The Dead Pit (1989)
Studio: Code Red (via Dark Force Entertainment)
Release date: July 4th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Picture this: it’s any given Friday night during the 90s. You’ve probably got pizza on your mind, but first things first: you’ve got to stop at the video store, where you stroll to the back corner and face an imposing horror section. It’s wall-to-wall with an assortment of monsters, madmen, and mutants, but one case sticks out—quite literally. With its unbelievably cool 3D box art, The Dead Pit practically begs for further inspection. After taking it off the shelf, you discover it also features a button; when pressed, it causes the main zombie’s eyes to blink, sealing the deal: you’re absolutely renting The Dead Pit.
An entire generation of video store brats has some variation of this story, which stands in sharp contrast to many other VHS tales. In an era where outrageous, lurid cover art often oversold films that underdelivered, The Dead Pit absolutely delivered and then some. In fact, its infamous cover may have been burying the lede all this time because it was housing one of the decade’s best zombie movies.
Director Brett Leonard and co-writer Gimel Everett conjure up on of the all-time great mad libs plots here. Deep in the bowels of a mental institution, mad Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer) conducts unconventional experiments on his patients before co-worker Gerald Swan (Jeremy Slate) discovers his gruesome work. Swan decides his only recourse is to put a bullet in Ramzi’s skull and leave him with the botched, mangled bodies down in the basement. 20 years pass, and Swan—now head of the clinic—is startled when a Jane Doe (Cheryl Lawson) staggers in with a case of amnesia. An earthquake also erupts as she’s checked in, causing her to immediately freak out and insist that the “people in the basement” need help. Something is down there, and even Dr. Swan doesn’t truly comprehend the horrors waiting to spill forth from the pit below.
Even though George Romero returned to the zombie genre during the 80s with Day of the Dead, the decade truly belonged to the various films (most of them European in origin) that shamelessly ripped off and exploited Dawn of the Dead. At best, these films paid lip service to Romero’s satirical underpinning; at worst, they tossed it right out in favor of outrageous bloodshed, splattered eyeballs, eviscerated entrails, and various nonsense. The Dead Pit definitely takes its cue from these movies, as Leonard breaks out evocative gel lighting to bathe the proceedings in that distinct, otherworldly glow that made those Italian efforts so atmospheric. Likewise, he leans onto Dan Wyman’s score to create more ambiance and build suspense. Lest you think The Dead Pit is just 100 minutes of unrelenting undead carnage, Leonard does patiently build towards the mayhem.
The resurrected Ramzi, whose eyes glow with ghastly menace, is something of a phantom, haunting Jane Doe’s days and nights. Lawson isn’t asked to do much besides wander through the facility in the skimpiest hospital gown imaginable (at the actress’s own behest, it must be noted), mingle with other patients (she eventually befriends a pyromaniac whose demolition expertise comes in handy), and scream at the appropriate times (which she does quite well). Most importantly, she doesn’t make for bad company to hang out with while Ramzi conducts brain-smashing lobotomies and tosses decapitated heads down the hallway—all while putting on his best Freddy Krueger impersonation with an assortment of jokes and wisecracks.
All that is just prelude to Ramzi’s literal hellraising, as he summons up a virtually endless horde of malformed, undead experiments from a hole in the basement. Put it this way: The Dead Pit boasts over three dozen cast members simply credited as “dead,” and every single one of them goes absolutely nuts during the finale’s nonstop mayhem. This stretch is exactly what you had in mind when you plucked The Dead Pit from the shelf in the first place: heads roll, faces melt, and blood oozes profusely, cementing the film’s legacy as one of the 80s most outrageous gore spectacles.
Not content to simply rest on his gory laurels, Leonard also cranks up the aesthetics: ethereal moonlight and unreal green smoke soak the climax, painting a candy-colored nightmare canvas of undead ghouls and Eurohorror hues. Leonard also dives headlong into the story’s absolute nonsense and fashions a resolution that could only make sense in 80s horror fever dreams, where an insane nun, a tower full of holy water, a demolition expert, a last-second twist, and obvious miniature insane asylum models are absolutely the only way to wrap up the tale of an undead brain surgeon and an unholy zombie legion that emerge from hell itself following an earthquake.
In the thirty years since its release, The Dead Pit has rightfully become a cult staple: the likes of Joe Bob Briggs championed it out of the gate before Imperial Entertainment immortalized it on VHS, allowing its audience to flourish in video stores for the next decade. After introducing the film to another generation of home video enthusiasts on DVD in 2008, Code Red has once again carried the torch with a nice Blu-ray release. The label initially set out to bring things full circle by replicating the original VHS box gimmick before meeting with technical issues; instead, collectors had to “settle” for a limited edition glow-in-the-dark 3D slipcover in addition to some on-screen interviews with Lawson, Slate, Leonard, and Everett. Unfortunately, the bonus supplements from the old 2-disc Best Buy exclusive DVD didn’t make the jump, so you’ll want to hold onto that one for the complete Dead Pit experience. I suppose uber enthusiasts will also want to keep their original VHS copies too to preserve the original gimmick that brought so many of us to the table in the first place.
However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned during the past three decades, it’s that The Dead Pit doesn’t exactly need a gimmick. Atmospheric, gorgeously shot, and overflowing with blood and guts, it speaks for itself—not that the cool, light-up zombie eyes didn’t help, of course.
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