"Dead & Buried" is a 1981 film directed by Gary A. Sherman, and written by "Alien" scribes Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon. It evidently did okay at the box office, and got mediocre to good reviews, but didn't get the attention I feel it deserves. It's a very good living dead movie, but it seems to be neglected when folks talk about the best zombie movies. I'll give you a brief summary of the film, which won't divulge important spoilers. Then I'll follow with spoiler-marked paragraphs discussing the movie in depth (some might say to ridiculous, geeky extremes).
Potters Bluff is a small seaside town in New England. But something is amiss. An unusual amount of violent deaths keep happening, with the victims always being outsiders. The Sheriff, Dan Gillis (James Farentino), is baffled--even more so because some or perhaps all of the deaths are clearly homicides. Meanwhile, his schoolteacher wife Janet (Melody Anderson) seems to be keeping secrets, and is showing an odd interest in the occult. Weird details continue to emerge, and Dan tangles with the strange, colorful town coroner/mortician Dobbs. Who, or what, is responsible for all this senseless carnage?
(SPOILERS AHEAD UNTIL MARKED) "Dead & Buried" came out during the zombie boom of the late 1970's/early 1980's that followed George Romero's horror masterpiece "Dawn of the Dead," the second in the series started by 1968's "Night of the Living Dead." And, like most good genre movies, it put an interesting spin on a horror cliche. Many of the "Dawn of the Dead" inspired movies were fairly shameless ripoffs--they featured zombie hordes that devoured the living, and who reproduced by biting and/or killing their human victims. Usually the only major difference was where the movie was set, or how the "zombification" process started. But the zombies in "Dead & Buried" are closer to the original Caribbean field worker slaves of the movies in the first half or so of the 20th century. They retain their sense of identity, their intelligence (mostly--more on that later), their ability to use tools and drive, etc., and are able to pass as living humans. They are, though, extremely dangerous and violent, although they don't eat their victims. The movie sidesteps what causes the living to return as zombies--Dobbs says as one point, "Call if black magic. Call it a medical breakthrough. I'll take my secret to the grave." But, whatever it is, Dobbs clearly is the zombie master and controller, the voodoo priest/mad doctor who's running his undead crowd.
Dobbs is quite a cool character. It appears much of the reason for why he's doing this is passion for his profession. The only time we see him angry is when he talks about the "obscenity" of a closed casket funeral. He sees himself as an artist, as he restores horribly mangled bodies into pristine looking zombies. In a macabre way, he's like a performance artist playwright--he assembles his undead "cast" and then has them "act" as they exist in the "set" of Potters Bluff. Or, if you like, Dobbs is an insane would-be movie director. He has his undead "children" murder people, while filming it, so he can watch the events later, and repeatedly. Clearly he's mad, and a psychopath, but still, I kind of respect his joyful dedication to his career. It's refreshing in a way to see someone who clearly adores his job.
There is, obviously, one giant plot issue in the movie--namely, why does Dobbs resurrect Dan Gillis in the way he did, with (apparently) full memories, full intelligence, and his old sense of morality, ethics, the law, etc? (Okay, Dan doesn't recall Janet killing him, or his returning to "life," but everything else as far as we can tell.) Dan could have easily been another one of Dobb's smiling zombie assassins--even better, because he could cover up murder evidence, be seen as more trustworthy to outsiders, etc. Clearly this is probably the case because it makes for a more compelling movie, but it even makes sense from the characters' viewpoints. My take is simply this--Dobbs loves messing with Dan. He gleefully sets this up so Dan bumbles about slowly. Dobbs arranges for more and more bizarre clues to be dropped, until Dan learns the devastating truth. Cruel, sure, but consistent with Dobb's demented sense of humor.
This sense of fun is also evident in Dobb's demise, and subsequent regeneration as one of his "children." We learn that one of the prerequisites for becoming a zombie is a violent death--perhaps by someone else? Dobbs is clearly eager to die and become a zombie, so why doesn't he commit grisly suicide, or have his other undead servants murder him in ghastly fashion? Instead, he chooses a risky course of action--he goads Dan into losing it and shooting him (Dobbs). Dobbs lucks out because Dan shoots Dobbs in the torso--fatally, but not immediately so. Dobbs needs time to prepare himself, evidently mainly by injecting his trunk with some mysterious liquid substance. So it would appear that if Dan had decided to shoot Dobbs in the brain, or heart, or somewhere else that would result in death within seconds, than Dobbs would lose, and not get to be reborn as a zombie. Again, I think this was contrived by the writers for dramatic purposes, but it can fit in with the movie characters' personalities. I think Dobbs does this because in a weird way he likes Dan, and wants him to be his murderer, and wants to take the chance that it might not work out.
