Dead & Buried (1981)

Dead & Buried first published by Movie Gazette

It may be dead quiet, pretty as a postcard, and hospitable to strangers, but there is something rotten in the small coastal village of Potter’s Bluff, whose locals, while always polite and friendly, have a nasty habit of disfiguring and murdering visitors, and capturing all the gory details on camera. Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) begins to suspect that village life is not all that it seems as he investigates a supposed car accident in which the victim has been horrifically burned. As Gillis, with the help of the eccentric old coroner/mortician William G. Dobbs (Jack Albertson), tries to find out why his own wife Janet (Melody Anderson) had previously visited the victim’s hotel room, why more bodies are turning up in the village (and then going missing), and why people recently killed are still being seen going about their business, he unearths a terrible secret in Potter’s Bluff which might better have been left buried.

Even as Gillis gropes about in the fog for answers, viewers are always ahead of the game, thanks to a bravura opening scene (and several subsequent ones) which make it clear not only that the deaths in Potter’s Bluff are no accident, but also who some (at least) of the killers are. Yet while Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried – written by Ronald Shusett with contributions from Alien‘s Dan O’Bannon – may be more a whydunnit than a whodunnit, few red herrings seem to find their way into this fishing community, so that even half-attentive viewers will have a pretty good idea where things are headed, perhaps apart from the final, brilliant twist. It is easy to imagine, as you watch Dead & Buried, ways in which its events could have been re-ordered to avoid so much being given away so soon (the murders, which are all seen again at the end, need never have been shown at the beginning) – and the film’s potted history of pre-production script revisions and post-production recuts suggests that the original conception may have been rather different from the film that eventually hit the screens, with less graphic violence from the start and therefore more mystery and surprise.

Still, it is difficult not to be fond of this film – in part for its rich atmosphere and smalltown paranoia à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in part for Stan Winston’s startling gore and make-up effects, in part for its black humour and the strange homeliness of the killers, but mostly for the extraordinary performance of Jack Albertson as the old-fashioned mortician determined to work his fingers to the bone – rendered all the more poignant by the fact that the actor was actually dying during production, in what was to be his final rôle before he succumbed to disease. Yet there he is, walking and talking before our very eyes – because cameras, you see, can preserve the dead as well as any embalming process, and guarantee a life (of sorts) beyond the grave.

Strap: Darkly funny horror about a town that cannot keep its secrets buried.

© Anton Bitel