The Dead Pit (1989)
"Drop in anytime"
A renegade doctor is shot dead and entombed with his fiendish experiments in the basement of an abandoned wing of a mental hospital. Twenty years later, a mysterious woman is admitted with amnesia, and her arrival is marked by an earthquake which cracks the seal to the Dead Pit, freeing the evil doctor to continue his work.
That is only a half of the madness on offer in The Dead Pit, a cheesy 80s horror fest which goes by the letter of that decade’s genre output. Projecting itself across video store aisles with some classic 80s poster artwork of a zombie doctor appearing to lead an army of zombies behind him, this was the type of film young horror buffs, not old enough to rent it themselves, would have dreamt of watching as kids: gore, nudity, and violence in abundance. Of course, being young horror buffs, we would have had little awareness of everything else that makes a good film and so it’s nice to see how these films stack up in adulthood.
What The Dead Pit lacks in plot and coherent story, it makes up for in gore and fun. There’s so much more on offer here than just your generic zombie film. The script chucks in everything but the kitchen sink, sometimes too much for its own good, and tries to keep things from becoming too routine. Not sure how to resurrect the mad doctor from a twenty-year absence? Simple: just have a random earthquake. How are you going to kill zombies without resorting to the usual tropes? Simple: have a nun in there firing off holy water at them all. There are about a hundred and one questions you’ll have whilst watching and, whilst the film tries to answer a few as well as throw in some nifty twists, for the most part you’re better off ignoring them and going with the flow.
First time director Brett Leonard certainly does his best to belay the $350k budget and really crafts a decent mood and atmosphere, using an actual mental hospital for filming and making the most of some neat 80s-style red and blue lighting effects shining through the windows whenever some supernatural shenanigans is going on. The smoky green dead pit of the title, appearing during the finale, is also effective, as is the trademark 80s synth score, combining to give the impression that you’re having some lurid hallucination. Leonard gets to grips with some of the horror movie techniques such as having things pop up outside the frame of a shot, really making the most of every shot to craft suspense and a feeling of unease. Leonard would go on to direct The Lawnmower Man and the similar style and mood is evident there, just with a bigger budget.
The zombies don’t show up in the film until well over half-way through, so until then it’s just up to the mad doctor to provide the chills. With glowing red eyes and fairly tall and imposing, Dr Ramzi makes for a decent villain and starts to kill off a few of the orderlies and nurses walking around the hospital in the middle of the night. Ramzi likes his patients alive and kicking whilst conducting improvised surgery and so expect to see plenty of syringes into skulls, scalpels across throats and, in one of the film’s most impressive set pieces, a nice bit of scalping and cranium removal. The film is surprisingly gory for such a low budget flick – heads roll, faces melt, people are ripped apart, and the aforementioned surgery. The zombies don’t do as much damage as you’d expect them to do, nor do they look particularly ‘zombie-like’ having been rotting away for twenty years, but they pose a few problems for the survivors in the finale. Sadly, Ramzi’s unnecessary one-liners water down the character a bit, like some sub-par Freddy Krueger – the comedic tone is out of place.
Cheryl Lawson is the lead female and, in her first feature film, spends the majority of the running time parading around in the teeniest of white cut-off tank tops and knickers (and without a bra too), baring all and providing the requisite nudity – I’m not too sure whether her outfit is standard issue for an asylum though! It doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous and has a decent pair of lungs but she’s too inexperienced to hold the fort whenever the carnage goes away for a bit. That said, no one else in the cast really does anything to help her out. You’ve got a load of standard issue low budget horror performances, with some blandness, some droning, some hyperactivity and some overacting all visible. The cast all play it straight, with the exception of Gochnauer who hams it up as the crazy doctor.
The Dead Pit is a cheap schlocker, designed for some cheap chills, thrills and spills and nothing more. But there’s a little more substance to it than most of its ilk: it’s atmospheric, graphically gory and surprisingly-well shot for such a low budget genre offering.
The Dead Pit
Director(s): Brett Leonard
Writer(s): Brett Leonard, Gimel Everett
Actor(s): Jeremy SlateCheryl LawsonStephen Gregory Foster, Danny Gochnauer, Geha Getz, Joan Bechtel
Duration: 95 mins