From among the Video Nasties

It is honestly incomprehensible to me that Dead & Buried isn't better-known among horror fans. Its original release in 1981 was accompanied by a poster claiming "The creators of Alien... bring a new terror to Earth", and that feels like it should be enough all by itself, even if the claim is true only through the pettiest of legal technicalities - although the film's screenplay is indeed credited to Alien's story writers Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett, O'Bannon (who took the sole credit for the Alien screenplay) has claimed that not one word or idea of his showed up in the final script, and that he contributed little more than giving Shusett notes that didn't get used. And anyway, Shusett was working from a story already written by Jeff Millar & Alex Stern. But it's just a little fudge, not a great big lie or anything, and the point is that there has been many a horror film pimped up to prominence on the basis of a much less impressive brand name than Alien. And yet, when I first saw it a few years ago, it was for no particular reason and on no special recommendation - as I recall, it came to my attention mostly because I'd had a good run of watching horror movies that had been released on home video by Blue Underground, and decided to dig into their catalogue - and I can't recall ever having encountered someone talking about it online when I wasn't deliberately hunting for it.

This is a really shabby legacy for one of the most interesting American horror films of 1981. Long-time readers will know that I take a release date from within that year as something of a good omen for slashers; Dead & Buried most certainly doesn't belong in that category, but it does suggest that '81 was a solid year for genre films beyond the flood of Friday the 13th knock-offs. Just taking the thing at face value, this wouldn't obviously declare itself to be the case: the film is a pretty straightforward "the idyllic small town Has A Secret" film of a sort that has been around for ages, but had just been given a workout the year prior in John Carpenter's The Fog. There's a photographer (Christopher Allport) who has just arrived in the New England-by-way-of-northern-California town of Potter's Bluff,* and though he's not here on professional business, he can't help but break out his camera to take pictures of the beautiful shore. This catches the attention of a local woman (Lisa Blount), who starts asking questions that very quickly tilt into delighted flirtation by both parties. The man, who takes the name "Freddie" because she says he looks like one, is having such a good time prancing around in the most blandly beatific nature photography - the whole sequence is staged and filmed by director Gary A. Sherman and cinematographer Steve Poster to feel like the insipid frolicking scenes in a '70s film that thinks it's a '60s film - that he doesn't realise that a full-on mob has crept up behind him until "Lisa" suddenly turns ice cold and the sound plummets and it is actually very effectively shocking. And the shocks keep coming, because in no time at all, the mob has tied the photographer to a post - Allport's face distorts in ugly ways under the netting he's been tied with, in a small beat that gives me a good heebie-jeebie, at least - beaten him to within an inch of his life, and then set him on fire to finish up that inch. All the while, one of the mob is taking the victim's photo, constantly popping flashbulbs that give the scene a not-quite-strobe effect that's halfway between hypnotic and nauseating.

It's such a wonderfully disconcerting opening, and though the film never gets a chance to sucker-punch us like that again (after all, now we officially know it's a horror movie), it casts a happy pall over the rest of the proceedings. Dead & Buried ends up not having much in the way of a plot: it's mostly about the new sheriff of Potter's Bluff, Dan Gillis (James Farentino), futilely attempting to solve the murders that have started cropping up: "Freddie", whose name is actually George LeMoyne is just the first of a spree of mob killings, all characterised by eerily serious and businesslike expressions on the killers, and that flurry of flashbublbs going off. He finds many apparent clues, but none of them seem to coalesce into a narrative. Instead, they all just point to the notion that something real weird is happening in Potter's Bluff, and that the outsider Dan - who just got his master's degree in criminology at a "big city" university, a fact brought up early in the film with just enough derisive mockery that he can't pretend it's not there - isn't going to get to find out what it is, even though it cuts so close to home that his own wife (Melody Anderson) seems to know more than he does, underneath her calming domestic vibe.

