Friday, June 20, 2014

#184: The Alien Dead (Fred Olen Ray, 1980)

Fred Olen Ray, the director of Scalps, Commando Squad, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Beverly Hills Vamp, Wizards of the Demon Sword, Dinosaur Island, Witch Academy, Bikini Hoe-Down, Invisible Dad, Billy Frankenstein, Emmanuelle 2000, Thirteen Erotic Ghosts, Super Ninja Bikini Babes, Girl with the Sex-Ray Eyes, Bikini Jones and the Temple of Eros, Christmas in Palm Springs, and 118 other projects, hasn't let the slow death of drive-ins and VHS stop him from churning out the schlock at a Fassbinder-if-he-were-still-alive-and-not-an-artistic-genius pace. (He directed seven films in 2012 alone.) Long before this extensive list of dubious credits, Ray was a newbie working on his second film, The Alien Dead, the 1980 followup to his 1978 debut, The Brain Leeches. What he came up with was something, to say the least.
The Alien Dead is an accidental masterpiece of delusional amateurism. It is not, in most senses of the term, "good" or even "competent." It is, however, mesmerizing, hypnotizing, and compelling in its lack of relation to what is usually recognizable as filmmaking, both conventional and un. I loved it. If you love it, too, you are someone I can trust with the spare keys to my home.
Of course something this strange was filmed in rural Florida. And this stretch of rural Florida swampland has a problem. It seems the gators have disappeared. No one has seen a single example of the once-flourishing gator population in months. This doesn't sit too well with Mr. Griffith, a poacher and master coaxer of gators. Mr. Griffith takes Mrs. Griffith (this is how they refer to each other) and his small boat out to the swamps in the dead of night to get himself a gator. Only something gets Mrs. Griffith, and that something is not a gator.
That something turns out to be many somethings. One night several months earlier, some rural Florida coeds were partying on a houseboat, drinking booze, listening to bluegrass, and whacking each other with balloons (that classic staple of Florida houseboat parties) when something came out of the sky, exploded, and crashed into the houseboat, decimating it. The space junk turned the coeds into killer zombies, whose victims turned into zombies as well. Soon, the swamps are teeming with space zombies, looking to add to their ranks. Unlike your average zombie, these zombies can run and breathe underwater.
Our ragtag team of heroes -- a college-boy journalist at his first job on the small-town newspaper, a sexy backwoods hillbilly woman in cutoff short-shorts and weird blonde wig, her gun-nut father who is obsessed with nonexistent giant possums, and the county game warden -- fight off the deadly zombies as best they can with no help from the incompetent sheriff, played by former Olympic swimmer and movie star Buster Crabbe, and his even more incompetent deputy. Crabbe is an elderly man who has trouble remembering most of his lines. We know this as an audience because these mistakes are not edited out of the film. He seems to be having a good time anyway, as do the rest of the cast and the filmmakers.
Ray has the oddest sense of pacing, camera placement, shot composition, continuity, and dialogue I've seen in many years. It's pretty hard to describe, and also pretty hard to stop watching. We get daylight, nightfall, and daylight again in the same scene, a gratuitous nude scene in which a woman takes off her shirt while in the water, swims around with it in her hand a while, then realizes it makes no sense to have disrobed while in the water and crumples it up and tosses it aside, and another great moment where a grocery store cashier can't make it through her ridiculous scene without breaking into laughter twice.
The soundtrack is genuinely good, with several high quality country and bluegrass songs from The American Bluegrass Express and Paul Jones & Sugar Lee (Florida locals?) and weird electronic noise from Franklin Sledge and Chuck Sumner. This is also probably the only movie that ends with a freeze frame of a zombie poking his head out of swamp water to a catchy bluegrass tune, though if there are any others, please let me know. In short, this was a great way to spend 73 minutes of my goofy life.

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