Archive for the zombies Category

Revenant Review, Part 4: Shanks

Posted in films, zombies on September 16, 2013 by David N. Brown

“Old Walker could not make it to Celia’s birthday party, because Malcolm (out of mercy) had buried him several days before.”

Back from the dead in more ways than one, it’s time for the fourth installment in this feature, and I’m pleased to present the Great White Whale of unfindable zombie films. Back in the 1970s, the infamous B-movie master William Castle, whose long history of gimmicks included wiring theater seats to deliver electric shocks, thought it would be a good idea to make a horror movie starring the world-famous mime Marcel Marceau as the protagonist Malcolm Shanks. The result was a 1974 film titled Shanks, and it achieved a legendary status, with partisan reviewers either praising it as an avant garde work of psychedelic genius or panning it as, well, an avant garde work of psychedelic genius. Peter Dendle’s masochistically comprehensive Zombie Movie Encyclopedia calls it “a dark vision… of how perverse innocence, left to its devices, really is.” A frequently-quoted review by Hal Erickson describes it as “not so much a movie as a hallucinatory experience.” The film’s reputation was probably helped more than hindered by the fact that THIRTY-NINE YEARS went by before its FIRST authorized video release. Armed with a copy of the authorized release that I received and viewed this weekend, I am prepared to wade into the fray.

The first thing I will say is that the authorized edition from Olive Films, is of excellent quality. Every scene is of very sharp quality. I mention this because more than one prior review made prominent mention of problems with image quality, particularly in the final scenes, due either to poor-quality bootlegs or poor lighting and camera work in the making of the films itself. The quality is, indeed, high enough almost to bely the film’s reputation. Apart from a few cuts to silent-film-style sepia, the film is marked by sharply-focused, even camera work, which offers a striking contrast both to the atmospheric blurs and shadows of established horror-film tradition and the jerky, choppy techniques that came into full flower in the 1970s. Even the finale is well-lit and shot almost to a fault (which I must regard as evidence of truly atrocious quality in prior bootleg copies). The workman-like photography serves to reinforce a decidedly un-psychedelic backdrop, where ’60s-’70s artifacts abound without a lava lamp or tie-dyed shirt in sight.

Then there is the story. Um. What is there to say about a story that centers on using human corpses as puppets? Shanks, a “deaf-mute” puppeteer picked on by his stepsister and her drunken husband, learns the secret from the scientist Walker (also played by Marceau), who demonstrates with dead animals in his castle/ lab. When Walker dies of natural causes, Shanks tries out his invention on his corpse. When the in-law and stepsister start asking questions, Shanks gets rid of them with an undead chicken and a GTO “Judge”, then uses their bodies for a show to entertain a teenish admirerer named Celia. His jailbait interest is alarmed on discovering Shanks’ secret, but soon accepts an invitation to the old castle. Shanks and Celia celebrate her birthday in Victorian dress, served and entertained by the in-laws, until a biker gang crashes the party. Stylized savagery ensues, culminating in a notorious scene in sepia of Shanks dancing with Celia before a jarring cut to a cop-out ending.

Shanks astonishes and apalls on amny levels. The horror/ zombie elements are usually passed over in commentary, yet the grue factor is fairly impressive: Walker looks none too fresh, especially after Shanks summons him back for revenge, and a sequence in which a pickled frog is reanimated is genuinely ghastly. The infamous chicken attack, on the other hand, is in my opinion a dud. The intended highlight, Shanks’ “shows” (carried our by two accomplished colleagues of Marceau), are about as problematic as they are unsettling. It is hard to watch without wondering first and foremost if we are actually expected to laugh. (I will admit to being amused by the deceased drunk pulling bottle after bottle off the shelf of a store, which presents a possible subtext of the “puppets” retaining its former personality.)

Finally, we are left with the matter of subtext. The corpse-puppets clearly represent one of the most overtly materialistic representations of the corporeal revenant, and can easily be regarded as further social commentary, but the film offers little to hang such an allegory on. Efforts to inject imagery of good and evil through recurring play cards (source of the opening quote) are, if not strictly ironic, then entirely unconvincing. Shanks is entirely too cunning to make a convincing “innocent”, and it is even more striking that the “evil” bikers come far closer to showing normal human emotional responses than he or Celia ever do. Ultimately, it is all too easy to regard the dynamic of Shanks and the puppets as a statement about the audience: That we, like too-wide-eyed Celia, are entirely at the mercy of the film’s weird and amoral vision.


