-Prologue of the Living Dead-
Once upon a time, I shared an apartment with my best friend and fellow bad movie junkie Andrew Muchoney. This was quite a while ago, maybe 12-15 years, back in the day when Gilbert Gottfried hosted USA’s late-night B-movie showcase, Up All Night. Although I’ve always found that a weird show (as it was built around showing gore and T&A movies with all the gore and T&A removed), we would often still flip it on late Friday night to see if anything interesting was on.
One evening, the featured presentation was something entitled Raiders of the Living Dead. During his opening remarks, Gottfried gushed, “This is the most incoherent film you’ve ever seen!” Well, Andrew and I laughed haughtily, rolled our eyes and did that thing where you pucker your lips while nodding your head in fake concern and going, “Oh, yeaaah, sure it is. Uh, huh. Yeah, I’m really worried.” After all, we’d cut our baby teeth on frickin’ Larry Buchanan movies, and that was hundreds, if not thousands, of bad movies ago. Sure, some of the rubes out there might find this film something, but c’mon, it wasn’t going to be anything we hadn’t seen before.
Well, since I’m bothering to tell this tale, you’ve probably guessed that Raiders of the Living Dead ended up being the guy who stood a step behind this pair of arrogant Bad Movies Caesars and whispered in our ears, “Thou art mortal.” Today, many more years have passed, years in which I saw, for instance, Jungle Hell. So is Raiders of the Living Dead still the most incoherent film I ever saw? Perhaps not. However, that you could still make a credible case for it being so is an impressive achievement.
You have to appreciate a film that hits the ground stumbling, and this one does so with Ãˆlan. We open with a really bad disco-y synth pop tune accompanying the familiar II (Independent International) Pictures Corp. logo. With house auteur Al Adamson not in residence, Independent International producer Sam Sherman himself shepherded this, er, film to, uh, completion, garnering writing and directing credits in the process. This, at least for those of a certain persuasion, this is a promising sign. Hey, if they can do for zombies what Independent International did for Dracula and the Frankenstein Monsterâ€¦?
The credits appear over that venerable Independent International trademark, crudely animated images from the film that appear against a black background. However, since we’re now in the ’80s-in case the ‘Raiders’ part of the title didn’t clue you in-these are here accomplished with all the raw computing muscle that a TRS-80 could muster. Meanwhile, the theme music turns into (yes!) an actual song, with lyrics and riffs about you’d anticipate when a producer hires his nephew’s heavily Duran Duran-inspired garage band to score his movie:
Hear the footsteps, noises in the night.
Somethin’s burning, fire burning bright.
Keeps gettin’ closer, chills me to my soul.
They come to get me, hear the Devil call.
The Deeeadâ€¦are after me!
I said the Deeeadâ€¦are after me!
I saw something, that I shouldn’t seeâ€¦
This movie, no doubt! Thank you, ladies and germs, I’m here all week.
Really, though, couldn’t they have come up with a better rhyme for ‘chills me to the soul’? How about, ‘The screenplay’s full of holes!” Or “Man, this movie blows!” To be fair, though, the song does help clarify the film’s not entirely self-explanatory title:
We are the Raiders, of the Living Dead.
And now the hunted, are huntin’ them instead.
Got to destroy, master and the slave,
We’ve got to drive them, back into the grave!
Our *cough, cough* story proper kicks off with a POV shot from the cab of a fuel tanker truck as it cruises down a rural two-lane road. No, wait, it’s actually moving along a suburban residentialâ€¦no, a four lane highwayâ€¦noâ€¦ Anyway, there’s a tanker truck driving around this roadway and that. This established (sort of), we proceed on to a guy in a car. A music sting and insert shot of his Colt .45 automatic alerts us to the fact that he’s most probably a bad guy of some sort. Soon we see that the Bad Guy’s car is right behind the tanker truck.
Another piece of the puzzle is provided when we see some not-very convincing signage proclaiming that the truck’s cargo consists of radioactive materials. The truck then halts before a stoplight. This allows our putative Bad Guy, with an M16 slung on his back and a canvas bag in his hand, to leave his car and scamper up the rear ladder leading to the top of the tank compartment.
Wielding his pistol, he forces his way into the cab and directs the trucker to resume driving. However, he must have been seen. Perhaps strolling along the top of a tanker truck on a public thoroughfare, with a rifle strapped to your back, isn’t the stealthiest way to hijack such a vehicle. A police radio call is quickly issued. We begin cutting between a patrol car, its siren a’wailing, and the truck as it stolidly makes its way down the road. ‘Exciting’ music plays to assure us that all these elements add up to a whole heap of urgent, gut-wrenching thrills. This is probably a good idea, as we might not otherwise have noticed.
Unsurprisingly, the cops soon catch sight of their lumbering objective and the chase is on. We see shots of the truck, and then of both a patrol car and an unmarked vehicle, and by exercising a little bit of imagination can go along with the idea that they are all in some manner of proximity to one another.
The truck is soon driving down a dirt road thickly lined with trees. The cops follow along but are cut off from the pursuit, due to the old ‘another truck pulling across the road and blocking it’ gambit. Not seeming to notice that two cop cars have skidded up right alongside his truck, the driver nonchalantly gets out and begins tinkering with the engine (?). This leaves the glowering cops stymied, although had they better training they might have noticed that there seems plenty of room to just drive around the truck. To be fair, though, I don’t think we were supposed to have noticed this.
What exactly this vehicle is doing in the middle of the woods is left to our imaginations. Oddly, the cops don’t even try to get the guy to move out of the way, and as to whether this incident was an extraordinarily lucky coincidence for the Bad Guy, or instead manufactured as part of the hijacking, is left to our imaginations. The film itself remains firmly agnostic on the matter. In any case, with the tanker back on the highway-I’m sure no other cop will be able to track down a huge tanker truck with yellow ‘radioactive material’ labels on it-the hijacker indeed appears to escaped pursuit.
Cut to an establishing shot of a factory. A few cop cars are parked outside, and a surly detective is calling in and barking, “Get those SWAT men down here, fast! Yeah, with those electric stun guns.” (Since when do SWAT teams use stun guns? Anyway.) Meanwhile, a reporter named Randall uses a typically huge ’80s cellular phone to call the situation in, which, surprise, allows for some convenient exposition.
The Bad Guy, apparently a “terrorist,” is holding the staff of this nuclear power plant (!!) hostage. (It’s a well disguised power plant, at that. I’m not sure how they so thoroughly hid the cooling towers, but they did a remarkably impressive job.) He’s apparently demanded that a list of prisoners he’s provided be released or, uh, he’ll do something bad. “The whole thing is hushed up,” the crack newshawk relates, as he stand in the middle of the assembled police forces while speaking to his editor over a phone resembling a submarine sandwich.
Inside, we see that the Terrorist has the plant’s staff members-all three of them-tied to chairs. We also see the sort of bundled-TNT bomb that Wile E. Coyote might use. Meanwhile, a sweating SWAT guy is up above, making his way along a catwalk. Oh, the tension. Using what looks like an Uzi with a piece of coiled wire draped on it-the “electric stun gun,” I assume-he attempts to get a clean shooting angle. Hmm, perhaps he shouldn’t have selected a firing position with a bunch of pipes and stuff between him and his target.
Hearing something-I guess-the Terrorist grips a bomb detonator in one hand and his M16 in the other. However, his movements bring him cleanly into the SWAT Guy’s sights, and the latter fires a taser dart, or some damn thing, into him. (The ‘taser’ gun is pretty hilarious, by the way, looking like something a kid would whip up with a spool of black thread and a toy assault rifle.) When next we see the Terrorist, his handheld bomb detonator is nowhere to be seen. That’s fortuitous, as I’m not completely certain that sending a strong electrical current through a guy holding one and thus causing all his muscles to violently contract was the best idea here.
As the Terrorist flops around on the floor, a second SWAT Guy approaches him from off camera and tosses the guy’s rifle away. Then he sees the bomb and makes his way over, all while strenuously contriving not to notice the manifestly evident .45 still clearly sticking out of the Bad Guy’s waistband. IITS, I would guess.
Sure enough, the Terrorist hereabout manages to pull out the dart, which was pretty obviously only snagged in his denim jacket, and not in fact embedded in his arm. This accomplished, he instantly recovers.* SWAT Guy #2 tries to jump him and gets shot for his trouble. During all this, by the way, the bound hostages, who are sitting all of maybe two feet away, have made not a sound. Perhaps something in the nature of, “Hey, officer, that dude’s trying to pull the dart out!” might have proved helpful.
[*As Carl Fink, Jabootu Minister of Proofreading, observes, this isn't even how tasers work. They deliver a single electrical charge into the target, not a steady stream of current until the dart is removed, or the gun 'turned off.']
SWAT Guy #1, the one who fired the taser, now finally makes his way down to their position. He also attacks jumps the Terrorist, who drops his pistol but manages to run off. (By the way, was there a reason these SWAT cops didn’t just, I don’t know, put an old-fashioned bullet through the Terrorist’s head? I mean, they wouldn’t be in the mess they are now if they hadn’t dicked around with their fancy-smancy non-lethal weaponry.)
We spend nearly a minute following the Terrorist as he descends to plant’s first floor (basement?) and begins wandering around it, actions which are further accompanied by pounding synth music. Then, after he’s successfully eaten up some of the film’s generous hour and twenty-five minute running time, SWAT Guy #1 comes following after him. (Call for backup? What is he, a baby?) I should note that he also appears to be unarmed. I mean, even if he hadn’t brought a gun himself-and many American police officers do in fact routinely carry firearms, especially SWAT team members-couldn’t he have grabbed one of the weapons the Terrorist had left behind?
So now we cut between the two of them as they both amble about the plant floor. Man, I don’t know how much more of this nail-biting excitement I can stand. Luckily, the tension is somewhat diffused by the music, which continues to grow increasingly, albeit ever more comically, bombastic. Remember the one old Bond movie where they started blasting 007′s classic theme music while he puttered around his hotel room, lifting up lamps and such as he searched for a bug? It’s rather like that.
You really can’t over milk a situation this juicy. Even so, you should always leave the audience wanting more, and thus it’s a mere two and a half minutes between us watching the Terrorist come down the steps and the moment when the two antagonists finally spot each other. Handily, a pile of loosely coiled cables (!) allows Swat Guy to trip the fugitive, and the villain is fried by-I swear this is what we see-’electrical’ current beams that have been achieved by scratching the film negative with a pin.
