Dead & Buried (1981) 4K Ultra HD Limited Edition Review: Uncovered ’80s Horror Gem

Dead & Buried takes place in a small town, which is always bad news in a horror movie. Those are places where people can keep each other’s secrets, since they have some of their own. They’re also supposed to be “nice” places, so when something horrible happens there, the contrast makes it all the more redolent and disturbing.

The small town in this case is Potter’s Bluff, and the horrible thing starts off looking like a traffic accident. A van flipped over, caught fire, with a crispy driver still strapped in. At least that’s how the local sheriff Dan sees it, since he, unlike the audience, didn’t get to watch the first scene where we meet the driver. He’s a photographer on a vacation, and while taking pictures on the beach he stumbles across a local cutie who thinks she ought to be in pictures.

Just after her top is properly doffed, the beach is suddenly swarming with people. The man is beaten to the ground, his bones broken. Then he’s tied in a net, doused with gasoline and lit on fire. It’s a graphic and disturbing scene, the first of several gory murders that punctuate the film.

Dan, while investigating the crash and trying to identify the driver (who, horrifically burnt though he is, is still alive) is stumped when another body shows up, this clearly a deliberate murder. This isn’t the sort of thing he moved back to Potter’s Bluff to deal with. Just why he got a masters in criminology (as a backstory-knowledgeable local obligingly informs us) just to move back to his old town is a mystery, maybe even to him. Especially since from the get-go he seems suspicious of everything in town, including his own wife.

While investigating the increasing strangeness in town, the closest thing Dan has to a sounding board is Dobbs, the local coroner, who also runs the funeral home. He’s passionate about reconstructing corpses and resents heavy closed caskets. People should be able to see his work, as he tells Dan at length. This leads to an extraordinary special effects scene in the film where the body of a young hitchhiker whose face has been bashed in half is lovingly stripped down and reconstructed by Dobbs until she looks perfect. It’s a grotesque and disturbing sequence, one of many special effects master Stan Winston created for the film.

Dead & Buried has the unusual storytelling strategy of keeping the audience generally a step ahead of the protagonist. We see the murders, and the perpetrators, while Dan remains clueless throughout. We also learn well before he does that these murderers are all his fellow townspeople, the ones he interacts with every day. And that the murdered are coming back to town, looking perfectly healthy. The real mystery for us is discovering why these things happen, and the suspense comes from the audience knowing Dan is in potential danger at any moment, and having no clue.

The screenplay for the film is credited to Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who also wrote Alien and Total Recall. Dead & Buried was based on an earlier screenplay (so much so O’Bannon was reluctant to take the screen credit) and apparently during production it was intended to be more of a dark comedy. Executive meddling added some extra gore scenes and cut enough of the film that the element of humor is pretty minimal.

What’s left is an atmospheric, mostly grim little film that has a real, palpable sense of dread about it. James Farentino’s performance as Sheriff Dan is appropriately tortured, as he finds the quiet small town life he came back for disappearing at every step. And the film takes its time with each scene, building tension without sacrificing it for quick jump scares. It’s deliberately paced but engrossing, gross but not revolting. It’s a hidden gem of ’80s horror, happily unearthed on this new 4k release.

Dead & Buried has been released by Blue Underground on 4K Ultra HD. This edition of the film is on three discs: the 4K Blu-ray, a standard Blu-ray, and a CD containing the film’s score by composer Joe Renzetti. Extras, which are duplicated on the 4K and Blu-ray disc, include four feature length commentary tracks: three archival tracks, one with director Garry Sherman, one with co-writer Ronald Shusett and actress Linda Turley, and one with DP Steven Poster. The fourth commentary track is new to this release, and features critics Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson. New video extras include “Behind the Scenes of Dead & Buried” (34 min), 8mm footage shot during the production of the film with commentary by Gary Sherman, Steven Poster, and First A.D. Brian E. Frankish; “Dead & Buried Locations: Now & Then” (4 min); “Murders, Mystery, and Music – Interviews with Director Gary Sherman and Composer Joe Renzetti” (16 min); and “The Pages of Potters Bluff – Interview with Novelization Author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro” (13 min). Archival video extras include “Stan Winston’s Dead & Buried EFX”, (18 min), “Robert Englund: An Early Work of Horror”, (13 min) and “Dan O’Bannon: Crafting Fear”, (15 min) There’s are also a slew of promotional material: trailers, galleries, etc. The included booklet contains an essay on the studio which produced by the film by Michael Gingold.

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Kent Conrad

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