Revenant Review Part 3: 7th Voyage of Sinbad/ Jason And The Argonauts/ Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger

Posted in films, Mythology, zombies with tags on July 15, 2013 by David N. Brown


I’m back after a busy couple weeks working on “XX Exotroopers”, which I plan to mine for a few “Demo Days” shortly.  But first, I’m going to do another tribute to the late, great Ray Harryhausen, and in the process write a little about the inspiration for a major element of my current project.  The creations of Ray Harryhausen were very diverse, and I am sure any gathering of fans could argue all day and all night about which ones were best.  I personally am especially fond of the occasional sympathetic or at least unaggressive creatures, like the charming Eohippus in Valley of Gwangi and Prince Kassim, the previously-mentioned prince transformed into a baboon in Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger.  But there can be no doubt that Harryhausen’s most enduring and famous creations are his walking skeletons, best known from Jason and the Argonauts but also featured previously in 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and the subsequent Eye Of The Tiger.  A selection of these creations are featured with Harryhausen himself in the unusual photo above.  (Source TechDigest.)

Harryhausen’s skeletons debuted with a single specimen reanimated by the sorcerer Sokurah to kill the title character.  While many consider 7th Voyage to be among Harryhausen’s best work, I have never been enamored with it:  Strong performances by Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and Thorin Thatcher as the villain are among its redeeming features, but the film is weighed down by an egregiously annoying genie and a storyline that is disorganized and episodic even by Harryhausen standards.  The appearance of the distinctly sinister, beetle-browed skeleton is the strongest sequence of the film.  In the documentary the Harryhausen Chronicles, Harryhausen displayed the original model, and recounted making it entirely out of hard material with joints corresponding to those of an actual skeleton, rather than from rubber over an armature.  As a result, the model remained in strikingly pristine condition, where the vast majority of his and other vintage stop-motion models were notorious for decaying relatively quickly down to bare metal.

Per Harryhausen, the same model used in 7th Voyage was among those used in the final battle in Jason And The Argonauts.  This sequence is justifiably Harryhausen’s most renowned, and I would not hesitate to endorse it as among Harryhausen’s best animation, but in my opinion, it was in many ways too much of a good thing, with the action crossing the line from complex to chaotically muddled.  In the course of the “Chronicles” interview, Harryhausen made the intriguing remark that the walking skeletons offered a sanitary alternative to the source mythology, in which the revenant warriors are intact enough to be gruesome.  His passing remark is intriguing in the context of the evolution of the movie zombie, as it was indeed a very long time before even “hard core” horror movies began showing graphically decomposed undead.

Audiences would receive one more treatment of Harryhausen’s walking skeletons in an early sequence of Eye Of The Tiger.  Harryhausen recounted disappointment with this scene, but in my opinion, it is in many respects, an improvement on his previous efforts.  The three “ghouls” against Sinbad make for tighter and more focused action (surely in chronically short supply throughout Harryhausen’s career), and their initial appearance in a tent lit only by firelight is impressively atmospheric.  One can also see glimpses of grue that might have been in the ghouls’ mummy-like bodies, which to me give an extra touch of realism.  I can’t help wondering if the infamous insectoid heads of the ghouls were in no small part a means of backing away from a (literally) fleshed-out corporeal revenant.

In closing, honorable mention is in order for two other appearances of the skeleton in Harryhausen’s work.  I was reminded in the course of writing this article that a walking skeleton is featured very briefly in First Men In The Moon, when the Selenites use their technology to view the insides of their human captives.  Then there is one of the most intriguing of Harryhausen’s (very!) many unmade projects, titled “Skin and Bone”.  This proposed film, based on a 1930’s novel, would have featured a hero who sometimes becomes invisible except for his skeleton.  The storyline would presumably have made the animated skeleton a sympathetic character, and focused on misadventures in domestic settings.  The possibilities of table etiquette alone are certainly impressive!