First of all, I don’t know, maybe a nuclear power plant should safety check their control panels a bit more rigorously, so that leaning up against one doesn’t result in being fatally electrocuted. Second, I’m not really sure about those piles of loose cabling, especially in proximity to the aforementioned equipment bank. Finally, again, wouldn’t it have been easier to have just shot the guy in the first place?
By the way, and just to be clear, NOTHING THAT HAPPENED ABOVE, OR ANY SINGLE CHARACTER WE’VE YET SEEN, WILL HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE FILM THAT FOLLOWS. THERE IS LITERALLY NOT A SINGLE CONNECTION*.
[*Future Ken: Actually, that's not really true. Check out-way, way below-the section of the review that discusses Sam Sherman's commentary track, where I backtrack on the above statement. Even so, while one of the characters does in fact continue to figure into things-sort of-it remains the case that the whole hostage situation has nothing much to do with what follows.]
With the opening credits lasting nearly three minutes, coupled with the above sequence, the end result is that its quite nearly fourteen minutes (in a film running under an hour and a half) before we finally begin our movie proper. This momentous event is heralded with an establishing shot of a suburban home.
Inside, we meet two of our main characters. One is an elderly fellow, whose name we won’t learn until we’re forty-five minutes in-and we never are told his first name-so I called him Joe. The other person is Joe’s roughly junior high school-aged grandson, Jonathon. Joe is avuncular, Jonathon is a bit of a science nerd, and that’s about all the characterization they’re going to get. Jonathon is staying with Joe while the boy’s father is off working on a “project.”
Jonathon is trying to study in his room, while Joe sits nearby and kibitzes. Ersatz pop music is softly playing on Jonathon’s radio. Joe, droning on, wryly notes, “I don’t know how you can do your homework with all that rock music and still get good grades!” (See? “Good grades.” I told you Jonathon was a nerd.) Joe’s comment establishes two things. First, given the negligible volume of the, er, music, is that he apparently suffers from an aural sensitivity that puts Roderick Usher’s to shame. Second, that the definition of ‘rock’ music is a lot looser than I was aware.
In fact, and what a coincidence this is, the referenced music sounds quite a bit like the movie’s aforementioned theme song. It’s almost as if it were the work of the same band. That’s pretty unlikely, however, since the idea of that particular ensemble actually getting radio playtime strains credulity a lot farther than the notion of living dead zombies.
Having succeeded in getting Jonathon into turning off the music-and I can’t really argue with him there-Joe begins rambling on about how he took his busted laser disc player in to be repaired. (For younger viewers, a laser disc was an LP-sized video format. Imagine if the Soviet Union was still around, what their DVDs would be like, and you’d be pretty close.) However, they wanted too much money, so he took it home. “Why don’t you let me look at it,” Jonathon offers, doubtlessly hoping this will placate the old geezer and that he’ll finally leave. Needless to say, as a nerd Jonathon should be able to effortlessly fix any electronic device. Hell, he’ll probably soup it up in some comical fashion.
Before we cut away, I want to compliment the filmmakers on digging up such polished actors to play Joe and Jonathon. Usually you’d have to travel as far as, oh, say, your living room to find thespian talent of this stellar quality. As well, they obviously wisely avoided ‘rehearsing’ (it’s a technical filmmaking term) the scene before shooting it, a procedure that can suck all the freshness out of a performance. Sure, maybe the guy playing Joe noticeably stumbles over a line or two, but it’s worth it to garner that feeling of cinema veritÃ‹.*
[*Actually, that's a bit unwarranted. The actor referenced is Robert Allen, who'd been appearing in films since the '30s. Any defects in his performance were probably caused by Sherman shoving some script pages in his hands and saying, "Study these, we'll be filming them in five minutes."]
Cut to an establishing shot of what appears to be a high school. We zoom in towards a second story window, although we don’t end up seeing much other than blinds and, vaguely, the ceiling light fixtures. Nonetheless, this camera movement is accompanied by ominous music. Either something nefarious is occurring inside the indicated chamber, or else the film composer had a pathological fear of fluorescent lighting.
Segue accomplished, we cut inside to what proves to be a lab, albeit one that really isn’t changing my mind about the building being a high school. [Future Ken: As noted later, it's actually a small commercial facility.] On a table resting beneath a small collection Generic Scientific Apparatus, we see a body lying under a sheet.
Here a man’s torso comes into shot-given the quality of the film, it’s a toss up as to whether his head was cropped out by mistake, or instead purposely kept off-camera so as to provide a note of mystery-and he produces a hypodermic needle. Hmm. I’ve seen a surprisingly large number of films where someone injects a corpse with some serum or other, and it has seldom panned out as being a very good idea.
Next the man twists a dial on your standard Generic Beeping Deviceâ„¢. Then we cut to a close-up of the corpse’s arm, lying along the edge of the table, as its hand begins to twitch. I’ll bet the filmmakers were glad that the dead don’t actually rise from the grave in real life, because otherwise you’d really have to think that Zombie James Whale would be shambling in any second now to pop somebody a good one in the nose.
We cut to a close-up of the Beeping Device as numbers register on its digital readout display. This might not have been the best idea, however, as we can now clearly ascertain that the gizmo was manufactured by the International Light company, which doesn’t really sound like the sort of corporation that would be marketing RCDA. (For that non-scientifically inclined, that would be Resurrected Corpse Diagnostic Apparatus.)
We cut back to Joe’s house. Jonathon thankfully is alone in his room, save for Felix, his pet hamster, and perusing his grandfather’s now dismantled laser disc player. More music of the sort previously heard is playing on his radio, and I was left to ponder whether it would be worse to live in a universe in which the soulless dead rise from their graves to menace the living, or one in which this particular band was the world’s hottest musical act. (After a while, I was able to identify the tune-whether I wished to or not-as an instrumental version of the theme song. Sadly, this would be played at some length at various other junctures of the film.)
While poking around in the player’s innards, Jonathon utilizes his vast collection of equipment, including a pliers, a wrench, a small screwdriver, a pocket ratchet set (?) and a roll of duct tape. That baby’s as good as fixed, I tell you what. “Hmm, let’s see what this is,” Jonathon muses as he prods various electronic crannies. Meanwhile, the camera zooms in to show us an interior cardboard sign reading “WARNING HIGH VOLTAGE.” (!!) “You’ll like this, Felix,” Jonathon notes. “WARNING HIGH VOLTAGEâ€¦ REMOVAL OF COVER EXPOSES HAZARDOUS VOLTAGES.” Not to mention a rather innocuous-looking circuit board.
Being a precocious young chap, Jonathon naturally puts the protective cover aside and goes for it. Of course, he’d have to be a complete moron to do so while the unit was pluggedâ€¦oops! It seems that if you remove the cardboard warning cover and randomly poke around the inside of a dismantled laser disc player (for several minutes as you eat up some running time), you may well cause it to emit a beam of coherent light powerful enough to flash fry a hamster. I guess Jonathon should have paid more attention to that sticker reading DANGER: LASER RADIATION WHEN OPEN. AVOID DIRECT EXPOSURE TO BEAM. I have to admit, though, that it certainly beats incinerating ants with a magnifying glass.
Enrapt by the March of Science, Our Young Edison proves at best mildly distressed by the immolation of his furry comrade. On this cue, Michelle, a girl his age who is wearing a hideous shirt with the collar up-It’s the ’80s!!-enters the room. And I mean “on this cue,” as it’s pretty evident that she was standing in position out in the hall so as to enter at the proper moment. Magically, the lass portraying Michelle proves even less convincing an actor than much of the rest of the cast, which is an impressive statement. The two exchange what I believe might have been meant as comical banter, with the upshot being that she suggests that Jonathon remove the laser projecting unit entirely so as to facilitate further experimentation.
We now move on to another couple of characters, although the effect is more akin to changing from one TV channel to another in the middle of a show. Raiders of the Living Dead is the sort of movie in which, when we cut away like this, it’s like we’re jumping into another film altogether. Actually, given Independent International’s longstanding modus operandi, that’s most possibly the case. Still, at least that now all-too familiar disco music is serving to tie things together.
Here it’s night time, and a man and a woman are driving in a car. He’s a reporter (only when proofreading the above did I remember the reporter seen outside the power plant earlier, and realize it was supposedly the same guy), she’s a photographer. We can tell, because he asks her if she’s “got your fast film and high speed lenses?” (Wow!) They’re heading out to some remote old locale. He admits that there’s no empirical reason for this, although he feels there’s a story there somewhere. “The last guy who went poking around there didn’t come back,” he tells her. Well, that proves it. He explains that he hasn’t told the cops about this, because “It’s my job to get the story-that’s all!” Look out, Woodward & Bernstein!
After driving “for two hours,” they arrive. Upon being told of their location, the photographer gasps. “Colter’s Farm!” she exclaims. “Are you kidding?! That’s where they found those mass graves last year!” Well, thank you, Sally Exposition. Given her jitters, the Reporter suggests she wait in the car while he scopes things out. So saying, he grabs his flashlight and departs.
The Reporter pokes around for tens of seconds before he see a presumably suspicious light emanating from the barn. As he approaches the door the light snaps off, whereupon he decides to sneak inside with his flashlight on, an obvious sign that he’s had some ninjitsu training. In a moment sure to warm the cockles of any schlock movie buff, we now hear a loud heartbeat sound on the soundtrack. Yep, it’s the same one used to herald the presence of the killer android in Al Adamson’s cheese classic, Astro Zombies. Here it serves a similar function, as the Reporter finds himself confronted by a zombie of the ‘grey skin paint and blackened raccoon eyes’ variety.
The Reporter retreats by clambering up a convenient ladder. This doesn’t really seem like the best idea, although it does allow him to crash through a *cough, cough* second story candy glass window and secure his escape. (Despite being an ‘outside’ window, it sports an evident ceiling on the ‘exterior’ side. Also, the smashing glass sound effect they foley in is comically loud.) Meanwhile, we get a close-up of some guy’s face as he glares in a sinister fashion, so I guess he’s the zombie master referenced in the theme song. [Future Ken: Again, not so. This is definitely a 'don't assume' movie, although since you can't make heads or tails of anything, it probably doesn't really matter that much.]