Dan's wife, Janet, is an odd character, too. Dobbs says that she's his prize, as she lasts longer than the others before she needs her decaying flesh to be retouched and repaired. She was reportedly the first zombie, and Dobbs made her the best as a gift for Dan. Apparently enough of her intelligence and memory survive that Dan doesn't notice that she's dead (or maybe Dan's zombie senses of these might be faulty). But this kind of falls apart at the end reveal scene, as there Janet appears to be mindless, and reciting a script like a robot. And what of the other townspeople? They appear to be the same as before to Dan, and function the same as before, as far as we know. Is this all surface? Would Dan notice that they were shadows of their former selves if he spent a lot of time with them?
Also, the movie ends on a cliffhanger. What happens next? Dan appears extremely displeased with knowing that he's dead, and that Dobbs is his puppetmaster, etc. Isn't Dobbs afraid that Dan will attack and possibly destroy him, or otherwise reveal the secret? Or will Dan calm down and become a good little soldier in Dobb's family? We can only speculate.
Plot aside, I thought the film was very well crafted. The town of Mendocino, California, stands in for the fictional town of Potters Bluff, which is supposed to be set in Maine. And although it's across the country from where it's supposed to be, Mendocino has a neat look to it. It has a great timeless quality to it which adds to the movie's tone of quiet menace. Despite being so tiny (about 850 people), Mendocino has a long history of films and TV shows being shot there. Among its highlights are "East of Eden" (1955), "The Dunwich Horror" (1970), "The Karate Kid Part III" (1988), and multiple episodes of the Angela Lansbury 1980's television series, "Murder, She Wrote." Also, I assume this was intentional--the whole movie looks drab and colorless. Like a pale imitation of life--it fits the theme well.
The special effects are definitely several notches above the typical low budget genre fare. Effects maestro Stan Winston ("The Thing" (1982), "The Terminator" (1984), "Aliens" (1986), "Pumpkinhead" (1988) (he also directed this one), "Terminator 2" (1991), "Jurassic Park" (1993), "Iron Man" (2008), to name just a few) did many of the movie's scenes. Included among these are a fantastically gross burn victim, a very hard to watch hypodermic-needle-to-the-eye death, and a bare skull being rebuilt and refleshed before our eyes. Really, the only dodgy effects scene is one the studio reportedly forced upon the director, and apparently not done by Winston, of the doctor's demise by acid. There aren't lots of repulsive and gory scenes in "Dead & Buried," but when they occur they are (with the one exception) very disturbing, and well done.
(END OF SPOILERS--SAFE FOR ALL TO READ FROM HERE ON) Director Gary A. Sherman didn't have a long career, at least as a director. His 1972 effort "Raw Meat," about cannibals in the London Underground, has become a cult movie (and I thought it was pretty good, but maybe a tad overrated). Other films of note were 1982's "Vice Squad," and 1988's "Poltergeist III." The cast of "Dead & Buried" was a mix of obscure and famous actors. James Farentino (Sheriff Dan Gillis) wasn't a huge star, but he did get an Emmy nomination for the 1977 television miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth," and also appeared in "The Final Countdown" (1980), "Her Alibi" (1989), and "Bulletproof" (1996) before dying in 2012. Melody Anderson (Janet Gillis) is best known for her starring turn in 1980's "Flash Gordon." She retired from acting in the early 1990's and now is a social worker/public speaker specializing in drug addiction. Jack Albertson (William Dobbs) sadly died in 1981, about 6 months after "Dead& Buried" came out. He's best known for appearances in "Miracle on 34th St."(1947), "The Subject Was Roses" (1968) (for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971) as "Grandpa Joe," "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972), as well as starring in the 1974-78 television sitcom "Chico and the Man." Girl on Beach/Lisa was played by Lisa Blount, who appeared in 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman," 1985's "Cut and Run," 1987's "The Prince of Darkness" (a great John Carpenter movie), and 1990's "Needful Things." She also won an Oscar, sharing one with her husband for the Best Live Action Short Film "The Accountant" in 2001. Alas, she's also deceased. The character of Phil was played by Barry Corbin, who was in "WarGames" (1983), "No Country For Old Men" (2007), and is probably most familiar to audiences for playing Maurice in the 1990-95 sitcom "Northern Exposure." Mortician's assistant "Jimmy", Glen Morshower, has been a very busy actor, appearing in over 200 movies and TV shows, including "CSI," "The West Wing," "Pearl Harbor" (2001), "Black Hawk Down" (2001), "Moneyball" (2011), and "X-Men: First Class" (2011). And finally, tow truck operator "Harry" was played by Robert Englund, who of course was "Freddie Krueger" in the "Nightmare On Elm Street" series, as well as in "Eaten Alive" (1977), the "V" television miniseries (1983-84), "976-EVIL" (1988), and "The Mangler" (1995), among others.
So, in closing, I'm not sure why "Dead & Buried" is relatively unheralded. It has an interesting take on a hoary theme, is written and filmed well, has good acting and direction, and has an overall creepy undertone with regularly spaced intense, frightening scenes. Fans of the living dead will probably appreciate this one.