‘Alien Dead‘ is a low-budget zombie-sci-fi-horror film that was written, produced, and directed by Fred Olen Ray, and was released in 1980.
This was the third film from Fred Olen Ray, and he has since gone on to become a formidable ‘one man band’ in the B-Movie world having written, directed, produced, and acted in dozens of films with titles as diverse as ‘Demented Death Farm Massacre‘ (1977), ‘Commando Squad‘ (1987) ‘Invisible Mom II‘ (1999) ‘Bikini Time Machine‘ (2011), ‘Busty Housewives of Beverly Hills‘ (2012), and many, many more.
And if that wasn’t enough, Fred Olen Ray has also had a second career as a wrestler with the stage name ‘Fabulous Freddie Valentine’.
Whatever else there is to say about Alien Dead there is always one thing that immediately recommends it above the many other similarly low budget zombie flicks; it stars Buster Crabbe. Forever solidified in the memories of cult film fans everywhere as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the old Universal serials, Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe had a long career after those, and this film, made when Crabbe was in his early seventies, was one of his last screen appearances. He may no longer be the young and handsome lycra-clad athlete of his best known pictures, but Crabbe still has a powerful onscreen charisma that means he dominates every scene he is in.
Perhaps surprisingly, Crabbe is not the only good thing about Alien Dead. The plot is some threadbare nonsense about a meteor striking a houseboat during a party and turning the people on-board into zombies (they’re always referred to as ‘monsters’ but trust me, they’re zombies), which then hunt the living.
It’s set around the swamps in the American south, where the men all wear big hats, the women all wear tiny shorts, and the fact that people keep getting killed in the bayou doesn’t stop local girls from topless bathing. So far, so generic. What sets Alien Dead apart is not its outer space connection, it’s the water. There are only a few (Zombie Lake 1981, Shock Waves 1977) zombie films which use water as such a major plot point and there is something chilling about seeing the zombies emerge from it, return to it and swimming beneath it. Other films have used water to varying effect but the idea of zombies living under water in a creepy and sweltering Florida swamp really works. Water is a great horror motif, we are always troubled by what lies unseen beneath its surface, and pairing that fear with the zombie genre is a good idea in this instance.
The zombies in Alien Dead are actually quite content staying in the swamps and being left alone it seems, and it is only when they start running out of alligators and local wildlife to eat that they start coming on to land in order to look for people to satisfy their hunger. The rest of the film centers around a small group of people trying to work out where these zombies have come from and how to stop them.
In some ways, the fact that there is a good idea at the centre of Alien Dead just makes the rest of it all the more disappointing. Outside of Crabbe, the performances are underwhelming at best, with accents straying off in all directions and lines delivered at a hesitant trudge. The dialogue is cliché ridden and disposable and the story is appallingly clumsy with no real sub-plots or character development of any kind.
The hero and heroine meet and then make out with barely a line of dialogue or significant glance in between to suggest that they might like each other. But worst of all is how the film is shot. Sometimes budget is obviously dictating what we see, with characters staring off-screen at the interesting stuff that the filmmakers could not afford to show. Other times there is outright incompetence; scenes seem to switch from day to night and back again while the editing is jumpy and jarring. The scenes of zombies attacking people, where you would imagine the film would pick up, are so slow that they are tedious rather than thrilling and certainly never frightening. The only good camerawork is the underwater stuff which is eerily effective, but then the zombies surface and it all goes wrong again. When on dry land, everything about this movie suggests a half-arsed, nobody cares approach.
The gonzo nature of the film-making technique employed here – erratic pacing, disjointed scenes, bizzare camera angles, crazy script, etc… actually makes this quite a surreal but magnetic experience to watch, you know fundamentally it is bad film-making, but it has a strange and unique character all of its own that is odd and dreamlike, with an off-kilter atmosphere throughout.
The soundtrack for Alien Dead is also notable as this is probably the only zombie film to use bluegrass in the score, which is mixed alongside the usual 80s synth sounds that were a horror staple at the time. The electronic score was composed by Franklin Sledge and Chuck Sumner (who also acted as a producer on the movie), and the bluegrass tracks were by American Bluegrass Express. The abrupt ending of the film is wonderfully weird and features a shot of zombie emerging from the depths of the swamp before being freeze-framed with some upbeat and catchy bluegrass playing as the credits roll.
I don’t want to seem excessively negative about the film because there is stuff in it I like, not least the fact that the hero’s name is Tom Corman (the film does bear a real resemblance to Roger Corman’s Attack of the Giant Leeches). But overall the impression left is one of a wasted opportunity.
Watch the trailer for Alien Dead’:
Watch an extended interview with Fred Olen Ray in this episode of the Incredibly Strange Film Show, where is his interviewed by Jonathan Ross and discusses his life and approach to making films.
|Alien Dead at Amazon|
|Alien Dead soundtrack at Site of the Dead|
Written by: Robin Bailes.