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1980’s The Alien Dead marks the feature film directorial debut of one of the industry’s most prolific film makers, Fred Olen Ray. In his 35+ year (and still going) career, Ray has directed almost 150 films, ranging from low-budget sci-fi (Super Shark) to low-budget horror (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers) to low-budget late-night cable softcore (Bikini Airways) to low-budget holiday made-for-TV films (A Prince for Christmas).
Like all aspiring filmmakers, Ray had to start his film career somewhere. In this case, that place was central Florida. Oviedo, to be precise. I wanted to mention this fact early in the review as it admittedly has significance in how I look at and review this film. What can I say? It’s home. Florida, not Oviedo.
The blu-ray release of The Alien Dead also features 2 additional short films, The Brain Leeches and The Halloween Planet. These features will be covered in addition to the main film.
The Alien Dead: A group of vacationing Northerners, aka “yankees”, are enjoying a night of partying aboard a houseboat on a river in a rural Southern town. The boat is hit by a falling meteor, killing all on-board. For whatever reason, they soon return as zombies.
After eating the entire local alligator populace, the zombies are forced to venture out from the waters to feed upon the surrounding townsfolk. The struggle is real, folks. When citizens start disappearing, a local reporter teams up with a game warden and a spunky young country girl in order to discover the truth behind the mystery. Along the way, they must contend with a cantankerous sheriff (serial star Buster Crabbe), a bumbling deputy, and a cast of other eccentric townsfolk.
As stated on the included commentary, Crabbe was cast solely because Ray believed that the film needed a “star”, and the former star of both Buck Rogers AND Flash Gordon was the only one that Ray had any sort of access to. The remainder of the cast is composed of local actors, as well as a few townsfolk and friends that happened to be available at that time. While this generally leads to more than a few laughable performances, The Alien Dead is defined by this “local flavor”. Much like Bill Rebane’s The Giant Spider Invasion, the sense that this was a community effort adds an immeasurable charm to the production, especially if you happen to be a life-long Floridian like myself.
The Alien Dead is a poorly made film, but it does serve as an interesting study in low-budget film making. Most viewers rightfully won’t be able to see past the shoddy make-up, piss poor acting, or questionable editing. Florida horror fans, however, should really consider giving it a look. It’s another piece in our state’s rich horror history. Not necessary a “great” piece, but still a piece.
Audio/Video – When faced with describing the HD transfer, one question kept popping into my head. “What were you expecting?”
Simply put, The Alien Dead has never looked very good. While most of this is due to using low-quality film elements, some of the issue is due to an inexperienced film maker. Before you take that as any kind of “slam” against Fred Olen Ray, know that he himself makes the same assessment of the film on the included commentary track. That said, the transfer presented here is generally a noticable upgrade from previously released versions. I say “generally” because, as Ray also states in the commentary, the original film print was lost over time, so this transfer was struck using existing 16mm negatives. This causes a few shots to be of significantly lesser visual quality, but this deserves no real complaint.
Grain spikes significantly in a few scenes, and some early sequences feature some sort of line running vertically through the image. It’s not overly distracting, especially given the film’s overall visual quality, but was worth mentioning.
Audio? Um? Dialog was clear. That’s about all I can say. Trust me, no one is watching this one for the audio quality.
Commentary – Steve Latshaw (Biohazard: The Alien Force, Jack- O) joins Ray for the included commentary track. This is an informative look at the making of the film, and Ray’s ability to laugh at the film’s multiple flaws keeps it humorous and light. One particularly interesting story involves Ray being arrested for trespassing during the shot, while another deals with extras making sure they got in a few on-screen gropes on a female cast member who backed out of a nude scene.
Also worth mentioning, the commentary track would abruptly cut when scenes changed and then pick back up further along in the conversation. While I don’t feel that the viewer is losing any pertinent information during these cuts, it’s definitely jarring.
In addition to the commentary track, the disc also includes a VHS Cover (art) Gallery, a Still Gallery, and some brief footage from a 1992 Cast Reunion (featuring 3 cast members) filmed for Orlando’s WESH television station.
The Brain Leeches – The Brain Leeches is the first film of any sort made by Fred Olen Ray. Shot in black and white, and presumably on 8mm.
