Orgy of the Dead (1965) Orgy of the Dead (1965) -**

     In the waning days of 2019, when the marketing blitz for Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Cats was in full swing, it somehow came to pass that Juniper had cause to explain to me just what the original stage show was about. As I listened to her description of a nigh-plotless succession of self-contained dance numbers, staged for the approval of eldest stray cat in some urban junkyard, who inexplicably wields the authority to decide which of his subjects gets to ride a garbage-built UFO to Cat Heaven, I started to feel that I’d heard all this before somewhere. Then it hit me. Switch around the details— a garbage dump instead of a cemetery, Old Deuteronomy instead of the Emperor of the Dead, Cat Heaven instead of a slightly less hellish Hell, and most of all, horny felines instead of off-duty strippers— and it was exactly the same “story” as Orgy of the Dead, the bafflingly late kinda-sorta nudie-cutie directed by Stephen C. Apostoloff from a diaphanous wisp of a script by Ed Wood Jr.! Actually saying so out loud was arguably a mistake, because it guaranteed that whenever I got around to watching Orgy of the Dead for review, Juniper would insist upon making a double feature of it, but in a perverse way, I’m kind of glad that I condemned myself to screening this movie and Cats back to back. For one thing, it proved to me just how right I was to connect the two. But beyond that, it brought to light some revelations even more staggering. As absurd as it is that one of the longest-running and most popular musical revues in the history of both Broadway and the West End could share the better part of its premise, structure, and (for lack of a more accurate term) plot with so disreputable a production as Orgy of the Dead, Hooper actually enhanced the resemblance with the changes he made for his film version! Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original show had no clear analogues for Orgy of the Dead’s mortal spectators to the dances of the damned, or for its Vaudevillian mummy and werewolf, but Hooper provided them via his reinterpretations of the abandoned kitten and the fat cat who trains vermin to act as her chorus line. And finally, following up Orgy of the Dead with Cats served the important contextualizing function of demonstrating how much worse Apostoloff and Wood, for all their attention-grabbing faults, could really have done.

     Bob (Legend of Horror’s William Bates) is a modestly successful writer of pulp horror stories; he had more respectable ambitions once, but nobody bought any of his attempts at the Great American Novel. Even so, his girlfriend, Shirley (Pat Barrigton, from The Incredible Sex Revolution and The Acid Eaters), vocally disapproves of his subject matter, whatever she might think of the money all those ghosts and vampires and axe-murderers bring in. Given her attitude toward his profession, it’s hard to understand why Shirley is along for the ride tonight, as Bob drives out to a remote old cemetery in search of inspiration— and indeed her constant griping makes it clear that she’d rather be almost anywhere else. Shirley will soon have more pressing complaints than her lover’s dismal idea of a date, however, for Bob loses control of the car while rounding a bend on the hillside overlooking their destination. The couple thus arrive at the graveyard rather sooner and more precipitously than planned.

     Depending on your point of view, Bob has picked either the best night of the month or the worst on which to make this little excursion, especially if doing so is to involve an accident leaving him and Shirley alike on the threshold between life and death. The moon is full, you see, granting the Emperor of the Dead (Criswell, of Plan 9 from Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls) and his court license to intrude themselves into our reality until sunrise, and I’m sure it would do Bob and Shirley no good at all to attract their attention. But at least the mortals’ chances of evading notice seem relatively strong, because His Majesty will be mixing business with pleasure this evening. His consort, the Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver, from Terror in the Jungle and Unkissed Bride), has selected a roster of damned souls to compete for his favor in lessening their Infernal torments via a succession of striptease routines.

