Florida just wasn't ready for Fred Olen Ray. Sure, the Sunshine State of the East Coast had previously witnessed the gutbusting grue of Herschell Gordon Lewis and the swamp-based monster epics of Bill Grefe, but who would have thought the two would be combined by a young up-and-coming filmmaker in the early 80s, a filmmaker who would go on to become one of the most recognized names in exploitation? THE ALIEN DEAD, the first theatrically released feature film by Ray, is an enjoyable enough mix of 50s monster movies and contemporary gore effects, with cool Florida swamp location photography, greasy hick characters, and surprisingly grisly murder scenes. It's not one of Ray's best, but it's a good start for his kooky career.
In the deep south of Florida, all the alligators have disappeared from the local swamp. A local woman disappears in the swamp when she and her husband go digging for alligator carcasses ("Can you row a little faster, Mr. Griffith?", "Patience is a virtue, Mrs. Griffith"), and soon thereafter more townspeople are viciously murdered by mysterious assailants. An ace reporter on the smalltown newspaper and his white trash girlfriend discover the swamp has become the stomping grounds for the living dead corpses of a group of visiting tourists who were killed when their boat was hit by a meteor (?!). More bodies will drop and more victims will join their ranks before the terror is put to an end!
For such a low-concept plot, Ray manages to keep THE ALIEN DEAD consistently interesting with a surprisingly good script. It's not Shakespeare or nothin', but there is great banter between the characters, a good sense of humor ("Your wife's deader than Mother's day at an orphanage"), and plenty of horror movie in-jokes (the reporter's last name is Corman). The photography is strictly of the 8mm home movie variety, but it's strangely effective and the on-location camerawork smacks of good old-fashioned regional horror moviemaking. Now, the monster makeup is another story: while some of the zombies look like they're actually wearing makeup, the majority of the monsters are simply wearing masks. You can see where the end of the mask meets their clothing!! As mentioned before, the gore is surprising in what is essentially a 50s sci-fi monster movie transplanted to 1980; an elderly couple, after providing some comic relief with a squabble, are massacred by the creatures in broad daylight, with the husband being gutted and eaten alive (his dog even starts eating his innards!) and the wife impaled on a pitchfork! "Star" Buster Crabbe, he of 1930s serials and FLASH GORDON himself, has limited screen time but makes the most of it as the local sheriff who spends more of his time playing cards than he does worrying about crimes. The bottom-of-the-barrel musical score becomes irritating after a while, but there is a break from the synthesizers to hear a good country bar band in the local watering hole. Now, it may seem like I'm trying to put perfume on a pig (love that analogy), but ALIEN DEAD is a lot of cheap, good old-fashioned fun and definitely worth the cheap retail price this disc is going for.
Because the original 16mm negative is no longer in existence, the best available source was used for the widescreen transfer, according to Ray from the only film element remaining and a 3/4" master is used for a deleted prologue. The grain is never-ending, and the image is as soft as a baby's ass, but honestly, the poor image quality is in keeping with the cheap origins of the film itself. The mono sound is muffled, but does the job well enough.
Extras are surprising for a film
like this, but because Ray is the president of Retromedia, he has access to
some good materials. First up is a video featurette reuniting three of the cast
and crew of the film: Mike Bonavia (the game warden), Dennis Underwood (the
deputy), and Shelley Youngren (associate producer). Shot in 1992, the three
actors are gathered on a set and talk about working with legend Buster Crabbe,
how they became involved with the film, and memories of the very low budget
of the shoot. Youngren tells a great near-death story with a sexy punchline!
Fun fact: the gutted old man was the actual local sheriff! A lengthy stills
gallery offers plenty of promotional stills, juicy behind-the-scenes photos,
including Ray goofing around with actors in full makeup and directing Crabbe
and his other amateur actors, and a few promotional artwork samples for the
film's release. The real jewel of the disc is the director's commentary track
by Fred Olen Ray, who never runs out of interesting facts to throw out about
his film. Opening with the story of the discovery of the last 16mm print in
existence of THE ALIEN DEAD, he continues to share stories of the genesis of
the project, the technical limitations with the film stock, trouble-shooting
on the set, how he managed to get Buster Crabbe to do the film (and who he had
originally hoped to cast), and oodles more tantalizing tidbits that will keep
you entranced. The commentary is a wealth of information for up-and-coming filmmakers
looking for tips on how to make a fun low-budget feature, and even if you don't
enjoy THE ALIEN DEAD as much as I did, the behind-the-scenes story of the film
is consistently fascinating for drive-in movie aficionados. (Casey
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