halloween special!

or VHS: video house safari


For those just tuning in: what I'm doing in this series is heading down to the local video store and finding interesting movies I've never heard of. For younger readers, a "video store" is an establishment that you can walk or drive to and rent Video Home System cassettes, also known as VHS tapes, and/or dvds from an actual person and take it back home for your own entertainment purposes (you gotta bring it back, though.)

I'm basing my selection on the outrageous video boxes, the kind that helped us decide whether a movie looked like it was worth our time back in the days before the internet started telling us everything there was to know about every film before they're even released. Then I'm writing about them.

It's not nostalgic - it's just awesome.

brett leonard, 1989

"I've done life - now I'm doing death!"

Halloween's coming up this week, a good time to get some horror-related articles up on the site. Figured I'd better get cracking on these before demands for articles on pilgrim-related movies started cramming the inbox, so I headed over to the video store and scanned the spook section for the perfect subject for this year's "First Annual Very Special Halloween Video Oddity."

You can always tell a good old fashioned video store by the quality of their horror movie aisle. Sure, they might have an adequately stocked row of "noir" titles, an impressive cache of foreign films and a hidden room dedicated to Cult Classics, but you know it's a truly special place when you see they've got an entire wing cluttered with tattered, oversized video boxes with names like Three on a Meathook and Please Don't Eat the Babies proudly displayed on the gaudily-decorated covers.

I was looking for a horror movie I'd not only never seen, but had never heard of. Although I've seen more than my share of lesser-known horror flicks, there are always hundreds of forgotten titles from the 80's to compete for my attention. It was going to take a little something extra to win my heart. After piling up a couple contenders and replacing several rejects, I pulled out a video, flush on the shelf with "The Dead Pit" written on the side of the box. "They’re out," the cover announced above a green, three-dimensional zombie ascending with his undead brethren from a glowing pit. I ran a finger across the front and, at the triggering of a small button at on the bottom right side of the box, the zombie's eyes lit up with matching green lights!

Awesome. That was pretty much an instant sell for me, but just to make sure this wasn't some re-titled horror cheapie I'd already seen, I turned the box around. The first thing I saw on the back was the name of The Dead Pit's director, Mr. Brett Leonard. Wait a minute... the Brett Leonard?!

For those who don't know, Brett Leonard is the fearless auteur behind such films as The Lawnmower Man (famously taken to court for using Stephen King's name and title but not his story), Hideaway (famously bad-mouthed by Dean R. Koontz for straying too far from his story) and Virtuosity (which wasn't based on a book, so nobody got upset). For Christmas two years ago I gave Chris Funderburg his 2005 movie Feed*, about an enthusiastic serial feeder who forces food down women's throats and posts pictures of their consequently obese frames online. Because of Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity Leonard has a reputation as one of the first, pre-Matrix "cyberpunk" directors. He's also credited with pioneering the IMAX craze with a T-Rex docuventure called Back to the Cretaceous and a Siegfried & Roy 3-D performance for which he's listed as co-writer. But it all began in 1989 with his feature debut, which he directed, co-wrote and edited: The Dead Pit.

So at this point I'm a little conflicted. When I laid out the rules for this project several weeks ago I clearly stated that the criteria for selection would be based solely on surface elements: the box art, the title on the cover and the obscurity of the movie (at least as far as my own knowledge). Selecting a movie by a director whose work I'm a) quite familiar with and b) an admitted fan of seems like it would be cheating. If I wanted to watch the lesser-known films of directors I like I'd start a series based on that and track down copies of Luis Buñuel's The River and Death and Budd Boetticher's A Time for Dying (note to self: start that series). So, would it technically be cheating to count this one as a true "video oddity?"

Here's what I decided: Brett Leonard's name is on the box, right? Same as the zombie with the eyes that light up. Same as the enticing two word tagline. Same as the intriguingly crude title, The Dead Pit. I didn't come to the store looking specifically for the movie because I knew Brett Leonard directed it: I found it right on the shelf between The Dead Next Door and The Dead Pool (misshelved). It wasn't even a recommendation! So as far as I'm concerned it qualifies under the superfluous guidelines I set up for this project and is therefore fair game.

We open on the State Institution for the Mentally Ill, where a seemingly caring doctor is making his nightly rounds. Nothing alarming about that. Horror films set largely in psychiatric hospitals were plentiful in the 80's: From Beyond, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Most of the institutes in these films are run by tyrannical, condescending, often sadistically cold authority types but maybe this guy is different. Maybe he actually cares. It seems like a possibility... at least until the doctor opens a door to a padded room, approaches its quivering occupant in the corner and shoves an icepick behind the poor bastard's occipital bone, severing the nerves of the frontal lobe and turning the patient into a vegetable. Without a consent form!

