Director Curtis Harrington always offered up solid, unassuming genre fare on the small screen (How Awful about Allan, the wonderfully goofy Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell); and when he collaborated with noted scribe Robert Bloch (Psycho), the result was NBC’s The Dead Don’t Die (1975), an effective throwback to the Lewton/Turneur era beloved by both, shot through with a big dose of pulpy goodness.
Originally broadcast on January 14th as an NBC World Premiere Movie, TDDD didn’t stand a chance against the likes of the ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week or the ironclad CBS lineup of M*A*S*H/Hawaii Five-O, and Bloch is on the record as not being a fan. Oh well; I still dig its entertaining mashup of neo noir and old fashioned zombies even if he doesn’t. And you might too if that particular elixir peaks your interest.
Crack open your TV GUIDE and let’s take a trip through shadows, fog, and the rising dead:
THE DEAD DON’T DIE (Tuesday, 8:30pm, NBC)
A man vows to avenge his brother’s wrongful execution, which leads him to a secret society where the dead rise to do the evil bidding of their dark master. George Hamilton, Ray Milland star.
The telefilm opens in 1934 as Ralph Drake (Jerry Douglas – Looker) awaits his execution on Death Row. His brother Don (George Hamilton – Love at First Bite) is visiting, and Ralph convinces Don of his innocence in the death of his wife. After Ralph’s funeral, Don sets out to find those responsible and bring them to justice.
First stop is a dance hall, which leads him to kindly owner Jim Moss (Milland – Dial M for Murder), who offers to help in whatever way he can. This eventually leads him to an antique shop run by the mysterious Perdido (Reggie Nalder – Salem’s Lot) and his assistant Vera (Linda Cristal – Mr. Majestyk), where he is met not with kindness but rather, hostility. It certainly does compel Don to push forward in his search; well, that and the fact that he saw his dead brother entering the shop. He soon realizes that not only is Perdido not who he claims to be, but that the line between the dead and the living can be a dangerous one…
The Dead Don’t Die (that title is peak pulp) follows Harrington’s normal template, which is very subdued, character driven horror. However, with Bloch on board, and an appreciation for dime store detectives and silhouetted ghouls, TDDD offers an abundance of charm and is a loving tribute to ‘40s pop culture. You will find the searching hero and femme fatale from the yellowed pages, and gnarled hands upon outstretched limbs with graveside dangers afoot from the silver screen. As I said, charming comes to mind as Bloch and Harrington playfully pay homage to a forgotten time, even by the ‘70s. (Bloch’s short story on which this is based was published in the ’50s.)
But charming for some is terrifying to others, and I’ve been on both sides of this equation; as a wee one, I witnessed the commercial for this as Nalder climbs out of his coffin and starts walking, arms reaching for Hamilton in a darkened death waltz. And it still works today as vivid imagery. (Ps – if you think that’s a spoiler, please remember that Nalder was not exactly leading man material. If the dead *have to* don’t die, it should probably be him.)
But a lot of it still works as vivid imagery, and that goes for the ‘30s sets, from the car head “lamps” to the graveyards and moonlit docks, all shot through with a warm nostalgic feel by James Crabe (Rocky). TDDD places a lot of stock in its look, and as it’s a telefilm built almost solely on atmosphere, it’s a wise investment. Bloch’s script doesn’t offer any new turns for the wizened viewer, but rather unfolds the plot in a manner befitting a dime store novel whose story holds no surprises, yet entertains by honoring the tropes of the genres, both noir and horror.
It doesn’t hurt to litter the cast with stars from the bygone era, and this is how deep Harrington wanted to go in his homage: Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly), Joan Blondell (The Public Enemy), Milland, and others were all involved in filmic shadow plays of deceit and danger, and are welcome reminders of a different time. Hamilton by default, is the new kid on the block; and while I think his laid back style suits the material and the character of Don as detective by proxy, be forewarned – if you’re not a fan, this program will not sway your opinion.
The Dead Don’t Die could be considered quaint; some may call it a flat out bore. But there is some dread to be found in this calm, as well as a lot of affection for horror built on style and a subtle chill first found decades before. For Harrington and Bloch to be celebrating it at all, and for us to witness their tribute, is a sweet reminder of what the love of genre can produce.Next: It Came From The Tube: HALLOWEENTOWN (1998)