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  • nickkarner

The Video Dead (1987)

It was 1987. As writer/producer/director Robert Scott toiled away for over a year on his passion project, The Video Dead, the walls were closing in on The Cannon Group. Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus’ “legendary” production company was having a particularly bad year. Along with the bajillion other films Cannon made that year, they were suffering greatly from the triple failure of their (for Cannon) big-budget ventures: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Over the Top, and of course, Masters of the Universe. To really understand what went on in this time period, I highly recommend Mark Hartley’s 2014 documentary Electric Boogaloo. In the doc, alleged pedophile and Masters director Gary Goddard made it clear he wanted to steer clear of any resemblance to other Cannon films. To his credit, the film is one of their more fun efforts, mainly thanks to some delightfully cheesy effects and a masterful villain turn by Skeletor actor Frank Langella. What made the film feel like a missed opportunity is that the initial script took place entirely in He-Man’s home world, Eternia. This would’ve required a massive amount of money, which Cannon certainly didn’t have. So, we get a brief beginning and ending set in Eternia, mainly on a castle set, and the rest in present-day Earth.

Production was literally being shut down and Goddard didn’t even have an ending, which is why we get that odd final battle in the dark between He-Man and Skeletor. Many films with ultra-low-budgets have been able to succeed despite their lack of money, but it’s a shame when there’s the nucleus of a good film idea that gets squandered by insufficient funds. For Scott’s The Video Dead, there’s the germ of a good idea and the execution isn’t without its charm or even memorable moments, but with a real budget and real actors, this one might’ve been something special.

I know firsthand what it’s like to work with no budget. You rely on favors, goodwill, and a whole lot of luck. It fills me with joy that although Robert Scott wouldn’t direct another feature, he was able to carve out a successful career as an assistant director and then as a unit production manager on many professional projects. He’s the perfect example of someone who wanted to work in the film industry and pulled himself up by the bootstraps to make it happen. The Video Dead has many problems, but a lack of ambition isn’t one of them. The most illuminating bit of trivia to be found is how each zombie had their own backstory. I’m certain that if Scott had the money, he would’ve filmed each zombie’s backstory in full, presenting a more tragic depiction of these walking corpses. For now, the only way to discern any characteristics from these creatures is through their wardrobe and some not-so subtle differences in their makeup designs.

The first problem I have is the title. The Video Dead. Now, that’s a cool title. It has an odd ring to it. I grew up with VHS tapes, so I’m fully aware of what a video is, unlike much of the younger generations. The film, however, features no videos whatsoever. It’s about an evil television set from which the undead emerge. There’s no VCR, no cassettes, nada. It’s like Tarantino once wrote: “I guess they thought it sounded cool.” Speaking of Quentin, this movie would likely get him all hot and bothered since there are countless shots of feet throughout. One distinguishing characteristic of Scott’s directorial style is his reliance on closeups. Mainly for faces and feet. It’s often difficult to even get spatial recognition because most scenes are shot with a long lens.

An odd but freaky mix of rock n' roll and what sounds like a harpsichord accompanies the opening credits as a van with the company name Hi-Lite pulls up to a suburban home. There’s a very dramatic slo-mo shot of the van opening, revealing an ominous crate. Author Henry Jordan (Michael St. Michaels, The Greasy Strangler himself and someone who KNOWS DISCO!) wakes up next to a dead goldfish and feigns ignorance to any package delivery. Still, he accepts and it turns out to be a television set. “Who would send me a TV?! I don’t even watch TV!” By the way, these delivery guys are seriously not very professional. One of them spits tobacco right on Jordan’s porch.

As Henry types what I assume is wrestling fan fiction or something era-appropriate, the TV turns on by itself, airing a black and white horror film entitled “Zombie Blood Nightmare.” Not Henry’s thing, he turns it off. The TV turns right back on a couple more times before he finally unplugs it. Later that night, fog and lightning bolts stream out of the set and a zombie materializes out of the screen. In fact, one of the zombie actors nearly fainted from the CO2 being poured through the television. I’ve been on a set when something like that’s happened. Not fun. We only see the shuffling feet of the other zombies. The delivery men show up, having dropped the crate off at the wrong address. It was supposed to go to ‘The Institute for the Studies of the Occult.’ I don’t think Hi-Lite will be giving UPS or FedEx a run for their money any time soon. They find Jordan in a macabre, Lynchian final pose, with his throat cut, a cigarette between his lips and wearing a birthday hat.

Three months go by, during which the staff of Hi-Lite apparently didn’t bother to worry about retrieving the lost package, and the house has been sold. An asshole taxi driver changes the meter charge and wakes up one of the new owners, Zoe (Roxanna Augeson). Augeson gives one of the stronger performances in a film full of mostly wooden and amateurish acting. As she unpacks, your standard creepy subjective camera makes its way toward the house. First coming from the woods, then knocking over a SOLD sign, a pair of feet shuffle into the kitchen. Zoe is startled and drops a glass. It’s just her brother and our hero, Jeff (Rocky Duvall, in a well-meaning but terribly stilted performance). I have a sister and arguments can spring up from the most unexpected of places. I’m shocked that Zoe didn’t get super pissed when he made her shatter a glass. Oh, and by the way, why the hell did he have to come out of the woods to get to the house? Weirdo.

