Somewhere in-between the lumbering, grunting zombies of Night of the Living Dead and the athletic, screaming zombies of 28 Days Later, there lies a more frightening zombie. This scarier zombie is the one that walks among the living, undetected by the untrained eye. These are the zombies that populate director Gary Sherman’s (Poltergeist III) 1981 film Dead & Buried.
Dead & Buried is one of the unsung gore fests of the early 80’s horror film boon. Written by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon (the pair who wrote Alien), Dead & Buried tells the story of Potters Bluff, a sleepy little coastal town where visitors come and are promptly slaughtered by a mob of locals. On the surface, it comes off as a slasher film, but once the layers start being peeled away, the audience is shown that there is much more going on in Potters Bluff than simply murder.
James Farentino plays Sheriff Dan Gillis, the small town cop who suddenly finds himself up to his neck in dead bodies. During Sheriff Gillis’ investigation of the recent murder spree, he notices that the victims of the murders have been seen around the town – alive. Seeking the help of William Dobbs, the town’s mortician (played to perfection by Jack Albertson), Gillis shifts his focus from murder investigation to zombie hunting. Melody Anderson stars as Gillis’ wife Janet, a school teacher who conveniently happens to be teaching her class a lesson about the practice of voodoo, and a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund is cast as one of the murderous townspeople.
One of the standout factors in Dead & Buried is the visual effects. The film was made in a time before computer generated effects were standard fare, so all of the effects are done the old-fashioned way; with corn syrup, food coloring and latex. The makeup effects are designed by Stan Winston, who went on to Oscar winning fame working on Terminator 2, Aliens and Jurassic Park. In Dead & Buried, however, Winston doesn’t create any robots, aliens or dinosaurs. What he does manufacture is blood, guts and gore. Highlights include a scene with a hypodermic needle shoved in a victim’s eye, a man who is burned over his entire body (and lives!) and, since much of the film is set in a mortuary, a whole lot of embalming. Winston proves that he doesn’t need powerful computers and expensive software to create compelling visuals. The effects are realistic enough to keep even the most hard-core horror watchers squirming in their seats.
The only real weakness in the film is the soundtrack. The music in Dead & Buried is somewhat distracting. The score sounds less like a film score and more like songs being played in the background. Rather than set a mood or control a feeling, the music makes the audience wonder which jukebox or record player that it’s coming from. The film has musical stingers when something suspenseful or shocking happens, and they are effective in a Tales from the Darkside tongue-in-cheek kind of way, but the overall music could have been done better. The sound mix is also sub-par, with the ambient noise and musical score often drowning out the dialogue.
Dead & Buried is dark, suspenseful and creepy. Some of the story twists may be a bit predictable, but the plot avoids the typical kids-running-from-madmen motif that plagued its contemporaries. While it may not give you nightmares, Dead & Buried is full of scares and screams that will make even the most icy nerves jump. The horror fan that is tired of the typical zombie film and is looking for something they haven’t seen before would do themselves a favor by checking out this old gem.