The Reporter picks himself up and flees. Not to his nearby car, admittedly, but rather into some woods that must be in close proximity to the barn, despite the fact that we never see them in any of the wide shots. Harp music (!) plays as he runs about for a bit. However, after pausing by a tree, he finds himself confronted by a second and rather more desiccated zombie. This one sports a much more elaborate make-up job, or perhaps it’s a mask, but at least it doesn’t look like somebody’s quickly whipped together Halloween costume.
Desiccated Zombie swipes at him, but the Reporter ducks. This allows for a not terribly convincing effects gag where the zombie ends up hitting a tree, thus bursting a pretty evident blood bag he’s got hidden up his sleeve. You wouldn’t think a dried up old zombie would have so much heavily oxygenated fluid left in him, but there you go.
The Reporter trots off again, and soon espies a parked pick-up truck, at least partly because it’s backlit with a klieg light. He climbs into the cab, but to his frustration doesn’t find the keys. Exiting, he checks out the flatbed and discovers, apparently just banging around back there all by its lonesome, a small petrol can. He pours a puddle of its contents on the ground and then makes a trail of the stuff.
Sure enough, DZ comes shambling along and is soon immolated. Things follow tradition as the zombie goes up like dry kindling. (By the way, I’m pretty sure the actor playing the zombie patterned his reaction to this fiery demise on that of Lon Chaney Jr.’s Frankenstein Monster during a similar moment in The Ghost of Frankenstein.) In one of the film’s few interesting moments, the undead beastie’s remains continue moving around for a good long time, even as they’re being reduced to mere ashes and bone. And, I think, a hockey mask, which is what the zombie facial make-up was apparently attached to.
The camera eventually pulls back, and given where he and the zombie have ended up, we can definitely see that there was no good reason for the Reporter not to have run straight for his car. Except, of course, that then we would have missed all this excitement. In any case, he does so now. I hope you’re sitting down, however, because it turns out that the engine won’t start. (By the way, from what the Photographer saw, it would have appeared that the Reporter had set a trap and burned a guy alive. Why would she have unlocked the car door?)
With their departure thwarted, the two run from their vehicle. Soon Greasepaint Zombie is seen walking around nearby. It strolls past them, but just when the two think they’re safe, the Reporter is jumped by the Maybe Master Guy, who for some reason sports oily hair and a black leather jacket and appears to have taken the whole ‘Fonzie’ craze way too seriously. In about five seconds he strangles the Reporter to death, or unconsciousness, or something. In any case, he falls over much too quickly, given his apparent fitness and youth. Meanwhile, the Photographer-who of course just watched all this without bothering to lend her comrade a hand-falls prey to Greasepaint Zombie.
Cut to morning. A guy, obviously beaten up, is staggering down a rural road. Back when my friend Andrew and I saw this movie on TV, we were confused as to whether this was supposed to be the Reporter. See, he seemed like another guy entirely. And now that I am seeing the film again, and was waiting for this, I can definitely state that he does look a lot different.
Now, as I’ve admitted in other articles, my brain’s facial recognition software is pretty bad. Even so, and upon more leisurely examination, I think it might be the same actor after all, although I suspect he shot the scene beginning here some time earlier-his hairstyle is different, for one thing-with the Colter Farm stuff done years later at the bequest of producer/director Sam Sherman, in order to flesh out the previous footage enough to make it (if only barely) releasable.
The Guy tries to flag down a car and gets tagged by it for his trouble. The vehicle pulls over, and naturally the driver proves to be an attractive female. Being a movie character, she takes him to her house rather than a hospital, and we next see him wolfing down breakfast at her place. Here she’s wearing a nurse outfit, so I guess that makes taking your hit and run victim home with you quite all right.
Astoundingly, the Guy finally deigns to name himself as being Morgan Randall-so yes, he is in fact the Reporter-while the woman’s name is Shelly. Morgan seems in fine health and spirits, considering that he was just recently chased by the living dead, strangled by a refugee from Grease and soon after summarily struck by a car. In fact, he’s so much recovered that the large facial bruise he exhibited just a minute ago is now completely gone. Even so, I don’t know, you’d think maybe he would want to tell somebody about how his co-worker was killed. That just seems like something you’d want to take care of. Instead, his first impulse is to talk Shelly into letting him do the dishes.
Afterward, he asks for a ride into town. Taking his leave of her, Morgan enters a phone booth and uses the Yellow Pages to get the location of a gun shop. Soon afterward he is looking over some weaponry. When his behavior rouses the store owner’s suspicions, he takes on the persona of a redneck, spouting off about liberals and do-gooders. I think this is supposed to be funny-although, really, how could I possibly prove it?-with the idea being that anyone who would run a gun shop would by definition be the sort of dense, reactionary hick who would be put at ease by this sort of talk.
Needless to say, Our Hero’s gambit works and the shop owner is indeed put at ease. Meanwhile, despite noting only a moment ago that he needed to be careful these days, the shop owner now casually reaches under the counter and hands Morgan a clearly illegal sawed-off double barrel shotgun. I have to admit, though, that this would a pretty decent anti-zombie weapon.
Also, and I don’t wish to pummel a deceased equine here, despite Morgan’s earlier contention that his sole responsibility is to get the story, I still believe most folks would, after all this, decide that maybe the authorities should be consulted.
Anyhoo, Morgan soon strolls out of the gun store carrying his illegal weapon tightly wrapped in butcher paper, just to make sure everyone will have a pretty good idea of what it is. Way to stay stealthy, my friend. His next stop is to rent a room in a boarding house. This accomplished, he then telephones Shelly to-I swear!-badger her for a date (!) to see some Three Stooges shorts (!!) at a local theater. Shelly is reluctant at first, telling him not to read too much into the fact that, as she says, “I’m really glad that I helped you out.” Oh, was that after you ran him down with your car?
Perhaps taking this into account, she eventually agrees to go. Actually, it’s supposedly the Three Stooges detail that finally sells her. You know, zombies and death-ray laser disc players I can buy, but women springing at the opportunity to see old 3 Stooges shorts? All I can say is, man, if you find a woman like that, marry her.
(The entire scene, by the way, is entirely shot on her end of the conversation. This is admittedly an economical technique, although it makes the scene play like the most boring Bob Newhart routine ever.)
I want to get back to something. Aside from his different look (especially his hair), this is the real reason Andrew and I remained mystified as to whether Morgan was, in fact, supposed to be the same guy as the Reporter. Although I’m now sure that he is, let’s examine what this means in terms of his activities over the last twenty hours or so:
Late Night/Early Morning:
Drives two hours to remote location, notes along the way how exhausted he is. Arrives at farm, is chased by zombies, then is strangled and left for dead. Female co-worker missing/presumed gruesomely murdered.
Wakens sometime after dawn, stumbles off until he finds a public road, staggers along trying to flag down a car, only to be hit by one. Taken to woman’s house, fed breakfast, does dishes. Leaves, rents car, buys illegal weapon, rents room, calls woman and cheerfully asks her out on date. Spends evening watching comedy short subjects in theater.
I don’t know, that doesn’t strike me as a terribly convincing emotional arc.
In any case, the two end up in the local movie house, laughing uproariously at extended clips from Disorder in the Court. This-coincidentally, I’m sure-just happens to be one of the few Stooge shorts in the public domain. However, it also has one of the funniest moments ever put on film, when Larry’s violin bow snags a man’s toupee, and suddenly seeing it hanging there, he pops his eyes in horror and cries, “A tarantula!!” Wisely, this bit is seen here, although since it’s more authentically scary than anything that actually happens in the movie, it does undercut things a little.
By the way, in the theater Morgan is wearing glasses-again, I barely recognized him-leading me to wonder where the hell he was carrying those all this time. In any case, the couple has a grand old time, which once more brings me back to Morgan’s dead coworker and all that stuff. On the other hand, perhaps he’s just a lot more stoic than I am.
We return to Joe’s house, where the elderly gentleman is questioning Jonathon about his current, er, present project. Joe admires his grandson’s enthusiasm, but is a bit concerned about his grandson playing around with a device that can flash fry a house pet. Jonathon, for his part, has no such qualms, and he quickly manages to put Joe at ease. Soon, Our Precocious Scientist is soldering things to other things and soon has mounted the laser projecting equipment onto a ergonomic pistol frame.
Cut outside, where Michelle is walking along the sidewalk with a large box of some sort. (We eventually learn that she’s stolen her family’s laser player, too, so that Jonathon can have more parts.) Soon two punks drive up beside her and begin with the hassling. The day is saved, however, when they are hit by pin-scratch laser beams, non-lethal ones, thankfully, and beat a hasty retreat. The gun does, however, make the traditional movie ‘cheeew!’ sound when it’s fired.
Inside, Michelle thanks her hero for saving her. “Oh, that,” he shrugs. “I was practicing some target practice on the garbage cans outside.” Yes, more than ever I believe Jonathon should be allowed to experiment with deadly laser beam technology. Still, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. Jonathon is concerned that he’s inadvertently shot a person with his weapon. “How badly?” he gulps. “I don’t know,” Michelle admits. “Maybe you only burned him a little.”
Despite the vagueness of this reply, Jonathon is relieved. “You had me worried there for a minute!” he exclaims. Yes, but there’s no reason for concern now, son. I’d get right back upstairs and recommence firing your experimental and wildly inaccurate laser pistol randomly out the window while your girlfriend steals valuable household objects from her parents at your behest. “After what’s happened tonight,” he assures her, “you can see there’s a good use for this device.” Indeed. And if you’re ever confronted by scofflaws when your laser gun isn’t available, perhaps you could just douse them with a large jar of acid or something.
Later, Morgan returns from his date to the boarding house. He marches up the darkened stairs and is starting to relax in his room when he notices some goo on the floor. Suddenly, *gasp* a zombie crashes out from its hiding place in his closet. I’d like to know how the hell that got in there, but, you know, those are just details.
Luckily, Morgan has his shotgun right at hand. He shoots into the creature’s chest, and as with the earlier zombie after it struck the tree, a bunch of extremely red blood issues forth. Undaunted, however, the zombie begins strangling him. Morgan frees himself by jamming the gun barrels under its wrist and taking its hand off. Finally, he fires a third shot-yes, from a double barrel shotgun-and blowing apart most of the zombie’s head in a brief but nicely gory effect. In traditional movie fashion, this finally drops his undead intruder.
At this point, Morganâ€¦takes off. (Luckily, neither his landlady nor any of her presumed other tenants have been roused by this ruckus.) Once outside, he just starts running. He almost gets hit by a car, dropping his gun in the process. The one, you know, that he just used to save his life. I mean, this is a suburban street. I think in light of what just happened, you might wait until the car went by and retrieve your weapon.
