Eight years after directing the legendary Deathline, Gary Sherman finally stepped behind the cameras again to make a zombie film that wasn’t exactly a zombie film. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. There are no rotting corpses here, groaning and shambling around a used car lot in their slow, endless search for living flesh. In fact even calling Dead & Buried a zombie film might be considered false advertising in the eyes of most viewers. More accurately, it’s a murky, atmospheric, and convoluted detective story that gradually evolves into an eccentric horror film.
That’s not the way it started life. The original script by newbies Jeff Millar and Alex Stern was a black comedy with some horror elements. It was then rewritten by Alien’s Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon (later a big selling point when it came to marketing the film), but remained a black comedy with some horror elements. By the time the final director’s cut was finished, that’s still what it was. But as these things happen during production the company backing the film had been sold twice, and the final backers decided that no, they didn’t care much for that “comedy” business. They wanted more gore, more frequently. Gore was selling better in 1981. Some of those tracking shots went on too long, too. So after the film was in the can and the distributors were happy and ready to roll, the corporate scissormen appeared out of nowhere. A lot of comedy was cut, new gore scenes were filmed and inserted, and the picture was re-edited and reorganized, leaving a number of scenes awfully baffling if you’re paying close attention. Then just to make sure that no one tried to somehow resuscitate interest in that original version, every existing copy was tracked down and burned.
The weird thing is, even after all that Dead & Buried still works. Even if it’s no longer the black comedy it was intended to be, the term “eccentric” still applies to the picture on several levels, from the subtle and (intentionally) disorienting camera work, to the soundtrack which swings from an unlikely, tinkling piano theme to distorted versions of big band standards, to the characters who populate the small, dreary, fog-enshrouded fishing village of Potter’s Bluff, Maine, to the story itself, which involves a lighthearted but sinister mortician (Jack Albertson) who reanimates the dead for his own entertainment. Everything about the film is a little off balance, and that was Sherman’s intent. He approached this little low-budget shocker like an auteur, designing each shot to deliberately but quietly make audiences uneasy, from the impossible single-take tracking shots, to the Kubrickesque perfectly balanced compositions to the fact that (with the exception of blood and one carefully selected blouse) the color red is nowhere to be found in the film. By the end of the movie he’s even turned the neighborly phrase “welcome to Potter’s Bluff” into a threat.
The ironic thing is, for all the artistic sleights of hand, all the work he put into making a film that was a step beyond your typical zombie quickie, the film is remembered today mostly for two gore scenes created by the great Stan Winston: a hypodermic needle to the eye of a burn victim, and the single-take re-composition of a battered and rotting corpse into a beautiful young woman (Lisa Marie). As remarkable as those two sequences are, it’s too bad they overshadow the rest of the film.
It seems they’ve got some trouble in Potter’s Bluff. Well, Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) does, anyway. Whenever a tourist, a hitchhiker, a visitor of any kind passes through his town, they end up brutally murdered. What he doesn’t realize is they’re being brutally murdered by a quiet but vicious pack of locals who snap pictures of their victims before setting them ablaze or beating them to death with rocks. What it takes him most of the film to figure out is that these same murdered visitors are reappearing a few days later with new identities and new jobs, acting as if they’d grown up in Potter’s Bluff, and everyone seems to believe they have.
It’s a film full of deceptions aimed both at the characters and the viewers. The very first scene is set up in every way like a romantic and utterly gratuitous sex scene, right up to the point when it isn’t. As the sheriff attempts to track down leads in this string of murders, he encounters no end of lies and misdirection from people he’s known his whole life. Other characters wander into scenes for no good reason, nevertheless implying some great and dark significance that isn’t there at all. Even the music at times is used to send the viewer in the wrong direction. And come the end of the film, what is going on in Potter’s Bluff is never really, fully, completely explained, leaving audiences to put the pieces together however they might like from the hints and clues they’d received along the way.
Of all the oddball residents of the village (played by a stellar cast of supporting actors including Lisa Blount, Robert Englund, Michael Pataki, Barry Corbin, and Melody Anderson), none can compare with William G. Dobbs, the town’s coroner and mortician, who drives an antique Caddy hearse, listens to big band music, cracks jokes, and considers what he does a fine art on a par with painting and sculpture. Although he was dying of cancer at the time (he died shortly before the film’s release) Jack Albertson plays hard against type here, creating a character who is not an anachronism so much as he’s completely outside of time, an utterly original character who’s both charming and diabolical, though he would never see himself as the latter. Dobbs is the kind of unique madman who is still classical in style, who would be right at home in a Hammer film or one of the Universal horror pictures of the ‘40s but is so rarely seen today. Albertson’s career could be traced back to the ‘30s, and was best known to audiences at the time for his roles in the original Willy Wonka and the hugely popular Chico and The Man sit-com, but was never better than he is here, especially when he delivers his two big monologues about the mortician’s art. As Robert Englund later pointed out, it’s a role that could have easily spawned its own franchise had Albertson not gone and died.
Even if it wasn’t the film it was supposed to be, Dead & Buried is still a film with more art than you’d expect from the genre, a film of great style and intelligence, a film that played around with some interesting and thought-provoking ideas and took the whole concept of a “zombie film” in a radically different direction. Like Halloween III: Season of the Witch the following year, it stood completely apart from its competition in the theaters at the time, it didn’t give audiences more of the same old crap they were expecting, and worst of all actually asked them to pay attention and do a little thinking. This may help explain why it promptly bombed and was forgotten.
Den of Geek Rating: 4.5 Out of 5 Stars