Dead & Buried (1981) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

The new episode of the Revisited video series looks back at 1981’s Dead & Buried, directed by Gary Sherman and featuring Robert Englund

The episode of Revisited covering Dead & Buried was Written and Narrated by Andrew Hatfield, Edited by Juan Jimenez, Produced by Tyler Nichols and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

The slow burn is a somewhat lost and misunderstood art. I say somewhat lost because A24 sure tries their damnedest to give us that once or even a few times a year. Slow burn movies, when done right, are a thing of beauty. They take their time to get you where THEY want you to go but don’t have to skimp on things like gore, sex, violence, or shock. The Italians mastered it, particularly with their Giallo genre and some of the greatest slow burn horror comes from the early 70s to the mid 80s. When it was able to be translated to American audiences, it didn’t always stick the landing. Dan O’Bannon would give us one of the best the 80s had to offer, and it was his very next script after Alien. Well, on paper anyway. Dead & Buried (watch it HERE) is a slow burn with massive payoff and a few fun surprises along the way. It deserves to be talked about and that’s why we are revisiting it today.

As I said before, a lot of the advertisements and even the general public attribute this to Dan O’Bannon but he claims that nothing he contributed was used in the final product. One of the tag lines even says “The Creators of Alien… Bring a new terror to earth.” Great way to grab attention but is also really misleading. To talk about Dan like I normally would when discussing the cast and crew feels just as disingenuous as his name on the film he so despises. I think he is way off base here, but I get why he hates it from a personal standpoint while being unable to appreciate it from an art perspective. The other credited writers are story guys Alex Stern and Jeff Millar and Ronald Shusset being credited along with O’Bannon though we know that to be just publicity. Stern and Millar are only credited with this movie, not just for writing but period.

Shusset is the reason why that Alien creators tag still fits because he was credited for story on that first film. While most of the rest of his IMDb is just crediting him for characters in other Alien properties, even video games, he did give us the screenplays for King Kong Lives, Total Recall, and Above the Law. That’s still a solid list. Director Gary Sherman, who actually wanted the movie to be far more long the lines of a dark comedy, started his feature directing career with Death Line in 1972 which is also known sometimes as Raw Meat. He would go on to direct the way too fun Vice Squad and the much-maligned Poltergeist III. This strange combination of talent behind the camera would give us one of the best and most under-discussed horror movies of the decade.

The movie opens on a wonderful black and white credits sequence, something that plays with a theme of the movie, followed by a transition to color where we are greeted by a beach and a photographer who is looking for the perfect scenic shot. That shot is something you can find almost anywhere in the scenic and rustic small town of Potters Bluff. Small towns like this just work. It feels very similar to the previous years Antonio Bay where The Fog rolls in and in fact both movies are part of AVCO Embassy Pictures. They had award winning stuff like The Graduate but also pumped out amazing genre things like the two previously mentioned films and the timeless Escape from New York. Our photographer Freddie runs into, let me check my notes here, girl on the beach who later becomes nurse Lisa. He thinks he’s going to get laid but then the rest of the town of voyeurs welcomes him to Potters Bluff and he is instead laid to rest…

Sheriff Dan Gillis is called to the scene of a vicious car wreck and Freddy Kruger is on the scene to assist. I guess even though there is drama behind the scenes with O’Bannon and the director wanting more of a black comedy than horror, Robert Englund really likes this movie. It’s one of those roles he was allowed to get lost in rather than just be seen as Freddy, something that studios didn’t want much of after 1984. Gillis is played by James Ferrentino who was a TV mainstay from the 60s really up until his death in 2012. The other genre things he showed up in were 2 episodes of Night Gallery and The Final Countdown. As Gillis and Harry are checking the car, the town mortician can be heard pulling up by the big band music playing in his car. Out of the car steps William G Dobbs who is played by none other than Grandpa Joe.

