Director: Brett Leonard
Code Red

With a Blockbuster on ever corner, Netflix delivering direct to your door and the Internet allowing you to stream films onto your personal PC within minutes, it’s no wonder that the idea of an independent mom and pop video store has become an object of myth. It saddens me to think that my grandchildren will never know the joy of strolling down isles of homemade wooded racks, adorned with thick rectangular video cassettes that lure you in with little more than a flashy package and a compelling title. Could STUFF STEPHANIE IN THE INCINERATOR possibly live up to its gripping title and attention grabbing box art? No, but that was the risk you took. Not knowing what you might find each time you flashed you membership card was half of the fun. For a brief, yet memorable time in my youth I worked at such an independent video store, creatively named Video Hits and Snacks, or VHS for short. THE DEAD PIT always had a healthy turn around, thanks in no small part to a cover that featured a pair of light up, flashing eyes on the films lead zombie. More so than that however, the film's packaging delivered on its promise. THE DEAD PIT features an undead surgeon who, along with dozens of other zombies, rises from a cellar pit to wreak havoc and feast on the flesh of the living. Truth in advertising that had gorehounds and horror aficionados returning time and again.

Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer), an attendant at a state run mental institution has been conducting cruel and sadistic experiments after hours, amassing a large pile of deceased “volunteers” in the cellar of the hospital. Suspicious of Dr. Ramzi’s extracurricular research, Dr. Gerald Swan (Jeremy Slate, THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, THE BORN LOSERS) follows his colleague to the basement one night, uncovering his private research and its many failed trails. Startled and frightened, Dr. Swan kills Ramzi and boards up the door leading to the basement, leaving the doctor to be forgotten in the underground surgical room. Twenty years later, cutbacks in funding have condensed the asylum into a single building, leaving the surrounding campus in ruins. Found wandering the streets with no memory, a Jane Doe (Cheryl Lawson) is brought to the facility to receive treatment under the continuing practice of Dr. Swan. Claiming that her memory was surgically taken from her, Dr. Swan is confidant that he will be able to help Jane recall her memory through hypnosis. Jane's arrival is however heralded by a violent earthquake that rattles patients and staff, as well as the long forgotten basement door. Awakened from his tomb, Dr. Ramzi reopens his research into experimental lobotomies, finding the hospital's young night staff a naive and practical source of guinea pigs. Each night, violent terrors haunt Jane Doe, who repeatedly attempts to warn the staff of emanate danger. Ignored, Jane’s pleas fall on deaf ears until one of Dr. Swan’s hypnosis sessions provide proof that Dr. Ramzi has indeed returned from the grave, bringing with him his many failed experiments, now reanimated and hungry for blood.

Writer/ Director Brett Leonard’s name is most often attributed with his breakout film THE LAWNMOWER MAN. An adaptation of a Stephen King short story, Lawnmower Man, along with Leonard’s VIRTUOSITY, helped show both audiences and Hollywood exactly how revolutionary a tool computers could be in filmmaking. While certainly not groundbreaking, the zombies present could have easily been trucked in from any Romero picture, and THE DEAD PIT is definitely entertaining, delivering on every gratuity that fans of 1980s horror thrive on. For instance, Mrs. Lawson’s wardrobe for most of the film's proceedings includes a mid-drift bearing white t-shirt with matching cotton panties, insuring that every chase scene is a memorable one. Her first leading role, Cheryl’s screams would draw the attention and admiration of Drive-In champion Joe Bob Briggs who would name her “one of the finest screamers in movie history.” Unafraid to let the gore flow, the film features a number of the asylum's staff and inmates sent to meet their maker in a green and crimson pool of blood. Jeremy Slate in particular not only gets some of the best lines, but delivers one of the finest lucid lobotomy scenes ever put to celluloid. As the undead Dr. Ramzi drives long silver needles into his former colleague’s brain, stimulating his many cranial synapses, Jeremy reacts with emotions ranging from childlike wonder to utter panic. It is a brilliant scene that would later be echoed, albeit less effectively, by Anthony Hopkins in Ridley Scott’s HANNIBAL. As they are admitted fans of zombie cinema, I did find it odd that neither Brett nor his co-writer/producer Gimel Everett choose to film any zombies actually devouring one of their victims. There are a number of dog pile attacks that conclude with the victims' brains being removed, rather than consuming the organ; the zombies hold it into the air and scream in adulation like a sports figure brandishing a new trophy. You haven’t eaten in twenty years; just eat the damn thing already! Despite such curious touches, THE DEAD PIT is an entertaining remembrance of a time when neon colors and unexplainable bellows of smoke were predicable and exhilarating precursors to unnecessary nudity and copious amounts of gore.

If you happen to still have a copy of the old Imperial VHS release, and the lights still work, I’d recommend tucking it away for prosperity and upgrading to Code Red’s latest. While previously available on DVD in both Germany and the U.K, neither lives up to the presentation or abundance of supplementary features present here. Originally trimmed in order to receive an R rating, Code Red’s release incorporates the excised footage, about 6 minutes of additional gore, presenting the film in an unrated director’s cut. Picture quality is often a bit soft, but such haziness is almost expected from cheap horror films of the late 1980s. Otherwise the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer holds up nicely, with the neon green of the title pit glowing bright and intense. Dialogue can at times be a bit hard to follow, but is due mainly to the film's score overpowering the conversation rather than any concerns with the English mono available.

Code Red’s strong presentation is complemented by a number of welcomed special features. An audio commentary with director Brett Leonard, writer Gimel Everett and lead actor Jeremy Slate (who sadly passed away shortly after the disc's supplements were recorded) follows the trio as they fondly recall the film's location (an actual mental institution closed down in the eighties by the Reagan administration) and cast, which was overpopulated with friends and relatives. The three return for separate on screen interviews, as does Jane Doe herself, Cheryl Lawson. If you thought Cheryl, currently a stunt woman, was a knockout in 1989, wait until you see her today sans the horrible 1980s perm! The film's original trailer is also included along with trailers for a number of current and future Code Red releases including NIGHT WARNING, THE FARMER and BEYOND THE DOOR. Die Hard DEAD PIT fans should take note of a 2-Disc Collector's Edition available as a Best Buy Exclusive, that features additional supplemental material. (Jason McElreath)