The Video Dead (1987) The Video Dead (1987) **Ĺ

     It didnít take long for the direct-to-video market to be seen as the biggest turkey coop in the movie business, and I donít think anyone whoís watched more than a dozen or so such films would ever argue that the reputation wasnít justly earned. There were a few years, though, during the mid-to-late 80ís, when DTV was downright exciting. Although quality control even then was poor to nonexistent, the very lack of overseers charged with holding a production to some minimum standard of professionalism also meant that there was nobody to stand in the way of visionary weirdoes doing whatever the fuck they wanted. The insatiable appetite of video rental shops for titles their customers hadnít seen yet therefore created a venue of exhibition for movies that would simply never have been made otherwise, and there was absolutely no telling which inauspicious-looking shelf-filler might turn out to be bizarre enough to warrant 80-odd minutes of your attention in spite of its dodgy execution and dollar-store production values. Robert Scottís The Video Dead was one of those films, and although Iím no longer as taken with it as I was when it first showed up in the horror section of Paulís Video way back when, Iíd still qualifiedly recommend it to zombie fans who have grown bored with the paradigms of both Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later.

     Ornery and reclusive author Henry Jordan (Michael St. Michaels, who resurfaced many years later in The Greasy Strangler and Extremity) wasnít expecting a package, but the deliverymen (Thaddeus Golas and Douglass Bell, the latter of whom was also in Maskhead and Revenge Is Her Middle Name) assure him that whatever it is, itís already been paid for. Opening the box doesnít answer any of Jordanís questions, either, for it contains something he absolutely doesnít want, and which no acquaintance of his would be fool enough to try to give him: a television set. Weirder still, itís an old black and white job (mid-70ís, from the looks of it), and it was clearly used hard by some previous owner. Perhaps strangest of all, it canít seem to tune in any of the local channels; turning it on yields nothing but static, all across the dial. That night, though, the mysterious appliance spontaneously switches itself on, apparently just in time for the broadcast of a cheap horror movie called Zombie Blood Nightmare on one of the frequencies it wasnít receiving before. The TV wonít let Jordan turn it off, either, not even by pulling the plug. The flummoxed writer is trying to figure out what to make of that when one of the zombies on the screen notices him, and climbs out of the cathode ray tube to get at him, together with several of its fellows. Henry will be in no position to answer the door the next morning, when those delivery drivers sheepishly return on a mission to reclaim the television, which they were supposed to have delivered to some paranormal research institute instead. And once the deliverymen see whatís left of Jordan, they forget all about the TV in their haste to flee the premises.

     Three months later, Henry Jordanís house in the Sausalito suburbs is bought by a globetrotting couple called Blair (Don Clelland and Jo Ann Peterson) to become their residence upon their return from a sojourn in Saudi Arabia. We wonít be meeting them until the movie is practically over, though. Responsibility for taking possession of the place devolves upon the Blairsí teenaged children, college freshman Zoe (Roxanna Augesen) and high-schooler Jeff (Rocky Duvall). Their first hint that this latest move will prove challenging even for a couple of kids already well accustomed to having their lives disrupted comes when an aging cowboy type calling himself Joshua Daniels (Sam David McClelland) arrives unbidden on their doorstep, ranting unintelligibly about a TV set. The nearest thing Jeff can figure is that Daniels is some kind of loony trying to sell his television for drug money or some such thing, so he sends the man packing. That night, though, Jeff hears what sounds like a voice coming from the as-yet-unexplored attic, and discovers that somebody leftó thatís rightó a junky old TV set up there. He brings it down on the plausible grounds that although the family already owns two such devices, there isnít one in his room.

     Jeff mostly forgets about both Daniels and the abandoned TV the next day, though, because his attention gets captured by a pretty neighbor girl named April Ellison (Victoria Bastell), whom he meets while sheís out walking a different neighborís dog. The pair are so pleased to have met each other, in fact, that they give barely a thought over the coming days to what ought to be a fairly troubling incident that first afternoon. Just moments after April releases the little poodle from his leash, he suddenly darts off into the woods to which the kidsí street backs up. (ďYou donít understand! He likes to chase skunks in the woods, and when he finds them, he tries to mate with them! Only skunks donít like to mate with poodles, so they spray himó and then he really gets turned on!Ē) By the time Jeff and April find the dog, someone or something else has already caught and killed him. Needless to say, Chocolateís owners (Muffy Greco and Walter Garrett) arenít going to be pleased to hear about that.