     It would be natural to expect the undead girls’ performances to reflect in some way the sins for which they were condemned to Hell in the first place, and a few of them seem to. For example, one sinner (Barrington again, rendered surprisingly hard to recognize by a change of wig, a different makeup esthetic, and the fact that no one’s really looking at her face this time, anyway), identified explicitly as having loved only gold in life, is pelted during her dance with what are supposed to be coins (actually, they look more like tortilla chips from where the camera is standing) by the two Tom of Finland types (Ron Lindeman and John Andrews, the latter of whom can also be seen in Suburbia Confidential and Sinthia: The Devil’s Doll) who act as the Emperor of the Dead’s bailiffs. Then, because Goldfinger was a huge hit the preceding year, she ends her dance by getting tossed into a cauldron of bubbling liquid, from which she emerges gilded all over. The second dancer to go on (Coleen O’Brien, of Motel Confidential and The Bachelor’s Dreams) is introduced as a streetwalker, making her a plausible poster girl for the Second Deadly Sin. We might also extrapolate a back-story of mortal malfeasance for the dancer whose costume consists mostly of a bridal veil (Barbara Nordin, from My Tale Is Hot and The Wonderful World of Girls) from the way she occasionally remembers to include her husband’s skeleton in her act.

     The scheme breaks down completely if we look any further, however. Like, it certainly sounds like condemnation when the Black Ghoul says of the headlining stripper (Mondo Keyhole’s Rene De Beau), “This one would have died for feathers, furs, and fluff— and so she did.” But no one could possibly understand what Ed Wood meant by that— and we can’t ask him, because he’s probably down in Hell, doing the hoochie-coo before Criswell himself right about now. The other contestants stray even further from the expected “dancing sinners” paradigm. Three are just half-assed exercises in ethnic minstrelsy, bronzer-besmeared white chicks going through the motions of the laziest imaginable Mexican (Stephanie Jones, from Uncle Tomcat’s House of Kittens), Hawaiian (Mickey Jines, from Wild Gals of the Naked West and The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet), and Native American (Bunny Glaser) stereotypes. There’s no indication how any of them could have wound up damned, except, I guess, by just not being Protestants. Another (Nadejda Dobrev, of Love Is a Four-Letter Word and The Story of O: Untold Pleasures) is said to have been a slave in life, which should surely mean that she’s suffered plenty already; nevertheless, our first look at her comes as one of the no-necks warms her up for her turn in the spotlight with a remarkably clumsy flogging. And the metaphysical implications of the zombie girl (Down and Dirty’s Dene Starnes) are a one-way ticket to madness, since her presence here would seem to require her first to have died normally, then to have been resurrected as a soulless automaton, and finally to have been consigned to an eternity of supernatural torment without an eternal soul!

     Anyway, the great bulk of the film’s impossibly attenuated 92 minutes is given over to these gyrations from beyond the grave, which play out in stultifying real time, with a sub-amateurish minimum of editing or camera movement. In between are what amount to host segments, in which the Emperor of the Dead and the Black Ghoul act as tandem MCs, often with ostensibly comic assistance from the aforementioned mummy (Louis Ojena, from Mean Johnny Barrows and Love Bocaccio Style) and werewolf (John Andrews again, pulling double duty from inside 1965’s idea of a high-end Halloween mask). Sometimes those bits are paired with others in which Bob and Shirley (remember them?) spy on the proceedings in the cemetery, making no noticeable effort to do anything about their predicament. Eventually— which is to say, after the Goldtitties dance— Lycanabbott and Costelhotep notice the interlopers from the world of the living, and haul them before their master for judgment. Luckily for Bob and Shirley, the Emperor of the Dead has other, globular, bouncing things on his mind just now, and merely orders the couple tied to a pair of obelisks for later consideration. Even so, this reprieve should be assumed a temporary one. Lycanabbott and Costelhotep are hoping that Shirley will be included in a promised reward for good behavior, and the Black Ghoul would badly like to get her hands on the woman as well. One assumes it isn’t often that these creatures of the netherworld get to be proactive about acquiring new playthings, instead of just accepting whatever human dregs the machinery of damnation sends their way.

