“A suspense horror film set in a small coastal town where, after a series of gory murders committed by mobs of townspeople against visiting tourists, the corpses begin to come back to life.” — IMDb
Oh man, I loved this little gem so much. Dead & Buried was only director Gary Sherman’s second feature film (after 1972’s Death Line) and it is the perfect story of a sleepy coastal town harboring a dark secret. Reminiscent of some of John Carpenter’s best work (in particular, of course, The Fog), it manages such an awesome combination of claustrophobic mood, competent acting, interesting characters, and enough of a science fiction-y plot (and special effects) that it’s amazing that this movie never saw the fame it deserved.
It follows Dan Gillis (James Farentino), sheriff of the small town of Potter’s Bluff, as he investigates a series of grisly murders. The crimes already belie the tight-knit community, but he becomes more perplexed when it not only seems like his wife may be involved in what’s going on, but that the victims seem to be reappearing, alive and well…
** SPOILERS! **
This was kind of a perfect film for me because I feel like it did such a great job at blending all of the qualities I typically love about horror films. It had strong acting (sure, not equally strong from every single character, but all of the main actors were great, plus we get to see Robert Englund in his pre-Freddie days!), memorable characters, shocking moments that were spread out enough to not lose their effect, some awesome special effects and gory moments, and a fantastic twist ending (that genuinely surprised me).
The local coroner-mortician, known as Dobbs (Jack Albertson in his final role), is easily the most captivating character of the whole bunch (he’s more famously known for his role as Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory). His love of big band music is a central role — his first scene, driving along the winding road with music pouring from the open windows of his car, is great, but my favorite has to be him putting a record on with a careful, gloved hand before slowly dancing his way across the room to a body, ready to be embalmed. He views his job as an art — “A cosmetologist gives birth; I make souvenirs” — and, in many ways, himself as a god of sorts. In one scene, he’s annoyed with Dan for not finding the car crash victim’s family because it meant they couldn’t ask him to “perform his magic”. He thinks it’s more obscene for a body to wither away in a casket than for him to preserve the memory of that human being. It’s admirable, in a way, and it makes his character just fascinating to watch.
As I mentioned, the claustrophobic feeling of the town is ever-present, due in part to Steven Poster’s cinematography (who would later become better known as the director of photography for Donnie Darko). There are some truly fantastic shots, one of my favorites being the townspeople approaching the lost family — the mob of them, moving slowly as they are silhouetted in the fog, was standout to say the least. Dan coming in to the morgue to find Dobbs watching videos of various murders — victims he reanimated — projected all over the walls is absolutely awesome.
The score — by Joe Renzetti (who would go on to score Child’s Play) — is so sorrowful, so haunting. It’s perfect. I’m usually happy with music that at least just doesn’t distract from the film, but the theme song in particular adds such a degree of moodiness.
The special effects weren’t over the top but they definitely stand out among some of the cheesiness of 80s horror, like the charred man in the car SCREAMING when he was touched — oof, so good — or “Lisa” putting a needle through our poor photographer’s eye. I also really liked the severed arm moving on its own on front of car, clenching its fist repeatedly, as well as Dobbs stripping the hitchhiker girl’s face down to skull and rebuilding from the ground up.
I loved the feeling of the town sort of breaking down all at once — Dan catching the high school kid who worked at the mortuary applying concealer to his arm, us seeing the man behind the counter’s fist cracking as the sheriff picked up his film. Seeing the sheriff go from suspecting a crazed killer to starting to suspect everyone around him — including his wife — is pretty intense.
And really, the entire climax of the movie was just… perfect. Janet rattling off options for dinner as Dobbs explains how the only memories she has are the ones he gives her, and how she was a gift to Dan… Dobbs welcoming death (“You will try to kill me, Dan, but you can’t. You can only make me dead.”) so he can join his “children”… Janet begging Dan to bury him. It was dramatic and heartbreaking (a tearful Dan burying Jan — and watching her pull handfuls of dirt over her own face — was just… wow) and almost suffocating (the entire town coming over, one by one, to drop flowers and well wishes at her grave, to Dan’s horror) and I was on the edge of my seat and then THAT TWIST ENDING! Just… too good. TOO GOOD.
Seriously, don’t sleep on this one. It’s freaking incredible.
Rating: 8.5/10 | Director: Gary Sherman | Writer: Jeff Millar, Alex Stern (story), Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon (screenplay) | Music: Joe Renzetti | Cinematography: Steven Poster | Starring: James Farentino, Melody Anderson, Jack Albertson, Dennis Redfield, Nancy Locke, Lisa Blount, Robert Englund, Christopher Allport