Words fade up on the screen glorious green letters: "A Brett Leonard Film...THE DEAD PIT!"

This improvisational surgeon is Dr. Colin Ramzi, and if his bedside manner seems abrupt you should see his ethics in the operating room. In this case that would be the hospital's dilapidated basement, where Ramzi holds late night brain acupuncture appointments with (unwilling) residents of the institution. For some reason he's convinced that he can create life from death, and is testing that hypothesis by first creating death from life then trying to reverse the whole process. His independent study is discovered by colleague Dr. Gerald Swan (Jeremy Slate), who is so put off by the sight of the patients' writhing bodies stacked one on top of the other in a crude pit emitting eerie green smoke that he shoots Ramzi in the head and seals the basement door, thus ridding the world of his evil forever.

The end. Or wait, that's just the prologue! And isn't it weird that Swan sealed the basement instead of calling the cops? It's not like he was implicated in this business, he just stumbled onto it. Doesn't really make much sense, but twenty years later Swan's still walking the halls of the institute with a spring in his step, not troubling his mind at all over the rotting corpses festering in the cellar, content that nobody is performing impromptu needlework on the brains of the current patients (most likely). If at this point in the film you're thinking, 'This guy's going to end up strapped down on a crude operating table with long pins sticking out of his exposed brain," then you're almost exactly right. (Ok, you're exactly right).

Something about the movie up to this point seemed familiar... crazy surgeon, abusing his resident privileges to lobotomize patients and eventually turn them into mixed-up zombies? Where have I come across this plot recently? Oh yeah – in the subject of my very first Video Oddities entry, the brilliantly-advertised if artistically-lacking Dr. Butcher MD. Leonard's film cuts out the middle man by going straight to the surgeon manufacturing zombies within the hospital rather than complicating things by having unexplained hospital mutilations lead to a Caribbean island where said surgeon is operating. And The Dead Pit makes use of all the elements I'd hoped to find in the previous movie but was sadly denied: a clearly-identified homicidal physician, despicable acts of intentional malpractice and – as I'll discuss in a moment – plenty of hilarious medical puns. No house calls, though. Still no house calls.

But anyway twenty years later, a young lady with no memory of her past ("I call myself Jane. Jane Doe.") is dropped off at the institute. As played by the lovely Cheryl Lawson, Jane looks like a busty cross between A Nightmare on Elm Street's Heather Lagenkamp and Hellraiser's Ashley Lawrence. Jane gets violently upset whenever someone suggests she's suffering from amnesia. That's because she's sure of one thing: somebody opened her skull and surgically removed her memories. (Again, no police involvement: no investigation into her background or attempts to locate her family are made – what kind of town is this?) She doesn't remember how or who (or when or where or why) but she has a bad feeling the person responsible for extracting her past is not quite through with her. Sure enough, one particular fit triggered by some horrible, hidden memory seems to cause a massive earthquake which rocks the hospital and cracks the seal on the basement door, from which medical deviate Dr. Ramzi and his decomposed subjects emerge, cranky from their nap and ready to rampage.

Wearing a surgical mask with a bullet hole between two glowing red eyes, Ramzi, the prominent monster of the piece, remains generally stoic but occasionally displays a glimmer of personality, mostly through brilliantly horrible puns. He takes a page from Freddy's book and assaults his victims with some awesomely bad one-liners. Just two wince-worthy examples: when Jane looks out the window and sees him holding the decapitated head of her friend the orderly in a warped, undead surgeon version of John Cusack holding up the boom box in the rain, he lovingly shouts "I'm the head surgeon here!" Later, after his unnecessary open vascular on poor Dr. Swan, he makes a mushy gift to Jane of some of the scooped-out grey matter, claiming "The doctor wanted me to give you a piece of his mind." He doesn't start the heavy punning until after his return from the grave, so it could be the satanic evil that inspired this terrible party-comedian routine he's developed. God knows how many bad jokes this zombie buddies had to endure during their 20 year confinement in the basement.

Personally, I think the movie's undead creatures look really good – they rival the ones in Re-Animator as the most underrated zombies in horror movie history. Interestingly, they're not cannibalistic. Instead of consuming their victims, they just dog pile on them and rip them asunder. When you think about it this take on the zombie makes more sense than the better-known modern flesh-eating variety popularized by George Romero. After all these guys have been lying around in a pit for 20 years, why start eating now? The decision to make them vegetarian zombies must have been a budget constraint – if that's the case, it works in the movie's favor. It's a good move on Leonard's part: why waste money on gore effects that are going to turn out subpar and/or cheesy when you can spend the money on other things that make the film look professional like great-looking zombies? Or concentrate the special makeup effects on two or three big pieces like the ol' dental drill through the eye gag? Most of the deaths happen off-screen, but the sense of terror is upheld by the quality effects we do see. With considerations like these it's no surprise that Leonard would go on to have a successful career making a lot out of a little.