     I have an old friend who, to the best of my knowledge, still hasn’t entirely forgiven me for that time, back in our junior year of high school, when I not only persuaded him that we should rent Orgy of the Dead, but then insisted upon watching its inexcusable entirety even after it became obvious that it was never going to get any better. I can’t claim in good faith that his decades-long mini-grudge is unjustified, either. All I can say in my defense is that I’d never seen a movie suck in quite this way before, and the more Orgy of the Dead doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on continuing in the same vein to the bitter end, the less I could believe my eyes. Part of my incredulity stemmed from simple ignorance of the nudie-cutie genre, which lay far indeed off of any cinematic path that a seventeen-year-old in 1991 could plausibly be expected to have explored. Not even the times when “Showtime After Hours” ran Lady Godiva Rides and Fairy Tales had prepared me for a sexploitation flick whose operative theory was essentially, “Yeah, we’re just going to invent an excuse to film a bunch of inept stripteases, and call it a day.” I’d seen smut be corny or stupid or gross or morally repugnant before, but that first exposure to Orgy of the Dead was, I’m pretty sure, the first time I’d ever seen this many nude women be boring.

     There’s a lot of blame to go around for that, and I’m prepared to spread it pretty widely. I don’t know how or where Stephen C. Apostoloff recruited these girls, but it’s clear enough that he mostly got stuck with his suppliers’ B- and C-teams. With far too few exceptions, the Orgy of the Dead strippers display limited repertoires of moves, and little imagination in how to present them. I’m convinced, though, that a higher caliber of ecdysiast (which Apostoloff would no doubt have been hard-pressed to afford, anyway) would have helped matters only slightly. For one thing, each of the routines simply goes on far too long. Even Nadejda Dobrev and Mickey Jines, who are far and away the best dancers— the most graceful, the most athletic, the most visibly aware that the motion of their bodies is supposed to be creating a specific character in addition to inspiring sexual arousal— are unable to sustain the narrative aspects of their performances for the five minutes or more that Apostoloff demands of them, especially since it’s plain enough that there was no choreography as such. Nor were they helped by the director’s bizarre insistence upon skipping over the “strip” part of striptease. Each girl gets a minute or two to prance around the boneyard set in full costume, after which a jarring cut reveals her wearing nothing but the panties or g-string in which she’ll finish out her routine. Any stripper worth her platform heels will tell you that whatever art there is in her profession lies in how and at what pace the costume comes off, so no wonder everybody here seems so totally at loose ends enacting the dances of the damned. Factor in the paucity of editing and camera maneuvers, and none of these gals ever stood a chance.

     It also can’t be overlooked how dick-shrivelingly unsexy most of the dance routines in Orgy of the Dead are. To be sure, the girls are pretty enough on the whole, and a few (Jines and Rene De Beau most notably) are downright stunning. Unfortunately, again with just a few exceptions, they also seem as bored with their performances as I was, and several of them have the glassy-eyed, shell-shocked affect of a hostage in a proof-of-life video. For that reason, and given the obviously improvised nature of the dances, I’m inclined to blame the individual performers at least as much as Apostoloff for Orgy of the Dead’s failure as pornography. There are two dancers who warrant special approbation here, too. Barbara Nordin, as the skeleton’s bride, has a truly bizarre conception of erotic dance, seemingly guaranteed to make any imaginable spectator beg for mercy. To start with, she eschews even the most desultory bump and grind, which one would assume to be the least we could ask for from this sort of performance. Instead (whenever she isn’t perplexedly attempting to fit that skeleton into her act somehow), she just sort of stands in place with her back hunched forward, doing the swim while arrhythmically juking one hip— and that, dear readers, is the good part. To describe the bad part requires metaphor to convey its full horror: To all appearances, Nordin has discovered a technique for triggering epileptic seizures localized in her left breast. As the rest of her comes to a virtual standstill, just that one teat starts jerking, thrashing, and flailing about, and Jesus Christ, will you put that thing away already?!?!