The film can be seen as the “seeds” of what would become The Alien Dead, although Ray states that he was unaware at the time at just how similar the 2 films were. While The Alien Dead dealt with zombies spawned by a falling meteor, The Brain Leeches obviously deals with leeches. Duh. In this film’s case, the leeches are alien entities that take over the minds of those they attack. However, I would argue that this film has a much more cohesive plot than its successor. Granted, that’s not much of a challenge.
The film careens into odd directions, featuring brain leech-controlled comedians and musicians performing for the locals. Ray also throws in a nod to his love of wrestling by adding a masked wrestler character. This adds nothing to the film, but was worth mentioning…. I guess. At least the feature is only 50 minutes long.
Also includes a commentary track.
The Halloween Planet – This is a children’s Halloween special from 1981 that was presumably made for the local PBS affiliate that Ray worked for at the time. Ray may have said this on the included commentary track, but I didn’t bother to listen to it. Just being honest.
Ray seemingly had a line on former serial stars of the 40’s, as The Halloween Planet stars the original Superman, Kirk Alyn. Alyn stars as “Paul the Watcher”, the host/narrator. The story begins with some spoiled little shit that doesn’t get things his way and runs away from home…. in a spaceship. His younger sister stows away on the ship, which somehow causes the spacecraft to veer off-course.
With a little outside intervention from Paul, they are guided towards a planet that resembles a kindergartner’s interpretation of a jack o’lantern. The ship lands and the kids disembark on a planet featuring an environment that almost appears to have been made up from set pieces left over from Plan 9 from Outer Space and the old Monster Squad TV series. They are soon greeted by a robot-man, stop-motion dinosaurs, and a bad Vampira impersonator. In other words, a brunette in a black dress. It could have been a wig for all I know.
The woman introduces herself as Countess Dracula. She tells the kids that they have landed on Halloween Planet, which really is a pretty shitty name for a planet when you stop to think about it. It’s more like the name of some over-priced, mass-retailer of Halloween costumes. You know, the same ones we obsessively look for every late September.
On Halloween Planet, the inhabitants celebrate all things Halloween the entire year round….. even though, like Earth, they only celebrate the holiday on the actual date. Don’t do the math. The boy scoffs, claiming to be “too old” for Halloween. Maybe, but you’re not too old for an ass-whoopin’, you little prick. His sister laments that she’s never invited to Halloween parties. It’s probably because her brother is such a douchebag.
Shocked by their sentiments, the Countess invites them to her castle for her own Halloween bash in the hopes of changing their opinion of the holiday. The Countess escorts them around the party, introducing them to her husband, Count Dracula. Dracula gives the kids a brief recounting of his origins, most notably that he was originally a (real) human. After his speech, the kids are taken around the room to eat cake and play games such as “Pin the Tail On the Donkey”. From here, the show takes a “kitchen sink” approach to Halloween, throwing out dragons, werewolves, Cyclopes, aliens, and even palm readers in its arsenal of “spooky” background players.
Unfortunately, The Halloween Planet is painfully directionless. Even at 24 minutes, the show is dreadfully dull and features no real plot whatsoever. Scenes drag out far too long, jokes fall flat, and the show ends without the kids really learning any sort of “lesson” or appreciation for the holiday. I imagine that kids in the early 80’s would have been insanely bored by The Halloween Planet, while kids today will probably blast their parents on social media for making them watch it. Not that I would blame them, either. Adults may find some amusement in the high level of “What-the-fuckery?” on display, but probably only if they are high off their asses.
Personally, I think the story of how Dracula and his wife got to another planet in the first damned place would have made a much more fascinating story.
FINAL VERDICT: The Alien Dead is undeniably a “hard sell”. Is it a good movie? No, but those most likely to purchase this disc most likely already know that. Is it a good transfer? Well, yeah…… compared to previous versions. It’s not going to impress those unfamiliar with the film, but it’s definitely an upgrade. Fans of the film probably won’t need to hear much more than that previous sentence.
If nothing else, the film serves as a look at how far Ray’s career has progressed, as well as a fine example of community minded film making. Florida horror fans may get a kick out of seeing their state as it looked many years ago. Otherwise, the film is very much not for those looking for any kind of “polished product”.
The 2 bonus features are really nothing more than curiosities. Morbid curiosities.