Leonard also made intelligent budget concessions in the costume department, having Cheryl Lawson spend the entire film wearing only a white cut-off tank top and matching French-cut bikini bottoms. An excellent directorial choice any way you look at it.

I'll quickly transition here from lowbrow to scholarly by suggesting that Jane's lack of wardrobe could also be symbolic of the how exposed she feels inside the institute. (Do you buy that?) She also feels frustratingly out of place: as she points out, "I can't remember my past - that doesn't make me crazy!" She's surrounded by howling madmen, lecherous orderlies, a doctor who doesn't believe her oblique stories of alleged brain tampering and another doctor with glowing red eyes and claws who disappears before anyone else can see him before turning up outside her window holding a decapitated head. And the problem with being in a nuthouse is, when you tell your newly-appointed therapist you saw a blood-splattered surgeon with glowing red eyes and claws the size of full-length pencils standing in the middle of the lawn outside your room who threw a decapitated head at your window, he doesn't believe you. In fact he's even less likely to believe you if you're a patient in an institution as opposed to just some random person on the street claiming a clawed, red-eyed surgeon threw a head at them. In the real world such a claim may warrant the slightest suspension of disbelief, long enough at least to wonder if said stranger just escaped from an insane asylum, but actually in an insane asylum? No way. You're on your own. So naturally she feels a little exposed, mentally as well as physically.

Even less exposed is her past, which is dished out in brief flashbacks Jane experiences while hypnotized during therapy sessions run by Dr. Swan. The mystery of Jane's identity (which by the way is blatantly obvious but Leonard has enough respect for the audience to not make a big deal out of the eventual revelation... think Empire Strikes Back) is directly tied to these projected memories, most of them of a young girl being hastened away from a playground by her mother due to the presence of an unseen observer. How Ramzi and his army are revived isn't exactly clear but if it was the psychic-earthquake seemingly caused by Jane, it could be a resurrection manifested directly from her "removed" childhood trauma. By the end of the movie this mob of monster memories has completely overrun the building, ripping hapless staff members to pieces. Not too many institutions like this offer psychological healing via zombie orgy – hopefully she appreciates it. Much more therapeutic than the cold hose shower she receives from a cackling nurse at any rate.

The tension builds to a biblically epic finale where Ramzi sets the army of undead (or, projections of young woman's mental trauma) loose in the institution and sets aside some personal time to practice embroidery on Swan's amygdala. In probably the best scene of the movie, Jeremy Slate lies unmoving on the operating table, his face displaying a wide array of emotions – happy, sad, scared, pleasured, confused – as Ramzi manipulates the various lobes and neurotransmitters in his naked brain. It's a weirdly intimate scene that Slate plays absolutely straight, cooing like a content baby one second then wincing like a pathetic alcoholic. Only a couple frames in length, it would be ripped off ten years later in the only memorable part of Ridley Scott's Hannibal but here silent acting proves more power than corny dialogue. And creepier.

In the end Jane's inmate buddy, a swarthy bearded fellow with a theatrical British accent who earlier confided in her that he's a demolition expert who likes to go a little too far with his explosions, finally gets to blow something up. It turns out that one of the asylum patients, a raving woman running around dressed as a nun, has the power to turn regular water into holy water, which harms the assaulting horde – actually, it melts their faces. So in a neat turn, the demolition expert has her bless all the water inside a giant water tower outside the institute then uses his keen demolition skills to blow it up and flood the grounds with the enhanced, purifying waves, sending the zombies back to the grave where they belong.

Just the year before in 1988, another talented filmmaker who'd make his way up to directing big box office fare had released a similar "haunted institution" film. Renny Harlin's Prison, his first American film and therefore a debut of sorts itself, featured a penitentiary whose current inmates find themselves being stalked by a statically-empowered former convict who fried in the electric chair 30 years ago or so they thought. Like the parallels between Jane’s mental health and the outbreak of rioting ghouls, the killing spree of Prison's Charlie Forsythe (which is also ostensibly aimed at revenge against the authority figure who killed him but claims plenty of extra victims along the way) is materialized from the casual brutality of prison life in general.