This would be Jack Albertson’s last movie, as cancer was ravaging his body. He was able to make it to the premiere to see the movie on the big screen but passed away shortly after. I love Willy Wonka, but this is my favorite role for him and it’s a good one. The Oscar winner didn’t do much horror at all, but he did show up for Rod Serling in both Twilight Zone and, again, Night Gallery. Go watch Night Gallery, it’s really good. The reach for the body of the crash victim, who we learn later to be our guy Freddie, and we see the final star of the show. No, not the body, well actually, yeah, the body. The makeup effects were done by Stan Winston well before he was an Oscar winner or really broke out big, even though he had been working for almost a decade prior. The stuff here is glorious, from the bodies to the way people are dispatched and everything in between.

The body screams and the somehow surviving burn victim is taken to the hospital. We find out that Dan has a masters in criminology and he IS a good cop. He goes above and beyond to investigate and is smart for a main character, even if he does think more with his heart than logic sometimes. Dan does some investigation as another person is killed by the mob of Potters Bluff. Dan learns that the guy fighting for his life in the hospital went to see his wife, but it turns out that was just to buy camera equipment for the school, something the principle dispels later. Freddie is killed with an awesome special effect and then the cycle of death takes over again, this time with a twist. A family of 3 is killed by the mob but it now includes Freddie who is free and clear of any injury or apparently memory of his death. What is going on in this town the size of a postage stamp as Dan calls it.

We get somewhat of a red herring with a voodoo angle that Dan’s wife is teaching in school, and maybe for something more. The hotel owner reports to Dan that Freddie is back at the gas station alive and well and we see the young boy who was just killed with his family also in Janets class. Janet is played by Melody Anderson who was just in major flop Flash Gordon the year before. Another murder happens and this time we see the magic in another show-stopping effect. Even though Dobbs is the one that cleans her up, it looks like Janet is the one raising people from the dead. The town forensics guy finds out something that Dan wanted him to look into only to be rewarded with a snort of acid and his brain melting from the inside.

Dobbs tells Dan that the young ladies’ corpse has vanished, and Dan starts to lose it. He asks Dobbs if he believes in Voodoo and raising the dead but is quickly rebuffed. He does learn that his wife visits Dobbs’ work all the time which has him even more confused and has us thinking she’s the mastermind. He digs up Freddie only to find a heart and we see Dobbs slide himself out of one of the spots where he keeps the bodies, as you do. In one of my favorite moments, Dan asks a person that we know to be dead if there is a way to raise the dead. He looks Dan cold in the eye and says no. Dan and his dispatcher then learn that Dobbs was kicked out of his profession and indicted by the grand jury for inappropriate use of the bodies a year before he moved to the town.

It all comes together when Dan finds a film reel of Janet killing someone and sees the whole town in on it. He confronts Dobbs and we learn that he is the actual mastermind. In another great moment of the film Dan asks Dobbs how he does it and he says no. Call it black magic or a medical breakthrough but he will take it to the grave. He can bring anyone back and give them only the memories he wants them to have. Dan is going to kill him, and we get another 4 star line in you cant kill me, you can only make me dead. Janet comes in like a weird stepford wife and Dan shoots her. It awakens something in her and she tragically knows she’s dead now and just wants to be buried. She walks out and Dan shoots Dobbs too. Dan follows Janet to the graveyard and helps her bury herself while the whole town reveals itself to Dan and Dobbs patches himself up.

Dan heads back and sees the full reel, this time watching his own body as the one that Janet stabs. He grabs his face in fear only to watch his fingers crumble and hear an offer from Dobbs to fix him up. Watching this movie for the 5th or so time, I finally noticed a hell of a detail. Dan will periodically scratch at his hands. It’s such a cool, subtle lead that something isn’t quite right with our sheriff. It’s just one of many great ideas, shots, lines, and moments in a movie that was seen as a bomb. Box office numbers weren’t recorded well and its budget of 6 million was almost certainly made back between its multiple theatrical runs and eventual home video releases. You can pick up a gorgeous 4K right now and it jumps around streaming services frequently.

For a movie that gets lost in the horror shuffle, particularly in the slasher filled early 80s, its originality begs rediscovery. It’s a movie that gets better each time I watch it and it’s slow burn plot, punctuated by bursts of sudden violence and a decadent twist earn it a 9/10. Dead & Buried needs to be dug up more often.

Two previous episodes of Revisited can be seen below. To see more of our shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals channel – and subscribe while you’re at it!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.