For a fleeting, moronic second I thought he was supposed to be intentionally ditching it in case the cops caught up to him. On a moment’s reflection, of course, I realized that made absolutely no sense. First of all, really, wouldn’t now be a good time to call in the police? I mean, you were just attacked by a walking, rotting but still bleeding corpse, and the body’s right there. I’m not sure how much more proof of his story he wants before he blows the whistle. And don’t tell me he’s concerned with getting his supposed ‘story,’ because you know, he’s already got a pretty good one here, you’d think.
Instead, Morgan dazedly wanders the streets. He falls exhausted by a fence, where he is approached byâ€¦Grandpa Joe. Here we finally learn that he is, by name and profession, one Dr. Carstairs. Being a kindly old fellow, Carstairs invites Morgan into his office, to see if there’s anything he can do for this obviously troubled soul.
Actually, we don’t see who the figure is when he helps Morgan off the sidewalk. Instead, he identifies himself vocally. (To my complete lack of surprise, I later learned via the director’s commentary that they used a stand-in actor for Carstairs here, hence the framing of the shot.) However, the figure is definitely wearing black leather gloves when he lifts Morgan up, and it’s a similarly clad hand that flips the light switch in his office. However, in the wide shot that appears immediately after, Carstairs is notably sans gloves. It’s a mystery.
“I sometimes come back to my office at night to do paperwork,” Carstairs expositories, lest we’re wondering why he was in place to come across Morgan the way he did. (Yeah, well, in this film that ranks about 247th on the list of such things.) When his guest admits to being in trouble, Carstairs offers to call the police, although Morgan naturally turns him down. Well, by ‘naturally,’ I mean based on his behavior in this film so far. In real life, he’d probably be slapping his forehead and muttering, “Duh! The police! I’m such a friggin’ moron.”
With a sympathetic ear at his disposal, Morgan begins relating his tale. He begins, “I started in on this story about three months agoâ€¦” and we cut away. Three months ago?! (Let’s be clear, he’s talking about his involvement with the zombies, not when the movie started.) This seems like an awful lot of backstory to just elide over. I don’t mind picking up a story in progress, but this is the first time we’ve gotten an indication that Morgan’s involvement has lasted anywhere near that long.
Meanwhile, Shelly arrives at the boarding house. The landlady reported that Morgan knew her and the investigating officer, Lt. Kruger, has asked her to drop by. Everyone seems to know everyone else, as you might expect in a small town. Of course, Shelly is also a nurse, and presumably would have come into contact with the police and coroner in her professional capacity.
Needless to say, she’s flummoxed by the circumstances. Responding to questions, she admits that she had only met Morgan that morning as he came staggering down the road into town. “The car nearly ran him down,” she explains, understandably shading the truth a bit. I like that passive voice, too, that’s very slick. Either because he’s a lousy cop, or a poorly written one, Kruger doesn’t inquire as to why she didn’t take Morgan to the hospital instead of home with her.
Kruger escorts her upstairs to where Dr. Kapek, the town coroner, is examining the body. “I don’t offer any explanation for it,” this worthy declares. “All I can do is tell you what I see. This man has been dead for a good two years.” Actually, I think the even more amazing part was that it was still able to bleed profusely just a short while ago. Still, maybe I’m just excitable.
We cut over to Dr. Carstair’s house, where Morgan has apparently just finished relating his tale over a cup of coffee. “What you have to say is fantastic,” Carstairs responds. “But I can see why you can’t go to the police with that kind of tale.” The good doctor seems remarkably calm considering that a house guest has just confessed to shooting a ‘monster’ to death that very evening.
On the other hand, perhaps Carstairs is just flat out senile. Certainly his following statement, “I’m not so sure that your story is as crazy as it sounds,” would lead us to believe this. “You may have seen something, but not the ‘zombies’ you imagine,” he clarifies. Again, not to be a nervous Nelly or anything, but I’d think the problem wouldn’t be so much what Morgan believes he’s seen, but believes he’s decapitated with a shotgun blast.
Meanwhile, the kids have sneaked down the stairs for a little eavesdropping. “Oh, no,” Jonathon moans. “Another one.” It seems Grandpa makes a habit of bringing troubled strangers into the house. On the other hand, I don’t really think he personally has much right to complain about his grandfather’s laissez faire attitudes on things. Otherwise he might have, you know, frowned a tad more heavily on Jonathon’s death ray experiments.
Carstairs calls the kids into the room and introduces them to Morgan. Then he notes that after a meal, he’ll take Michelle home and they can all hit the hay. I have to admit, I was a little confused by the timeline here. Morgan takes Shelly to a movie, returns home after it’s pitch dark and is attacked by and kills the zombie, flees the scene, is found by Carstairs, is invited first into the latter’s office and then his home, and this all happened before dinner time? Huh.
Even better is when Carstairs casually suggests, “After a good night’s sleep, Mr. Randall, I think it may be wise for you to leave town tomorrow.” Uh, that would constitute aiding and abetting a fugitive from, as far as Carstairs knows, a murder charge, and quite possibly obstruction of justice and conspiracy. No wonder Jonathon frowns on his grandfather’s apparent hobby.
Meanwhile, Shelly is at Kruger’s office, where she’s expressing her concern for Morgan. “Interesting point of law, though,” she muses. “The victim’s been dead for over two years.” Yeah, now that you mention it, I guess that would raise some issues. Of course, that’s only because Shelly and I are legal laymen. “The law covers it,” Kruger blithely responds. (!!)
The next morning, Morgan hits a phone booth to call Shelly and let her know that he’s all right. Needless to say, she doesn’t suggest he give himself up to the police, but instead says she wants to meet up and talk. He tells her he’s left town (which he clearly hasn’t), and ends the conversation before she can get more information out of him. However, she refuses to take no for an answer and leaves to go look for him.
This leads to a montage accompanied by very bad jazz music, although I guess I should just be glad it’s not the nth reiteration of the theme music. There’s a small-very small-comic moment when she sees a hitchhiker. She starts to pull over, only to see that it’s not Morgan, whereupon she speeds off after leading the guy through a puddle. The punch line of this involves the guy shooting her the bird. Man, that’s komedy.
We cut to Shelly in town, where she’s paused and grabbed a sandwich. Looking up, however, she sees the theater marquee for the place where they saw the 3 Stooges shorts yesterday. (The main feature, by the way, is War Games.) The marquee identifies the 3 Stooges program as a matinee offering. This sorta-kinda makes the above questioned timeline a bit more believable, assuming that it gets dark very early here and the Carstairs eat dinner pretty late. On the other hand, it’s more likely that I’m being overly generous here. After all, Shelly did tell Kruger that she’d seen a movie “this evening.”
Acting on a hunch, she checks inside. Sure enough, Morgan in sitting in the audience, again watching Disorder in the Court. I mean, I’m a big fan of the Stooges, but yeesh. Also, is this the best idea this supposedly savvy big city reporter can come up with, hanging out in one of the few places he’s known to have been in the last 24 hours? I think he might want to work on his fugitive skills a little.
Soon Shelly has taken him to a secluded spot for a conversation. He tells her that he believes someone is raising the dead. “Do you have any proof?” she asks, incredulous. “Nothing,” he admits in frustration. Well, I guess there was that moldy corpse that had been dead for two year but still bled all over the place when it was shot. That seems a fairly major substantial piece of physical evidence to me, but what do I know?
However, he suddenly exclaims “Wait a minute!” Here he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a ragged piece of cloth. “I found this the night it all started,” he relates. “It’s been in my pocket ever since.” Well, that’s convenient. A clue from, I guess, “three months ago” that we’ve never heard about, from an incident we never learn of. This script is airtight. Anyway, the rag is clearly (and pretty conveniently) part of a uniform shirt with the logo R.C.I. stenciled on it.
Shelly suggests he try to get information on the apparent institution from the town historical society. She tries to join him, but he’s worried about her getting further involved sends her home. Unfortunately, Shelly arrives there to find a couple of undead visitors waiting for her. These are of the more elaborate variety, as opposed to the purely greasepaint ones we get in some scenes, again suggesting they come from another movie. Comically, however, they only had ‘zombie’ gloves for one, and thus one elaborately desiccated shambler noticeably sports normal flesh-colored hands.
Also on the scene is their master, the Man in Black. At his direction, Shelly isn’t killed but instead is touted off. I have to say, the ability of these zombies to move around this little town, here in broad daylight, mind you, without being seen is pretty darn impressive.
Next Morgan (I guess) is having a rather stark nightmare, filled with horrible images of zombies and death. During this we eventually see Shelly being tied face first to a post and having the back of her clothes ripped open by the Man in Black, in a manner tat suggests she’s about to be whipped. Morgan wakes up in a panic.
This scene is sort of weird, actually. It’s our first indication that these are supposed to be magically-produced zombies, in that the dream is presumably a message/summons being mystically sent to Morgan by the Man in Black. If this supposition is correct, then it seemingly contradicts the thrust of the earlier scene where the Mystery Figure employed the Beeping Device and a syringe of some substance, which appeared to establish that these are scientifically created undead.
That scene, along with the whole nuclear power plant incident in the beginning of the film (which understandably we keep waiting to have at least some faint connection with things, although it never does) and the laser gun stuff, makes the sudden lateral move from inane ‘science’ into the realm of outright magic typically off the wall.
Cut to the next day, as Jonathon and Michelle are leaving school. He’s explaining Morgan’s zombie problem to her (Morgan has consulted again with Carstairs), which everyone at this point seems to be buying into. Jonathon, in a pretty lame attempt to lend credibility to things-a bit late, I’d say, by this juncture-expounds on zombies in Haiti, which he learned about from a TV program. Michelle wonders about what they should do, as “Nobody will believe us.” I don’t know, you all bought into it quickly enough. Oh, and there is that TWO YEAR-OLD BLEEDING CORPSE THE COPS AND CORONER HAVE BEEN EXAMINING. Cripes.
Next the kids are checking the graveyard, to see if they can find any signs of zombie activity. (According to the special Jonathon saw, zombies stay in their graves during the day, and rise at night to work the fields.) He suggests that they come back tonight, and she agrees, suggesting however that he bring his laser gun along. Yep, it’s all coming together now.
