Dead And Buried Review
It’s not easy to generalise about why one film becomes a ‘cult’ when another does not. Sometimes, it’s connected to the casting of a particular actor or the astute exploitation of the right subject at the right time. Frequently, however, it seems an almost random process. Why, for example, is Food of the Gods a cult movie when Day of the Animals isn’t? More to the point, why has Gary Sherman’s 1981 horror film Dead and Buried gathered a cult reputation? It’s a good genre movie to be sure and it has a twist almost guaranteed to knock seven bells out of the first time viewer but it’s all that much more special than any of the other proficient horror movies around at the same time which have never quite made it into the cult first XI – Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, for instance, or the excellent Wolfen. It may well be that we’re talking about luck and the unsolvable mystery of what makes one perfectly good film fade while another thrives.
Having said this, there’s little doubt that Dead and Buried is a very interesting film, a sort of cross between one of Lucio Fulci’s supposedly American-set films of the early 1980s and a metaphysical puzzle movie which raises more questions than it answers. This latter aspect tends, on a first viewing, to be overshadowed by the bravura splatter set-pieces of the former but the wit and intelligence with which it’s constructed reminds us that Gary Sherman was the director of Death Line aka Raw Meat, one of the finest British genre films of the Seventies. The opening is a model of good, atmospheric horror which immediately grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck. A photographer (possibly called ‘George’) is taking some nature shots on the beach in a small middle-American town called Potter’s Bluff. An attractive young girl (Blount) joins him and begins flirting. He takes some photos of her, she takes her top off and the two begin to get friendly. But suddenly, a crowd of townspeople appears. He is beaten, mangled and tied up in his own net. The people, oblivious to his cries and filming the whole thing, cover him with petrol and set him on fire. It’s a shocking and thoroughly cinematic opening and it sets the tone for a film which succeeds in being surprising and satisfyingly grisly.
I’m going to reveal as little as I can about the film, which is why this will be an uncharacteristically short review. When I first saw it in 1982, I knew nothing of what was going to happen and I think it’s fair to say that I left open-mouthed in astonished tribute to the sheer nerve of the writer, Ronald Shusett and the director. Dan O’Bannon has always protested that his screen credit for the film was merely a favour to Shusett and that the script is nothing to do with him. More fool him, since this is a lot better than most of the stuff he’s produced in the intervening twenty years. A second viewing reveals that all the clues are in place and that the ending isn’t an illogical shock moment but is carefully planned for throughout the movie. In a sense, the plot is one of the main attractions of the film, along with the extraordinary cinematography by Steven Poster – whose foggy vistas are so evocative that they leave the viewer feeling slightly clammy and decidedly unnerved. The nominal stars – James Farentino and Melody Anderson - don’t bring a great deal to their stock roles, although Anderson has an appealing sulky quality and Farentino is as solid as the part requires him to be while also being just a little too stolid for comfort.
However, the film is stolen wholesale by the supporting cast. There’s some great talent appearing in this film which is full of actors who make you do a slight double-take as you think, “I swear I’ve seen before somewhere”. Two of them are particularly significant – Barry Corbin, who played the Redneck general in War Games and, of course, Robert Englund who played... well, you already know, don’t you ? However, the most fun in the film is had by Jack Albertson, a great character actor, who plays the local Mortician, Dobbs. Albertson, who was dying while he was making the movie, has a style and charisma which lift the film way above its B-Movie origins and turn it into something of a blackly funny classic. Dobbs is a great conception – a morgue beautician who prides himself on his work and is deeply offended when his creations aren’t granted an open casket at the funeral – and Albertson plays him to the hilt. The costume and Cadillac hearse are flamboyant enough but the finishing touch is the constant big-band music which appears whenever he’s doing his work. In a more respectable genre, this would have been a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor, but the performance is a fine tribute to one of the men who was the backbone of more films than you’d care to remember.
