Saturday, September 19, 2015

DEAD & BURIED (1981)


Something strange is happening in the foggy northeastern coastal town of Potters Bluff. A vacationing photographer (Christopher Allport) is snapping shots on the local beach when he's interrupted by a beautiful barefoot girl (Lisa Blount). She flirts shamelessly with him, captivating him completely until a group of people attacks him from behind. The disparate group beat him mercilessly, ties him to a post on the beach and burns him with a can of gasoline. That night the photographer's body turns up in his wrecked microbus on a nearby road. He appears dead until the local mortician/coroner William Dobbs (Jack Albertson) touches him and the hideously charred body screams in pain. Sheriff Dan Gillis' (James Farentino) investigation finds that the victim was checked into a local hotel and that the sheriff's own wife had visited the man the day before. Gillis' wife Janet (Melody Anderson) explains that she was buying photo equipment for her grade school class from the man; when her story doesn't gibe with the school's principal the lawman begins to doubt her. The poor photographer barely has time to come out of his coma before his beach seductress slips into his hospital room and finishes him off for good. 


Faster than you can say 'murder-crazed mob' another visitor to the area is attacked and viciously killed by folks that appear to be normal members of the community. When this body turns up, Gillis knows he definitely has a murderer on his hands and is starting to think the two dead bodies must be related. To complicate matters, Gillis hits a pedestrian with his truck on a late night patrol. Horrified that he may have killed someone, the sheriff's even more stunned when the person's severed arm takes on a life of its own and the fellow pops up and runs off... pausing only to retrieve the missing limb! When particles of the arm test as dead flesh at least three months old, Gillis begins to question Dobbs about the possibility of reanimating corpses. Dobbs scoffs at the notion. Then a murdered hitchhiker's corpse disappears from the mortuary and the photographer's body goes missing from his coffin. A supernatural explanation seems to be more and more likely...


Almost completely missed in its original theatrical run, Dead & Buried is one of the lesser known cult horror films of the '80s. Its reputation grew slowly over the past few decades by virtue of repeated cable broadcasts, its single VHS release and finally Blue Underground's DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Like a lot of the film's fans I caught up with it on HBO in the early '80s and rented the videotape from my local video store repeatedly. I will never forget the shock of the last image of the film, one that turns a solid little horror movie into a near classic. The film is very well produced on nearly every level with good to great performances, creepy cinematography and a screenplay that knows just how much not to say! Director Gary Sherman proves himself to be quite adept at blending the small town New England feel and the undead creepiness to make a smooth and frighteningly different zombie story. His use of long, single takes and odd camera placement always enhances the terror and dark humor. His choice to keep red out of the film's color palette is very effective, as is the slightly retro look of much of the town. Potters Bluff feels like a contemporary town most of the time but every now and then a vintage detail will make the place seem adrift somewhere in the mid-1950s. 


Of course, knowing that this was Jack Albertson's last film always make me a little sad. Not because Dead & Buried isn't a worthy final bow, but because he's so much fun here that it would've been great to have him reprise the role. In one of the extras on the DVD set Robert Englund mentions that Dobbs the mortician could've been a franchise character much like Freddy Kruger. I agree. He certainly has a much more interesting motivation than some other sequelized boogeymen, but looking at the diminishing returns for the Tall Man character in the Phantasm movies maybe it's best that the film flopped. Strangely, the two roles I'll always remember Jack Albertson for are Uncle Charlie in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and this one — saint and sinner.


I've been such a fan of Dead & Buried for so long that it was a shock to hear director Sherman talk about his disappointment with the way it turned out. On his commentary track with BU's David Gregory, he explains that originally there was much more black comedy in the film. He points out how much of the humor was removed, more gore was added and several scenes rearranged to meet the requirements of the money people. It's a shame that even though Sherman put together his own cut of the film, the print was destroyed so that the distributors wouldn't have to spend money to keep both versions. It's enough to make a film nut cry! To think there was an even more unusual version of this dark little gem, one we'll never get to see, is a bit like getting poked through the eye with a long needle. Still, Dead & Buried is a great little movie. Shrouded in fog, cloaked in mystery and haunted by the sounds of Dobbs' beloved Big Band music, Potters Bluff is a place I love to visit... even if I wouldn't want to live there.

6 comments:

Nick Rentz said...

Have you seen Gary Sherman's Vice Squad?

Rod Barnett said...

Yes and I have the DVD from years ago too. I have been meaning to rewatch it for a looooong time but haven't yet. I remember thinking it was great.

Nick Rentz said...

Man, you need to rewatch it! While being fine director, Sherman wasn't very prolific. Raw Meat I thought was good. Nine years later Dead and Buried, followed a year by Vice Squad. The only thing I've seen from that point on is Poltergeist 3. The third wasn't very good, but neither was the second. What do you think of his body of work?

Rod Barnett said...

I'm a fan of his theatrical film but know little about his TV work. I need to rewatch WANTED:DEAD OR ALIVE which I haven't seen in thirty-plus years and LISA (1990) was a solid little thriller. I have come to like hid Poltergeist film for its visual trickery and ballsy attempts to do something fresh. It doesn't completely work but it is very interesting. I need to se his 2006 film 39: A Film by Carroll McKane to see if he still has his mojo workin'.

Nick Rentz said...

Was Wanted: Dead or Alive any good?

Rod Barnett said...

I can't remember! I only saw it once back when it was released on VHS.