Honestly, I don’t have any qualms with watching or review them. My preference, however, is to spend time with a ‘walking dead’ picture where the properly zombified suffer their fate with some explanation: I hate there being zombies just for the sake of there being zombies. I want to know the why and how that our victims have been transformed into this curious state truly between life and death. What can I say? I simply find their origins important. Personally. Textually. It increases my enjoyment of the motion picture, and I tend to rate those pictures that dabble in some ‘Horror Science’ more highly than if it’s snubbed.
That said, 1989’s The Dead Pit kinda/sorta flirts with a reason. (It may not be a good one, but it’s there.) From the best I can tell, there’s a mad doctor. Like some mad doctors do, he’s attempting research into what I believe gets curiously termed “the organic causes of death,” and – as you can guess whether you’ve seen the flick or not – it all goes wrong. Horribly wrong, even. ('End Of The World' type crap.) But there’s also some kinda/sorta mystical aspect to the reanimation that involves the usual sensational trickery (fog, prosthetics, green lighting, and even more fog) thrown in more because audiences have come to expect it from these films than any other reasons.
So the straight skinny is that the picture ventures halfway into what I like as a foundation, which probably puts it far enough for me to enjoy it more than I truly should.
Color me suitably impressed!
From the product packaging:
“Dr. Ramzi, a deviant who enjoys torturing his patients, is killed by a fellow doctor and buried in the basement of a mental health facility. Twenty years later, the hospital is up and running again and a ‘Jane Doe’ arrives at the institute with amnesia. Upon her arrival, a major earthquake rocks the building and unearths the now undead Dr. Ramzi and his legion of zombie patients so he can continue his work.”
As imperfect as The Dead Pit is, there’s no denying its irascible charm.
So very little of the motion picture makes literal sense – well, except for whatever it postulates as the core for this world existing in the first place and its variable zombie mechanics anyway – but each and every one of its characters embraces the sheer lunacy with the kind of gusto known only to the best B-Movies. Our Jane Doe – eventually revealed as ‘Sarah’ (played by the lovely Cheryl Lawson) – finds herself trapped in a facility that ends up having a very, very, VERY personal connection; yes, it’s the kind of link that only happens in movies, but that’s what we’re watching anyway, am I right? The hospital somehow has a basement that mysteriously looks more like a castle dungeon … but it all looks better that way when stuffed with the undead, see? And why would our master of evil, the late Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer), truly need to dress his last planned victim – our Jane/Sarah – in a nurse’s uniform (complete with shoes and – ahem – white stockings) for her time spent on his sacrificial altar?
The Dead Pit served as the genre director’s cinematic debut – he went on to such projects as The Lawnmower Man (1992), Virtuosity (1995), and Highlander: The Source (2007) – and his potential as an auteur is all over this one, having a small role in it as well as co-writing it (with producer Gimel Everett). Clearly the picture incorporates enough of the tropes of the zombie genre far and wide that this Pit can be seen as an homage to what’s come before, and the director says as much in the disc’s commentary track. In fact, Leonard admits to influences from Horror, Dramas, and more in the lively discussion; and I encourage folks who enjoy the flick to spend time with the special feature for even more rewards. It’s as revealing as it is entertaining.
Essentially, this Pit works because all involved make it work, a sentiment embraced by those before and behind the camera.
Lawson – her first leading role – is an attractive lead; while she may not possess the emotional stuffing required to garner an Academy Award, her work here is admirably ‘blue collar’ – especially for Horror – and she makes the most of it. The location – Leonard’s commentary discloses it was shot on an actual psychiatric institute – becomes a character in and of itself, adding to the palpable menace required for audiences to buy into the premise. And the effects crew? Regular readers of SciFiHistory.Net know of my fondness for practical special and make-up effects; while I could quibble with a handful of individual scenes, the overall effort here is more than enough to ‘sell the sizzle’ that is the zombie aesthetic. Hats off to the stewards who raised the dead once more!
As for the special features? I’d have to say this is probably one of the liveliest audio commentaries I’ve had the good fortune to listen to in my lifetime! Director Leonard, producer Gimel Everett, and star Jeremy Slate clearly had as much fun shooting the flick as they did re-assembling for this commentary. (The packaging bills it as ‘new,’ but as Everett and Slate have both passed away some time ago I’m figuring this is only ‘new’ to the U.S. marketplace.) Even better, the disc boasts a handful of interviews (Leonard, Slate, Everett, and star Lawson) which contain much of the same information, though it’s admittedly a bit easier to follow as no ones speaking over one another the way it happens in commentary tracks. It’s a great collection for fans who enjoy this sort of thing, me included.
Recommended. The thing I love about discovering an older release which somehow has eluded my research is that I get to experience that particular era of filmmaking all over again, almost like it’s brand new. The Dead Pit – while flawed – has the kind of charm many who grew up in the 80’s expected from our lesser Horror, SciFi, and Fantasy films: it doesn’t have to make much sense because that wasn’t what a film of its type was all about. Instead, you get to revel in the moment of sometimes clever and sometimes shlocky storytelling. Also, I rarely stump for commentaries all that much, but this one was a winner: the trio has some fond memories of bringing this to life, and listening to them recount their time together feels like you’re all sitting in a living room reliving it with them. Very nicely done … though I found it a bit weird that actor Slate actually took a quick phone call during their taping session.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Code Red provided me with a Blu-ray disc of The Dead Pit (1989) 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.