Morgan stops by the Historical Society, hoping to learn where Shelly might be being kept. (If the Man in Black is in fact trying to lure him somewhere, you think he could have been a bit more explicit.) Said institution consists of an old woman sitting at an office desk. Morgan tells her he’s a reporter, and she gets all suspicious. “You’re not one of those who’s come here to dredge up our past?” she queries nervously. Way to play it cool, lady. Also, I don’t know, if you don’t want people drudging up the past, how about not running a volunteer historical society?
Long story shorter, R.C.I. was a nearby prison, one where they executed prisoners in the electric chair. Then she starts going off about the bells. “Early in the morning,” the woman relates, “the jailers would rings those horrible bells to wake the prisoners, for some awful reason.” Uhm, the warden didn’t like roosters?
Anyway, her speech is accompanied by spooky music, so that we get that it’s all, well, spooky. “There are some people who insist they still hear them ring,” she hams, “and the prison’s been closed for forty years!” Nobody goes out there now, of course. Hmm, where could all this be going? Oh, and there was The Scandal. “The head doctor would perform terrible experiments on the prisoners,” she relates. “Even on those who had been executed!” Said medico disappeared after the prison was closed down, and “after a while they just stopped looking for him.”
Flush with all this handy info, Morgan goes to his car and mulls things over. Then he pulls the R.C.I. patch out of his pocket. Hmm, surely all these pieces fit together somehowâ€¦
That night, Jonathon and Michelle stake out a small set that’s meant to match some footage taking place in a graveyard. “Look over there in the distance,” Michelle exclaims, and sure enough, there’s a whole other movie going on over there. The Man is Black is standing over an open grave. He rings a small bell (get it?) and then pricks a barely healed wound on his wrist, spilling blood onto the revealed corpse. At this point I’d definitely have to say that magic is being used to make the zombies, although as discussed above, this seems to contradict earlier events.
In any case, the zombie comes to life and opens its eyes. I guess the eyes are the last thing to go on a body, because they look perfectly normal while the face around them is all flaking and rotten. Then we get the obligatory ‘zombie rising from its grave’ bit, which comically calls to mind Tor Johnson trying to lever his bulk out of one in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space.
You might think, with them being in another movie and all, that the kids would be safe. However, film clips are edited together in such a fashion as to suggest (sorta) that the zombie ends up chasing after them. Moreover, Lil’ Einstein’s laser gun fails to fire. However, through the revolutionary technique of, uh, running away, the two get to safety.
Cut to them eating with Carstairs, in what I guess is supposed to be the next morning. “Of all the unmitigated, stupid things” he spleens in reaction to their story. “The two of you could have been arrested at the cemetery!” Not only that, but if I remember correctly, they were also NEARLY KILLED BY A MURDEROUS ANIMATED CORPSE. Grandpa finally decides that Jonathon’s been spending too much time with his experiments. “You’ve got to forget these fantasies and get out into the real world,” he avers. “Real world?!” Jonathon responds. “Is that what you call it with all these creeps running around?” “I guess you’ve got me there,” Carstairs admits.
This scintillating debate is interrupted by a phone call from Morgan. By the way, how long is he going to able to move around this small town before the cops manage to find him? It’s not like there’s a whole lot of strangers around these parts. Anyway, he explains his belief that Shelly is out at the old prison, and announces his intention to go there.
Of course, he refuses to call in the police before he does so. Well, at least he’s consistent. “Whether you go out there or not,” Morgan exclaims, “I’m going out there.” So he won’t call in the cops, but he’s entreating for the help of a sexagenarian? Good plan. Still, it works. Carstairs hangs up (?) directly after Morgan makes this statement, turns to the kids and notes, “We can’t let him go to Rockmore Island alone!” What kind of movie is this, where the old man decides to join Morgan with “my old target bow,” and not only bring along his young grandson, but also his grandson’s thirteen year-old girlfriend. The hell?
He does call in additional reinforcements, however, by phoning a security guard he knows. “Just ask,” the fellow responds. “You know I owe you more than one favor.” (That must have been a big ass favor, considering.) I wish I could have heard the other side of the conversation, though: “I’m heading out to the old island prison this evening to confront a bunch of living dead zombies, and I was hoping you’d join me, my young grandson and his girlfriend.” Carstairs does exhort him to come armed, for what that’s worth.
That evening-so they blew the entire day and decided to head out there at night?!-we see the various components of the group head out. You’d think they could at least have met at Carstair’s house and gone together, but nope. But hey, at least we get a reprise of the theme music! Man, you just can’t get enough of that rockin’ tune!
Cut to the spooky prison. Morgan is the first to arrive, and spends quite a lot of time wandering the grounds while spooky music plays. This does appear to be a real, abandoned facility, so I’ll give them points for that. Meanwhile, the security guard guy shows up and parks somewhere else, whereupon he too begins strolling around. Despite his M16 (?), he ends up falling to a bunch of blatantly offscreen teleporting zombies following an interminable, er, tension-soaked sequence. Good thing Carstairs called him in to lend a hand.
Actually, I couldn’t help noticing that Security Guard Guy never directly interacts with any other character. Even when Carstairs contacted him, it was via a phone conservation shown solely on his end. This raises the possibility that they filmed and inserted him later, perhaps after deciding that the zombies needed to be more convincingly menacing, given that they end up getting their undead asses kicked by an old man and a couple of young teens. (Oops, sorry.)
As Morgan continues his perambulations, he suddenly hears the prison bell being rung. Ringing a giant bell at an abandoned penal facility doesn’t seem like the best way to keep from drawing the attention of the authorities, but what do I know? In any case, the bell ringer is the Man in Black, and the upshot is that the pealing tones rouse the zombies, although because of the poor editing, the Security Guard was attacked before this happened, but we’ll just move on. By the way, the Man in Black, even more noticeably than before, is now painted with white greasepaint adorned with black raccoon eyes. No explanation for this is given. Perhaps he’s just been bleeding himself a tad too much raising undead slaves.
Eventually, and pretty fortuitously, given the size of the place, Morgan stumbles across a bound Shelly. He frees her and they begin running about, and I guess they’re maybe being chased by the odd zombie or too, although frankly the editing leaves much to the viewer’s imagination.
Meanwhile, Carstairs and the kids have arrived. He’s attired in bad old ‘western’ clothes-undoubtedly a wink to the fact that the actor playing him did Western pictures in his youth-and sure enough, is carrying a target bow and a small quiver of arrows. The two kids both have laser guns. That’s why they established Michelle as bringing a second laser disc player over, so as to provide for her having a gun also. Telling the kids that if they see any zombies they can “always outrun them” (wise advice, actually), he sends them off on their own (!!) to look around.
Morgan and Shelly stop for a brief rest, whereupon she drops a bombshell: “It’s Dr. Kapek!” she explains. “He’s behind all this!” Yes, that’s right, good old Dr. Kapek, a character who appeared over half an hour ago and had, by my count, a grand total 23 seconds of screen time. What a shocking twist! In any case, this announcement is no sooner made than the two find their escape blocked by Kapek himself and an armed Man in Black. They sort of explain the latter’s connection to Kapek, but I couldn’t quite understand what they were getting at. Given his complexion and all, I guess maybe he’s a zombie, too, or something. Although from what we’ve seen, he’s actually the one who raises the dead. Anyway.
Attempting to tie everything together (fat chance!), Morgan exclaims, “So you went from prison doctor to coroner in one easy step.” Yeah, I was kind of wondering how a notorious fugitive would manage to establish himself professionally in the small town right outside the prison and not manage to get recognized.
The answer? “Not so easy,” Kapek demurs. “There are always those curious ones who have to play investigative reporter. Professor Kanen from the college, young Lt. Michaels from our own police department, and, tsk, dear old Mr. Barrage. But they never had a chance to talk about their discovery. You see, they’re all out here now.” Oh, no! I can’t believe Kapek managed to kill all these characters who we’ve never met or even heard mentioned before! The Fiend! (And nobody in this teeny community thought all these disappearances were unusual? Including that of a local police detective? No wonder Morgan never got picked up. This has got to be the most inept police department in movie history.)
Here we cut to the kids as they wander about. Soon, although not soon enough, if you catch my drift, they see Kapek and the MiB leading their prisoners off. “Here goes nothing,” Jonathon notes, and zaps MiB with his ray gun. Despite the fact that he appears mostly unharmed, and just a second ago had a gun which is not now in evidence, MiB and Kapek beat a hasty retreat. Good villains, there.
Unfortunately, Our Assorted Heroes are still all trapped in the prison and surrounded by a fairly sizable hoard of grease painted extras. Umh, zombies. Soon Jonathon is running around and blasting some of them, and conveniently they all fall over straight away. Even funnier is that so do the ones who take an arrow (!) from Carstair’s bow. Quite a change from the rather hardy zombies seen earlier, if I may so note. Then there’s a ‘suspense’ moment as a zombie approaches Michelle, who’s too frightened to fire, or some damn thing. Needless to say, Jonathon shows up and gets her to shoot at the last hour. Er, second. Whew.
However, nearly a dozen of the undead are still shambling slooowly along after Morgan. Eventually, deciding that they might was well end the movie sooner or later, they have him borrow Michelle’s laser gun and run up some stairs. This gives him a good angle on the remaining zombies and he soon zaps them into oblivion. I have to say, Jonathon did a good job on those battery packs. My homemade death beam projectors give out after only four or five blasts.
At this point the MiB appears on a landing above Our Hero and tries to ambush him, only to take a couple of laser shots and fall over the prison wall and be impaled on a wooden stake. (Such plummeting ‘n’ impaling deaths were a bit of a trademark in Independent International flicks, with similar examples occurring in Satan’s Sadists and Dracula vs. Frankenstein.) Kapek, meanwhile, gets the drop on Shelly with a pistol. Before he can utilize the leverage this affords, however, Carstairs deftly disarms him.
With everything in hand, the theme song begins playing again on the soundtrack. “My colleague here has a lot of explaining to do,” Carstairs notes. No sh*t, Sherlock. And so everyone leaves, cheerfully elated, as the song lyrics are heard again over a long montage of the bad zombie make-up jobs. Making this even more impressive is that the film is so dark at this point that you can’t make anything out, anyway.
- Uh, why did the Terrorist in the beginning of the film hijack the tanker truck if his objective was to get inside the town’s nuclear power plant? I guess we could theorize that it was to use the vehicle to infiltrate the facility’s (non-existing seeming) security, but really, couldn’t they have dropped in a line of dialogue somewhere to confirm this?
