Cult Corner: Accepting the Inevitability of Death: Dead & Buried (1981)

Welcome to Potters Bluff!

Dead & Buried (1981) gained a lot of notoriety for being on the UK's so-called "Video Nasties" banned list, and with its copious amount of gore, one might think that it's just another lurid exploitation piece. However, this film is a meditation on the fear of death, as well as a subversive deconstruction of the zombie mythos, which was just getting into full swing in the late '70s and early '80s.

The film begins with a horrible murder in the sleepy and often mist-covered coastal town of Potters Bluff. Dan Gillis (James Farentino), the local sheriff begins an investigation into the brutal slaying, but just when he starts to find clues more and more keep happening. Why are these people being murdered? Is there some sort of mass hysteria going on in Potters Bluff? The answers to these questions end up being incredibly surreal and downright unsettling. Each clue that Gillis uncovers only deepens the mystery and each subsequent murder becomes more grotesque in nature. To make matters worse, the victims seem to come back to life as new citizens of the hazy town, with no memories of their former lives.

Potters Bluff is an intriguing locale for a horror film as it is simultaneously home to a classic Americana aesthetic yet something seems off with every single inhabitant. Imagine a slightly askew Norman Rockwell and you won't be too far off. It feels like a particularly grisly episode of The Twilight Zone. Gillis ends up working with a coroner-mortician named William Dobbs (Jack Albertson) who seems to be a little too into the finer pleasures of reconstructing the dead bodies of his...clientele. Dobbs is amusingly idiosyncratic with his high powered glasses magnifying his inquisitive eyes into bug-like orbs. Not to mention it's a pretty fun to watch Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka (1971) pontificate affectionately about mutilated corpses. 

Throughout the film, there is an underlying subtext about the finality of death, with characters often talking about how there is a difference between being killed and actually being dead. In this town, death is only a temporary setback, and one can come back even though it might not be of their own will. The third act in particular explores the idea of lack of agency and the absolute terror that encompasses someone once they discover that they are not in control of their actions. It seems like this film might be a critique of organized religion and cultism, where people are being controlled by a "higher power" and interestingly, Dead & Buried is never specific on where this power actually comes from. There is a tendency for individuals to think that they are invincible and that bad things like accidents and murders only happen to other people, but in this film nobody can escape death.

The effects in this film were done by Stan Winston and they are absolutely fantastic and effective. The amount of gore in this film occupies a strange space where it might be a tad too intense for the more subtle nature of the story, but it never feels gratuitous at any point. Those with an aversion to things getting stabbed into eyeballs might want to pass though. Composer Joe Renzetti scores the film with a delicate and mournful piano piece that acts as a recurring theme. This film is draped in dread not unlike the dense fog that permeates many of the night scenes.

Dead & Buried is an excellent and creative film that takes familiar tropes and spins them into thoughtful social commentary. 

--Michelle Kisner