Since the word ‘zombie’ was first applied to the resurrected cannibals birthed in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, his work has been copied and re-translated a dozen times over, and unsurprisingly, it’s the few resultant works with something new to share that leave audiences with the lasting impression of a great film. While Dead & Buried escaped mainstream success and barely enters the cult radar these days, it’s an extremely valuable and rewarding entry in the realm of undead thrillers.
Without giving too much away, a series of bizarre phenomena leave a small New England coastal town in turmoil, but no person is more affected than Sheriff Dan Gillis, who is already struggling with a marriage on the rocks; it seems that a fair amount of out-of-towners are suddenly turning up dead, and Gillis’ only real counsel comes from local mortician Mr. Dobbs, who pridefully executes his solemn duty. As the body count rises and the town’s residents seem to be acting more and more bizarrely, Gillis’ pursuit of answers is destined to lead him into some shaky moral ground and a few realizations that might be too much for him to handle.
Though Dan O’Bannon’s ‘contribution’ should have seen him idolized in horror film circles with movies such as Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Total Recall, and Heavy Metal already to his name, apparently his writing credit on Dead & Buried was simply to help writing partner Ronald Shusett get the ink. One could easily mistake it for O’Bannon’s work due to the inclusion of the undead. How zombies enter into the film is much of the fun, so as much as it pains me, I refuse to talk about it. Suffice it to say that it’s difficult to see coming at the start of the film, which comes across as a mix of killings in the vein of Peeping Tom and Eden Lake. Folks who have seen either or both will understand the reference immediately.
Naturally there are some pretty gory death scenes and almost any moment of tension is sure to pay off with a cathartic release, but in spite of this, Dead & Buried simply feels more like a thriller than a horror movie. Gillis’ treks through the fog-filled town late at night as a ship horn sounds every few seconds in the distance create tension from atmosphere as opposed to soundtrack or action, and the oppressive feeling of loneliness surrounding the main character in these moments is positively intoxicating. Anyone who thoroughly enjoyed the Silent Hill game series will immediately recognize this this type of immersion.
Dead & Buried is comprised mainly of unknown actors, so no single performance sticks out, but director Gary Sherman manages to imbue the proceedings with a communal aesthetic that perfectly suits the nature of the town’s inhabitants. It’s an odd comparison to make, but the relationship of the residents to their sheriff can best be described by the relationship Chief Brody would have with the denizens of Amity in Jaws if he, too, was originally from the island.
What really sets this film apart from its predecessors and successors in the genre is that it’s focused more heavily on plot than perhaps any other horror film I’ve seen. Married with the stylistic trappings of a thriller, Dead & Buried is nearly impossible to market to horror fans of any type. However, the deepening appreciation of dramatic elements in contemporary horror films, particularly where 28 Days Later and The Descent are concerned, and the growing prevalence of ‘middlebrow’ entertainment, best exemplified by Breaking Bad’s marriage of intellectual drama with outlandish plot developments, may be the appropriate atmosphere for the film to find its niche. It may not have the slam-dunk metaphors of Dawn of the Dead’s mall marauding zombies, but the plot still pays off big time.
Overall Dead & Buried feels a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and if it had been, it would have surely been its best remembered; it’s violent enough to attract fans of slasher films and plotted well enough that the adherents of suspense thrillers may come to appreciate it as well. Even if it can’t cross-pollinate, true cinephiles in search of an intriguing film they may have missed will be handsomely rewarded for their time.
I found out about this delightfully moody thriller thanks to the folks at Blue Underground, who saw fit to furnish it with a spectacular limited edition on DVD, but true cinephiles should feel an urge to pick up the blu-ray so they can experience the atmospheric chills in the best possible definition.