DEAD & BURIED (1981) directed by Gary Sherman. Written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Starring James Farentino, Melody Anderson, Jack Albertson, Lisa Blount and Robert Englund. Distributed by Avco Embassy Pictures.
A lot of film fans look to the 80s as a significant decade for Horror. It kicked off with Stanley Kubrick’s masterful THE SHINING and featured some of the best work from directors John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg, Stuart Gordon plus many more. Looking back at this period, titles like THE THING, THE FLY, VIDEODROME, THE RE-ANIMATOR, BASKET CASE, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and EVIL DEAD I and II come to mind. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. However there is one title that somehow gets left out of the “great, 80s horror flicks” discussion. A film that might be revered among some cineastes and horror enthusiasts, yet fairly unknown to everyone else. Which is a pity. Because Gary Sherman’s confident DEAD & BURIED deserves a lot more attention and is, in my opinion, one of the best horror movies spawned from a decade rich with great horror.
DEAD & BURIED does have a minor cult following. However, I am always vexed by how few people have actually heard of this outside of that cult. Only recently I attended a Halloween party featuring some pop culturally savvy friends. When the subject came up on horror films, I casually mentioned DEAD & BURIED only to be met with blank stares. Which really surprised the hell out of me. Like I said: these were film savvy people who were well versed in grindhouse and 80s b-movie chic. But DEAD & BURIED simply didn’t register. Soon after I showed it to my girlfriend and… she loved it. And had no idea why she hadn’t heard of it before, either.
You can speculate all you want on why DEAD & BURIED didn’t resonate with 80s audiences much like THE HOWLING or even RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. It could have something to do with how it wasn’t adapted from a successful novel or popular story (THE SHINING, GHOST STORY, THE REANIMATOR, etc.), wasn’t a remake (THE THING, THE FLY, THE BLOB), or wasn’t a modern take on a popular, horror movie trope (NEAR DARK, FRIGHT NIGHT with Vampires; AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF and THE HOWLING with werewolves). And while it contains elements of the then popular “slasher” sub genre, you cannot exactly define DEAD & BURIED as a slasher flick, either. It’s completely original in both story and execution. And for some, it might have been just too weird. In some ways it is incredibly subtle in its scares. In others it is jarringly visceral.
If DEAD & BURIED has anything that stands out as being “typical” of its time there are a lot of visual references to the 40s and 50s, a period specific style that gained popularity during the 1980s and was prevalent in a lot of sci-fi movies at the time (specifically alien invasion flicks like STRANGE INVADERS and Tobe Hooper’s INVASION FROM MARS). And to a certain degree, DEAD & BURIED is also reminiscent of that kind of film. The idea of having loved ones and neighbors suddenly disappear then appear again as something that looks like them, but no longer is them is part of the film’s conceit. But to say anything more would ruin the creepy, slow burn experience that is DEAD & BURIED.
The setting is like something out of a Stephen King novel: a sleepy, coastal town somewhere in New England. Potter’s Bluff feels old and eroded. Everybody knows everyone. And those who are raised there seem to grow old and die there. And so this goes for the local police chief, a man who at one time left the town behind to gain a legal education in the “big city” yet eventually returned anyway to enforce the law. This is also the kind of place where if a death occurs it is either by natural causes or an accident of sort. Or so we think.
DEAD & BURIED does indeed start off with a death. And there is no mystery as to the how but the why. For it is established right at the start that something is not right about this town. The Chief (James Farentino) becomes our main protagonist as he attempts to figure out, well, what the hell is actually happening here. What is ostensibly a tragic car accident to him (while the audience knows otherwise), he begins to realize that foul play is definitely afoot. Seeking help from the local coroner and mortician (a nice touch. This town is so small, the coroner and mortician would be one and the same), together they speculate on the possibility that a murderer now resides within their community. The mortician is nicely played by Jack Albertson in a sort of subversion of the kind of characters he played in both WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and the popular 70s sitcom CHICO AND THE MAN. And yet, there’s something not quite right about Albertson, either. He takes too much pride in the cosmetic touches he makes on corpses while prepping for their funerals. His attitude is aloof and somewhat nihilistic. Visually, he dresses in the dapper fashion of the 1940s. And he’s not the only one. As various citizens make their appearances in different scenes, there exists a retro quality to their style and approach. Even though this film is set in the then present day, early 1980s.
Without giving too much away, more people die. However, they eventually return… but as different people under different identities. Not only that, seemingly sane characters treat these new identities as if they had been a part of the town all along. As if they have always existed in Potter’s Bluff!
Further oddities infecting the town eventually seep into the Chief’s personal life. Suspecting his wife is having an affair; he begins to discover that which is more sinister (and inevitable when it comes to films like this). It might have something to do with witchcraft. It might have something to do with necromancy. It may be none of those things. DEAD & BURIED excels in building the kind of dread you experience while reading Lovecraft. And yet, you cannot guess where it is going. Like the best of horror, the film reaches a conclusion while establishing a context that is inescapable for our hero. The ending is dark, yes. It also happens to be totally bonkers and unexpected.
While DEAD & BURIED has moments that lean a wee close to torture porn (hence my earlier reference to 80s slasher flicks), they are made more disturbing due to the benevolent nature of the violence perpetrators. These acts are also tempered with a strong sense of mood and tone, expertly captured on film by cinematographer Steven Poster. But the unsung star may be its director Gary Sherman as he guides the film with a sure hand. It’s incredibly spooky and suspenseful and appropriately nasty when it needs to be (incidentally, DEAD & BURIED was banned in the UK for being a “Video Nasty”).
Sherman had an interesting career that began with another cult film titled DEATH LINE (an early example of “underground horror” like THE DESCENT and 2004’s CREEP. Which in itself could be viewed as a remake of DEATH LINE). Sherman somehow never achieved the level of fame he deserved. DEATHLINE and DEAD & BURIED are both very effective horror movies (although I prefer DEAD & BURIED a helluva’ lot more to DEATHLINE). And Sherman followed DEAD with the trash classic VICE SQUAD and the underrated Rutger Hauer action flick WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE. His feature film career seemed to end after taking on POLTERGEIST III. He apparently couldn’t handle the tragedy surrounding Heather O’Roarke’s death during production. So he has been working in television ever since.
Although Dan O’Bannon is credited as co-script writer (as this was supposed to be the second collaboration between O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett after ALIEN), apparently none of his contributions were actually used and has since disowned the film. Which is the honorable thing I guess considering how good DEAD & BURIED actually is and how little O’Bannon had to do with the resulting work. But I’d hate to think he disowned the film because he thought the project and its subject matter beneath him (and why would he? He eventually went on to write and direct the HP Lovecraft adaption THE RESSURECTED). For DEAD & BURIED is criminally unheard of compared to most of the fantastic horror films that were released during the 1980s.