Now here’s a real horror movie. So downbeat and unforgettably fatalistic that it almost qualifies as film noir, director Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried was greeted on its original release without much fanfare outside of the genre community, though it was written and directed by smart people and was championed by horror specialists. Now, the scrappy young DVD label Blue Underground has given it the kind of release it deserves.
Working from a screenplay by Alien scribes Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Sherman has a low-key angle on the small-town proceedings, giving the picture a Hammer-Horror-by-way-of-California quality. The opening sequence, in which a visiting photographer meets a nice girl on the beach (bombshell Lisa Blount, who turns up later in John Carpenter’s super-creepy Prince of Darkness) in an encounter that goes terribly awry, is a gripping set-up for what turns out to be a kind of detective story, with a local sheriff (James Farentino) trying to solve a murder case that just gets weirder and weirder.
In some ways, Dead & Buried is the kind of horror movie that can’t be made in Hollywood today. For starters, it would be nigh impossible to make on a similarly low budget. The mood is genuinely dark, and only gets more so as the film progresses. The only pop music on the soundtrack is the big-band ditties that accompany the appearances of undertaker Jack Albertson (an Oscar-winner in 1969 for The Subject Was Roses, appearing here in his final performance). Eliza Dushku cannot take the starring role. (Come to think of it, wouldn’t mind seeing her take the Lisa Blount part in a remake.) And, maybe the most important distinction, it’s really good — serious but not high-minded, meticulously crafted but not showy. No, the story doesn’t hold together — but that’s only a valid complaint if you’re willing to argue for another 10 minutes of the kind of hurried exposition that this film doesn’t need. Yes, it has some pretty awkward passages, chief among them a longish sequence where some wayward travelers get chased around by a local flash mob. But the climax, where everything that the film has been hinting at for an hour and a half is finally revealed, is satisfactorily grim.
Considering how well it plays after 20 years, it’s surprising to hear Sherman on the DVD commentary track complaining about changes that were foisted on him by one of the several entities that had an interest in the film during its making. It turns out that Sherman was ordered to shoot scenes with added violence after the picture was essentially in the can, and the financiers changed the sequence of the film, resulting in at least one significant continuity error. That knowledge makes sense of some of the film’s problems, notably the one truly awful special-effects sequence that, it turns out, make-up wizard Stan Winston didn’t get anywhere near.
The new DVD from Blue Underground is a marvelous piece of work. (Warning: the package, including the disc art itself, is laden with minor spoilers.) Aside from Winston and Robert Englund, who has a small role, the one Dead & Buried alum who seems to have enjoyed the most success in mainstream Hollywood is director of photography Steve Poster, who went on to shoot stuff like Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me, Donnie Darko, and Stuart Little 2. Every aspiring DP’s low-budget work should be represented as well as this on DVD. The image is pretty (accurately) grainy, but the structure clearly resembles film grain, rather than video grain; the detail that’s often filtered out in the misguided quest for a smoother DVD image has been retained. I underrated the photography on my first viewing, but a second look revealed the range of techniques and nuance that inform almost every shot. The commentary tracks feature Poster and Sherman describing the lengths the crew went to in getting exactly the right look — flying a huge cloth flag from cliffside to diffuse sunlight in the opening sequence, or swapping purple taillights into vehicles to avoid the appearance anywhere on screen of the color red. (There’s a second disc with documentary featurettes, but I would have been perfectly happy with a cheaper single-DVD release.)
Stupidly, I listened to the 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track, which suffers from some weird channel-separation decisions. Music is spread across the rear speakers, and tinny, scratchy dialogue snippets are isolated in single speakers, giving them a rat-screeching-underfoot quality that turned the head of every cat in my room. I sampled the original mono soundtrack, which is more robust and less distracting. Your mileage may vary.