The Norliss Tapes, a tale about zombies, vampirism, and general occult malfeasance, has a surprising amount of scares for a 1970s TV movie. But don’t underestimate the small-screen horror offerings from this period, as they tend to have a good deal of atmosphere and lull viewers into a false sense of security before the jump-out-of-your-seat moments hit.
Director Dan Curtis pretty much ruled the genre in the late Sixties & throughout the Seventies with such productions as Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, and a series of rather underrated classic horror novel adaptations (fodder for future Retro Reviews, I suppose). While The Norliss Tapes is generally considered a “lesser” Curtis work, since its initial broadcast in 1973 it has developed somewhat of a cult following.
The film opens with writer David Norliss, played with exquisite angst by The Invaders star Roy Thinnes, shirtless and greatly troubled by some unknown reason. He owes a book about the paranormal to his publisher, but insists that he is no shape to write it yet — though the story about everything he’s been through is on a set of audio-tapes in his possession.
As you might have guessed, this is also the perfect set-up for an X-Files/Kolchak type TV series, of which Norliss Tapes—with its neatly numbered tapes, one for each story—was indeed a pilot for. Though never picked up for series, the movie already showcases an intriguing “mythology” with its demon Sargoth, and when it’s all over you do wonder (well, if you’re a horror schlock junkie like me) “what might have been.”
Annnnnyway, Norliss gets involved with a widow (a beautiful but essentially useless Angie Dickinson) whose sculptor husband might have come back to life as a blue- skinned, yellow-eyed zombie with super-strength. There has been a recent death in the area where the victim was strangely drained of all her blood, so the writer is sort of putting this all together and suspecting said occult malfeasance.
While Thinnes is great as the former skeptic-turned-supernatural- investigator Norliss, Dickinson’s Ellen Scott Cort is truly truly useless as a wooden plank—perpetually scared and not knowing what to do. Far more intriguing is Vonetta McGee’s “voodoo priestess” Mme. Jeckiel—who at least has some spunk and an interesting red-streaked hairdo. And of course Claude Akins plays the folksy, “Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo” representative of local law-enforcement that “don’t want no trouble” and keeps trying to half-assedly cover shit up.
But the true star of The Norliss Tapes is the unfortunate dabbler into Egyptian magick James Raymond Cort, portrayed in growling, mindless glee by stuntman Nick Dimitri. That’s really the big draw of this film—watching Dimitri’s blue-hued figure jump out of crypts and windows and scare the daylights of both the characters and the viewers.
Seriously, every time this bloodsucking zombie makes an appearance, he scares the shit out of you. Every. Single. Time. While perhaps sort of quaint—even hokey—compared to other cinematic zombie-folk, he is introduced in unexpected scare after scare after scare. Sure, pretty low-hanging fruit for a horror flick, but effective as hell.
Dimitri is a stuntman with a 40-year resume whose specialty, per Wikipedia, “was dying violently on screen.” In addition to Norliss Tapes, he is best known for his climatic fight with Charles Bronson at the end of the 1975 movie Hard Times.
Even a cursory glance at Dimitri’s filmography—which starts with 1959’s Lil’ Abner and ends with 1993’s Last Action Hero—is sort of one of those fascinating segues whilst studying old genre movies that is almost more interesting than the original film itself. You can read more about his career in this 2011 Herald Tribune article, where he was championing adding a “Best Stuntman” category to the Academy Awards. (As of this writing, there is still no official Oscar for stunts.)
Closing out The Norliss Tapes we have ye standarde Seventies satanic element with the statue of the demon Sargoth—made out of clay infused with human blood (!). Norliss sure does know a lot about how to banish a demon, for a self- professed skeptic. We get to see the red, horned Sargoth come to life and have a nice good temper-tantrum before he’s sent away (or does he ever really leave??? watch the never-made second episode of The Norliss Tapes to find out!!!!).
The movie closes out with a montage of all of the Cort Zombie’s most scary moments throughout the film—both sort of excessive but also a nice tribute to an actor/stuntman who has probably spent most of his career not in the spotlight. Also, it’s good to remember those pants-shitting scare moments.
The Norliss Tapes is an enjoyable bit of horror-lite infused with bell- bottoms and long, patently Seventies scenes of groovy cars moodily driving down beautiful, lonely landscapes. Anchor Bay released an official DVD for the movie in 2006, which of course is now out of print & goes for a crazy amount of $ on the secondary market. But if you search YouTube a bit, you might…just…find it (Maybe. I dunno. Don’t quote me)