DEAD DON’T DIE, THE (TV)(director: Curtis Harrington; screenwriter: Robert Bloch; cinematographer: James Crabe; editor: Ronald J. Fagan; music: Robert Prince; cast: Ray Milland (Jim Moss/Varrick), George Hamilton (Don Drake), Ralph Meeker (Lt. Reardon), Linda Cristal (Vera LaValle), Joan Blondell (Levenia), Reggie Nalder (Perdido), Jerry Douglas (Ralph Drake), James McEachin(Frankie Specht); Runtime: 74; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Henry Colman; Worldvision Home Video; 1975)
“If given more to work with Harrington could have come up with a possible cult classic.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A well-crafted and captivating mystery/horror B film, that falls short only because so many things don’t add up. It’s shot as an old-fashioned supernatural period piece, set in the mid-1930s, that’s scripted by pulp novelist Robert Bloch, whose novel was used for “Psycho” (1960). Talented director Curtis Harrington (“Night Tide”/”Ruby”/”What’s the Matter with Helen?”)does a nice job with executing the far-fetched story and getting good performances from the ensemble cast.
The plot, in this low-budget made for TV production, concerns a mysterious voodoo chief scheming to raise a zombie army to rule the state of Illinois (and eventually the world).
Bloch originally set the story at a carnival in the 1950s, but the producers hoped to cash in on the box office success of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)” and with the knowledge that a Depression-style dance marathon would look good and could be cheaply shot.
The innocent Ralph Drake (Jerry Douglas) is executed in 1934 for the murder of his wife Frances at the Illinois State Penitentiary; his last wish is for his sailor brother Don (George Hamilton) to clear his name and help catch the real killer. Even though Don is unable to save his brother from the electric chair, he believes in his brother’s innocence and takes a Naval leave of absence to stay in Chicago and search for the truth. This takes him to the crime scene, the Loveland Ballroom, where his brother and wife earned a living by dancing in dance marathons operated by the seedy promoter Jim Moss (Ray Milland). Don learns that during a marathon dance a sleeping Ralph woke up from his slumber to find his dead wife on the floor, and the one who found him, the club trainer, Frankie Specht (James McEachin), gave the court the circumstantial evidence needed to convict the innocent man. Moss tells the confused Don that Specht has since disappeared.
While Don is sitting in the hotel restaurant with a strange French woman who approached him, Vera LaValle(Linda Cristal),she warns him to leave town because the sinister Varrick, someone she never met but knows is a Zombie Master, has plans to raise an army of the dead for his own evil reasons and will not allow him to interfere with those plans. While they’re talking Don sees through the window his brother walking in the street and follows him to an antique shop. When the clerk (Joan Blondell) won’t let him in, Don pushes his way in but fails to see Ralph. Instead the antique store owner, Perdido (Reggie Nalder), appears and in their struggle Don accidentally kills him. When Vera rescues him from the antique store and brings him to her place, she tells him if he wants answers about Varrick to go with her to a funeral home. There Don observes Perdido in a coffin, in the chapel, and is startled as he raises himself from the dead to attack Don. When Don uses Vera’s gun to shoot him, the bullets fail to penetrate. The startled Don reports this at the police station to Lt. Reardon (Ralph Meeker), but when they try to confirm Perdido’s death at the antique store they instead find him there alive and well.
Filled with a sinister noir atmosphere and creepy monsters emerging from the shadows, the pic moves into surreal turf and the unfortunate Don is left alone with no one to trust and no one to believe him while he desperately tries to clear his brother’s name. Don continues to investigate and continues to face shocking situations, and is crushed to find Ralph is a zombie.
It channels filmmaker Val Lewton’s horror pics and the writer Cornell Woolrich’s noir stories, but without the same heft to give one the perception this could be plausible even for a big city minute. But it’s entertaining and engrossing hokum, and shows that if given more to work with Harrington could have come up with a possible cult classic.
REVIEWED ON 2/15/2011 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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