The lack of plot momentum, by all rights, out to be horribly frustrating; instead, Dead & Buried is a buzzy, fleet thing that skips right through its 94 minutes. The variety of the scenes helps with that, I think: besides the large-scale structure, moving between Dan's meandering investigation and the intermittent killings, there's also the fact that Dan's investigation keeps him hopping from location to location. Regardless, this is a film in which not a whole lot happens. This is why it is ultimately a horror film, rather than ultimately a police procedural - well, that, plus the nature of the solution once Dan figures it out. As the story fails to advance, the film instead moves forward by turning up the atmosphere: it is uncanny, a very specific kind of horror-flecked weirdness that movies don't traffic in very much, which is a real pity. There's a thick, hovering feeling that things aren't right, one that just peaks in around the edges a first - the way that most characters besides Dan seem a bit declamatory in the way they talk, the terrific fake-out scare when what looks like a melancholy establishing shot turns into a jump scare when we find that LeMoyne isn't as altogether dead as he seemed, an off-key appearance of "Moonlight Serenade" in the soundtrack - and starts to manifest heavily in the plot towards the middle, when Dan hits a pedestrian with his truck, and is astounded to find the man no worse for the wear despite his arm having been torn off in the accident.

I shan't say where this all goes, which does make it a bit tough to go into some of what makes this a worthy film beyond just atmosphere. Let us say that it's a very particular type of subgenre film, one whose reveal puts it in a tradition of movies going back to the '30s, but the specifics of that reveal are entirely fresh. Much of this has to do with the striking, unusual motivation given to the villain. It's an odd thing to be worried about spoiling an almost 40-year-old movie, but like I said, Dead & Buried hasn't received its due reputation, and watching the ground fall out from underneath Dan is too much fun to give it all away willy-nilly.

There's other fun stuff that we can talk about, though. For example, Dead & Buried was an early film in the career of makeup & effects artist Stan Winston, and indeed the last film before his career skyrocketed with the absolutely wonderful Oscar-nominated makeup in the absolutely horrible robot love story Heartbeeps. Winston's subsequent career rested mainly on his superb creature designs for films like Aliens and Jurassic Park, but it comes as no surprise at all that a man of his talents could do some really great Tom Savini-esque gore effects if the need arose. And there are some great gore effects here, right up until there is one exceedingly bad gore effect that was clearly meant to be the film's pièce de résistance: a man having acid pumped into his head via his nose, melting his face from the inside out. It is a terrible prosthetic head: it would be one thing for it to look nothing at all like the actor in question, but it doesn't even look human - doesn't even look organic. Still, that's one bum note coming after several perfect virtuoso arpeggios.

The film also benefits from Sherman's crisp, unadorned direction that hides a whole lot of tiny grace notes. It's just barely far enough from being a perfectly normal 1981 horror film in its staging and flow that the difference gives it a little charge, occasionally bursting into a perfect moment like one shot of a dead hitchhiker that ends with the police ornately dropping a cloth over her body that cuts (just a little earlier than one expects) to a shot of the town mortician solemnly pulling the cloth back off. Little grace notes like that.

Speaking of that mortician: his name is William Dobbs, he's played by the ailing Jack Albertson, and he's phenomenal. I tend to think of Albertson as a reliable actor more than an inspired one, but here, at the tail end of his career, he created one of the great weirdos in '80s horror. Dobbs is a haughty genius, one of the only people in town willing to have full conversations with Dan, though this does not make them useful conversations. His first great scene is an elaborate rant about the mortician's art, laying out all of his great skills in making ragged shreds of cadavers look like peacefully sleeping human beings, culminating in a terrific line, "A cosmetologist gives birth. I make souvenirs." He feels like a character Vincent Price could have played, but with Price's plummy overacting turned into a a surly, crabby-old-man shtick. In a film where there's not so much "great acting" as "interesting physical presence", Albertson is the one exception: his Dobbs is a superb injection of overwhelming local color, the great human-sized equivalent to the film's overall investment in uncanny mood. For its offbeat second half and overall tone of a spooky campfire story, I would already like Dead & Buried; the sheer oddball energy Albertson brings to his scenes is what makes me love it.

Body count: Well, that is difficult to say, actually. How about we go with 9.

Nastiness Rating: 2/5, not very Nasty. As mentioned, the make-up is good until it's not, and there's some momentarily distressing footage when George LeMoyne is beaten and set on fire. The scene that I think actually got the DPP on the film's case is much tamer (skinned human cadaver), but I can squint and see the outlines of why they'd get huffy about it.

*A very well-crafted place-name, and that's all I have to say about that.