently, was the intention all along.
It’s also interesting to hear director Sherman speak about the film. His track provides insights into how the movie changed from script to screen (he intended a black comedy), and why he shied away for standard fright film conventions. Of course, he also teases fans with a long lost “director’s cut” which, of course, cannot be located today. Along with added information from co-writer Ronald Shusett and various featurettes presenting the late Stan Winston, co-writer Dan O’Bannon, and the aforementioned Mr. Englund, we discover the truth behind Dead & Buried‘s avant-garde designs. Even with a brand new pair of 7.1 lossless soundtracks (DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD) which attempt to add immersive atmosphere and direction to the production design, it’s what’s in the frame that counts - and what’s there is wonderful.
In fact, calling Dead & Buried a “forgotten” film belies what Sherman, Shusett, and O’Bannon created. Who could ever shake the image of a long hypodermic needle piercing an eyeball? A man tied up and burned alive in a fishing net? A family terrorized by a gang of grim townsfolk while holed up in an abandoned ‘haunted’ house? Or what about the denouement which mixes terror, romance, sadness, and satisfaction all in one? Clearly, anyone who has overlooked this movie before has done so for one inexplicable reason - they haven’t seen it.
To watch Dead & Buried (on Blu-ray or standard DVD) today is to experience a true attempt at reinventing a cinematic variety. For the most part, zombies are decaying reflections of our current cultural crisis, a monster made relevant by an almost egotistical need to see ourselves in even the most dire of biological straights. When viewed more clearly, and with the clarity of hindsight, this is Dead & Buried‘s core concept. It’s also why it deserves its disregarded gemstone status.