Dead & Buried (1981)
Some films develop cults around them and some films wash away in the tide of film history so quickly that they never have time to develop a proper following. Directed by Gary Sherman (Death Line) and written by Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett (the duo who penned Alien), the low-budget chiller Dead & Buried probably should have been more popular than it was. However, now is as good a time as any to get acquainted with this minor masterpiece.
Potter's Bluff, Rhode Island: a quiet little New England burg where everybody knows your name, where going out to eat invariably means the greasy spoon on Main Street, and where you're likely to meet the most eccentric personalities. Of course, if you're an outsider, you're also likely to meet your untimely demise. Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) has two grisly murders on his hands, and the pieces just don't add up. With the assistance of local coroner (Jack Albertson), Gillis finds himself inexorably drawn to questions with deeply unsettling answers.
Originally conceived (and filmed) as a black comedy, Dead & Buried instead ends up being an incredibly effective chiller with a subdued hum of gallows humor adding texture in the background. The screenplay approaches the mystery with a seeming lack of guile - a great deal is stated up-front without any clever winks or nods. It's a ballsy move, but O'Bannon and Shusett add enough gentle twists and bends that not getting caught up in a game of second guesses is almost impossible. Getting dragged around the curves of a really great horror mystery hasn't been this engaging since The Wicker Man.
Sherman, directing his first feature film since 1972's Death Line, washes over the entire film with a dulled blue tint, adding an air of deadness to the stagnant coastal town. The color red is conspicuously absent from the film except at the very beginning and the very end (and a little during one of the murders in the middle) -- even the fire trucks are blue.
Where the script sets us up, it is Sherman's direction -- particularly the tight editing and paranoid camera -- that acts as the bowling ball of shock and suspense that knocks us over, if only to be set right back up again. Sherman knows the value of gore and pairs its sporadic use with the points of highest tension. He's interested, not in grossing us out, but in drawing us inside, making us need to find out what happens next. Indeed, one of the more effective moments in the film involves no blood and no killing - just an old barn with creaking floorboards and shadows that just gulp up light.
Farentino's solid everyman performance is pivotal to making the mystery work. His character is the conduit to the haunting enigma of Potter's Bluff. The film gives us more information than he has -- we know the whats, if not the wherefores -- so, we constantly fear for him, surrounded by a situation of danger he couldn't possibly understand. From the perspective of the slightly better informed viewer, Sheriff Gillis shouldn't continue his investigation. From the perspective of Sheriff Gillis, he doesn't have any choice but to go on, and it's not hard to understand why. Farentino makes us understand the character's slow evolution from amiable lawman to desperate and slightly unhinged investigator of grisly truths. Without that insight, the entire point of Dead & Buried would be, well, buried.
The rest of the cast (including a pre-Freddy Robert Englund) is a quirky mix of mugs that Preston Sturges would be comfortable directing. Albertson defines eccentricity as the philosophizing and slightly pretentious coroner Dobbs. There's always something a little off about him, something just left of comfortable, and it's difficult to get a bead on his motivations -- which is sort of the point, I suppose.
If I have a real complaint, it's the obvious tampering by the film's financiers. It's a complicated story involving one set of money men buying out another set and then being bought out. The gist of things, though, is that the third set of backers decided that a slightly arty black comedy wouldn't bring in the Friday the 13th crowd, so they had Sherman shorten some sequences, add in a few more scenes of gore, and shift around the order of events (causing at least one continuity error). The added violence is both ungainly and unnecessary, but it's hard to argue against the tonal shift, as the movie excels as a straight horror-thriller.
Blue Underground offers up Dead & Buried as a well-deserved two DVD set. The video is occasionally grainy (a flaw of the original film stock), but always easy to watch. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is brilliant -- subtle and atmospheric, it really lends a feeling of being surrounded by the film. There's a whopping three (three!) commentary tracks, each one chock-full of information. My favorite is Sherman's, as he describes the production process and the backstage meddling. Unfortunately, the film has no captions or subtitles, which I see as pretty unforgivable, especially when there's commentary. I was only able to review the first disc, but the second disc contains documentaries on Stan Winston's effects, Englund's involvement, and co-writer Dan O'Bannon.
Dead & Buried is a film that, thankfully, no longer reflects its title. It's alive and out there, waiting to thrill the next unsuspecting viewer. Such a quaint and enigmatic film is rare and should be appreciated now in case it falls off the radar once again.