Revenant Review Part 2: Shock Waves

Posted in films, zombies with tags , on May 1, 2013 by David N. Brown


It was my hope this April to commemorate the anniversary of the fall of the Third Reich with a few posts related to the Third Reich, including backstory material for the exotroopers “Space Nazis” adventure.  Unfortunately, the spare time I hoped to have for it ended up being occupied mainly with the last round of revisions necessary to make my master’s project report satisfy the arcane and arbitrary whims of Turabian formatting.  I decided the best thing to do would be to carve out some time to do the long-overdue second installment of this feature on a fairly infamous film titled Shock Waves, noted (if at all) as the first occurrence of the “Nazi zombies” meme.  It has been a direct influence on me as the immediate inspiration for the above-mentioned “Space Nazis” episode, otherwise notable as the only occasion where i) the decisive consideration in writing out a story was that I could use it as setup for an unused gag idea and ii) where I “invented” a phrase that turned out not only to be in use but to have its own wikipedia page.  Even before I thought of the outer space angle, I was attracted to the idea of an adventure based on Shock Waves, and before I developed and settled on my own concept, I very seriously considered flat-out copying the undead stormtroopers of this very weird film.

The film opens in media res with a lone woman being rescued at sea.  Then we go back to find her at sea with a party of dumb tourists on a cruise captained by John Carradine, who is the first to go after they pass a mysterious ship wreck.  When the rest of the party goes ashore, they find the hideout of a Nazi, played by Peter Cushing.  Their host reveals that he was the commandant of a force of undead commandos the Reich retired by sinking the ship.  Naturally, his old troops soon pay the house a visit.  After rising from the water in perfect formation, they systematically hunt down and eliminate the tourists who don’t bump themselves off first.

I first watched this movie on a used VHS tape in 2004 or so, soon after first hearing of it from Peter Dendle’s Zombie Movie Encyclopedia.  I was unimpressed enough that I promptly traded back the tape.  After giving it another shot through n*tfl*x, I have some regrets about that, but my feelings about this film are still very, very mixed.  Of the billed “talent”, B-movie legends John Carradine and Peter Cushing, Carradine (whom I only recall seeing in this film) is utterly wasted even before being, well, wasted, while Cushing supplies the best scene or so in the film only to be promptly and anticlimactically taken out.  (His all-too-brief appearances also make this a striking case where the backstory is far more interesting than the proceedings at hand.) That leaves the viewers with the better part of an hour to watch the no-names who make up the  rest of the cast get themselves killed.  In fairness, even the no-name performances can probably be considered at least fair, for the film’s caliber and period; on the other hand, the likability and intelligence of their characters is far below par even for the horror genre.  The story at least plays this into a vividly harsh streak:  The survivors repeatedly end up in as much danger from themselves and each other as the stormtroopers, and one manages to  get himself killed in an accident involving a sea urchin while one of the Nazis appears to do nothing but watch in contempt.

That brings us to the film’s most redeeming feature, the underwater Nazi zombies.  The stormtroopers prove to be a little worse for wear (looking a little rotten, or perhaps chewed) but well-preserved and still in uniform, with goggles whose function is never explained despite being a significant story point. They are played with no more distinction than any of the characters, though there are enough differences in their appearance to give some sense of individuality.  But what they do provide is an impressive sense of cold menace and especially of calculated and coordinated action.  The scenes in which they rise from the water, particularly en masse, make the film truly unforgettable, though one might well wish otherwise.  Of course, what one would wish for most is that these hypnotically menacing revenants had been used in a better movie, or at least one with more of Peter Cushing.  Still, what there is is more than enough to make the film worth watching.


RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 2: The Winnebedsel

Posted in Cars, zombies on April 17, 2013 by David N. Brown

As a second installment of this series, here’s another entry on the vein of car conversions: the one and only Edsel motorhome.

