The Frozen Dead (1966) DVD Review: Pre-Hip Unhip Nazi Zombies

Throughout the annals of filmdom, there has been an trait wherein filmmakers aspire to live up to the old adage “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” the only way they know how: by downright copying someone else’s work. Usually, the culprits are lazy American filmmakers, who commonly tend to (ahem) “borrow” the titles, plots, and sometimes even directors of movies made in magical, far-off lands such as France, Australia, and a mythical realm called England. The results are usually laughable at best, yes – but what happens when, say the British, hire an American-born director to write, produce, and direct something that is basically an uncredited remake of the ultra-sleazy grindhouse favorite The Brain that Wouldn’t Die?

The answer is The Frozen Dead. Here, the lesser-known auteur genius of Herbert J. Leder – who also penned the highly inventive Fiend Without a Face in his short career as a filmmaker, before committing to teaching film – takes his morbid fascination with grey matter and splats it up against the wall by taking most of the elements of the aforementioned New York-made oddity (sans such classic seedy motifs like strippers, sadly), adds in a generous portion of movies like The Black Sleep and The Unearthly, and garnishes it all with what would later prove to be a subgenre cash cow: Nazi zombies. Mind you, this was back before zombies acquired a taste for human flesh, so the only brains to be found here are left uneaten.

As if he had taken a cue from one of his own airplane disaster flicks, the great Dana Andrews took a considerable nosedive from greatness here by starring as Dr. Norberg – a former Nazi scientist now living in a remote English village who is working on reanimating members of the Third Reich that have been cryogenically frozen since the end of World War II. Alas, such a task is not an easy one: Norberg’s previous attempts at defrosting his patients has left him with a flock of mental patients locked away in the basement – one of whom used to be his own brother (as portrayed by a then-unknown Edward Fox). In order to fulfill his duty, he needs to study a live human brain in action. But plans for restoring the Reich to its former glory go on, nevertheless – and two top Nazi bigwigs drop in to watch the not-so-good doctor in action.

Sadly, Norberg’s English-raised niece (Anna Palk) – who has no knowledge of her uncle’s past activities – also chooses this less-than-serendipitous time to visit, along with an American girlfriend of hers (Kathleen Breck). Well, it doesn’t take long for Dr. Norberg’s batshit-insane assistant (an insanely hammy Alan Tilvern) to abduct and murder the American girl – giving Norberg the live brain he needs. Naturally, the loss of a body gives the living head the power of telepathy – and she begins to send out distress signals to her oblivious (but very curious) friend in the rooms above the creepy isolated mansion. But will the arrival of a handsome young (and decidedly-English) American doctor (Philip Gilbert, who somehow, amazingly captures the very best physical attributes of the younger incarnations of Dan Aykroyd, Walter Matthau, Anthony Perkins, Tom Noonan, and Chris Barrie all in one) disrupt the severed, telepathic head’s warnings of danger?

More importantly, will Leder manage to direct an entire take wherein the pacing between scenes is not wide enough for one to safely tug an oil tanker through?

Only one gets a “Yes,” kids.

As if the very notion of setting music to a moving picture had almost never been invented, Leder allows his actors to take their time here with very little interference from composer Don Banks. Most of the film unravels in a matter-of-fact manner that asks very little from the viewer; simultaneously giving them much, much more than they probably signed up for to digest in return. One merely has to witness the utterly unsettling scenes of co-star Kathleen Breck as the poor severed head, wherein Leder’s wastrel camera lavishly gobbles up every frame of the doomed character’s misery – presented completely and unapologetically uncut just so it can find a vulnerable spot in your own cranium, and creep into your unconscious as you attempt to sleep later.

Seriously, folks: despite being an enjoyably bad b-movie, The Frozen Dead has a somewhat disturbing quality to it that won’t let you forget about it. But, of course, on the upside, we do get to see a wall of severed arms come to life and strangle Nazis. I mean, you can’t go wrong with that, right?

Previously only available on DVD in North American via a now-out-of-print and none-to-perfect release, the folks at the Warner Archive Collection present this disturbing drama in its original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio and with the film’s original color palette – which was lost on American audiences when first distributed theatrically in 1967, as the domestic prints were only in black-and-white (later TV airings were in color). Frankly, I think this one would have been far creepier in B&W, but it’s always easy to adjust one’s television set to make it so if you concur. Print-wise, the source material used here is in fine shape – and The Frozen Dead shows no real noticeable signs of freezer burn [ta-dum]. The mono English audio comes through just fine, too, and the lack of the movie’s original trailers may seem disheartening (or beheadening, as the case were), but don’t let it discourage you from being weirded out by this equally weird movie.

Recommended. Really.

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Luigi Bastardo

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