- That guy in the truck that suddenly cut off the cops as they were chasing the hijacked tankerâ€¦was he in on the hijacking, or what? The cops don’t even seem to consider this possibility, even though the guy mysteriously pulls into the middle of an otherwise deserted forest road directly after the truck passes by and blocks the way. And if it was all supposed to be a coincidence, including his engine dying right at that moment, than damn, that’s some sloppy writing.
- You know, if I explicate all the ‘huh?’ moments, this section will be longer than the rest of the review. Never mind.
Things I Learnedâ„¢ (Concept courtesy of Andrew Borntreger):
- SWAT teams don’t necessarily need to be more than two guys, and shouldn’t necessarily read too much into the ‘special tactics’ portion of their acronym. Also, three staff members are enough to oversee a nuclear power plant.
- The Reagan administration could have saved a lot of time and money if they had just integrated laser disc player technology into their proposed SDI ballistic missile shield.
- When repairing a busted laser disc player, the most efficient procedure is to randomly remove bits of electronics and then snip through any wires you come across.
- Beams of coherent light look much like pin scratches on film stock.
- Only a real grinch would try to keep a thirteen year-old from messing around with death ray technology.
- People almost never think to call in the cops to deal with killer zombies, but will inevitably seek to deal with the situation themselves.
- The best time to raid a remote location full of nocturnal zombies is at night time, even if you’ve had all day to go there earlier.
- If you’re using a laser gun on a zombie, the effect is increased if you run up about a foot away from it before you fire.
- Zombies can eat up a lot of bullets with no apparent effect, but hit one with an arrow and down they go.
Looking over a schematic, Jonathon explains with cold scientific accuracy how a common laser disc player can be adapted into a murderously powerful death beam projector: “You see, the voltage is multiplied here, and produces the laser beam in this part of the circuit. It’s this fabulous optical unit which can adjusted to focus the beam for the proper target distance. In this case, the video disc is the target.”
Trivia note: Quite a few of the actors here, according to the IMDB, appeared also in 1967′s Hell’s Angels on Wheels, a Jack Nicholson biker flick. There’s at least one mistake in their listings, though, because actress Corri Burt, who played Michelle, is one of them. Given that she’s obviously about thirteen or fourteen years old here, I really doubt she appeared in a movie nineteen years prior.
Anyway, given the large number of actors in both productions (and quite often in nothing else), I can only assume they were both local productions in a town that didn’t see a lot of movie business. As a gag, nearly everybody who appeared in both played characters with the same name.
Again, most of the participants here worked in little else, but as was often the case with Independent International movies, a couple of the actors were retired old pros. Carstairs, for example, was played by Robert ‘Bob’ Allen. Allen was active in the film business almost entirely in the ’30s, doing a bunch of low-budget Westerns and other such fare.
Meanwhile, the role of the town historian provided a cameo for Zita Johann. Ms. Johann is best remembered for playing the reincarnated heroine opposite Boris Karloff in 1932′s The Mummy. She retired from the movie business soon after, and hadn’t appeared in a film for fifty-two years before her triumphant return here.
The only successful ‘new’ actor here was Scott Schwartz, who earlier had played a decently sized role in the perennial holiday classic A Christmas Story. Closer to the mark for Raiders, he also played the kid lead opposite Jackie Gleason and Richard Prior in the memorably abysmal ‘comedy’ The Toy. As you’d expect, the fact that he was appears in Raiders of the Living Dead but a few years later wasn’t a good sign, and by the end of the decade he was appearing in hardcore porn films. (!)
But wait, there’s more:Insanely, Raiders of the Living Dead has been treated to one of the most elaborate ‘special edition’ DVDs I’ve yet come across. Certainly it’s quite possibly the stupidest film to be issued in a two-disc (!) set. It’s nice that they dug out all the available materials they possibly could, but really, what madness drove them to give a film both this awful and this obscure so much of an effort?
On the other hand, for an extremely small number of people (I mean, really, that has to be the assumption, right?), this DVD set is an interesting casebook of the way Independent International would futz with a film, adding and subtracting elements until they thought it was ready to be released. And given that their films, no matter how terrible they turned out to be, generally made a good buck, they obviously knew what they were doing.
An example of an in-house movie to get the full Independent International treatment was the company’s most famous film, Dracula vs. Frankenstein. Originally, it was meant to be a sequel to Al Adamson’s perverse biker smash, Satan’s Sadists. This explains why Russ Tamblyn is seen on the movie’s edges, although he doesn’t without having much to do with things. (More amusingly, while Russ Tamblyn played the central character in that earlier film, he died at the end, falling and being impaled in the chest in a matter identical to the Man in Black’s death here.)
However, horror movies were a hotter genre than biker flicks by that time, so it was decided to bring in old time movie stars Lon Chaney Jr. and J. Carrol Naish and make the picture a mad scientist film called Blood Seekers*. Finally, it was decided to go all out and graft Dracula and the Frankenstein monster onto the existing footage. At this point, Naish’s generic mad scientist suddenly became yet another “the last of the Frankensteins.”
[*Independent International almost inevitably had the word 'blood' in their movie titles, as it marketed well. Fro example, the project that ended up being Dracula vs. Frankenstein was entitled, at various stages during its evolution, Satan's Bloody Freaks, Blood Freaks, Blood Seekers and Blood of Frankenstein.]
Many of Independent International’s projects went through this sort of thing. In several cases, they began with foreign films-mostly from the Philippines-or unsold independent ones. That’s the origin of Raiders of the Living Dead, too, which began life as a flick called Dying Day, made by one Brett Piper.
The 80-minute rough cut of Dying Day is included on the first disc. Because the film wasn’t released, things never progressed to the point where post-production work was done. Therefore the film quality is shoddy, as it was never processed to acquire the normal professional sheen. There are also segments with no sound, or where the dialogue doesn’t match the lip movements, etc. For instance, the opening credits appear over animated images, but the sequence isn’t scored. It’s amazing that you’d ever consider the possibility of even the most hardened buff sitting through such a thing. On the other hand, I did, at least for this review, so there you go.
Much more of a straight voodoo revenge piece, not a whole lot of Dying Day ended up in Raiders. Still, Morgan, Shelly and the Man in Black all originate in that movie. Piper also did special effects, and the more elaborate zombies seen in Raiders did indeed come from Piper’s film, while the more haphazard greasepaint ones were Sherman’s contribution.
Although not a great picture by any means, Dying Day is actually a far better movie than Raiders ended up being-admittedly, not exactly a bold achievement-if only because it had, as you’d imagine, a much straighter storyline. However, it actually has more going for it than just that, although I don’t wish to exaggerate its quality.
Certainly the film was fairly ambitious for a no-budget movie. For instance, it opens in 1897. On a dark and stormy night, a miscreant is being surreptitiously paid off by an apparently respectable man of property, one Mr. Randall. Said miscreant’s attempt at an olde-timey accent, by the way, is pretty comical.
Upstairs in Randall’s house is a bound woman, the object for which the criminal was being paid. At this point, unsurprisingly, I thought Randall was intending to use her in some mad scientist experiment. She manages to get free before he arrives, and when he enters the room, gamely attacks him with a knife. (Hey, at least she’s trying. It’s also an example of why you don’t leave weapons in the same room as your kidnapping victims.) After taking a cut to the face, however, Randall knocks her out and begins tearing her blouse off, thus allowing for some rather sleazy boobie shots.
Again, I was still assuming this guy to be a mad scientist or something of that sort. Instead, he apparently is just attempting to have his way with her. I was even more surprised when his depredations were interrupted by the appearance of a zombie, who proceeds to attack and kill Randall. The woman wakes in time to see the creature shamble off, and is naturally a bit nonplussed by it all.
Next we jump to 1936, where, during a long and very poorly dubbed sequence, another member of the Randall family is eventually slain in a similar fashion. Following this we see a family tree chart with the names of several Randalls crossed out.
Cut to “Last Spring,” where we get our first sequence that appears in Raiders. It’s the scene where the zombie is chasing Morgan through the woods, which in Raiders occurs after he’s escaped from the barn. Except for a few inserts, it’s pretty much the same sequence, only here Morgan safely escapes after immolating his undead pursuer.
From here we cut directly to the battered Morgan staggering down the highway, which in Raiders followed him being choked by the Man in Black. Here, however, the footage is narrated by Morgan. Again, he’s tagged by Shelly’s car, and again she stops and takes him to her house. I kind of liked the fact that when he wakes up later, a little confused, she lied about being the one who hit him.
For a while, things progress as in Raiders, only sans Carstairs et al, and with scenes fleshed out a bit. After a bit where he has money wired to him (absent from Raiders), we see again Morgan purchasing his shotgun and renting his room. After that, however, we get the scene of the Man in Black raising the zombie that occurs in a severely truncated form in Raiders, when the kids are staking out the graveyard. Here a watchman is the one watching all this, and he ends up buying it. It’s this zombie, moreover, that later is hiding in Morgan’s closet when he returns from his date with Shelly.
Said date proceeds, followed by the attack in the boarding house (although here the commotion more believably draws the landlady’s attention), and the subsequent police investigation. Notably, though, Kapek doesn’t return after his brief appearance here. The investigation plays out at significantly greater length and makes rather more sense. As well, the confusing timeline involving Morgan’s activities on this day, as delineated in the above review, isn’t nearly as problematic. For example, Morgan isn’t invited to a family dinner that takes place at what seems to be something like eleven o’clock at night.
Here Morgan actually leaves town after the attack, whereas in Raiders he hangs around and somehow manages to not get arrested. Shelly’s finding of him makes her look a lot more clever, as she pieces together clues to figure out where he might have gone. (The theater with the 3 Stooges matinee she finds him in is actually another venue, which I could tell now that I was looking.) Morgan’s seemingly exaggerated shock at her appearance also makes a lot more sense in this context. Plus we get this line of narration as she drags him out: “They were showing a Stooges short, but it was Joe Besser, so I didn’t mind leaving.” I thought that was pretty funny.
Morgan lays the whole thing out for Shelly, who admittedly perhaps buys into the story a bit quickly (although the zombie body certainly would help). In an especially nice touch, however, she learns that Morgan intends to let the next zombie kill him. He’s just that exhausted from being on the run for over two years. Shelly’s reaction is also nicely clinical, since as a nurse she’s perhaps not as freaked out by death as most people would be. Her first reaction is to suggest that, if he’s going to surrender to death, he pick an easier way to go, like an overdose of pills.
