1980 was a great year for setting up scares in idyllic seaside towns — grudge-carrying ghosts wreaked revenge in John Carpenter's The Fog, and hell-bent horndogs from a mad experiment gone awry unleashed havoc in the Roger Corman -produced Humanoids From The Deep. In 1981, by the time Dead and Buried came late to the beach party, horror audiences were wild about werewolves (An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen). So Dead and Buried missed the sailboat then, but thanks to DVD (and the always awesome Blue Underground) it just might get a second-wind.
This spooky sleeper opens with a well-photographed murder reminiscent of scenes from classics such as Peeping Tom and (later on) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, throws a few voodoo and demonology bones the audience's way, then adds a some genre nods at 1968's Night of the Living Dead, 1975's The Stepford Wives and Autopsy.
But Dead and Buried really is its own entity, thanks to an ever-moving and nicely layered script by Dan O'Bannon (hot off Ridley's Scott's Alien), icky effects by Stan Winston (who did The Hand in the same year), and hazy Tales From the Crypt -style noir by DP Steven Poster (you may know him best from a later project, Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko). Not so strong are disjointed director Gary Sherman and hyperbolic star James Farentino — but then again, the weaknesses add to Dead and Buried's considerable charm. (And then again — again — the commentary reveals that some of the clunkiest things in the movie [a bad special effects sequence] were later added by money-mongering producers.)
After the trespassing photographer is attacked on the beach and burnt almost to death by a merry murderous mob, he winds up at the Potter's Bluff Hospital… which is anything but a safe haven. A nefarious nurse (Lisa Blount) finishes the job with a hypo plunged into his exposed iris, just out of sight from the sheriff (Farentino). Once the shutterbug is out of the picture, more tourists arrive and are terrorized, then the focus narrows on the sheriff's investigation and growing suspicion that his own sweet wife (Melody Anderson) might be involved in the ever-more heinous murders.
While Dead and Buried is undeniably cheesy and clichéd here and there, it's a surprisingly competent and effective film for being so little-known. A pre-Freddy Robert Englund has a small but memorable role, and Jack Albertson (in his final feature) shines as the eccentric town mortician. The cinematography is A-game, the score and sound design is fantastic, and the set decoration is spot on. I was impressed by all the little touches.
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