     Even Nordin isn’t the nadir, however. No, Orgy of the Dead bottoms out with a girl I haven’t even mentioned yet, who brings us full circle by tying this movie back into— that’s right— Cats. Her name is Lorali Hart, although those who tucked dollar bills into the waistband of her g-string in the mid-60’s would have known her as Texas Starr. Can you guess what she’s wearing as one of the bailiffs whips her into the cemetery clearing that serves as the stage for the sinners’ dances? Yup— it’s a leopard-spotted leotard with a tail in back, together with a matching bonnet topped with pointy, black ears. The nature of a catsuit, though, is that it aims to arouse by clinging tenaciously to every arc and curve of the wearer’s body, which is obviously at cross purposes to the object of a striptease. Whoever was in charge of this aspect of “wardrobe” tried to square that circle by cutting two humongous holes in Hart’s costume, through which her ample boobs and even more ample butt could project unobstructed. Unfortunately, that rather spoils the lines of the suit by slackening the tension on it everywhere else, reducing Hart’s leotard to mere pajamas. Worse yet, the butt-window was positioned above the point of attachment for the tail, so that the latter’s weight pulled the loosened fabric at the crotch down toward Hart’s knees. It makes her look as if she’s got a great, big load in the pants that she’s just barely wearing! I’m sure that’s somebody’s fetish out there, but it certainly isn’t one of mine. Then there’s the music that plays while Dinglepears the Incontinence Cat shimmies about the cemetery. You remember in Dawn of the Dead, when the protagonists try to confuse the zombies by turning on every moving or noisemaking contraption in the mall? And you remember the preposterous ditty that cues itself up on the skating rink’s PA system when they do? Well, Lorali Hart’s stripping song sounds rather like that, albeit perhaps just a tad sillier. It was a calamitous miscalculation even when Romero did it, consciously aiming for ironic counterpoint; the zombies were never scary again after we saw them bumbling around the mall to that tune, no matter how many bikers they dismembered and ate subsequently. Imagine how much worse the same sort of music plays here, as part of an earnest attempt at eroticism!

     Of course, there were scores— perhaps hundreds— of terrible nutie-cuties, and few if any watchable ones. What prevents Orgy of the Dead from vanishing down the memory hole with the rest of its ilk is the inimitable Ed Wood touch. Even without his characteristically strange direction, there’s just no mistaking his fingerprints all over what script this movie possesses. The circuitous rambling, the blatant non-sequiturs, the mind-twisting combination of overwrought purpleness and “how is this even English?” inarticulation— this is absolutely a Wood picture, no matter who’s name comes last in the opening credits. Orgy of the Dead is an especially instructive film for students of Wood, too. No other movie I’ve seen demonstrates so starkly the genuineness of the unfulfilled aspirations that drove his work as a director, for Orgy of the Dead hasn’t got a single one of them in its makeup. In place of Wood’s characteristic striving after art a thousand miles beyond his feeble reach, Apostoloff gives us a similarly hopeless striving after mere commerce. According to Frank Hennenlotter (whose commentary track on the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-Ray is almost worth the purchase price all by itself), Orgy of the Dead owes its startling obsolescence as smut, even by 1965 standards, to the fact that Apostoloff’s only prior experience with dirty movies was a revival screening of some old burlesque flick from half a decade or more back. He made his movie this way because he truly didn’t realize that the industry had moved on. Wood, meanwhile, got the screenwriting job for no better reason than that he hated Communism every bit as vocally and intensely as the Bulgarian-born Apostoloff. The latter man didn’t realize what a mad aberration Wood was, either. If Orgy of the Dead can be accused of having a virtue, it’s the way Wood’s marrow-deep eccentricity combined with Apostoloff’s complete lack of giving a fuck to produce something as fascinating as it is tedious, and as unforgettable as it is unendurable.

 

 

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