This vehicle came to the attention of RV enthusiasts through an ebay listing in 2011 and an amazing site called “Weird RVs”, source for the link and image above.  A post at Autoblog offers a gallery of pictures of this surreal creation, including a few interior shots.  I incorporated it into my “Zombie Vegas” series, giving it the name Winnebedsel, and featured it on the original “cover” of Volume 4 in the ebook version of the series.  I retired the image for continuity with other volumes as well as copyright concerns raised by others, but the retired cover has been restored in the Barnes and Nobel edition.

Naturally, the Edsel saga is a matter of very longstanding interest to me.  Most discussions tend to sharply divide into two camps, apologists who characterize the Edsel as an at least reasonably sound vehicle that simply failed to capture a changing market and critics who characterize it as a true lemon.  Personally, I think it’s fair to say that the Edsel was a mediocre car at best, but no more so than any number of cars of its time.  By almost all accounts, the main factors in its lasting infamy was Ford’s own marketing campaign, which in hindsight might as well have been a controlled experiment to test the hypothesis that there IS such a thing as bad publicity, and genuine problems with experimental features and overall quality control, undoubtedly compounded by the mind-boggling practice of sending cars to dealers with parts still awaiting installation.  I believe one shouldn’t underestimate the role of the infamous “toilet seat” grill, which if nothing else ensured that the Edsel would be immediately recognizable.

As a bonus, here’s some Edsel lore I unearthed recently.  First, here’s a web page with what is reported to be a 1953 concept sketch for the Edsel.  The sketch (assuming authenticity) offers confirmation of accounts that the vertical grill was originally meant to be far less obtrusive, though it would appear that the aesthetics were problematic enough before being enlarged into the iconic “toilet seat” of the original 1958 model.  The vertical grill was subsequently shrunk on the 1959 models, and retired in the final 1960 model year.  The later model years also saw the retirement of the notorious “Teletouch” push-button transmission.  Second, I discovered information on a line of Edsel ambulances, or “amblewagons”, which I couldn’t resist working into “Re-Deanimator”. It appears that the Edsel was one of a number of cars used by a company that converted station wagons into ambulances, naturally begging the question what emergency could be worse than riding in an Edsel.  Even more ironically, similar specialized Edsels were used as hearses, and provisions appear to have been made for converting an ambulance into a hearse.  Here’s my favorite picture from the “amblewagon” page.

1958 Corsair Ambulance


One-Shot Week Part 7: Re-Deanimator! Meg and Greg

Posted in Cars, Disabilities, films, one-shot, zombies with tags , , , , , , on March 15, 2013 by David N. Brown

As a bonus for today, here’s another chapter from my “Re-Deanimator” project.  This was my real starting point for the project, and the raw elements were an “alternate history” homage to classic zombie movies, an atmosphere of domestic dysfunction and a single tableau.  I used subtle details to establish a “nineteen-eighty-something” frame of reference, and build up a backstory as I went along.  The part that definitely got a response out of people was actually the least-planned aspect of the scene.  As I commented privately after receiving feedback, I put it in where I did because, by the time I got there, it was what clearly fit these people.  It was also my intent even then to leave  a little ambiguity, which I think is an important aspect of the real issue.  I put up this scene in quite a few places, including a blog that is one of several  created (as was a consideration with this one) expressly to be seen in place of very bad stuff being circulated by a very bad person whom I regard as very much a real life counterpart to the kudlaks.


