Dead & Buried (1981) ****
1980’s zombies movies are, on the whole, a rather formulaic breed, and while that particular formula is one that I like a great deal, it’s also nice to pick up an 80’s horror film with the word “dead” in the title and get something a little different. Dead & Buried gives us something a lot different. A supernatural mystery with a strong flavor of Robert Bloch, Dead & Buried has often (and justly) been compared to John Carpenter’s The Fog. But where Carpenter’s better-known film is still a fairly straightforward “attack of the living dead” story at heart, Dead & Buried is more like a zombie version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
We begin with the arrival of a freelance photographer (Christopher Allport, of Savage Weekend and Invaders from Mars) in the small, seaside town of Potter’s Bluff, somewhere in New England. He shoots a bit of the scenery along the beach, and then his lens comes to rest on a blonde girl (Lisa Blount, from Prince of Darkness and What Waits Below), who immediately begins flirting with him. Rather than have the photographer introduce himself, the blonde proclaims that he looks like a Freddy, after which “Freddy” reciprocally dubs the girl “Lisa.” Before long, Lisa has Freddy taking pictures of her and has whipped open her shirt so as to make the prospect of doing so even more appealing. This is not leading to the sort of Penthouse Forum encounter Freddy thinks it is, however. With all of his attention focused tightly on Lisa, he fails to notice the armed mob surrounding him from behind, and before he knows it, he’s been whacked on the head, tied to a pole, and set on fire while his attackers take dozens of snapshots of him. That night, his charred— but shockingly not quite dead yet— body is found inside the overturned, burned-out wreck of his Volkswagen Microbus. Sheriff Dan Gillis (Psychomania’s James Farentino) thinks there’s something slightly off about the scene of the “accident,” but he can’t put his finger on just what it is. All he knows is that something is giving him the feeling that the victim and his van were burned separately, and then put together in an arrangement meant to mimic a traffic accident. Coroner/mortician William G. Dobbs (Jack Albertson) seems intrigued by the possibility, but can find no concrete evidence to support the sheriff’s hunch.
Gillis, naturally, would like to talk to the burned-up photographer about what happened to him, but that obviously isn’t possible just now. Matters are further complicated by the fact that there isn’t enough left of the man’s face for anyone who sees him to venture even a guess as to who he might be. The best Gillis can do is ask around to see if anybody has gone missing. All the Potter’s Bluff natives seem to be accounted for, but Ben (Macon McCalman, from Timerider and Deliverance), who runs the local inn, reports that one of his guests has not been seen for a couple of days, although his luggage is still in the room and he has not yet checked out. That man was George Lemoyne, and if Ben is to be believed, the sheriff’s wife, Janet (Flash Gordon’s Melody Anderson), had come over to the inn to see him on the day before his disappearance. Gillis has an attack of the jealous crazies when he hears that, but there’s an innocent enough explanation— Janet is a teacher, and she was negotiating on behalf of her school to buy some photographic equipment from Lemoyne. That at least lets Dan know who he’s dealing with, but it doesn’t go very far toward solving the mystery surrounding Lemoyne’s burning. Then the girl from the beach lets herself into Lemoyne’s hospital room while posing as a nurse, and finishes him off with an injection of high-voltage anesthetic administered directly into his brain through his one remaining eye. Now there can be no more doubt— it’s a murder investigation Gillis has on his hands, alright.
Lemoyne’s is not the only murder, either. First, the same crew who attacked the photographer on the beach get a drunken sailor from a visiting vessel alone down by the docks, and slit his throat. Then, they trap a family of vacationers in a big house on the edge of town, and kill the lot of them. And while all that’s going on, evidence is coming to light to suggest that even worse things are going on in Potter’s Bluff than the people of the little town leading a murderous double life. Lemoyne shows up as a gas jockey at the neighborhood service station shortly after his funeral, not only alive, but without even the slightest trace of his catastrophic burns. Gillis accidentally runs a man down in his truck one night, but the flattened pedestrian seems not to be bothered very much even though his right arm was severed in the collision. He just wrenches the detached limb from between the bars of the truck’s grill, beats the sheriff half-senseless, and runs off down an alley. Gillis pursues, but to no avail. An examination of skin scrapings left behind on the vehicle reveals that the man Gillis hit has been dead for at least three months. Eventually, Dan comes to believe that there is a voodoo cult at large in Potter’s Bluff, and indeed it may even be that his wife is mixed up in it. He’s on the right track there, but the little town’s black magic problem is both much bigger and much more perversely specific than anything Gillis has hitherto imagined.
This sort of “small town with a secret” story seems to show up much more frequently on television than it does in theatrically released movies, and were it not for a little bit of nudity and the impressively grisly gore effects by Stan Winston, Dead & Buried might almost pass for an exceptionally accomplished episode of “Tales from the Dark Side” or “Night Gallery.” It shares with most stories of its type a certain fundamental credibility problem (how, exactly, could the widespread replacement of Potter’s Bluff’s townspeople by the living dead go unnoticed when Janet can’t even keep her meeting with George Lemoyne from Dan?), but screenwriters Robert Shusett and Dan O’Bannon give themselves a little wiggle room with some hints they drop regarding Dan Gillis’s backstory. This isn’t completely clear, but Gillis is described as having earned a master’s degree in criminology at some university in “the big city,” and it may well be that he returned to his hometown to take up the sheriff’s office only fairly recently. If so, the long stay out of town could easily have taken Gillis out of the village’s gossip network, and his recent return could have left him insufficient time for working his way back in.
In any case, Dead & Buried deserves lots of credit for handling the undead in a way that owes very little to anything that came before. The zombies here are for the most part perfectly capable of passing for living people, and though their creator had recourse to the black arts in raising them from the dead, his motives bear almost no resemblance to those of earlier cinematic zombie-masters like Murder Legendre (White Zombie) or Clive Hamilton (The Plague of the Zombies). Indeed, it might almost be said that for this voodoo priest, reanimating the dead is an end unto itself. Meanwhile, Shusett and O’Bannon have found a way to make the zombies dangerous independent of their creator without resorting to the usual Romero-style gut-munching.
As for Gary Sherman’s direction, it’s more workmanlike than anything else, but he manages a few arresting moments. One of my favorites concerns the revelation that George Lemoyne, despite his horrific injuries, is still alive. At bottom, it’s just a jolt scene, but it succeeds beautifully because Sherman gives the audience no reason at all to suspect that it’s coming. The attacks by the undead townspeople are also well handled, suspenseful affairs, which Sherman gives a bit of extra edge by playing up the disorienting possibilities inherent in the zombies’ obviously significant but initially inexplicable habit of snapping heaps of photos of their incapacitated victims before closing in for the kill. Sherman also clearly knows how to capitalize on a good character actor. Jack Albertson’s cheerfully eccentric Dobbs would be a joy to behold no matter what, but the movie also makes deft use of performers like TV die-hard Glen Morshower (who can also be seen in Godzilla and The Island) and a pre-stardom Robert Englund (later of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Urban Legend) in small but important roles. Perhaps most significant of all in the latter context is Linda Turley, who plays the diner waitress who usually acts as the ringleader of the zombies. So far as I can determine, this was her only appearance on the screen, but her chillingly businesslike demeanor often steals the show from the rest of the undead horde. All in all, Dead & Buried adds up to far more than the sum of its parts, and merits a place on the “must watch” list of any fan of 80’s zombie films who thinks he or she has seen just about everything the genre has to offer.