Monday, 15 July 2013

Dead & Buried - review

1981 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Now I've accused many zombie films of late of being a bit boring, safe and derivative (looking at you Zombie Apocalypse) and one thing I will say up front is Dead & Buried is certainly none these things. Directed by Gary Sherman and co-written by Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon (who wrote Alien and in 1985 wrote and directed The Return of the Living Dead), Dead & Buried is original, tense, stylish and a genuine attempt at a plot heavy horror film; oh, and it kind of has zombies in. Actually, this isn't right and there's no kind of about it, they are zombies and there's a lot of them. it's just that what they've done with them isn't really what we've come to expect and certainly bears no resemblance to the fashionable Romero template of the time or anything that ever came later.

Dan Gillis (James Farentino) is sheriff of the postage-stamp size New England coastal town of Potter's Bluff where everyone knows each other and nothing ever happens. Married to Janet Gillis (Melody Anderson) one of the town's school teachers, his sedate peaceful life comes to an abrupt halt when he is called on to investigate a series of brutal and suspicious deaths befalling anyone unlucky enough to be paying the town a visit.

Unbeknown to the sheriff we know that the cause of these increasingly brutal and sadistic slaughters is actually the happy go lucky men and women of the town. When not going about their day to day chores and life they've taken it upon themselves to corner, trick and mutilate anyone travelling through, filming and photographing it all for sadistic posterity.

It's dark, brooding and full of suspense. You never feel you know what's going on or who is involved and you fully empathise with Dan as his investigations and suspicions become increasingly paranoid and fanciful. As he falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole we, like him, learn about black magic, voodoo and reanimation and start to share the same predictions and concerns as to where this all might be going.

The undead in Dead & Buried, while quintessentially the White Zombie voodoo worker soulless slaves, are a little more convoluted. Yes they have a master who has found a way to reanimate them, but to rid them of their soul, it's intimated, he's had to remove their hearts. As said, there's no instinctual drives or hunger for flesh and they're entirely at the will of their master, yet they're still not shambling or mindless automatons of previous voodoo films; though actually they kind of are and I'll explain. While they've been wiped clean of their memories and soul their master has somehow found a way to get them to perfectly imitate their previous selves and blend in unnoticed. It's almost as if he's found a way to give them access to their memories without actually letting them become the person with those memories. It's all a bit like they're possessed by aliens or parasites, or hypnotised, except here they're definitely dead and zombie. Like I said, I don't think zombies have ever been fully defined like this before; it's the traditional voodoo zombie tall drink with an extra large sci-fi wedge to the side.

Oh, and while I don't want to give it all a way, and this is a bit of a spoiler, I'll add he's also master of make-up and cosmetic recovery the like of which I've never seen, with the ability to hide the most heinous wounds or damage perfectly. All of this is a bit over engineered and you do come a way from the film rubbing your chin, but it mostly holds together and it does help retain the films generally cohesive single narrative structure.

The death scenes in Dead & Buried are brutal and graphic and earned it the 'video nasty' moniker and ban in the UK back in the early 80's. They in many ways remind me, in style, of the deaths in Fulci's films with that over-staged feel though they're never quite as long or extreme. Like all effects of the time when put up against today's they look quite tame and clearly artificial but they are sadistic and imaginative enough to evoke a feeling of unease. Shocks aren't really what the film is about though and it's the atmosphere, tension and confusion that really drives the fear.

This is a horror film first and foremost with the possessed townsfolk coming across more Invasion of the Body Snatchers than Night of the Living Dead, but dead and reanimated they are, so it holds a rightful place on a zombie blog. It is also, if I'm honest, all a bit too convoluted with an ending that tries a little too hard to tie up all the ambiguous narrative threads, leaving as many questions as it answers. Still, in a medium and genre filled with deliberate ambiguity to avoid making these kind of mistakes, and over simplified narrative it was refreshing to watch something so plot heavy that didn't hold back.

Dead & Buried is a fascinating film genuinely offering something different. I thought the narrative was highly original and strong, I though the characters were interesting and the direction oozed atmosphere and suspense from start to finish. With a first rate cast, including Jack Albertson in his last film role, as the coroner/ mortician William G. Dobbs, and many other well known faces with the great acting all round it was a nice surprise, 8/10


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