Retro Review: The Video Dead

What I like to call the “Eighties David Bowie Zombie”

Some people seem to love 1987’s The Video Dead for its “so bad it’s good” quality—however, I find those particular aspects of the film to be almost a deal-breaker for me. Bad acting, bad scripting, and bad special effects—all of which are in abundance here—can make for an enjoyable mess of a movie. But bad pacing and  slowness…oof.

What does make The Video Dead appealing to me, however, is its intrinsic, haunting weirdness…a weirdness that lingers long after the static-filled credits crackle across your screen.

The Garbageman & The Blonde

We’ve already seen TVs used as conduits to some sticky, evil dimension in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome several years before—and The Video Dead’s sexy Blonde is clearly an analogue for Blondie from that film. And yet the movie’s indelible images of evil creatures exiting a television set and shuffling into our world pre-dated that of The Ring by at least a decade.

There is something so (if you would excuse the pun) dead-simple about arranging an actor in zombie makeup to stick his head out of a hollow set, presumably through a hole in the floor. And yet it is SUCH a creepy, terrifying image that sticks with you…moments like these, despite the shrieking horror that is young actor Rocky Duvall’s high-pitched voice and enough plot holes to sink a small aircraft carrier in, make this film a classic.

Damn UHF stations!

The Video Dead begins with some depressed, slob writer (was this writer/director Robert Scott’s perception of himself writing The Video Dead?) receiving a mysterious TV set in the mail. The television only plays one static-filled movie: “Zombie Blood Nightmare.” Despite shutting the TV off and pulling out the plug, it continues to stay on and play the movie; soon a set of zombies climb out of the screen and put the writer (who kinda looks like Herb from W.K.R.P) out of his mystery.

Now flash-forward to an unlucky teen/college age brother and sister whose parents have just purchased the same house, with the same goddamn TV inside.

“Hey, you’ll never guess what I found in the attic!”

I’ve already mentioned the vocal talents of Duvall as young Jeff Blair; Roxanna Augesen as older sister Zoe is in a whole other class of “I can’t stand her make her die NOW,” only to be surpassed by almost non-existent acting talents of Vickie Bastel as rich next-door neighbor April. There’s also a Texan zombie hunter with a ten-gallon hat, a Bible, and such excellent zombie-killing strategies as stringing up the boy in the air as “bait” and then falling asleep in the shed.

It’s as if Tim Conway played Rick Grimes

The zombies themselves are far more interesting characters. There seems to be a whole new wrinkle to the zombie mythos added by The Video Dead, which involves the creatures not really understanding that they’re dead and yearning for their old lives. One great scene places the zombies in different houses in the area, where they are fascinated by appliances like blenders and washing machines. There’s certainly a humor element that reminds one of Return of The Living Dead—but also a bit of pathos more along the lines of Bub in Day of the Dead (both far more well-known zombie flicks released a couple of years earlier in 1985).

The best scene in the entire movie is when Zoe, who has learned that the zombies only attack when you’re afraid of them, invites them over for “dinner.” With a big, nervous smile plastered across her face, she serves them beans and sits with them at the dinner table. The effect is both humorous and very very tense, and I’ve never seen something like that before in a zombie movie.

Bowie Zombie! Bowie Zombie!

As for the zombies themselves, they all have their own “personalities”: the dude with the clothing iron stuck in his head, the undead bride. Probably the most famous is the “David Bowie” zombie—a punk who is not as rotted as the others and really gives the flick its Eighties feel.

So if you can stick around during the boring crappy parts, The Video Dead with its inventive set pieces and memorable cast of creepy characters is a must-see for cult movie fans.

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