Meghan lived in the suburbs of a modest city in the desert. Her friends called her Meg, and she lived with Greg. She rose from the couch in the morning, as she had for the last five mornings, and confirmed that the light switch still did not work. She emerged from the den into the living room and went to the kitchen, where she discovered that the faucet did not work either. That was new. She went upstairs, past the photo of Greg, Greg at the office party, Greg at the wheel of his new Audi Quatro, Greg shooting his .454 magnum, and Greg with his big muscular arm thrown lazily around her neck, almost eclipsing her almost-new Chevette behind them.
Meg rapped on Greg’s bedroom door. “Greg,” she called out, “the water’s out.” She opened it. Greg was gone. She glanced at the dresser, and confirmed that the keys to the Audi were there. She stepped back into the hall, and saw that the door to the bathroom was closed. “Greg, I said, the water’s out.” She turned the knob; the door was latched. That was when she heard the thumping.
It was strikingly regular, one thump, a pause, and another thump, repeated, over and over. Meg pressed her ear to the door, and listened. Now, she could hear an unmistakeable swishing between thumps, and a hint of momentary scuffling: “Thump- swish- scuff- swish- thump…” She thought of a pendulum, and at that very moment, she heard the creaking, a sound just like some metal fixture, bending under considerable weight. “Greg,” she said flatly, closing her eyes and pressing her forehead against the door.
Meg’s eyes opened at a change in the rhythm of the sounds: “Thump- swiishh– thump- swishthump– swish- rrriiiiippp…” She lurched back at the crash and jingle of the shower curtains being torn down. The creaking grew louder, and then there was a tearing screech exactly like the shower head being wrenched right out of the wall and a crash exactly like a body falling into the tub. For a moment, she stood completely still. Then she backed up to the bedroom.
She found the magnum and two boxes of ammunition, exactly where she knew they would be. She scooped them all into her old overnight bag, shoved out of sight in the closet. On a whim, she grabbed the key to the Audi. She was gathering things in the den when she heard another crash. She scurried back into the living room and looked up the stairs.
The bathroom door had been knocked open with single blow, forceful enough to splinter the wood and lodge the knob in the plaster. At the top of the stairs stood Greg, in his business suit, with the shower head hanging from Meg’s nylons around his neck. His face was almost black, and his head lolled like a badly stuffed scarecrow’s. Yet, his gaze seemed to turn directly toward Meg, and with strides as stiff and even as a windup tow, he began to descend the stairs. She drew the magnum as she backed up to the door, and took aim, no doubt badly, at Greg’s face as she reached the bottom. She held her aim, as best she could with a gun whose weight alone was enough to strain her wrist, while Greg turned ponderously toward her. He stood there, seeming to stare, with his head lifted just a little higher and straighter. Finally, Meg put the gun back in the bag. “Okay,” she said, “you can keep the Audi.” She cast the keys at his feet, and as she made her exit, she saw him bend over to pick them up.
Meg had to cover some distance to reach the carport where the Chevette was parked, past two cul de sacs of identical two-story, two-unit townhomes and through a little park. On the way, she saw three wrecked cars and a dozen shuffling figures, one of which definitely turned in her direction before she went around a corner and out of sight. She used a shortcut that required vaulting over a low wall and dropping another foot to the asphalt. The only car in sight besides her little reddish-orange hatchback was a station wagon with a crumpled, blood-stained hood and the driver’s-side door torn halfway off its hinges. No bodies were in sight.
Meg dropped her keys trying to unlock her car, at the unset of sudden shakes. Her hands steadied as she put the key in the ignition, but began to tremble worse as she turned the key again, and again, and again. The first time, nothing happened. The second produced an abortive rattle. At the third try, the engine gave an apologetic cough before falling silent. Meg’s hands were shaking hard enough to make the key rattle in the ignition as she turned it yet again. The engine rumbled to life but then died with a protracted wheezing. She looked out the window, at the station wagon, The window frame of the door was bent. Her hand went still. She turned the key, and kept her hand on the ignition as the engine started, began to cough, and then worked back up to a steady rumble.
Meg made a tight U-turn in reverse, scraping the station wagon in the process and bumping into a support beam. Then she accelerated, approaching top (though still modest) speed as she peeled out of the parking lot and around a corner onto the street. She swerved to avoid a shuffling figure, only a child, but there was no taking chances with such a small car. As the car rounded another corner, the child turned belatedly and reached out for where the car had been. Its head lifted, as if staring, but any observer who met its eyes would have seen clouded lenses in no shape to see much of anything.
The Chevette was closing on 80 miles per hour as it roared toward the gates of the townhome complex. It braked and finally swerved for Greg, who stood in the middle. The showerhead was gone, but the torn nylons were still around his neck. His darkened face had lightened to a reddish purple, enough to make his features readily discernible. As Meg gazed out, her hands began to shake. It seemed to her that what she saw was indeed the Greg she knew. It occurred to her that his expression, especially, was the same he had worn on the night she made a discrete trip to the emergency room. As Greg reached for the door handle, the window went down, and a perfectly level gun barrel slid out. “Selfish ass,” Meg said. She had no awareness of firing the gun. She only felt the wrenching ache of recoil, and saw Greg drop with a half-inch red spot on his forehead and a substantial hole in the back of his scalp. As he struck the asphalt, the keys to the Audi tumbled from his hand.
After a moment’s pause, Meg opened the door and scooped up the keys.
David N. Brown

