MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973) Blu-ray
Director: Willard Huyck
Code Red DVD

For their first feature film project, the husband and wife team of former UCLA students Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (at the same time collaborating with director George Lucas on AMERICAN GRAFFITI) were given financial backing as long as the venture was to be a horror film, an easy marketing sell in the days when exploitation cinema was still thriving. Writing the screenplay together, Huyck would direct the film and Katz would serve as producer, churning out what many believe is one of the best independent American horror movies of the 1970s. A film with sorted and lingering theatrical distribution (it’s also known as DEAD PEOPLE, REVENGE OF THE SCREAMING DEAD and THE SECOND COMING, the latter attached to the title for this release), MESSIAH OF EVL is now given a spectacular Blu-ray release.

When she stops receiving the strange and morbid letters from her artist father (Royal Dano, KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE), Arletty (Marianna Hill, THE BABY) drives to the seaside town of Point Dune to search for him. Finding his house abandoned, she gathers further information from his diary, as he relates how there is a darkness over the town and that he is going through some bodily changes. The search for her father leads to an encounter with a trio staying at a local motel. A so-called aristocrat of Portuguese heritage, Thom (Michael Greer, THE GAY DECEIVERS) and his two flighty female companions – Laura (Anitra Ford, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE) and Toni (Joy Bang, NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN) – end up staying with Aletty at her father’s house, which happens to be adorned with distracting life-size murals of gloomy-looking people. As Thom vies for the attentions of Arletty in favor of his other two groupie-like travelers, the four try to make sense of what’s going on in this seemingly vacant town, which soon becomes overrun by ghoul-like inhabitants who shed bloody tears, gather in packs and feast on human flesh.

Intentional or not, MESSIAH OF EVIL makes a significant nod to George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which was still quite fresh at the time and not yet commonly imitated by American filmmakers. But the film is far from a conventional zombie picture in that it doesn’t fully suggest that its “ghouls” are undead beings, but rather diseased unfortunates who have succumbed to an ancient prophecy. The outcome is that they become pale and pasty, bleed from their eyes, and bite their “living” victims, followed by consuming of the flesh. Also, in spite of these ghouls initially moving sluggish and staring deadpan at their potential victims, they are prone to moving really fast, sometimes in small droves (so in theory, this would be one of the earliest movies to feature running zombies). Though the film never puts on any all-out visceral displays, it still has a fair share bloodshed, and the ghoul attacks are effective to say the least.

With its H.P. Lovecraft influences and at times arthouse approach, MESSIAH OF EVIL is a unique chiller, an honorable first effort by Huyck and Katz that could be categorized with such American genre classics of the period as LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and LEMORA. Some will say that it’s hampered by jumbled editing and an unusual sense of pacing, but this only establishes the film’s unconventionality, and along with its ambiguous explanations of the supernatural occurrences within, it leaves a lot up to viewer interpretation. The film was made entirely in California, and shot in a way to give it a total air of apocalyptic isolation and desertion. Several sequences really stand out and are yet to be equaled in modern horror movies. For example, Laura following a silent stranger into a supermarket which seems empty at first; a horde of ghouls hovering over the meat counter soon turn their attentions to the lanky living female flesh, as she tries to bust out of the shut-tight automatic front doors. Also, when Toni solos off to the movies, she finds herself in a less than crowded theater. As she unsuspectingly chops on her popcorn, the isles soon fill up with pasty ghouls, who surround her as she attempts to make a desperate escape – a priceless scene evidently inspired by Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS.

For a very low budget film that was non-union, a familiar cast was put together that assured it as an instant cult item, even though that was not the agenda. Marianna Hill was pretty well known from films and TV at the time, though she would go on to appear in mainstream films like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and GODFATHER PART II shortly after this. Greer, Ford and Bang (her real married last name at the time!) were all fixtures of drive-in/exploitation cinema, though they’re probably more recognized for it today. Aside from veteran character actor Royal Dano (who is mostly heard through narration but eventually makes a hell of an entrance and exit), Elisha Cook Jr. (THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) is the other old-timer who appears in a small but terrific role as the town drunk, who warns Arletty about the fate of her father and the horrible things to happen. Non-actor Bennie Robinson is unforgettable as an albino who drive around in a pickup truck and likes to listen to Wagner and snack on live rats. Charles Dierkop (THE HOT BOX) can be seen as an ill-fated gas station attendant, and future director Walter Hill (THE WARRIORS) has a small bit as the first victim in the film (he gets his throat slashed by a young girl).

Although Code Red’s 35th Anniversary DVD looked well enough, this 40th Anniversary Blu-ray is even more of a revelation. Presented from a brand new HD transfer supervised by director Huyck and one of the film’s editors, Billy Weber, the film has been newly color-corrected by Steven Peer, and the results are superb. The 1080p transfer preserves the film’s original Techniscope 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and looks fantastic while not letting us forget that this a low budget effort. The image has been cleaned up a great deal when compared with the previous DVD, and it’s now rich in detail with colors looking deep and vivid like never before. Like with the previous DVD release, the theatrical version's main theme song, “Hold on to Love” (an admittedly dreadful tune which had nothing to do with the original filmmakers’ intent and was tacked on by the distributor) has been removed by Huyck’s request. The mono DTS-HD audio fairs very well, with Phillan Bishop’s (THE SEVERED ARM, KISS OF THE TARANTULA) electronic score sounding as effectively eerie as ever, and dialogue coming through clearly.

All the extras from the DVD have been carried over here, all but a telephone interview conducted with Joy Bang. Huyck and Katz are on board for an excellent audio commentary, moderated by Lee Christian, who asks some very good questions. Such things revealed include that the film was shot over several months in 1971 (though not released theatrically until 1974), that a good number of the ghoul extras were unemployed aero space workers, and that the original intended ending isn’t in the final film since it couldn’t be edited properly. Huyck and Katz are back for “Remembering Messiah of Evil” (21:42), which also includes interviews with associate editors Billy Weber and Morgan Fischer (both had bit parts in the film) and director of photography Stephen M. Katz. All have interesting, individual stories about their time on the film and its enduring recognition. Two black and white short films from the 1960s are included: “The Bride Stripped Bare” directed by Katz and “Down These Mean Streets” directed by Huyck. Highly recommended. (George R. Reis)