Traditional slasher movies – the variety of which make up perhaps the core foundation of Horror – have no place ‘round these parts. That isn’t to say I don’t watch them or chat them up from time-to-time, and it’s certainly not intended to be any reflection on their quality or place in film history; rather it’s the simple reality that there’s no element that ties those films to science, Science Fiction, or what’s considered traditional Fantasy. Jason Voorhees’ ability to transcend death might be legendary (if not downright fantastical), but when all is said and done his story pretty much boils down to hack-and-slash. Off with this guy’s head! Out with this lady’s intestines! Etc., etc., etc. While creative butchery might dabble on the fringes of life sciences, it’s never a central tenet of what makes that narrative world go round, so I leave them alone. Same with any of the Jason copycat films, of which there are many. Same thing with the Saw films (I do agree with most who dub them ‘glorified torture porn,’ but that’s another argument). And here’s looking at you, Driller-Killer: you’ll not find words exploring what you did with your free time on this site so long as I’m in charge.
Stories that dabble with the in-between? The possible existence of a life, love, and universe beyond the routine? Could this be Heaven? Could that be Hell? The science of bringing back the dead? (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is credited by many to be the very first truly Science Fiction novel written.) The structure of a virus that wipes out mankind? Those films tie in (to a degree) with my personal definition of cinematic Fantasy, and I think they’re legitimately apt for a bit more exploration. That’s why I’ll look them over and, occasionally, provide reviews, citations, interviews, and what not.
In many regards, I’ve found these films are usually not as popular with audiences as are the traditional Horror releases. Their scripts require a bit more thought and preparation, and their execution may even require a bit more effort on the part of the audience to understand the small-scale world-building that takes place once the lights flicker and before they fade-to-black. I’d stop short of calling them cerebral, but they certainly toy with ideas as much as they may with bloodshed, so there’s something to be said for going that extra mile.
And all of this brings me to unearthing just what’s so different about Dead & Buried …
From the product packaging:
“Something very strange is happening in the quiet coastal village of Potters Bluff, where tourists and transients are warmly welcomed … then brutally murdered. But even more shocking is when these slain strangers suddenly reappear as normal, friendly citizens around town. Now the local sheriff and an eccentric mortician must uncover the horrific secret of a community where some terrifying traditions are alive and well …”
Alas, it isn’t all that difficult to understand why Dead & Buried is an early 1980’s horror release that never quiet got the attention it deserved upon its original release. Granted, it may’ve been shuffled around a bit as production companies behind it all changed ownership (a fact I learned from the disc’s multiple commentary tracks), but it lacked the star power to draw viewers to the theaters who may’ve been interested in this darkly comic look at life and death and life again. Leading man James Farentino was no slouch, but he was hardly a marquee name. The audience interested in the works of Jack Albertson may’ve been a bit older than horror films typically draw. And Flash Gordon’s Melody Anderson’s star was just starting to truly twinkle, though it never really built luster the way many of us thought it would.
For what it’s worth, marketing probably did the film no favors, either. As its creators were the same team behind the popular Alien (directed by Ridley Scott), the suits honed in on using that hook – “from the creators of Alien” – in their adverts, but anyone familiar with that deep space chiller may’ve wondered what could possibly be as creepy and horrific as the Xenomorph but set in some seaside town with Jack Albertson as the box office draw?!?! It likely sounded a bit hard-to-swallow, and it may even have scared off more folks than it enticed.
In fact, it isn’t uncommon for films to fail to find success in their first flirtation with the bright lights in the big city. Features like Dead & Buried aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, but their private and personal journeys to ‘cult status’ happens more and more these days as audiences abandon big tentpole releases in favor of finding something truly unique; in that measure, this one definitely qualifies.
But those who watch closely are likely to be a bit frustrated with the sum of Dead & Buried’s parts. It’s an uneven meal – pacing is, at times, a bit laconic, though some might liken it to the way Alfred Hitchcock and even John Carpenter peppered certain narrative sequences with long takes. Much of what director Gary Sherman accomplishes here is nothing short of masterful, quite a surprise given the fact that IMDB.com lists this as only his second major motion picture. Still, there are passages that slow the film down to – ahem – perhaps the pace of the dead; and a trim here and there may’ve been just what the good ‘town doctor’ ordered.
Also, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Dead fits almost perfectly into that sub-genre of cinematic thrillers that relies on the audiences being blissfully unaware of all the town secrets until the very last frame. Sherman has assembled one of the best examples of the M. Night Shyamalan films almost two decades before that hit-or-miss auteur tried cornering the market with The Sixth Sense (1999); I’d argue that while Sixth is the better film, Dead played its cards a bit closer to the chest, though anyone with an ounce of gray matter knows something is (seriously) afoot with Sherman’s first descent into mass madness in the opening reel. If the twist is the thing, then both directors are deserving a salute.
Though Farentino does a good job with the material provided, I can’t help but wonder if a lead with a bigger following may’ve given Dead the chance for a better box office returns as well as a stronger foothold in film history. (Maybe even a young Sylvester Stallone? His early career had some great work in more dramatic fare, and were the producers able to afford him then maybe this one could’ve been a contender?) The script is interesting enough that it should’ve had a wider appeal in the talent pool, especially with it coming on the heels of O’Bannon and Shusett’s success with Alien. Farentino and Albertson manage to evoke a good chemistry – their early scenes suggest this might be a crisp thriller where the town’s ‘young gun’ and its ‘old fogey’ team up to solve one bloody mystery, and I suspect that misdirection was exactly as it was intended. As much as I love Melody Anderson – and I do love you, in case you’re reading, Melody – there just wasn’t enough here for me to truly appreciate her charms: her character ends up being shoehorned as a bit of a plot device to get Farentino’s sheriff from A to B, a necessary evil in the set-up for the shocking finish. And it is a shocking finish, indeed.
Worthy of a view and perhaps deserving of greater study (by film students, cinema aficionados, and the like), Dead & Buried rises from the graveyard of cinema’s past despite some occasional clumsiness. It always helps to know where you’ve buried the bodies.
Recommended, though I’ll happily caution that Dead & Buried will not be for everyone. It only toys with traditional horror elements, not ponying up enough to perhaps please the diehard fans of that genre. It isn’t Fantastical enough to draw in enthusiasts questioning the boundaries between this life and the next. And, alas, it isn’t sophisticated enough to interest fans of conventional drama, thrillers, and/or dark comedies though it embraces tropes of each. At best, the film has been (and likely always will be) embraced by those patient enough to simply “try something a bit different,” something that doesn’t quite fit in any specific type of feature but instead straddles that line between all of them … making it a textbook ‘cult’ film if there ever were.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Blue Underground provided me with a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.
Blue Underground website
Amazon.com listing for Dead & Buried