Mesa Arizona

One-Shot Week, Part 1: Re-Deanimator! Prologue

Posted in films, Mythology, one-shot, zombies with tags , , , , , , on March 11, 2013 by David N. Brown

I’ve let this go for a while again, and in the meantime I have been kicking around an idea for something new.  For the next week, I will be making one post a day of material from my fiction.  To start with, here’s an unused vignette from a new project, intended as a “reboot” of my Walking Dead mini-franchise.  The rest of what I have so far is available as the story “Meg and Greg”, featured on the fan fiction page for the “Walking Dead” TV show.  This scene was to introduce a character dubbed “Indian Joe”.  He’s modeled after a real individual I have heard of, who previously was the inspiration for Carlos Wrzniewski’s companion Old Adoni.  I was able to give him a good entrance in a subsequent chapter, but this is a nice vignette I think deserves to be seen somewhere.

The scene could be timeless. It is the desert, in the twilight just after dusk. Stretching in every direction is a blanket of sparse, thorny underbrush, broken by the occasional cactus. In the midst of it is a clearing, and in the clearing, a village. There are only ten buildings: Nine mound-like hogans, made only from wood and earth, eerily well-preserved, and a tin-roofed shack, utterly decrepit. A vintage Willys jeep next to the shack would spoil the scene, if the jeep were not in only marginally better condition than the shack.

Eight of the hogans are clearly in long disuse, their wooden door frames boarded up and partially buried. The people who built them and those who know their ways will know the reason: Each house has been the scene of at least one death, and been reckoned accursed. But one door is unobstructed. A crude effigy with an oversized head or mask, decorated with feathers and somber geometric patterns of somber black and white is perched upon the lintel. Through the open door comes the glow of firelight- that, and the tinny strains of “Yes, We Have No Bananas”.

The music stops with a contralto snarl. There is muttering, and the winding of a crank, and the music resumes. The song ends, and another begins. But then it is cut off with the audible lifting of the needle. The glow of the fire is briefly obscured, and then is hastily put out.

There is a rustle, a scrape, and then a crash of splintering wood and a patter of cascading earth. In the midst of the hogans, just visible by the light of the rising crescent moon, a figure like a man rises from the earth. Yet, even in silhouette, it is but an effigy, even more imperfect than the idol at the hogan. For, though it has the size and shape of a man, it does not move like a man. The feet do not rise in strides, but drag in a strangely rhythmic shuffle, resembling nothing so much as a penguin. The shoulders slump limply, and the head lolls and droops utterly unnaturally. And when the Jeep’s headlamps suddenly shines directly in the figure’s face, the effigy does not avert or cover its eyes, but only turns vaguely toward the jeep.

A gruff voice calls out. The speaker calls out again, then again, again and again, going through the major dialects of Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Apache. The figure shuffles toward the Jeep, while the speaker gets to Spanish: “Su es muerte! Vaya con los muertos!” A limp arm suddenly raises as stiffly as a tree branch, groping at the hood. The Jeep’s lights flicker. At last, the speaker says: “You dead! You belong dead!” Fingers touch the windshield, just before the effigy gets an arrow through the eye.

It staggers back in three long lurches, still oddly measured, and drops like a puppet with its strings cut. Moments pass, then minutes, before the effigy begins to rise, its motion all the more like a marionette on invisible strings. Its lolling head tilts toward an orange ember in the darkness. “You dead,” a voice says firmly. “You belong dead.” Then a flaming arrow shoots into its midriff, and the effigy ignites like a water balloon filled with kerosene.

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona

The Revenant Review Part 1: Sole Survivor

Posted in films, zombies with tags , , , , on October 30, 2012 by David N. Brown

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!

See also

Sole Survivor.” B-notes.

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona