Blue Underground // 1981 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // February 4th, 2009
It will take your breath away. All of it.
Cult horror flick Dead & Buried gets the upgraded Blu-ray treatment, slightly improving on an already impressive release by Blue Underground on standard DVD. Is this version worth the upgrade?
All is not well in the small coastal town of Potter's Bluff. Tourists and passersby have been mysteriously vanishing from the picturesque town unexpectedly and with great violence, then popping up days later, alive and well and members of the community. Only Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino, The Final Countdown) seems to sense something is amiss. Determined to unravel the mystery, Gillis, along with the town mortician (Jack Albertson, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), begins looking into the dark corners of his perfect town, only to find darkness and decay wherever he looks. Also, zombies.
Many people haven't heard of Dead & Buried, and there's a perfectly good reason for it: there's not much worth talking about. Oh sure, it's an archetypal example of early 1980s horror films, full of creepy thrills, ambient music, character actors that would go on to populate all kinds of horror films in years to come, and clichés of every kind, but these attributes apply to a lot of films from this time period. Dead & Buried isn't bad, but an ambassador of horror it ain't.
It's a nifty idea having a town full of zombies slowly converting tourists and passersby into joining their undead ranks, but it gets executed crudely, stretching even the more incredulous of logical fallacies to their breaking point. We follow poor hapless Sheriff Dan about as he tries to wrap his head around the fact that everyone in the town except him is the living undead, and it takes him way too long to come to it. Even when characters basically start taking pieces of their faces off, jumping up and down and shouting, "I'm dead!" Dan still seems to fight it. As for the big twist ending, it's so foolish that you feel dumb for not seeing it coming. It doesn't twist so much as it wrenches the arm off at the shoulder.
It's not all bad. Sure, the acting is preposterously bad, the dialogue is stiff and clumsy, and the plot points laughable, but it's admirable in its own ways all the same. Atmospheric and eerie, Dead & Buried excels at cultivating the discontent of creepy small American towns, of ghostly winds, of moody musical scores, of creeping dread and sudden shadows leaping from dark corners. Sure, Winston and his bag of special effectery add some pleasant zombie-related gore, but there's no mass carnage, no brain eatings, no dismemberments here; this is about dread and creeping terror, about suspicion. The film gets its chills from the growing paranoia, of realizing exactly how dead everyone is.
Unfortunately, it's a short-lived kind of eeriness, because once the second act starts, the corniness sets in. All the awful things you would expect a horror film of this quality to do, it does -- the car crash at night, the victims running upstairs in the abandoned house instead of out the front door, cars conveniently not starting on cue when the zombies show up, etc. More improbably, stalking silence sequences of victims walking around nervously suddenly explode into a full-blown mob scene, with not one but fifty murderers literally appearing out of nowhere. A sneaky axe murderer hiding in a closet is one thing, but three dozen are going to be a bit tougher to hide effectively.
For those on the fence, the biggest selling points of the film are the early special effect work by guru Stan Winston (Aliens) but the key word here is "early." It's fun to look back on a film like this in retrospect, but even for Stan, the effects are a bit on the rough side. A few familiar faces, like Robert Englund in a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street horror role, dot the town landscape, and venerable actor Jack Albertson appears as an unusually creepy mortician (one of his last film credits before his death), but that's about it. Yes, there are zombies in Potter's Bluff, but it's hard to get too excited about it.
As eighties horror goes, Dead & Buried is merely average. The acting is ludicrously poor, but what would you expect from this kind of film? It's got some fun gore sequences, like when a dude gets two tubes shoved up his nose and then acid pored into his sinus cavities, or the strategic placement of a hypodermic needle by a nurse. I wouldn't consider it a classic of the genre myself, but there are some creeps to be had here. As for whether it's worth the upgrade to Blu-ray, that's another matter entirely.
On a film this sketchy looking to begin with, a high-definition transfer only makes the scratches, marks, and grain all the more apparent. No doubt this is as good as Dead & Buried is ever going to look, but I am still unconvinced of the benefits of taking old B-films and tossing them on Blu-ray -- the end results are often mixed. The 1080p presentation brings out every flaw in this film in perfect clarity, and grain is so prevalent throughout the film that it looks like a snowstorm in Potter's Bluff. Black levels struggle to achieve a solid level throughout the film, with tinted blues and browns and grays throughout. Nighttime sequences are a muddle of navy blues and grays so foggy and deep that it makes on-screen action difficult to detect. Full daylight sequences fare better, with a more naturalized color tone and sharper detail, but the grain never lets up.
Audio dishes out the goods with two lossless 7.1 presentations, both TrueHD and DTS-HD, and even the most trained audiophile would be hard pressed to tell a difference between them. Alas, the source material is a bit thin, and doesn't quite fill out the requisite high definition audio formats as well as one might hope. The dialogue stays nicely in the center channel, and environmental noises do hit the rear channels as expected, but the quality of the sound is thin and tinny by modern standards. Some sound queues are right on the money in terms of placement, while others feel completely random and artificial. Bass response is average throughout. For legacy systems, a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX presentation is also included, but it sounds almost exactly the same as the fancy versions. The score is ethereal and moody and perfectly complimentary to the dark tone of the film.
Extras are solid, although virtually identical to the standard DVD release. Three full-length audio commentaries are included, the first with director Gary A. Sherman, the second with co-writer/co-producer Ronald Shusett and actress Linda Turley, and the third with cinematographer Steve Poster. They're all dull as dishwater, but three commentary tracks is awfully impressive all the same. Every minutiae detail of production, pre and post, character development, and screenplay are dissected between the three tracks, so fans of the film will no doubt be in heaven. Three short featurettes (about twenty minutes each) are also included: "Stan Winston's 'Dead & Buried' EFX," about his visual trickery, "Robert Englund: An Early Work of Horror," with Englund chatting about his early days on Broadway and with Hollywood indie films, and "Dan O'Bannon: Crafting Fear," with the screenwriter chatting about his work. Toss in a theatrical trailer, and you're good to go.
If you're a fan of the film, there's nothing here worth an upgrade from the previous standard DVD release of Dead & Buried, which features a near-identical set of supplemental features and options. The audio gets a mild boost into modern-day Blu-ray standards, but the previous release rocked out with DTS ES and Dolby 5.1 EX, so it's hard to argue that there's a significant improvement.
Honestly, Blu-ray is wasted on films like this. A low-budget horror flick from the '80s is great on DVD, but the subtle nuances of high definition just get lost in the grain. It is as good of a presentation as one could hope from the film, but the rattiness of the source material makes it entirely superfluous. Save the cash, I say.
Undeniably creepy, Dead & Buried is atmospheric and moody, but underwritten by its own preposterousness. This Blu-ray version upgrades the presentation of this cult horror film, but only the most venerable of horror schock aficionados can justify the upgrade. Blue Underground's got no one to blame but themselves on that one...they made the DVD version too good.
A mediocre Blu-ray presentation of a B-grade horror film. This one is for diehards only.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 7.1 Surround (English)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer