Dead & Buried (1981)
"It will take your breath away...all of it"
In the small coastal town of Potter’s Bluff, a number of tourists are being sadistically murdered. Sheriff Dan Gillis begins to investigate but finds it strange when the victims seemingly turn up alive a few days later. The events seem to point to eccentric local mortician William G. Dobbs who treats his corpses as works of art and takes great pride in making sure that they remain beautiful after death.
The advent of DVD in the late 90s and early 00s really allowed a lot of obscure titles to be brought back to life and exposed to new audiences who hadn’t lived through the 80s home video boom. I remember seeing Dead & Buried when it was released on DVD back in 2008 to little fanfare and being pleasantly surprised. Now I’ve made the upgrade to blu-ray and found that the film is even better than I remembered it to be. Originally banned as a ‘video nasty’ in the UK during the 80s, it was not one of those prosecuted and was eventually released uncut in 1999. It is almost ludicrous to look back and see the bedfellows that Dead & Buried found itself with: there’s no comparing this to Cannibal Holocaust or SS Experiment Camp. This is one of the most underrated horror films I've ever seen and its a crime that its not more widely known. And what's great is that it's hard to pigeon-hole Dead & Buried into a specific horror sub-genre; it's almost in a category of its own.
It’s hard to write a really in-depth review without giving too much of the plot away – Dead & Buried works best when you have no idea what to expect. Mixing elements of Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as having a distinctly brutal slasher-vibe during the murder scenes, the film does a superb job of creating a sense of paranoia. Just what is going on in Potter’s Bluff? The well-paced narrative provides enough clues as you go through the story to ensure that your attention is consistently hooked. Not skirting over the fact that we know just who is responsible for the murders from the opening scene, it’s amazing how well the film keeps this mystery peddling – we become focused on the ‘why?’ rather than the ‘who?’ This goes all the way from the opening scene right up until the finale where even then there are still a few questions.
The excellent atmosphere and mood is one of Dead & Buried’s key successes. The dimly-lit, grainy cinematography oozes suspense, foreboding and the feeling that something is not quite right about Potter’s Bluff. The washed-out, classic ‘ghost story’ visuals reminded me of John Carpenter’s The Fog. Likewise, the small town setting and otherworldly goings on really hammer home the comparisons. This is truly a drab place where you wouldn’t want your car to break down and have to be introduced to the eerie locals. Director Gary Sherman and cinematographer Steven Poster deserve high praise for their work here. They know what type of mood they want to portray and they succeed in doing that. It’s a pity that Sherman didn’t try his hand in the genre again after this one because he has a keen eye for detail.
Another of Dead & Buried’s strengths is the visceral violence which punctuates the morbidly serene nature of the rest of the film. People are burned alive, have syringes stuck into their eyeballs, are melted with acid and have rocks smashed into their heads. The film doesn’t glorify the kills but they are shocking because they happen so matter-of-fact that it’s almost a natural occurrence for the town. The killers just look on with little emotion and watch their handiwork come to fruition. Late special effects maestro Stan Winston was the man tasked with the job of keeping everything running smoothly in the practical effects department and he does sterling work, particularly in a number of effects late on in the film. Again, to explain more would be to ruin the film.
Jack Albertson will forever be known to movie lovers the world over as Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but his creepy mortician character here is as far away removed from his cuddly, lovable grandpa as is humanly possible. It’s a great casting choice against type and really enhances the mood of the film. He steals every scene that he is in here, particularly the one in which he gives a stunning soliloquy on his ‘art’ of making dead people look beautiful again. James Farentino makes an excellent lead man, slowly coming apart at the seams as it appears everyone in the town is involved in these murders except for him, or so he believes! Robert Englund has small role as one of the townspeople, as do Glenn Morshower and Barry Corbin.
Dead & Buried comes close to going all of the way to being a full blown classic. However, the final third is where it begins to lose steam and focus and it becomes a tad messy, which was a real shame as the preceding two thirds were superb. A number of plot twists are introduced which in turn reveal a number of a plot holes with what happened before. It’s not exactly going to ruin your enjoyment of the film but it does stop the film from becoming an all-time classic. Apologies for the sketchy details but Dead & Buried’s strength lies in not having the faintest clue what is going to happen during its running time. It’s hardly a one-watch film as it stands up to repeated scrutiny. But that first viewing is a real doozy.
I said it at the start but I'll say it again - it’s a travesty that Dead & Buried is not as widely known or regarded in the genre as it should be. A near perfect horror film with a great cast, nearly water-tight script and an atmosphere that is second-to-none, it’s the type of great quality horror film that they just don’t make anymore. If Carpenter gets a load of praise for The Fog, then Sherman deserves to share the podium alongside him.
Dead & Buried
Director(s): Gary Sherman
Writer(s): Jeff Millar (story), Alex Stern (story), Ronald Shusett (screenplay), Dan O'Bannon (screenplay), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (novel)
Actor(s): James Farantino, Melody Anderson, Jack Albertson, Dennis Redfield, Nancy Locke, Lisa Blount
Duration: 94 mins