The poster and trailer for Gary Sherman’s “Dead & Buried” is more iconic than the film itself, and that’s a shame.
Most children of the ’80s will recall the poster art, which, in addition to the striking image of a lifeless face breaking out of the ground, touted this as “From the Creators of Alien.” Indeed, the screenplay was the first post-“Alien” project for writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (from a story by Jeff Miller and Alex Stern).
Full of vivid ambience, nightmarish (and nightmare-inducing) imagery and a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a ghoulish issue of “Tales from the Crypt,” it portrays danger and conspiracy beneath a small-town setting with a Norman Rockwellian façade
It begins with a lengthy pre-title sequence, in which a photographer taking snapshots on a beach can’t believe his luck when he meets an attractive, willing model (a chilling Lisa Blount). A few naughty photos later, and the photographer is greeted by the sudden appearance of town folk, who capture and murder him.
This shocking turn of events introduces us to the town sign, declaring “Potter’s Bluff, a New way of Life.”
FAST FACT: Director Gary Sherman says his 1981 cult classic endured significant tweaking thanks to a last-minute power struggle behind the scenes. He originally envisioned the film leaning heavier on its comedic elements, one of many frustrations he had the changes.
Veteran character actor James Farentino plays Dan Gillis, the Potter’s Bluff sheriff who slowly becomes aware that, in addition to town folk being brutally murdered, the victims are suddenly reappearing days later, alive and well.
His schoolteacher wife (the luminous Melody Anderson, the best element of Chuck Norris’s “Firewalker”) is supportive of his bizarre discovery, despite her own strange decision to teach her students about witchcraft, complete with a ceremonial knife. The local coroner (Oscar winner Jack Albertson, in the film’s best performance) who is also Gillis’ best friend, encourages the sheriff to dig deeper.
Then, things get much weirder.
“Dead & Buried” was probably too slow for ’81 audiences, despite the nasty, often gross nature of the murder sequences. Like “Halloween II” and “The Fog,” it was another 1981 genre film that suffered from re-shoots that added more gory deaths to an initially more suggestive approach to the violence.
In fact, this aspect got the film in trouble.
The film was once on the list of “Video Nasties” in the U.K. during the early ’80s (putting it in the same controversial company as “Last House on the Left” and “I Spit on Your Grave”). Despite that sort of notoriety, the film didn’t find much of a cult following until the early 21st century. While the violence is, indeed, far grislier than expected (it surpasses the first two “Friday the 13th” entries in sadism) but the film is no mere footnote.
Made with an eye on atmosphere, creeping menace and an uncanny ability to reposition audience expectations, it’s a genuine sleeper.
Director Gary Sherman later made “Vice Squad” (with its bravura Wings Hauser performance), the fairly well-liked Rutger Hauer vehicle “Wanted: Dead of Alive,” the uneven but under-appreciated “Poltergeist III” (with its chilling practical effects and brilliant mirror set design) and the just-okay Cheryl Ladd thriller, “Lisa.”
“Dead & Buried” is his best film to date.
Horror icon Robert Englund of Freddy Krueger fame pops up in a supporting role as one of the cop’s oldest friends (Englund registers well enough to make me wish his role were bigger).
The Stan Winston make-up effects are remarkable, though this, unlike many movies released during its era, has not softened with time. Anyone who considers themselves squeamish shouldn’t bother; there’s a scene where a character gets a syringe in the eye, and it’s not even the worst thing that happens to him!
Shusett co-produced and co-wrote the script with O’Bannon, who later expressed disappointment with the final results. If their landmark “Alien” screenplay was their reshaping of the sci-fi monster movie, then “Dead & Buried” was clearly their aim to reconfigure the modern zombie movie.
It’s more “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” than “Night of the Living Dead” in its take on zombies among the living, making it less about the living dead in pursuit of flesh and more a tale of losing one’s identity and grasp on the natural order.
The final reveal is hard to see coming and it’s a real shocker.