Just in case someone decides to check this film out (again, it’s on disc one of the Raiders of the Living Dead set, available on the web for about $18), and you could do worse, I’ll leave the last hunk of the movie unexamined. However, in this version the Man in Black is working alone, has a fairly believable motive for his actions, and is a genuinely nasty customer. The film’s climax is actually pretty exciting, and obviously more coherent than the finale of Raiders.
Meanwhile, the summons dream is longer here. After having her garment ripped open while facing the post, the Man in Black rips Shelly’s back apart with a bullwhip, and quite gruesomely at that. In fact, this is one of the few times I’ve seen realistic damage from such an event, rather than the old “lines of stage blood” sort of thing. In the end, Shelly turns to the camera to reveal that she is now a horribly rotted zombie.
Dying Day definitely is a vastly better film than Raiders. The plot is much simpler, vastly more straightforward, and makes a great deal more sense. Also, the increased screen time for Morgan and Shelly makes their more gradually developing relationship, which is much more the heart of this film, a lot more realistic. His asking her out on a date suddenly makes sense, because here he’s been on the run for at least a couple of years and is desperately lonely. Well, lonely and horny. Even the selection of the 3 Stooges show (over then current fare like Mad Max and Doctor Detroit) makes a lot of sense. This is a guy who could use a laugh.
Another question from Raiders is answered, too. In Dying Day, when Morgan awakens from the Man in Black’s nightmare summons, he’s lying in a bedroom. In Raiders, we have no idea where he’s supposed to be, since supposedly he’d left off staying at Carstair’s house. Here, he’s clearly staying at Shelly’s place.
The character writing is surprisingly strong, and sans the inane inserts Sam Sherman added, everyone seems a lot smarter and more personable than they do in Raiders. In that film, Morgan’s actions following the night at the farm are literally inexplicable. Here they seem entirely more plausible. Especially nice is the idea that he’s been on the run from his murderous pursuers for quite some time, and has developed a nice set of survival skills. When he buys his gun here, its just part of his regular modus operandi. Moreover, with a presumed long line of unexplained deaths stretching behind him, Morgan’s refusal to consult with the police for the first time is credible.
As noted, Dying Day was written and directed by Brett Piper, who also presumably did the film’s reasonably good special effects. Piper continues to work today, having just recently wrote and directed Bite Me!, a DTV big bug movie starring Misty Mundae, who I guess is probably trying to branch out of soft-core lesbian films while she still can. (Whether similarly zero-budgeted horror flicks are the answer remains to be seen.) Piper performed like chores on last year’s Arachnia as well, which while extraordinarily cheap did feature his amusing stop-animated giant spiders.
Which brings us toâ€¦
â€¦the set’s second disc. This contains trailers for eight Independent International films, including Raiders, which is the sole title that doesn’t have the word ‘blood’ in it. There’s a cheesy and highly enjoyable old theater promo for a Halloween spook show, The House of Terror. There’s a still gallery, featuring pictures taken during Sherman’s work on the Raiders revisions.
The main item on the disc is, however, a third (!!) version of the film, entitled Dark Night. This is Sherman’s original revision of Dying Day, and is a midway point between the Piper’s film and the eventually released Raiders of the Living Dead. It is, for instance, the version that introduces the Carstairs character. Here, however, Carstairs is the main villain of the piece, being the father of the Man in Black. The kids aren’t in the film, which allows for Carstairs to be a heavy, as well as removing the ludicrous homemade laser pistol angle.
With Dying Day‘s generational revenge angle removed, Dark Night is already markedly inferior to Piper’s original. Unsurprisingly, many, if not all, of the final work’s continuity problems originate here. It’s not as outrageous as Raiders, of course, lacking the terrorist opening and other problematic material. Still, perhaps the biggest laugh I got out of the set was when I scanned the promotional text on the back of the DVD case and read, “Sherman decided to re-shoot the film as Dark Night. Buyers were happy with the improvement in the filmâ€¦” After reading that, I laughed out loud.
Despite featuring much of the same material that appeared finished in Raiders, the 72-minute Dark Night print is much more problematic than that for Dying Day. A lot of the sequences are silent, including scenes that have sound in one or both of the other two versions, and there are even shots that pop up in black and white.
Dark Night begins with a generally soundless edit of the Man in Black’s graveyard zombie resurrection. One oddity of this print is that, aside from generally looking like crap, the footage from Dying Day is often much better lit than in the final version of Raiders of the Living Dead. Apparently they processed the footage to make it darker, presumably to aid in the idea that it was taking place at night or in dark surroundings. However, this turns out to have been a really bad idea. Stuff that looks pretty good here can barely be seen in the final film. Check out the attack on Morgan in his boarding house for an example.
We see a scene where (I guess) reporter Morgan’s editor is reading some notes he’s sent in, or something. Cut to Morgan stumbling through an obviously real life Halloween/Mardi Gras type affair taking place in, I think, New York City. Here is where he falls and is aided by Carstairs. Morgan is again taken to Carstairs’ office, but here when they enter, we see the Dr. removing the mystery gloves I mentioned earlier. I think this action was clipped out of shot in Raiders.
Here Carstairs hasn’t yet been told about the zombies or Morgan having killed one (as this hasn’t occurred yet here), so his acceptance of Morgan not wanting to contact the police makes rather more sense. When Morgan does fill Carstairs in, it revolves around the scene with him and the Photographer heading out to the farm. Here they expect to witness some sort of occult cult ceremony, as established in dialogue heard here but clipped out of Raiders.
Morgan enters the barn and things progress as they did in Raiders, including the eventual attack in the woods and zombie immolation that appears in all three versions. Here again the photographer is killed and Morgan left for dead, and onto the scene of him on the road, being hit by Shelly’s car, etc. Things progress as in Raiders for a while, although with more footage left over from Dying Day, presumably further trimmed in Raiders to allow for the subplot with the kids.
Morgan gets his gun, rents his room, goes out for the date, is attacked in his boarding house, etc. Again, the zombie attack looks a lot better here, although the soundtrack isn’t complete. It’s too bad this sequence was so ruinously darkened for the Raiders revision. Shelly is again called to the boarding house, and again meets Kapek, who is again only the coroner and not a villainous mastermind.
There follows a previously unseen bit where the fleeing Morgan calls Carstairs from a pay phone. When the conversation ends we see the Man in Black in Carstairs’ office and realize he’s a bad guy. However, the fact that Morgan would contact Carstairs is much more poorly motivated here than in Raiders. On the other hand, Carstairs being a villain makes his advice to Morgan, that he should avoid the police, a lot more believable.
After the call, Carstairs talks to his son, noting, “These [the zombies] are the focus of your brain, they live through you as you live.” In other words, MiB will be killed later, and all the zombies will die with him. The Man in Black then angrily notes that his father had promised he’d live normally after being electrocuted. (Huh? This version doesn’t have the whole ‘terrorist’ angle, so I’m not sure what he was referring to.) Instead, he’s only half alive, apparently existing on a level somewhere between human and undead.
Anyway, the two are working are give MiB a normal life. Meanwhile, they decide Morgan must still be killed, as he’s “seen too much.” Actually, he hasn’t seen that much, and now the authorities have a mysterious two-year old bleeding corpse to examine. These guys need to work on their evil schemes a bit more.
Shelly again tracks Morgan down, yada. She passes the irate hitchhiker for the third time, etc. More footage that we’ve seen in Raiders occurs, only without sound. (Or, in the technical movie terminology, MOS, of “Mitt out sound.” Really.) Then she returns home and is again kidnapped by zombies and the Man in Black. There follows the summons dream, which yet includes the footage where Shelly is flayed with a bullwhip and becomes a zombie, which is missing in Raiders.
Morgan visits for the first time the Historical Society, setting up the cameo appearance by Zita Johann, and learns of the prison. This time, of course, he isn’t joined by the Security Guard, nor Carstairs and the kids. Otherwise his travels through the abandoned facility are roughly the same. He again hears the ringing of the bell that raises the dead, and once more somehow finds the obscure corner where Shelly is tied up.
They again are chased by zombies, whereas here Morgan’s fight with the Man in Black is a more prolonged affair. The end is the same, however, as MiB again falls over a wall and is impaled. Here when he dies, however, the zombies all die with him, as indicated by earlier dialogue. When the zombies keel over, it’s actually the same shot of them dropping en masse that was seen in Raiders. Only there they scratched the film to make it appear they were being toppled by Morgan’s laser blasts. (!!)
There follows the same ‘dead zombie’ montage that ends Raiders, only here it’s lit a bit better. That not the end of this version, however. Instead, we cut to Carstairs in his office. Figuring that MiB must be dead (?), he calls the police, or somebody. “This is Dr. Carstairs,” he sighs. “I’ll be in in the morning. I’d like to claim a body.” (Since his son died in an abandoned prison, and the witnesses have fled town, where would he be ‘claiming’ this body from?) I guess this was meant to set the stage for a sequel. (!!)
That would seem the natural end for things. Instead, there follows an incomprehensibly edited scene of Morgan fighting a zombie, a bit taken from the end of Dying Day and that is missing altogether in Raiders. Fittingly, in context this makes no sense whatsoever. Bravo!
Oh, you don’t get off that easilyâ€¦
â€¦because there’s one more extra, a Sam Sherman commentary track that accompanies the Raiders of the Living Dead version of the film. Mr. Sherman has provided a slew of such commentaries for a variety of Independent International film DVDs. However, those were usually for films directed by other people, notably Al Adamson. Since he personally reworked this film, and given the project’s, er, rich history, I greatly anticipated listening to it.
Given the cornucopia of delights found in this DVD set, I had to decide what order to watch and listen to the various materials. My inclination was to watch the films in the order indicated above; watch (and review) Raiders, then move on to Dying Day, then finally Dark Night. Meanwhile, as I anticipated Sherman would discuss all three versions of the film(s) on his commentary, it only made sense to save that for last. Sure enough, I think that probably was the best option.
Sherman begins by confirming that he’ll be relating “quite the interesting story” of “what may be [a] unique” tale. First, however, he lauds his own honesty. “I don’t know many producers, filmmakers,” he notes, “that would like to share all of their secrets with the world.” Yes, if Sherman’s recipe for taking a decent little homemade horror film and turning it into a complete piece of (admittedly profitable) crap were to get out, who knows who many would-be auteurs will rush to steal his techniques?* Hell, it’s amazing that copies of this DVD set are still available, since this commentary is a veritable blueprint for printing money.
