Drive-In Dust Offs: Dead & Buried

2015/04/18 00:08:03 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


1981 was an amazing year for horror. An American Werewolf in London. The Beyond. The Evil Dead. The Funhouse. The Howling. The list goes on and on. However, one that always seems to fall through the cracks of time and memory is Dead & Buried.

Released in May 1981, Dead & Buried did not set any box office records. This is due to the fact that it is very hard to categorize. Is it a slasher ala Friday the 13th Part 2? No, but there are some gruesome and realistic deaths courtesy of late effects whiz Stan Winston. Is it a monster movie like The Howling? Not exactly, but the movie involves transformations (of a sort). Is there a mystery to solve? Definitely, and this is what drives the story forward and through the disparate elements at play.

60’s and 70’s TV survivor James Farentino stars as Dan Gillis, Sheriff of the seaside town of Potter’s Bluff. After the mysterious (to the sheriff, anyway-not to the viewer) ‘accident ‘of a traveling photographer, Sheriff Gillis, with the help of the local coroner/mortician Dobbs (Chico and the Man’s Jack Albertson), sets out to solve a mystery deeply imbedded in the very core of Potter’s Bluff. Why are people thought to be dead showing up in different personas? Who is behind these nefarious actions? And can they still collect life insurance?

Director Gary Sherman deserves a lot of credit here for making this work. He plays the story straight and down the middle; all the twists and turns that occur are played for terror not comedy; sure the beats could be different but the results would be less effective. If you have a chance, check out an earlier work of his, Death Line (aka Raw Meat), a great piece of cannibalistic-underground dwellers-set in London-horror.

The screenplay credited to Ronald Shusett & Dan O’Bannon (O’Bannon is credited as a favor to Shusett; and agreed to said credit only if Shusett would make some changes – he didn’t, and it was too late for the credit to be changed. O’Bannon was not a happy puppy – or so the story goes), captures small town atmosphere perfectly; from the way- too -friendly locals, to the sneaking suspicion that everyone knows something except you. The big similarity between this and their previous screenplay, Alien (O’Bannon wrote, but they shared story credit), is a talent for sympathetic, down to earth characters drawn into extraordinary circumstances. Oh and a knack for memorable kills…

I mentioned earlier the effects work done by Stan Winston, and it is exemplary (with the exception of one kill, but that was put in by the studio in post). I don’t want to give anything away – let’s just say Winston isn’t too shy to go for the gross out, but the movie is edited so beautifully that we don’t linger on the scene, and yet still get our fill. I really wish the tide would turn and horror would go back to emphasizing practical effects; the difference between practical and CGI is buying the illusion, or walking away from the magician.

DP Steven Poster does a commendable job of capturing the monotony of small town life with the faded color scheme, which is brilliantly punctuated by bright camera flashes when something shocking happens. A great ploy effectively used. As well, coastal mists are used just as well here as they were in Carpenter’s The Fog, adding to the sense of dread permeating the screen.

A movie this far flung will only work if the cast provided is on the same page. The cast is uniformly excellent and plays it low key; with the exception of Albertson, whose quirky and flamboyant William G. Dobbs is the center of attention wherever he goes. It’s a great, appropriate, and final performance for Willy Wonka’s grandpa. Let’s not forget Melody Anderson (Flash! A-Ah!) as Gillis’ oh so sunny schoolteacher wife. She’s a lot of fun to watch. And watch her you should. Farentino plays a great Everyman; he propels the story forward with a gravitas that the story needs; a thankless task that can be easy to miss, but hard to believe without. The supporting cast is peppered with great character actors in early roles such as Robert Englund (that’s Mr. Krueger to you) and Barry Corbin.

So we have elements of Invasion of The Body Snatchers, Night of The Living Dead, and an Agatha Christie whodunit at play, made cohesive by a strong screenplay, muscular direction and sympathetic performances. Not only is Dead & Buried one of the best horror movies of 1981, it rightfully deserves a special place in any discerning horror fanatics collection. Welcome to Potter’s Bluff.

Dead & Buried is available on Blu-ray / DVD from Blue Underground.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: The Beast Within
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.