Once again, I’m back after some time away (well-spent finishing the “clown project” as Coulrophobia), and I’m introducing another feature that could go on for a long time. Before the Exotroopers got their own adventures, they were featured in Worlds of Naughtenny Moore and especially Walking Dead. The latter project marked the beginning of my interest in the Balkans and my full-blown evolution into a scholar of zombie movies. Back in 2003 or so, the zombie genre was a different and altogether cozier place: The Walking Dead comics were just cresting the horizon, and the first Resident Evil was just behind us, but mostly, fandom was about old stuff (I mean old then… and man I feel old): Night of the Living Dead was “canon”, and George Romero was the prophet; Return of the Living Dead and Re-Animator were “new wave”; Evil Dead got respectful attention; and what remained for the true scholar-fan was mostly a vast and motley array of obscure This feature will be about those movies, and I will start with my pick for one of the very best, and (at least when I started looking) the most horrendously hard to find, an early ’80s oddity titled Sole Survivor.
I suppose, at this late date, I don’t need to say much about the story: Denise (Anita Skinner) miraculously survives a plane crash (without even getting her clothes messed up!) Afterward, however, she begins to see strange people who watch her, follow her, and precipitate several accidents. Soon, the strangers’ activities escalate into stalking and assault- and investigators discover that the “suspects” are all recently deceased. Denise worries that she was not “meant” to survive, and some cosmic force is sending the revenants to correct the mistake. Her doctor and new boyfriend (Kurt Johnson, who eerily resembles James Francis Daley of “Bones”) is concerned that she has “survivor’s syndrome”. And a coroner who absolutely steals the second half of the movie keeps wondering why bodies keep arriving in his morgue with blood pooled in their feet… as if they died standing up. The director Thom Eberhardt went on to “cult” status with Night of the Comet and a handful of quickly-forgotten films thereafter (though I remember seeing and liking the comedy Without A Clue in the early ’90s), while most of the cast simply dropped out of sight. (Cameos were made by Leon Robinson aka Leon, who went on to such roles as a black guy who dies in Cliffhanger, and Brinke Stevens, who was already making a name for herself as expendable horror-movie eye candy; amazingly- SPOILER- neither die in this film!) After Final Destination came out, those who knew of Sole Survivor began making comparisons and some litigious rumblings. On the other hand, suspicions have been voiced that Sole Survivor is itself based on a novel called The Survivor by James Herbert,in addition to a clear debt to the film Carnival of Souls.
The most interesting thing about the film is the quite unique conception of the revenants. By the early 1980s, an explicit role of a supernatural force was unusual in a zombie movie: By comparison, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had simply treated the rising of the dead as unexplained (effectively recanting elements of Night), while Re-Animator and Return of the Living Dead would set a prevailing trend of scientific/ pseudo-scientific “explanations”. On the other hand, unlike Evil Dead, the film does not fall back on an actual or invented religious or magical system for context, leaving the cosmic forces behind the revenants unnamed, unknown and inscrutable even in supernaturalistic terms.
Even more striking is the look of the undead. By now, I suppose, people are used to seeing zombies with visible decay and gore. (I think of it as the “EC” style, after the infamous comics.) But Romero made Night with the vast majority of the undead looking more or less like ordinary people, and many if not most zombie films continued to follow that example long after modern make-up and effects (not to mention just plain decent budgets) became available. Sole Survivor in particular takes this “old-school”, low-tech approach to the reductio ad absurdum. By the time Romero got to Dawn, he was giving the zombies blue skin that set them apart from ordinary people. But in Sole Survivor, the revenants just look a little pale, and it is in large part for that reason that I consider them the most unnerving specimens I have seen on screen.
Then there are the little things. In two scenes (in my opinion the only ones that really warrant close comparison with FD), the undead are assisted by malfunctioning machinery, suggesting a wider cosmic force at work, though the idea is never developed well. (Probably just as well, as it ultimately begs the question what a squad of reanimated corpse can do that one wayward automobile couldn’t do better.) More attention is given to an evident tendency for the revenants, on performing their mission, to return to wherever they expired, which makes them seem downright tidy (and after all, aren’t they supposed to be a “clean-up” crew for the cosmos?). Then again, when they really get down to the business of doing their dirty work, there’s nothing tidy about it. It’s especially noteworthy that they show no qualms about taking lives beyond their intended victim. They don’t look reluctant about it, either, attacking brutally and with no more than minor provocation, and at times with subtly savage facial expressions. By the time the unforgettable denouement rolls around, the Reapo Men have already racked up an extra body or so. One might criticize this as being inconsistent with the premise of a balancing cosmic force. But I think there’s a valid and interesting idea here, of a Cosmic Force that would prefer “collateral damage” over letting even one person get away.
In 2008, Sole Survivor finally became reasonably accessible through a DVD release by Code Red. (Judging from the size of the trade credit being offered by Amazon to anyone willing to give a copy away, the supply must be getting pretty scarce again). The disc included interviews with producers Caryn Larkey and Sal Romeo (the former of whom costarred as Carla), and brought to light an intriguing backstory: Per the interviews, a distributor obtained the film rights after the director delivered what was to be a final cut (Larkey recounts that a complete print was carried around for showings to prospective distributors), and then turned around and did a “re-edit” that left the film several minutes shorter and the director and producers very unhappy. Unfortunately, neither Larkey nor Romeo was able to give a clear account of just what was removed. (They most specifically mention the removal of “humor” elements, which makes me inclined to give the re-edit crew the benefit of a doubt!)
We just might have some insight on this mystery from the original trailer for the film, which clearly includes a substantial amount of material never seen in the film. The most prominent components are shots of the arm and face of a drippy but altogether generic ghoul, which pretty well fit what would be expected if IFM had shot some original footage just to make the film look like a conventional, commercial exploitation-type horror film. However, another “death’s head” shot (looking strikingly like the Terminator!) was clearly shot separately, and appears to be the same as a face seen briefly on a radar screen during the film (and also used on the film’s posters), but with a longer, more detailed and noticeably dynamic shot. I am satisfied that this much, at least, represents material cut during the re-edit: Possibly, it was simply a longer version of the shot of the radar screen, or perhaps Eberhardt originally filmed at least one additional appearance of the iconic face. If so, then we may have a clue to something that could have made a difference: Where the “Cosmic Force” in the released film is represented almost exclusively through its agents, the original cut could have made it a more direct presence through additional appearances of the death’s head, and perhaps the “ghoul” as well.
Then there is another element of the trailer I rind especially intriguing: the opening seconds of a swirling star field which starts to coalesce into something like a face. I think it is possible, even likely, that the star field animation originally became a “death’s head”. Furthermore, the quality strikes me as high enough that it could have been originally intended for the theatrical release. I see an especially intriguing possibility: The most jarring aspect of the film is the immediate appearance of the title, in quite plain text over a simple shot of a nighttime city street. It would make sense if, at some point, it was planned to have this preceded by the star field, a death’s head, or both.
Who knows? If someone ever finds a copy of that traveling print, we might find out!
David N. Brown