Since their parents are in Saudi Arabia for...reasons, they’re on their own. Terrible dialogue follows, including a bizarre exchange involving Jeff’s incredulity from finding out his sister will be majoring in aerobics. What’s her minor? Music videos. A Texan named Joshua Daniels (Sam David McClelland, a decent performer) shows up on their doorstep spouting some nonsense about an evil television set and calling Jeff a “Damn fool!” Jeff calls him a “totally gnarly dude.” He’s many things, but I wouldn’t call him “gnarly.”

Jeff finds a TV in the attic and shockingly puts it in his room. Like, I realize he doesn’t believe the guy from Texas (who would?), but come on! He mentioned a TV being delivered to the wrong house. That’s his TV! Leave it on the curb!

A lot more sneaking goes on, as April (Victoria Bastel, now a belly dancing instructor with a couple interesting credits like Bad Lieutenant, the scene with Zoe Lund, and The Dead Pool) is walking a dog and startles Jeff. He invites her inside and the dog, named Chocolate, runs off into the woods. A zombie with blood running down his face spots the pup and presumably eats him, even though the sound that’s supposed to be a dog yelping sounds more like a crow getting punched in the throat. Although there’s a bit of flesh eating later, these zombies don’t make the consumption of humans their top priority. Bastel, who made the right choice by quitting acting and going for the belly dancing career, freaks out since Chocolate has been known to mate with skunks, who don’t take too kindly to Chocolate’s amorous advances. The film shows some restraint by just showing the dog curled up on its side, dead, rather than torn apart. He’s not even April’s dog so she’s in deep trouble, but Jeff shows signs of being a future serial killer by suggesting they shove a ball down Chocolate’s throat to fake a choking death. She’s instantly smitten. Yikes.

Back in his room, Jeff rolls the loosest joint I’ve ever seen and checks out Zombie Blood Nightmare. Original member of punk rock group The Nuns shows up on the TV and talks to Jeff, who thinks he’s tripping. She suddenly appears to him naked, with her blond hair strategically covering her nipples. There’s a little kissing, then she’s back in the set, where a man who calls himself ‘The Garbageman (Cliff Watts)’ slits her throat and warns Jeff that these creatures look human, “but inside, they’re different. They have no souls!” He advises Jeff to put the TV in the basement and put a mirror next to the screen. He repeats: “A mirrrooooorrrr…” Jeff flushes his pot and we never see ‘The Garbageman’ ever again. He has some major trouble taping the mirror to the television set (damn Dollar Tree tape!), and a zombie hand reaches out to grab him. He cuts it off and shoves it down the garbage disposal, Rolling Thunder-style. The TV bleeds and the severed hand effects aren’t bad. In general, the zombie makeup isn’t bad at all, at least for some of them. Director Scott seems to have confidence in shooting the zombie scenes in broad daylight, unlike some filmmakers who’re forced to keep their effects in the shadows.

There’s some confusion regarding these zombies. We get an extended sequence where they go on a killing spree. It’s not clear whether they escaped from the TV after Jeff turned it on, and if so, how did they end up outside of the house? If they’re the same zombies from the attack on Henry Jordan in the beginning, what have they been doing for the last three months? Wandering the woods?

What sets these walking dead apart, besides their lack of interest in eating people, is their personalities. The most animated and fascinating is a corpse bride wearing a wedding dress and looking particularly desiccated. She finds a wig in a bathroom and places it on her head, but appears to be disturbed by her appearance. The zombies take part in odd, ritualistic behavior, like sitting down for an impromptu breakfast or trying to work a blender. They attack April’s maid, who seems to be sleeping with her father. She’s choked for an extremely long time, so long in fact that the actress was slightly hurt, and even though she slams an iron right into the zombie’s skull, he keeps right at it until she’s dead.

We get a bevy of terrible acting from the various victims of zombie attacks. A woman is listening to an early version of The Food Network on her radio to make Coconut Fudge Delights, which sound pretty good, actually. The bride pops out of a washer and shoves the woman down into it. A bit of info regarding the distribution company (Manson International) reveals that they wanted to up the ante so they provided the funds to shoot more gore scenes. This entire sequence has little bearing on the plot and feels like murder for murder’s sake.

April discovers the bodies at her house and we hear a canned scream effect. Although sirens blare in the next scene, the editing seems to indicate that Jeff heard the scream, even though April lives all the way down the street. He runs straight over and now it’s inexplicably nighttime. He takes her back to his house and we never see any police nor anyone questioning April about what happened. This is Ed Wood-level continuity.

