Fright Fest: Dead & Buried (1981)
The Art of Death in Dead and Buried
What if someone’s arrogance took the act of dying to the extreme for artistic purposes? This is the cornerstone of Gary Sherman’s Dead and Buried, written by the team of Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (though apparently O’Bannon’s writing efforts had been edited out) based upon the Chelsea Quinn Yarbro novel.
The story takes place in mythical Potters Bluff, Rhode Island – one of those out-of-the-way seaside communities where everything appears to be quaint, but what happens at night or behind closed doors is a different kind “The Twilight Zone” story. Daniel Gillis (James Forentino) happens to be the local sheriff investigating bizarre murders that seemingly spring out of nowhere, and William G. Dobbs (Jack Albertson), the town’s old-time undertaker who can’t even speak until a Big Band tune ends, helps in providing clues left behind by the bodies of the recently departed. But Sheriff Gillis is having a hard time navigating the evidence that may prove the involvement of his neighbors as well as his wife, Janet (Melody Anderson).
Dead and Buried has an atmosphere that makes it a great companion to John Carpenter’s The Fog, thanks to the cinematographic prowess of Steven Poster who eventually brought us Donnie Darko, Southland Tales, and more. Besides another solid script from Alien scribes O’Bannon and Shusett (regardless of who wrote what), the stellar Stan Winston delivers the special effects carnage that may leave one cringing in more than one scene.
And it’s the gruesome deaths that are at the heart of Dead and Buried: body’s set ablaze, head’s crushed, stabbed torsos, acid injections – one long needle – that leave the living to suffer in their final moments before something even worse happens after their departure. To make the nightmare last forever, every death’s captured on video like a birth in reverse. But this isn’t your crazed serial killer on the loose with a bizarre agenda, and Hannibal the Cannibal would surely go hungry. There is a method to the madness, and even a philosophy to the matter, that only makes the carnage that much more disconcerting.
Then again, we should expect nothing less from a place called Potters Bluff, clearly taken from Potters Field: The place where the nameless are laid to rest. The only problem is that wayward tourists and transients didn’t know they were headed to the “quiet town” for their own demise. The worst thing is that Dobbs seems to get off on the destruction. After all, he must make the bludgeoned and the burned look good again for burial, and he takes his post-mortem craftsmanship to heart like Michelangelo would a piece of marble.
While a frustrated Sheriff Gillis copes with Dobb’s eccentricities, he has an investigation that makes little sense, and seems to expand in scope and mystery with each body. But he’s no fool. Even with his criminal justice education, which a young Robert Englund points out in the role of Harry, Gillis knows this is far too much for him to handle. Yet, he won’t call in the state police any time soon since his beloved Janet’s acting strange. She’s a teacher who suddenly has an interest in film and photography and the occult, and she may have encountered the first victim, a photographer nicknamed “Freddie” who sets off the current town crisis. Gillis found him burned up in his van, and in real life, the actor, Christopher Allport, died in the opposite manner: buried by an avalanche in 2008 while skiing in the San Gabriel mountains.
Besides Gillis’s confusion and suspicion, his emotions keep him from taking a step back to see the big picture, to see the truth amidst the mayhem.
Dead and Buried is “Murder She Wrote” without the cups of tea and cutesy music, without that neat little ending and a giggle or two. Supposedly a comedy at its inception, the story took a darker turn due to the production company that wanted gore in lieu of laughs. The gore’s there, as well as a mystery that falls into place like a pick-axe to the brain. But Sherman’s film gives horror fans that “something extra.”
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
This was Albertson’s last feature film before his passing, and to say he owned Dead and Buried would be an under-statement. He gave his Dobb’s character the panache to pull off something macabre, manic, and malevolent. And to prove his point, Dobb tells Gillis: “Call it black magic. Call it a medical breakthrough. I’ll take my secret to the grave.” And that’s the funny part: There will be no grave for Dobbs because once he’s dead, he’ll live on as The Other, and he will haunt you – as he creates new masterpieces to surround himself as if a dollmaker extraordinaire.
We can see Dobbs’ holier-than-though attitude, ego, and a sense for the dramatic early in the film, but by Dead and Buried’s end, it’s clear that he’s on top of the heap and not willing to share the spotlight. Think of the former dead around him as minions without the banana craving who set out to create more minions exponentially.
Dobbs may think he has flair, and his arrogance certainly fits as a well-proportioned mask, but in the end, he’s not an artist as he may think, or some sort of post-mortem savior. Instead, he’s just a kid who wants to see what he can do with a wrecked body and make it dance. Instead of using whatever power he possesses to save lives, he treats the dead like playthings, and in time, the entire town of Potters Bluff will be made up of his toys: The dead he has resurrected in his perception of beauty. And the dead to him are everything. They are love and sexual satisfaction rolled into one morgue freezer.
With that, he will make time stand still. He may not have had his special power over the deceased during the Big Band era as he may have wished, but by God – or the Devil – he will stop the world from moving further away into something he can’t grasp, comprehend, or appreciate. And that’s the true awful terror behind Dead and Buried. Dobbs doesn’t want to have power over the dead for some grand scheme to gain riches or rewards, or to make them do his bidding, he wants to stop time. But he’s only a small fish in an extremely large pond, and Potters Bluff will be the only place where he’ll reign.
In a sense, Dead and Buried is the story of a mad scientist who pulled it off – for now. He’s foiled death by raising the dead, but only at his personal whim. He wants no fame or glory, no throne or empire, he simply wants to use the art of death to stop the future from cutting into what’s left of the past he holds dear by freeze framing the present. And that means every horrid death comes far too late, and his resurrection of the dead is true blasphemy for they serve no purpose other than to entertain an old man who has his head stuck in a bygone era.
One can imagine at some point that the living dead he’s manufactured from the slab will come calling and tear him asunder as they realize the world’s moving forward and they don’t belong. But if that day happens, Dobbs will smile and only hear Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” as the Potters Bluff throng, his “children,” his “masterpieces” ask, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” only to realize that Dobbs was never a god on earth, just a lonely man who abused power. And like Dobb’s old 78 records, they’ll be a relic to a time long gone. Only then will Potters Bluff live up to its name: a high cliff from which to fall from grace, a reflection of Dobbs’ ego-maniacal nature, and a place of pretend.
William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at Crash Palace Productions. One of this year’s screenplay judges for Shriekfest, he’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film, about to pitch a new horror cable series to Hollywood, and his award-winning novel, Bloodletting, will be re-printed by PageCurl Publishing later this fall. When Prystauk’s not headbanging to punk and metal, and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at: LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.
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