Raiders of the Living Dead (1985) -**½
Sam Sherman is probably best known for all the times he hired Al Adamson to build crummy horror and action movies out of scraps and garbage for his Independent-International label, but as Raiders of the Living Dead— one of the very last I-I productions— demonstrates, Sherman was perfectly capable of performing an Adamson-style hatchet job all by himself. Raiders of the Living Dead began life in 1983, as a homebrew horror film by Brett Piper, under the title Dying Day. Those few who have seen it mostly report that it was a pretty decent little zombie movie in spite of its super-low budget and mostly non-professional cast, but for some reason, Sherman wasn’t satisfied with it, and the tinkering began. At first he just re-edited what Piper had sold him (there is some indication that this re-edited version may have seen very limited release as Dark Night), but before long Sherman was hard at work shooting new footage in an effort to transform Dying Day into a totally different film. The ultimate result, almost three years after Piper had completed his version, was a meandering and proudly nonsensical movie firmly within the old Independent-International tradition, even despite its absence of sex and paucity of gore. Raiders of the Living Dead is really pretty dreadful, but it is at least divertingly so.
The opening makes for an incredible misuse of time and equipment, both because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie and because in some fourteen minutes, there are but three lines of dialogue— unless you want to count the lyrics to the totally awesome 80’s butt-rock theme song, that is. Some guy in a leather jacket pursues a tanker truck full of nuclear waste until it stops at a red light, and then hijacks the truck at gunpoint. No explanation will ever be given for this rather rash action. The police give chase, but they lose the hijacked vehicle when a second truck pulls out onto a narrow road in front of them and breaks down. Next, we see a detective talking with his superiors over a cordless telephone which is probably supposed to be a police handset radio. The detective explains that he and his men have surrounded a nuclear power plant in which a terrorist armed with guns and a bomb has taken several staff-members hostage, and is demanding the release of a number of prisoners from the state penitentiary. I don’t pretend to understand why, and I rather suspect that Sam Sherman doesn’t much care. The crisis is resolved when a SWAT team consisting of exactly two guys burst in and knock the terrorist into a high-voltage whatsit after a prolonged and wholly uninteresting struggle. Shortly thereafter, we see someone give an injection to what we may presume to be the terrorist’s dead body, thereby restoring it to mindless life. None of that matters, though. In fact, if you were to forget completely about everything that has happened since the credits wrapped up, it would not hurt your comprehension of the ensuing hour and a quarter one little bit.
No, what matters is kindly old Dr. Carstairs (Bob Allen, from The Black Room and Hell’s Angels on Wheels) and his teenage grandson, Jonathan (Scott Schwartz, who became a porn star after he finished growing up— look for him in New Wave Hookers 5 and Still Insatiable). Actually, we don’t know that Carstairs is a doctor yet, nor indeed even what his name is— what can I say, Sam Sherman is a terrible rewriter. All we know for the moment is that he owns a malfunctioning video laser disc player, and that the repair shop wanted $175 to fix the thing. Carstairs isn’t having it, so it’s a good thing his grandson is some sort of mechanical genius. But while Jonathan is poking around in the machine’s guts, he accidentally discharges the laser that reads the discs, and incinerates his pet hamster, Felix. Who knew laser disc players had that kind of firepower, or that the discs themselves were resilient enough to resist it? As Jonathan explains when his friend, Michelle (Cori Burt), comes over for a visit, the hamster’s fiery demise has given him an idea— with a little work, Grandpa’s broken home video rig could be turned into a perfectly serviceable death-ray!
Later that night and in what I take to be the next town over, a man whom we will eventually come to know as newspaper reporter Morgan Randall (Robert Deveau, who recently turned up with a small part in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra) is driving around with a woman whom we will never come to know at all in pursuit of some sort of news which will never be explained to us either. Damn you, Sam Sherman. Regardless of their reasons for coming there, Randall and his companion pull up to the Coulter Farm (“where all those mass graves were discovered about a year ago”), and I’ll be goddamned if they aren’t attacked by zombies. The woman falls prey to the living dead, but Randall survives to be strangled half to death by a guy (Bob Sacchetti) whom we’re probably supposed to associate with the hijacker from the first scene, even though he’s played by a different actor.