Leonard and Harlin both understand the group mentality found in institutions that stifles individuality and could potentially manifest into chaotic slaughter. Pit's hospital-as-torture chamber theme, complete with hose-handling sadistic chief nurse in the tradition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, suggests that the mere mechanizations of institutions make them transposable to one another; a corrupt or incompetent health care system is no different than a badly-run prison. The only chance the individual has is escape from whatever embodiment the mentality of institutionalization takes shape as, be it a red-eyed neurosurgeon gripping a bloody scalpel in his clawed hand or a glowing telekinetic ghost with a grudge and a lot of deadly voltage at his fingertips. Jane never learns her real (first) name and never fully recovers the memory of her past, so when she emerges from the debris of the State Institution for the Mental Ill she's almost reborn, a new identity and hopeful future.

Maybe I'm being too kind to a movie that (it turns out) was written in one week, but even if I didn't know anything about Brett Leonard coming into it, I'd still feel his direction brings a lot to what could have been a standard zombie outing. Besides an expert handling of the usual horror movie techniques – panning down to reveal a sinister person, things popping up subtly just outside the frame of tracking shots – Leonard really thinks about his shots and gives them epic, big budget movie treatment. And he is not afraid of the wide-angle lens.

The Dead Pit is basically Brett Leonard's take on a Nightmare on Elm Street style horror film, which is a good pairing – Leonard should have gotten a chance to direct one of those, as Renny Harlin did after Prison. Now that they're starting the series over again maybe he can! Cyber-Freddy... I'm into it.

or what i learned later

The Dead Pit's original trailer has a number of choice taglines, all recited in that great, urgent 80's monotone voiceover. My favorite is "The distance between the depths of a damaged mind and the depths of hell is no greater than the thickness of a door... and now, the door is open!"

The movie is a favorite of the great Joe Bob Briggs, who called it an "excellent zombie-rama" and awarded it four stars. Highlighted in his drive-in totals was the "close-up brain surgery, with spurting" and "formaldehyde fu." He didn't like the zombies as much as I did, calling the makeup "derivative - basically George Romero zombies with the herky-jerky Spastic Stomp." I understand what he's saying, but I liked them.

The idea for the murderous Dr. Ramzi comes from Brett Leonard reading about trans-orbital lobotomies administrated to housewives in the 1950's by a man named Dr. Gerald Freeman. He also remembers being scared as a child by the cold neurosurgeon who operated on his mom, who had brain cancer.

I honestly think this film is more deserving of the title Dr. Butcher MD, but The Dead Pit is a pretty funny one (Leonard states he thought it was a good title at the time and now can't imagine what he was thinking).

The scantily-clad, shriek-happy Cheryl Lawson was a trick horse rider when she auditioned for the film on a fluke. Since then she's worked as a stunt woman on Joss Whedon's TV shows and high-profile movies like Spiderman 2. She had a cameo in Virtuosity, demonstrating Leonard's loyalty to his actors: Stephen Gregory Foster (the accented male lead) and Jeremy Slate also had small roles in The Lawnmower Man. Danny Gochnauer's role as Dr. Colin Ramzi was his first and last.

Leonard remembers with great fondness seeing as a young boy the scene in True Grit where Jeremy Slate cuts off Dennis Hopper's fingers.

When he started pre-production on The Dead Pit, Leonard was working in a natural health food distribution company. He and a friend had teamed up for a Super-8 feature called Serious Problem (or, No Turning Back) which was never finished. He tried to get a movie going called Deception, based on the reported interest of Rae Dawn Chong, but it fell through at the last minute. A producer hired him to shoot action scenes for a stalled film called Deadlock and was so impressed he offered to set Leonard up with a $150,000 budget to shoot a 35mm horror movie using the same location. "You got a script ready?" the producer asked. "Yes - yes we do," Leonard responded. He and his writing partner went home and pounded out the screenplay for The Dead Pit in one week.

I've got to say, although the movie is clearly budget-constricted, $150,000 seems remarkably low considering the finished product. It absolutely holds up 20 years later (woah... the movie came out 20 years ago... and in the movie 20 years pass until the return of Ramzi. Sequel time!) But seriously, it's an above-average feature horror debut. The acting is good, the camerawork precise and professional, and the zombies look great. It's not hard to see why Leonard went on to bigger things, and why today he states "I am as proud of The Dead Pit as any film I ever made."

This movie reminded me how great Leonard is and made me wonder what he's up to these days. Next up (and this is really exciting) he'll be directing a re-launch of the Highlander series, the fifth film of the franchise subtitled The Source, starring Adrian Paul and In Bruges' Thekla Reuten. That sounds like a really good match-up, and I'm genuinely excited for it to come out!

Oh, it already came out in 2007? Whoops.

The Dead Pit was recently released on dvd, but I seriously doubt the zombie eyes light up...

~ OCTOBER 28, 2008 ~
* "Leonard! Leonard! Leonard!" I was heard to chant upon opening the package at my parent's Calgary home. Readers, if you need verification of this anecdote, just let me know and I will send you my mom's e-mail address - chris