Dead & Buried (1981)

*. A couple of preliminary points. First, Dead & Buried is a movie with a bit of a twist ending, or a couple of twists, and I’ll be talking about them here so consider yourself warned.
*. Second: I love the work Blue Underground puts into their special editions. This one comes as a 2-disc DVD with three commentary tracks and a bunch of other extra features. But, and I’m sure I’ve said this before, if you’re going to go through all this trouble why not have subtitles, or at least closed-captioning? Even the most bare-bone DVD releases usually have closed-captioning.
*. Now, on to the movie.

*. Potters Bluff, Maine. Though I thought Rhode Island was mentioned at one point. In any event, it was shot in Mendocino, California. A very foggy Mendocino. Even foggier indoors than outside at night. This was done quite deliberately by photographer Steven Poster, as he explains on his commentary track. All kinds of steps were taken to diffuse the lighting, from hanging a giant sail from a crane to block out the sun in the opening scene to using a smoke machine indoors. The point was to have the audience leaning forward in their seats trying to see what was going on before springing a surprise at them. It’s not an effect I care for, but it is a distinctive look.
*. “A New Way of Life.” Ho-ho. Potters Bluff (yes, another giveaway) is a town with a Fulci-esque feel to it, a feeling only deepened by the fog and woeful dubbing. Not that the dialogue is worth much anyway. Note the way the concerned mother repeats the line about needing a “cold compress” for her kid’s head while exploring the spooky old house. Why not check the fridge? Sure to be a cold compress in there, even if it looks as though the power hasn’t been on for years.
*. They had to dub that scene because of the presence of a child actor who wasn’t allowed to shoot at night. This meant the house had to be covered in a tarp, which made things very noisy because the location then had to be ventilated (requiring the sound to all be put in later). But then many other scenes seem badly dubbed as well and I don’t know what was going on with them.
*. Commentary tracks can be really helpful. The legendary Stan Winston did the effects here, and it was one of his first theatrical projects. The effects are generally very good, and I only thought the doctor’s death stood out as being below par. But Sherman explains this: Winston didn’t do the fake head of the doctor because (as I understand the story) that scene was added later at the request of the studio, who wanted more gore. It’s too bad, as the head is clearly a dummy and it really strikes a wrong note.
*. The DVD box tells us that it’s a movie that’s from “the creators of Alien.” I’m never sure what exactly is meant by the elastic term “creator.” It doesn’t refer to Stan Winston, who worked on Aliens but not Alien. Instead, what is meant is that the script was by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien. Though apparently it was all Shusett here and O’Bannon had actually wanted his name taken off the credits. Not because he didn’t like the film but just because he didn’t think any of it was his work.
*. As far as the script goes, I think it’s a good concept, working very much like an extended Twilight Zone episode or Tales from the Crypt comic. I could see it as being one of the stories in Creepshow.