Whoever the strangler is, he does a piss-poor job, and Randall lives to tell the tale— or, rather, to studiedly avoid telling most of it. He also lives to wander over toward the highway, where he nearly gets run down by Shelly Godwin (Donna Asali), a young woman who should under no circumstances be allowed behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Shelly at least has the decency to feel bad about almost killing a man who only recently survived attacks by both zombies and a mad strangler, and she stops the car to pick Morgan up and take him back to her place. Despite his eagerness to get to the bottom of what happened to him the night before, Randall manages to find the time for putting the moves on Shelly, and though she resists at first, all it takes to break down her barriers is an offer to take her out to see a Three Stooges retrospective at the local revival house. One assumes it is the growing attraction between Morgan and Shelly that leads the man to rent the loft in the same apartment house where Shelly lives— if he’s going to set up shop in town for a while so as to investigate that zombie business, he may as well live someplace that makes it easy to have some fun on his off-hours. Randall must not have covered his tracks very well, though, because when he comes home from a hard night of sleuthing, he finds a zombie waiting for him in his closet. Morgan blows the creature’s head off with the sawed-off shotgun he bought that afternoon, and goes on the run.
For some reason, his first stop is the office of Dr. Carstairs. (This, by the way, is how we finally learn that Jonathan’s dotty old grandfather has both a name and a medical practice.) And for some reason, Carstairs believes Randall when he tells him he’s on the lam from the living dead. In fact, the doctor takes Morgan in for the night, and helps him get gone the following morning. It’s not a moment too soon, either, because Randall’s landlady heard the gunshots, saw the headless zombie on the floor of the apartment, and called the cops. True, it complicates matters a little when coroner Dr. Kopek (Night School’s Leonard Corman) rules that the “victim” of the shooting has already been dead for about two years, but if anything, that makes the police more interested in talking to Morgan rather than less. The upshot is that the reporter now has both cops and zombies chasing after him. Luckily, he’s got three separate aces in the hole: a sort-of girlfriend who doesn’t mind smokescreening the police, a sympathetic doctor whose grandson happens to own a fully functioning death-ray, and grumpy but helpful librarian (Zita Johann, from The Mummy and The Sin of Nora Moran) who has information that could lead Randall straight to his unseen zombie-making nemesis.
I can see how there’s probably a much better movie hiding within the chaos that is Raiders of the Living Dead. If it didn’t have that pointless intro with the never-to-be-seen-again terrorists, if it ever got around to explaining what story Morgan Randall had come to town to cover in the first place, if in general it didn’t seem so much like a great deal of important stuff had been cut out to make room for other things that were totally unnecessary… Yeah, I can definitely see it. Even so, it wouldn’t have been a great movie, though. You’d still have those two damn annoying kids with their homemade rayguns, you’d still have a serious shortage of the graphic violence one demands from a 1980’s zombie flick, and you’d still have a bunch of weird inconsistencies to deal with. For example, I’m kind of curious how it works out that Jonathan’s laser gun can vaporize a hamster and re-kill a zombie with a single shot, and yet does no appreciable damage to a live human being. And whatever the merits of Brett Piper’s original version, Sam Sherman has turned Raiders of the Living Dead into an outright train wreck. Who the hell ever heard of beginning a movie with a totally irrelevant subplot? Or of writing the footage in which it unfolds so that there’s just barely enough dialogue to let the audience venture a guess at what’s supposed to be going on? Even in the context of low-budget 80’s horror movies, that’s some slack-assed work there, and if that was Sherman’s idea of how to keep his company afloat in the new post-drive-in environment, it’s no wonder Independent-International died out not much later. It really makes me want to see what other cinematic havoc Sherman was wreaking at the time…
Because you can never have too many putrescent corpses shambling about chewing on people, the B-Masters Cabal has decided to join Cold Fusion Video in dedicating the month of October to zombies, zombies, and more zombies. Click the banner below to drop in on Undead Central.