So why is this such a cult movie ? I think part of the answer lies in the sheer professionalism that underpins every scene and lifts the film into being something special. Stan Winston’s visual effects are magnificent and often groundbreaking – the use of puppetry is especially inspired – and they’re used for maximum punch. Without being gratuitously nasty, this is not a film for the squeamish. Having said that, the presence of the film on the daft DPP list of 1984 – the original list of Video Nasties – was completely ludicrous and there’s nothing here which is likely to offend any seasoned viewer of horror films. This is, incidentally, the full uncut version. Gary Sherman’s career never reached the heights which Death Line suggested, but this is a fine piece of work which displays an unexpected level of visual imagination. His tracking shots (as Death Line indicated) are the work of a totally confident film artist. The camera moves, designed to unsettle the audience and add a sense of constant voyeurism, are notable, as is the escalating frenzy of the bravura finale. The other reason why this is a cult film, when other equally good films are not, is the killer twist which manages to lift you right out of your seat even if you’ve already guessed it.
Anchor Bay’s release of Dead and Buried, seemingly is slightly frustrating. The supplements are first rate but the transfer is, well, weird – which may be appropriate but isn’t altogether appealing.
The film is transferred in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. However, be warned that this is an unsatisfying visual experience if you’re looking for a pristine image. The film is intended to have a rather dingy appearance, as Steven Poster explains in his commentary, but the artefacting and level of grain on the image seem rather excessive. In particular, there’s a brownish texturing which is present throughout and while you get used to this, it’s initially distracting. Now, all of this might be intentional and part of the film’s atmospherics but it’s likely to be an irritant for first time viewers. The image also seems a bit too light and lacks sufficient contrast. However, there’s plenty of detail present and the muted colours come across well.
As for the audio, we get three choices. None of them is the original mono but given that the Dolby 2.0 mix, as usual for Anchor Bay, sounds distinctly like mono pushed through the two front channels, I will give it the benefit of the doubt. This track is reasonably clean, clear and well balanced and is the only soundtrack you should bother with. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround remixes are the usual horrible messes. The mono sound is pumped through five channels with some artificial effects added to try and create the impression of surround sound and to give the subwoofer something to do. I sound like Paul Johnson, but why oh why oh why do we have to have these remixes ?
The main attraction of the disc for fans of the film is the presence of three commentary tracks. The first is the best, a detailed and honest discussion with Gary Sherman. He discusses the film is some depth and reveals some of his motives in building the narrative in the way he does. He also talks about his career and slips in some particularly mouth-watering comments about Death Line which make me hopeful for a special edition of that movie some day. The second commentary track features Ronald Shusett and his wife Lynda Turley who appears in the film playing the waitress at the diner. This is a bit slower and Shusett’s memory fails him sometime but both participants – moderated, as in the other two commentaries, by David Gregory from Blue Underground – are engaging company. The third commentary is from DP Steven Poster and is a good masterclass in the ins and outs of lighting a very low-budget movie.
Three featurettes are included. Rightly considering that the commentaries provide as much detail about the making of the film as you could possibly want, the disc producers have decided to focus on three specific areas. Firstly, we get an informative and amusing 17 minute documentary about Stan Winston’s effects. The great man is on very genial form and he reveals the secrets behind some of the best shock moments of the film. Secondly, there is a very entertaining ten minute chat with Robert Englund about his involvement in the film. As always, Englund comes across as a very intelligent man and his enthusiasm is infectious. Finally, there’s a conversation with Dan O’Bannon, whinging about his non-involvement in the film, which reveals a great deal about his rampant egotism and made me want to throw a brick at the screen. As he had this effect on me on the Alien extras, I guess I have to count him as one of my bete noirs. Still, I’m sure that fans will be pleased to hear what he has to say. All three featurettes contain extensive spoilers for the film.
Along with these three featurettes, we get three entertaining trailers – International, US Domestic and a teaser. These are all in anamorphic 1.85:1 and good examples of how aggressively a horror film had to be sold to the public in 1981. There are some fantastic location stills by Steven Poster, biographies for Dan O’Bannon and Robert Englund and a selective filmography for Shusett. Finally, a stills gallery is included, containing stills from the production, lobby cards and posters.
I’m pleased to be able to report that Anchor Bay have finally seen sense and included English subtitles for the film, although there are none for the special features.
Dead and Buried is a very enjoyable and intelligent horror movie which deserves its growing cult reputation. Anchor Bay’s disc doesn’t quite come up to scratch on the transfer front but is just about exhaustive in terms of extra content.