The other night I was struggling with the age-old question of what to watch when I suddenly realized I was in the exact perfect mood for Gary Sherman’s 1981 shocker DEAD & BURIED. This must have been the very first R-rated movie I had ever seen because once upon a time, nobody asked about your age when you were in the back seat of a crowded car at the drive-in. You’d think that over the decades I’d come to find this movie less frightening than the first time I saw it and you’d be partially correct but the truth is, it still leaves me thoroughly creeped out. Here are some of the reasons I still find this underrated and relentlessly bleak, paranoid classic uniquely disturbing.
THE OPENING SCENE. D&B opens with a photographer taking photos on a beach. He meets a beautiful young woman (Lisa Blount) who slyly seduces him and just when he’s about to seal the deal, he is instead beaten by random townspeople, tied to a poll with a fishing net and then set on fire while the mob encircling him smiles and take photos. No matter how many times I see this movie, this startling introduction never fails to alarm me. Perhaps even more unsettling than the brutal violence is the way the fish netting twists, distorts and mutates the victim’s face. I can’t think of a more distressing visage, it’s as if it foretells the burn scars he’s about to acquire. Somehow the poor dude lives and is taken to a hospital but his recovery is short lived. Completely vulnerable and covered head to toe in bandages, he is visited by the same treacherous young lady who instigated his assault. Dressed in nurses’ garb she presents the worst remedy ever conceived- a hypodermic needle administered straight through the eye! Imagine surviving so much only to endure a crueler fate when you’re in the most vulnerable state imaginable- it all still upsets me.
THE LOST FAMILY. Right smack in the middle of the film we are unceremoniously introduced to a couple and their young son who are lost in the remarkably foggy town. To avoid hitting a man that darts in front of their car, they crash into a telephone pole. Although we’ll find out shortly the car is quite operable, the beyond befuddled couple decides to venture into an abandoned dilapidated house to search for ice for their child’s head (yes, these people are insane). Making matters all the more surreal, the original sound of this scene must have been lost because this entire portion of the film is abysmally dubbed, resulting in tons of superfluous dialogue and general awkwardness.
It seems every move and decision the trio makes is frustratingly ill-advised. At one point the mother even surmises that the owners of the (clearly abandoned) abode must be in the basement fixing the fuse box and suggests that her husband go down to verify her demented fantasy. It’s truly crazy-making watching this family stumble about while the shadows of maniacs wielding weapons loom just out of their view. Nonsensical and partially infuriating as this entire segment is, it’s also beautifully shot and genuinely unnerving to me. Eventually, crazy townsfolk are jumping out of every closed door and crevice like demented jack-in-the-box clowns engulfing the terrified trio. As the family somehow makes it back to their vehicle, the way the ravenous mob is presented as a mass of menacing silhouettes following them is stunningly nightmarish (and brings to my mind the finale of THE DAY OF THE LOCUST). It’s hard not to feel bad for the hapless child, who is dragged about like a suitcase throughout and has no say in the blundering decisions of his ineffectual guardians.
THE FOUND FOOTAGE. The entirety of D&B is filmed in a gloriously gauzy and grainy way that rather resembles peering through dusty cheesecloth. Remarkably the murky-visual-ante is upped even further when Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) develops a mysterious roll of film for his wife (Melody Anderson) and decides to check out its horrific contents. I won’t give away the devastating plot point he discovers but I will say it is presented in a POV semi-snuff looking way that leaves you with the unclean feeling of having witnessed something vile and atrocious. Years before THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, D&B presented this grittier than a Philly mascot slice of visual miasma and it still feels as disorienting and downright icky as ever. I don’t know if it’s the leering oldsters, the decrepit surroundings or Joe (CHILD’S PLAY) Renzetti’s persuasive score but combined with the clips sleazy revelation it really gets under my skin. I can almost smell the moldy dank air as I write this and I also get a poisonously putrid Lovecraftian vibe.
Not everything in D&B makes sense but I believe that is part of the reason I find it so disturbing. Some folks are able to “fall out” of a movie when it presents something that is unlikely to occur but I sometimes find such lapses in logic remind me of the relentless way an inescapable nightmare works. I get the feeling that the writers didn’t fully lock down exactly what is going down in Potter’s Bluff, there are mentions of voodoo, witchcraft, and pseudo-science but when a definite explanation is teased by the central culprit it is soon nipped at the bud with, “I’ll take my secrets to the grave.” I’m fine with that. I find the horror in DEAD & BURIED especially potent because it is so darn amorphous and impossible to fully pin down. You get the sense that Potter’s Bluff is a town abandoned by light and rationality long ago and now it’s kind of stuck in an endless death spasm. I wish I could chalk up the way DEAD & BURIED hits me in my psychological Achilles’ heal to mere nostalgia. The truth is the inescapable mortality that engulfs the town like an impenetrable fog may be even more unnerving to me today than it was when I witnessed it in my youth.