*. Thinking of how much it looks like Creepshow made me think of various other connections. I already mentioned Fulci and I had to wonder if the needle-in-the-eye scene was inspired by the splinter-in-the-eye from Zombie (or Zombi 2). Carpenter’s The Fog had come out just the year before, and its seaside town overrun with murderous ghosts might have also been in play. Then there is the central conceit of the protagonist (Sheriff Dan here, played by James Farentino) not knowing who he really is, which may remind you of Carnival of Souls, or later characters like Harry Angel and Malcolm Crowe.
*. Though there are all these connections, Dead & Buried still feels fresh. Part of this may be due to when it came out, a time when theatres were saturated with slasher flicks and horror cinema had reached a kind of nadir. But more I think is due to the character of the town’s “official coroner-mortician” Dobbs, played by Jack Albertson in his final role.
*. Dobbs has his progenitors as well. Sherman says that the horror film he was most inspired by was the 1953 House of Wax, and Dobbs is clearly an artist-madman in the same vein, even using many of the same materials as Vincent Price. But Dobbs is also a comic figure, perhaps a leftover of early drafts of the script where the movie was imagined as more of a dark comedy. And he is also a sleazier kind of artist, with his library of Super 8 snuff films and Platonic necrophilia. His zombies, after all, are “even more beautiful than the living,” which is a doubly-charged boast since he is one himself.
*. The other element that gives Dead & Buried an extra bit of juice is the ambiguity with which the zombie townsfolk are presented. In the first place we may wonder how many people in Potters Bluff are zombies. It’s impossible to say for sure because not all of them know if they’re alive or dead (though surely they should be, since the dead all need frequent touching up). Then there is the question of their moral character. Sherman describes them as mere puppets, and directed the actors to play them cool and not villainous. They kill their victims in what seem to me to be cruel ways, but even this may be by direction, in order to conceal cause of death. By the end we’ve come to see them as being, like Janet, sympathetic figures, a sad community of the dead who care for each other. And has Janet found release in being finally dead and buried? Or will she wake up tomorrow morning and make Dan breakfast?
*. I’m not being entirely facetious. Why is she going on about what’s going to be for dinner at the end? She sounds like Bobbie having her mechanical meltdown at the end of The Stepford Wives (1975).
*. One of the selling points of the film today is that it has Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund in a bit part as a tow-truck driver. One of the featurettes included with the DVD is an interview with him as well. Which is fine because he’s an interesting guy to listen to, but I can think of a half-dozen other people who might have had more to say.
*. Despite the deluxe Blue Underground treatment I don’t think Dead & Buried is a classic. It is, however, a fun little movie with some style and originality. Poster comments on how a lack of experience made them more likely to take chances, and I think there was a real attempt to make something good. Sherman had a strict colour scheme worked out, for example, which he enforced to the extent of changing the taillights on the cars so that bright reds would be kept out. There were also some impressive long takes, some of which ended up being pruned.
*. I’m not sure these efforts panned out, at least in terms of making this a better, or scarier, movie. As with the fuzzy picture, it was all deliberate but I don’t think the results had quite the effect they wanted. I guess the picture quality adds something to the atmosphere, but to me it just looks blurry. The colour scales are dull. The effects in the final graveyard scene are disappointing. I wanted to see whole faces falling off! I wanted House of Wax plus!
*. Still, it is a movie that I think lasts, mainly on the back of the weirdo Dobbs and his perverse battle with the indignity of death. That Albertson himself was dying adds a poignancy to the proceedings. Many if not most actors go out on less distinguished notes.

12 thoughts on “Dead & Buried (1981)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Think you’ve accidentally mixed on of your profile pictures in with the stills here, the second last one does seem to bear a close resemblence to you…I kinda like this film, doesn’t quite make sense in the Fulci style, but Albertson is good value and there’s some ‘good kills’ as you say. Never felt the concept quite made sense, but that’s 80’s horror for you…

    1. Alex Good

      Why am I turning up in your search results? This is creepy.
      The concept here was a stretch, and stretched more making a feature out of it, but it has a kind of horror-comic charm.

  2. Tom Moody

    It’s interesting the first murder occurs in broad daylight (and caught me by surprise). At that point it seems to be going in the direction of Two Thousand Maniacs, but then the fog creeps in and stays there for the rest of the film.
    The ending reminds me of The Loved One, with Jonathan Winters cackling as he presents an erotic multimedia show to The First Lady Embalmer of Whispering Glades.
    Thanks for the recommendation — I passed over this for years as a possible VHS rental, not realizing it was this smartly done (“cold compress” and some other bad dialogue notwithstanding).

  3. Tom Moody

    The Winters scene is here:
    It might be a stretch, but I’d be surprised if Shusett, et al weren’t aware of this.
    You have the bespectacled cult leader shocking the last remaining innocent (in this case a female employee of his posh mortuary) with an array of sleazy moving pictures on the walls, in a darkened room, at the climax of the film. (Mild spoiler: the next scene involves a self-injection with embalming fluid.)

    1. Alex Good

      Thanks so much for this Tom! I didn’t even know about this movie. And it’s based on an Evelyn Waugh novel. I can see where Dead & Buried was getting some ideas. I’m definitely going to watch the whole thing now.

  4. Tom Moody

    It’s a classic Terry Southern script (adapting Waugh along with co-writer Christopher Isherwood), which pumps up Waugh’s critique of Southern California consumerism and hucksterism to crazy levels. Noir-ish cinematography by Haskell Wexler. Editing by Hal Ashby. The film was Tony Richardson’s revenge for not being taken more seriously by American studios after the success of Tom Jones (according to an interview with Southern). Richardson had a large budget but didn’t allow producers on the set, as he and his scriptwriters made the story darker and more baroque in its satire. It’s very much a companion piece to Dr. Strangelove, in look and tone. Also many cameos: James Coburn as a xenophobic customs agent, Liberace as an oily coffin salesman, Roddy McDowell as a studio hack, Robert Morley as a “Hollywood Briton,” and on and on.


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