Daniels, the Texan, shows back up and we finally get something resembling an explanation. There’s a massive amount of exposition here, which isn’t unwelcome but could be presented with a bit more finesse. He calls them The Video Dead, (ohhhhh...that’s the title too!) and he claims they can’t stand their own appearance, hence the mirrors. Fear is what draws them to their victims, which is a little odd since many of the people who have died didn’t even see them coming, but he says they won’t harm you if you have no fear. If they’re trapped, they’ll eat themselves. Zoe finds all of this ridiculous and Daniels lets loose a big, Texas-style laugh. Maybe he was thinking about one of the many executions he’s witnessed in his home state. The zombie’s weirdest trait is that they only kill humans out of their envy of the living and if wounded, they’ll believe they’re human and supposedly die. It’s an extremely strange concept.

They put mirrors on the outside of the house and try to sleep. Occasionally, Scott inserts some interesting human behavior, including a uniquely relatable scene in which April is brushing her teeth so hard that she ends up bleeding from her gums. It’s a very small moment, but it at least resembles human behavior, something the dialogue often doesn’t reflect coming out of these character’s mouths. Much later, Jeff is waiting for zombies and practices spitting on a leaf. It’s a bit gross, but the idea of a person trying to find something to do while waiting is a natural act.

The younger, blue-skinned zombie has a thing for April and snatches her up. Jeff and Daniels go off to find her, leaving Zoe at home for some reason. It comes off as extremely sexist because she’s a capable young woman and it seems quite dangerous to separate. They wander off into the woods where we get silly banter like calling each other “cowshit” and “boy” along with a ton of ADR. Jeff’s line about needing to “take a leak” literally comes out of nowhere in the middle of a conversation.

They come upon a zombie and the rules here are shockingly muddled. We’re in a post-Return of the Living Dead world here, so I’m open to the idea that destroying the brain doesn’t necessarily kill the zombie. Still, they shoot him with a bow and arrow, which takes him down, so the comment about them believing they’re human is paid off. As a fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), he gets to cut the dead guy in half. This is likely one of the newly-shot gore scenes, which is pretty good, particularly when they find live rats hanging around in his intestines.

They set a trap for the rest of the zombies after they find a shed in the middle of the woods. While Jeff goes through Daniels’ various accoutrements, Daniels finds April’s corpse in the shed and goes through his mini-library, which consists of one to-the-point book entitled “How to Kill,” a guerrilla warfare book, and of course, a bible. Daniels hangs Jeff up in a tree for bait and stupidly gives him the chainsaw, which I could see going very badly for his legs and feet.

Warning bells begin to go off and the zombies start to paw at Jeff. Earlier, Daniels had leaned up against the shed and I assumed he was just waiting. It turns out, he stupidly fell asleep and dumbass Jeff drops the chainsaw. The bride, obviously the ringleader, picks it up and starts swinging it at Jeff’s legs. Is it wrong that I wanted to see her chop something off? Daniels finally stops dreaming of the rodeo and shoots nearly all of the zombies with arrows. The bride is warded off with a giant mirror while still carrying the chainsaw. Jeff and Daniels have a silly little celebration that feels undeserved and they go after her. She sets a trap and stabs Daniels in the back with an arrow. Jeff rushes back to the shed, tripping of course, and finds April’s dead body. He seems to resign himself to destroying these monsters at any cost. He pulls a machete out of Daniels’ bag and when the bride bursts in, he lops her head off. What did cause me to raise my eyebrows is that the chainsaw still goes straight through his chest. I expected there to be a big Mandy-style battle between chainsaw and machete, but nope. Jeff is not only merely dead. He’s really most sincerely dead.

Back at the house, Zoe sees the sun going down and before she can escape, the zombies converge on the house. Should’ve called the cops sooner, because they pull the phone line. Zoe absolutely freaks before she hears the Southern twang of Daniels words about showing no fear. She invites the zombies inside and makes them some dinner. There’s a decent amount of tension here as she tries to maintain her composure. She even covers a mirror that bothers the blue zombie. They seem intrigued by dancing, so she invites them down to the basement to dance. I kept waiting for a big zombie dance scene. Truly a missed opportunity. Did Robert Scott not want to rip off Thriller? I think it would’ve been awesome for them to get jiggy. She locks them in the basement and they do indeed start to eat each other, although the one with the iron in its head begins to pulsate for no apparent reason. ‘The End’ comes up on the possessed TV.

We get another really lame fade out which resembles a TV movie and Jeff and Zoe’s parents are visiting her in the mental hospital. Despite the fact that she showed great courage in defeating the zombies, I guess she still had a nervous breakdown. Of course, she’s not speaking, so the parents suspect drugs. This sanitarium doesn’t have TV’s, I suppose, so guess what they bring her? It’s a stupid ending and not really even necessary, but it’s OK as far as a final “scare.”

Most of the acting is atrocious and the cinematography has a flat quality, but there’s clearly a lot of enthusiasm and effort here. Scott employs plenty of dolly shots, which are a bit on the creaky side but at least add credence to the idea that this is a real movie. The editing is crisp and it turns out editor Bob Sarles would go on to direct and edit a great deal of videos in the music industry. What makes the film enjoyable is the outstanding and eye-catching VHS cover design and the above-average makeup effects. The bride, in particular, is a wonderfully nasty creation and a genuinely threatening force of evil. The Video Dead is an average little horror film that has a few good ideas sprinkled throughout. Nothing special, but a credible directorial effort.


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