[*Don't get me wrong, as a B-movie buff I honestly revere folks like Sherman. He's in that Roger Corman / William Castle / Lloyd Kaufman, etc., huckster mode, and Heaven knows there aren't too many like him around any more. Keep 'em comin', Sam. Meanwhile, Sherman's prediction that a new generation of hardcore fans will want to hear every little detail of this bizarre production is undoubtedly correct, as my personal interest readily confirms.
In any case, should Sherman be noodling around the Internet one day and happen on this piece-and it's possible, I suppose-I think I know how to keep in his good graces despite my snarkiness: Hey, folks, Christmas is coming soon, and what better gift for the schlock movie fan in your life than the two-disc set for Raiders of the Living Dead! It's certified with the Jabootu Seal of Approval!! Get 'em while they last!]
Sherman does seem a little defensive on the whole subject of his contributions to the final product, noting that he directed the majority of the version that audiences got to see, which is probably the case. He muses that perhaps the fanatics (in a good way) at Video Watchdog will go over and document the edits exhaustively. It certainly sounds like the sort of thing they might do, although I don’t envy the guy assigned with the task.
Sherman goes on to note that Piper has in past interviews indicated that he wasn’t entirely thrilled with what was wrought from his film. As my notes may indicate, I more than sympathize with his indignation. However, while it might be insane to think that Sherman’s version was the releasable, and ultimately quite profitable, one, the fact is that he was able to wring money out of a film measurably inferior to the one Piper couldn’t get out to the public. Like all the great junk merchants, Sherman knows above all what will turn a buck. (Again, this isn’t meant as a dig; indeed, I marvel at his instincts.) Piper might be understandably miffed as a filmmaker, but Sherman’s butcher job on Dying Day remains a fascinating, if in some ways depressing, confirmation of that fact.
Sherman explains how Independent International was at a peak in the early ’80s, with bicoastal offices. Al Adamson headed the California branch, with the east coast office out in the New Brunswick, NJ. About this time the drive-in market started faltering, and it was also getting harder to get screen time in hard roof venues for small films. To make up the revenues, the company aggressively marketed their catalog for syndicated television and continued to sell their films overseas.
Unsurprisingly, they also jumped into the then emerging home video market, establishing a distribution arm called Super Video. Wisely for that time, they stuck to rental pricing rather than the ‘sell-through’ market. In other words, their video line was priced high to maximize revenues, in that at that time video rental stores were actually a bigger market for cheesy horror films than personal collectors.
We’re talking mostly Mom and Pop shops, here; the big guys like Blockbuster weren’t really a factor yet. Since by far the most aggressive customers of these stores were teenagers, who would often rent movies by the armload, there was a voracious appetite for even the junkiest horror fare. (Remember, this was also the boom era for the slasher film, so quality wasn’t really much of a factor.) Therefore the most dependable way to make a buck was to stock as many obscure horror flicks as possible.
Given all this, Super Video priced their wares from between sixty and seventy bucks a shot. Since they were mostly selling product that Independent International had long had sitting on their shelves, the profit margins were formidable. And until the massive chain stores drove the corner shops out of the market, the storeowners were making a good buck too.
(And, in turn, the Internet DVD rental firm Netflix is now eating the brick and mortar chain stores alive. Blockbuster, for instance, is trying to stave off destruction by starting a similar service. Until the slim profit margins kill one of them-and I’m betting it’s Blockbuster that will go under-this should help us consumers by keeping the subscription fees low. Indeed, Netflix just this week revoked a price increase from earlier in the year. Thank you, market competition.)
Back to the early ’80s, though. At (for instance) two bucks an overnight rental, such horror videos generally paid for themselves in two or three months, with the rest of their shelf life, which could last for years, being pure gravy. Those early cassettes were better made, too. A lot of videos from that period, known for their often oversized boxes-meant to grab a browsing customer’s attention-still play well after twenty years, whereas vastly cheaper tapes produced five years ago might already show visible signs of degradation. Of course, DVD is a vast improvement over even the best quality cassette tape.
Along this time, someone else in the firm bought the worldwide rights to Dying Day from Piper for $35,000, which even back then was a pittance. (On the other hand, Piper reportedly made the film for $17,000, so he still doubled the investor’s money.) However, once it was in their library, Independent International couldn’t move it. Amusingly, given what he ultimately did to it, Sherman describes Piper’s movie as ‘amateurish.’ However, the fact remains that buyers agreed with him and wouldn’t touch the film. Independent International was in danger of having to write off the thirty-give gees, and needless to say, that had to be avoided by any means necessary.
I don’t want to steal all of Mr. Sherman’s thunder. (Buy the set! Buy the set!) Furthermore, I don’t want to further tax the patience of the reader by dragging this review, which is long even for my standards, out ad infinitum. Therefore, I’ll just hit the highlights from here on out:
- First of all, it’s time for a confession. Although it’s never directly alluded to in the film itself, I finally realized (after watching all the various cuts of the film over and over again), that the terrorist killed in the beginning of the Raiders version is played by the same guy who’s the Man in Black. Therefore, I now assume that the Beeping Machine sequence was meant to-very vaguely-represent his being brought back to life in a semi-zombie state. How could I have missed this? I can only say that he looks quite different in this prologue, sans the greased-back hair, the heavy pancake make-up and the black raccoon eyes. Plus, during the ‘resurrection’ scene, his body is under a sheet. And again, a line of dialogue establishing this connection would have been helpful, especially given the general darkness of the print when we see the actor in his Man in Black mode. I can only remind the reader that I’m no novice at picking up picayune details, and ask that you bear that in mind before judging me incompetent.
- Moreover, I’m not the only ‘expert’ to have made this slip. First, my friend Andrew, hardly a neophyte himself, never made the connection. Then there’s the reviewer at Popcorn Films.com, who suggests, “we’re given a plot about a hijacker who takes control of a nuclear power plant. The SWAT team deals with him and then this is just abandoned.” Finally, the esteemed El Santo, proprietor of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting (and, happily, a new B-Masters cabal member), proved much more alert and made the connection, although he understandably merely mused on it as a possibility, given the dearth of evidence provided by the film itself. However, he also thought that while perhaps the terrorist and the Man in Black were supposed to be versions of the same character, that each was “played by a different actor.” Actually, that isn’t true. However, believe me, that’s just an indication of what kind of movie we’re talking about here.
- Sherman eventually confirms that the terrorist and Man in Black are meant to be the same guy, and played by the same actor, Bob Saccetti. So at least I figured it out a few minutes before being informed of the fact. Apparently unimpressed by Saccetti’s acting, Sherman kept his character mostly mute throughout his cut of the film, including the new footage he shot.
- The historical prologue to Dying Day, which I thought was a nicely ambitious idea for such a low-budget film, has an interesting origin. Sherman complained to Piper that the ‘feature film’ stipulated by their contract was too short at circa 60 minutes. Therefore Piper shot an additional twenty minutes, which is the prologue, although none of it ended up in Raiders anyway. However, I should note the irony that one of the elements I really liked about Dying Day, a film I’ve championed to a certain extent here (although again, we’re not talking The Night of the Living Dead or anything), was not in Piper’s original version, but instead came about because of Sherman’s involvement. At least now, with the DVD set, the added footage can finally be appreciated (or not).
- Amusingly, Sherman was less than pleased with the nudity added in the prologue. (Although Shelly does, as I recall, herself have a brief butt shot later on in the main section of Dying Day.) While Piper no doubt thought he was doing them a favor by including an exploitable element, Independent International was basically intending to sell the film to (pre-cable) TV syndication, meaning the nudity actually made it a less attractive property. Sherman also castigates a lot of the acting in the new footage, and I can’t say he’s at all wrong.
- During the Beeping Machine Resurrection Scene, the mystery Mad Scientist’s head wasn’t just kept off screen so as to keep his identity a surprise, but also because-and I wasn’t exactly shocked to learn this-he was being played by someone other than the actor who portrayed Kapek. I assume that the body was similarly kept under the sheet because that’s not Bob Saccetti, either. (Yep, Sherman just confirmed that.) Amusingly, the scene was filmed in a firm, Hilltop Research, which shared space in Independent International’s office building. One of the heads of that company, in fact, filled in as Kapek. By the way, I just noticed that the sheet changes color in the middle of the scene. Raiders of the Living Dead: The film that keeps on giving.
- Sherman admits that some might think he ruined Piper’s film (you probably can’t tell, but I have my hand raised), but also notes that were it not for his tinkering, Raiders of the Living Dead wouldn’t have existed, and there never would have been a DVD set of it, and nobody would have ever seen Dying Day at all. And, that’s completely valid. He also notes that Piper’s film was a ‘gothic’ style throwback to old school horror movies, and that this is what kept it from selling. Again, I’m not even going to pretend to criticize Sherman’s business acumen, and whatever the merits of his revision / gutting of Piper’s film, he again was justified in terms of actually managing to make a profitable movie.
- Sherman spends some time recounting the logistics of bringing some of the original actors back, switching some plot elements around from between Dark Night to Raiders (such as the identity of the villain), etc. It’s a little convoluted, and again, for that much detail you should get a hold of the DVD and listen to the commentary yourself.
- Sherman pauses to hawk another DVD of a film owned by his company, a Zita Johann flick from the ’30s entitled The Sin of Norma Moran. Again, I truly admire his huckster instincts. For what it’s worth, Mr. Sherman, I’ll add it to my Netflix list. Hell, anything Sherman would describe as “a very weird movie” has to be worth seeing.
- Sherman notes that the zombie Morgan burns up after the scene in the barn was ‘cheated,’ in terms of his shooting the immolation as taking place right outside the building rather than in the woods, which in Dying Day is where the sequence begins. “No one’s ever criticized that but me,” he notes. Per the above review, you can now add me to the list.
- Sherman spends a lot of time going into the script’s “parallel construction,” by which he means, cutting between different plots and subplots before they merge at the end. I really had nothing to say about this, until he declared, “But at the end, [the film] all becomes clear, and the different elements all tie together.” Wellâ€¦
A Jabootu tip of the horns to Proofreading Minister Carl Fink for helping make this article suck a lot less.
This review is part of the B-Masters Cabal’s Month of the Living Dead (Thanks for the invite, Nathan.)
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