     You guessed itó the culprit in Chocolateís slaying was one of the television zombies. Evidently they didnít return to their movie after slaughtering Henry Jordan, and theyíve somehow been shuffling around in those woods unnoticed for the past three months. That doesnít mean, however, that the TV is safe to use now, for there are other things equally inimical to human life still inside it. Take the voice that led Jeff to find the machine in the first place. It belonged to a striking blonde woman (Jennifer Miro, former keyboardist and sometime lead singer of the early San Francisco punk band, the Nuns, whose other acting credits include Dr. Caligari and Poisoned Kiss), who appears to Jeff more directly that night once he finally gets around to installing the cursed television in his bedroom. Heís smoking pot at the time, so heís never sure from one moment to the next whether what heís experiencing is real or a drug-induced hallucination, but the blonde flirts with Jeff from the screen as if she were right there in the room with him. Then the next thing Jeff knows, she really is in the room, dropping her diaphanous black robe to the floor and taking him in her arms. A moment later, though, sheís back on the TV screen, and a grizzled old man (The Reluctant Robotís Cliff Watts) is slitting her throat from behind! This violent fellow subsequently introduces himself as the Garbage Man, and draws Jeffís attention to the monstrous transformation undergone by the womanís corpse. The Garbage Man explains that the world on his side of the cathode ray tube is swarming with such creatures, which heís made it his business to hunt down and destroy. If Jeff would like to spare his own world a similar predicament, he should shut the TV away in the deepest, darkest part of his basement, and bind a large mirror to the front with the glass facing the screen. That way, the only thing the monsters will see when they look through is their own reflections, and they canít abide looking at those. Not unreasonably, Jeff immediately flushes the remainder of his weed down the toilet as soon as the TV screen goes dark.

     The next morning, however, he notices the mysterious blondeís robe still lying on his bedroom floor, and realizes that there must have been more to his bizarre experience than an unwanted sprinkling of PCP on his marijuana. He immediately unhooks the television, and sets about following the Garbage Manís instructions. Down to the basement he goes, first with the TV itself, and then with a mirror large enough to cover its screen, securing the latter to the former with duct tape. (What would we ever do without that stuff, eh?) Jeff has a very close call on this undertaking, insofar as something begins trying to come through before the job is quite done, but in the end he gets the interdimensional portal or whatever it is sealed up nice and tight. Of course, we realize that a fair number of fiends from the other reality are already here, even if nobody else has caught on to them yet. And at least a few of the Blair kidsí neighbors are soon to find out about them in the worst way, because some unknown provocation has caused the video dead to leave their adoptive home in the forest at last. The couple for whom April used to serve as dog-walker are the first to go, with Aprilís dad (Garrett Dressler) and maid-turned-stepmother (Libby Russler) to follow not much later. Luckily, Joshua Daniels picks just that moment to turn up again, finding Jeff (if perhaps not Zoe) much more willing to listen to him than he was the other day. Vitally, Daniels knows both of the zombiesí weaknesses, so thereíll be something that he and Jeff might be able to do about it when an undead high school letterman takes a liking to April, absconds with her back to the woods.

     There is, of course, sound reason why the great majority of zombies movies made after 1968 follow in general terms the rules laid down by Night of the Living Dead. Knock peopleís socks off the way that movie did, and youíre bound to attract imitators basically forever. By 1987, though, it was high time for something different, and thatís what so endeared The Video Dead to me upon its initial release. The salient facts about these zombies are that they have mind enough to hold beliefs, and that they refuse to accept that theyíre dead; everything else about them follows from there. They shun mirrors because they canít bear to see their own decaying faces. They hate the living because we remind them of what they arenít anymoreó but they can be pacified by being treated as if they were just normal, pulse-having, 98.6-degree folks. And although they canít be permanently put down by anything short of total bodily annihilation, a wound that would be fatal to a human being will usually disable them temporarily, because theyíre expecting to be killed by it. Changing the zombies in this way necessarily changes the contours of any story told with them, even before factoring in other oddities like shape-shifting hags and a television set that apparently functions as a portal between parallel realities. And speaking of parallel realities, I also much appreciated never learning quite what the world on the other side of the TV screen really was, or how the cursed appliance itself came to be. A movie that introduces such wild violations of ordinary nature into so prosaic a setting as a Marin County suburb ought to maintain some mystery about it, you know? That said, Iíll admit to being disappointed that Robert Scott was never able to secure funding for a planned sequel, which would have taken place primarily on the Other Side.

     Alas, the engagingly strange premise and imaginative zombie lore are counterbalanced to a considerable extent by a cast of obvious amateurs. One encounters that a lot in this stratum of the film business, but itís especially unfortunate here because Scottís script is often surprisingly witty. Thereís quite a lot of low-key and off-kilter humor in the dialogue, but most of it drops deader than the zombies themselves the way the actors deliver it. Direct-to-video veterans should find the cast a fairly easy hurdle to clear, and consider themselves well enough rewarded for doing so once they have, but the acting in The Video Dead is probably bad enough to present an insuperable obstacle to enjoyment for nearly everyone else.

 

 

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