Zombies are out to run the Asylum in Gory Late-1980s Video Rental Horror Staple
DIRECTED BY BRETT LEONARD/1989
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: DECEMBER 14, 2021/CODE RED (VIA KINO LORBER)
Being dead is the pits. Just ask the blood-covered occupants of the diabolical Dr. Ramzi’s “dead pit”. But a word of warning… you might not get much of an answer. Not only do these unfortunate former insane asylum occupants now fully qualify for such ghastly residence (having been brutally murdered and all), but when they do eventually emerge, they’re not in the mood for chit-chat. For over twenty Godforsaken years, they’ve been laying in that disgusting hole in the ground, preserved with formaldehyde. Now, it’s time to check back into the old hospital…!
Back in the day, director Brett Leonard’s (Virtuosity) The Dead Pit was quite the eyeful in video rental stores. Not only was the artwork awesome!! (like an Iron Maiden album cover, man!) but if you dared to press a button, the main zombie’s eyes lit up green. For anyone who was then lured into checking out the movie itself, it was immediately apparent that more money went into the gimmicky videotape boxes than into the production.
That’s not to say that The Dead Pit is necessarily marred by its obvious low budget. Truth be told, the acting is worse than the sets, makeup, and gore effects. Not that anyone watches movies like this for the dramatic chops the actors bring to the table, but the one believably effective portrayal in The Dead Pit is that of the late Jeremy Slate as Dr. Swan, the hard-drinking senior doctor who thought he terminated the diabolical Dr. Ramzi’s (Danny Gochnauer’s only acting credit) reign of evil twenty years ago when he shot him in the head. As it turns out, that’s not the case at all. When a beautiful and traumatized young woman (Cheryl Lawson as “Jane Doe”) with no memory of her life is admitted, Ramzi returns to the realm of the (technically) living. Only near the end do we learn the very contrived truth of why.
As far as late-1980s VHS freak-outs go, The Dead Pit has everything a thrill seeking fourteen-year-old boy could ask for. The mental hospital’s actual decaying interior is instant production value for a film like this. You know how abandoned buildings inexplicably get exponentially moldy, crumbly, and musty? Well, portions this place (which was in fact still functioning at the time!) must’ve been sitting abandoned for a while when the movie’s location scout found it.
The added Mario Bava rip-off colored-gel-overload lighting is the icing on the stale and sticky cake. The line deliveries are more Heather-Langencamp-in-A–Nightmare–on–Elm–Street than Heather-Langencamp-in-A–Nightmare–on–Elm–Street–3: Dream-Warriors, even though The Dead Pit owes something to the latter film, what with its mental-hospital-of-doom vibe. Cheryl Lawson’s skimpy sleep attire actually shrinks smaller and tighter as the film goes on. (An ongoing real-life laundry debacle was apparently to blame. Ms. Lawson, call your agent).
For those cool with the movie’s shortcomings, The Dead Pit scratches a very particular retro horror itch. Gore a-plenty but no brains went into the screenplay. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the “Featured Dead” played by the actress credited as “Kaldonia” is the only one of the zombie horde who’s staggering around topless. Ninety-five minutes feels kind of long for this sort of thing, but doggonit, crazy crap just keeps happening! Will the cool dude orderly (Stephen Gregory Foster) and the traumatized “Jane Doe” be able to covert the contents of the neighboring water tower to undead-killing holy water on time? And will they then be able to use it to flood the tabletop model of the hospital?? I mean, the hospital?? Wade through it, gore-hound!
Boutique label Code Red (via Kino Lorber) makes visiting The Dead Pit simpler than ever. Their nifty new Blu-ray edition is now available wherever this Blu-ray is sold- and it’s even got a slipcover! Unfortunately it doesn’t light up like the old days, although the Iron Maiden-esque artwork is the same. The movie looks strikingly good, all things considered. The extras on the disc are definitely above average, though they’re also all quite old…nearly zombified! Presumably, this filmmaker’s commentary track and the nice batch of on-camera interviews hail from an early DVD special edition. In director Brett Leonard’s interview, he mentions the late-1990s industry truth that “DVD is where the money is!”
Code Red is certainly getting its money’s worth, recycling this content, which includes retrospective not-short “Dead Pitt” interviews (sheesh, at least spell the film’s title properly) with Leonard, producer Gimel Everett, actress Cheryl Lawson, and actor Jeremy Slate. More time has probably passed between now and when this material was recorded versus when it was recorded and the original 1989 release of the film. Jeremy Slate, who’s also on the commentary with Leonard and Everett, died in 2006. Sadly, Everett died of cancer in 2011. Each of them fondly remembers the grueling shoot, and how absolutely broke and stretched thin the production was. Also, filming in a working mental institution yields plenty of interesting stories.
Open-skull acupuncture and blunt-instrument eye socket lobotomies give way to blood drenched unpaid day-player extras as zombies with their brains hanging out overrunning everything. Really, everything– the pit, the asylum, the movie, and the plot, such as it is. Hopefully they’re only looking for cheap thrills and not, say, a properly stocked craft services table. The invasion, though, is all by design. Once the undead arise from their open mass grave, The Dead Pit doesn’t let off the gas. None of that Stranger Things-inspired retro veneer- this is a legitimate 1980s cobbled-together horror show! Grisly gore and a gorgeous girl in a garish grotesquerie. As long as you’re game for that kind of video rental-era shlock, and not looking for a subtextual commentary on the state of mental institutions in Reagan’s America (regardless of what the director says), this Pit will be quite the hit.