Ever get a crush on a movie? I'm so obsessed with Messiah of Evil (1973) that just writing a capsule review doesn't feel adequate. It's like being totally hung up on a woman and just saying, "Yeah, she's cute." It'd be an injustice. And, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can watch this whole movie online for free (just skip through the chapters there, or search elsewhere - there are other sources), so you don't have to take my word for it. I'm gonna be writing some major SPOILERS here, so you may want to go watch the flick and then come back to this. I won't mind. If you opt out of that, though, I'm going to use this post to try to twist your arm into watching it anyway, so, choose your path. This will be long 'cuz I'm going in-depth. Skim if you wanna.
The secret to this movie is multiple viewings. The first time you see it, it may even be a disappointment. It was for me, slightly, when I first saw it on tape back in the early 90's, because I was expecting an ultra-gory zombie movie, like Dawn of the Dead or Zombie, and while this is a pretty bloody movie, there's not a lot of intestine-gnawing in it. Something about the movie did stick in my head, though, and the next time I watched it I liked it a lot better.
Nowdays I feel compelled to watch it again every couple of months and collect multiple copies of it (which isn't expensive, since it's public domain and can be had for a buck or two, or even less if you buy one of those 50-movie packs). I'm definitely obsessed with the movie (to the point where anybody who spends any time around me is probably thinking, "Ah, Christ, Z's going to go on and on about that movie again") and think it's been woefully overlooked as one of the major classics in the horror genre. I'm not the only one obsessed with it, either. link (another guy who's definitely obsessed - the film inspired him to "rhapsodize" to the point that he kinda scared himself! I feel ya, bro) link or link. The power of it is, I think it's the closest thing to a nightmare I've ever seen captured on film.
Because of its dreamlike structure it's been misunderstood; Michael Weldon of the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (which my friend Rob is now re-creating in blog form - great stuff, check it out here) claimed it was a "confusing, badly edited story," but I think the confusion is mostly intentional and the editing is deliberately bizarre to keep the audience off-balance. The horror here is often absurd, and absurdity can be just as effective a tool for horror as it is for comedy. Fear dissipates with understanding, and this film withholds just enough from you that it enthralls you, but makes you fill in gaps, often with with your imagination's most dreadful things. Dream-logic is used throughout, and I'll explain some of that here.
A brief bit of background on the film: it was made in 1971, written (with Gloria Katz) and directed by Williard Huyck, who also wrote American Graffiti, More American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and did major script-doctoring on Star Wars because George Lucas, the force help 'im, can't write worth a damn. I'm afraid to admit it, but Huyck also directed Howard The Duck. Don't let that put you off. The world is full of bad directors who still had a masterpiece or two in 'em (Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, etc.) The film is also known by the titles Dead People and Revenge of the Screaming Dead, and was filmed under the title The Second Coming.
The basic story is this: a young woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) goes to the "neon stucco" beach town of Point Dune (formerly known as New Bethlehem) to find her father, who's an artist. The letters he'd been sending her grew increasingly bizarre and he finally disappeared. Arletty discovers that the town is being taken over by a cult (or maybe some kind of spiritual disease?) of zombie-like people who stand on the beach and watch the ocean all night, waiting for the return of some "dark messiah." They also kill and eat people, and Arletty fears that she may be becoming one of them. Or perhaps it's all a madwoman's Caligari-esque delusion.
Now, on to specifics.
The dream-logic starts right off the bat with a pre-credit sequence in which a guy is desperately running through the night from some unseen threat. A blank-faced girl (apparently grazed by the Down's Syndrome bullet, if not 10-ringed) watches him from a gate. Then, suddenly she's sitting by a swimming pool on the other side of him (you know how people suddenly change locations in dreams? There ya go). She comforts him as he collapses in exhaustion, then suddenly and dispassionately slices his throat. The whole time a (seemingly) inappropriate love song is playing. Stephen Thrower of the excellent Nightmare USA movie guide lists this as one of the film's weaknesses, but I disagree and think he misunderstands the game the filmmakers are playing with us here. Using a love song as the theme for a horror movie is already throwing the viewer into a "what the fuck am I watching?" delirium. There's something off about the lyrics, too, with a lot of threatening imagery for a song about love.
"I gave my message to the wind, I told my story to the sea
No one else is listening to me
The hidden truth clear in my mind, soon all alone I will not find
Somehow, somewhere, someone may hear me
Hold on to love
Hold on to love
But beware of men who became beasts of prey
How many are they?
Child without a soul, men without a heart
Their one hungry goal to tear your life apart
How many are they, don't try to find out, stay away
They are without shame, this is not a game
From them stay away or you could become one
I gave my message to the wind, I told my story to the sea
Somehow somewhere someone may hear me
Hold on to love
Hold on to love"
Then there's a wonderfully eerie shot of Arletty (seen as a vague backlit shape with just suggestions of emoting visible) wandering down an asylum hallway, emerging from extreme brightness to darkness near the camera. She delivers an unsettling little thorazine-lethargic speech about nightmares (see? They're giving us hints) and how everyone thinks she's crazy. It's even got some absurd laugh-inducing bits (I'm sorry, but a wail about urinating on the floor hits me as hilarious) before walloping you with an unsettling scream.
"They say that nightmares are dreams perverted. I've told them here it wasn't a nightmare, but they don't believe me. They nod, and make little notes in my file, and they watch me now, waiting for me to scar my breasts, to eat insects maybe, or to lift my dress like some crazy old woman and urinate on the floor! But there's so little time left. You've got to listen! Not far from here there's a small town on the coast. They used to call it New Bethlehem but they changed the name to Point Dune after the moon turned blood red. Point Dune doesn't look any different than a thousand other neon-stucco towns, but what happened there, what they did to me, what they're doing now. They're coming here. They're waiting at the edge of the city. They're peering around buildings at night, and they're waiting. They're waiting for YOU. And they'll take you one by one and no one will hear you scream.
NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU SCREEEEAAAAAMMMM!"
Then she narrates (Thrower hates this, too, but I think it's highly effective and not only provides some much-needed gap-filling for the story, but also sets up a helluva mood) as she drives to Point Dune. She stops at a little gas station in the middle of the night, and the attendant is frantically firing a pistol into the darkness. She doesn't drive away, like any normal person would when faced with this situation (nobody reacts to anything appropriately in this nightmare). Then a giant albino black man pulls up for gas. The attendant notices a couple of mutilated corpses in the bed of the pickup, but his reaction to it is limited to hissing to Arletty to get out of there. Then, he goes back to working on cars, until he's attacked, killed, and hung upside down from the car lift. A brilliant shot shows the station lights going out in stages as he screams.
Arletty goes to her father's house, which is like some strange museum; a bed is suspended on chains in the main room, there are paintings of bland people and escalators on the walls, and potted trees everywhere. The colored lighting in these scenes make them look like outtakes from Suspiria. Arletty reads a diary her father scrawled in his sketchbooks, which is filled with worry about his approaching madness and strange things he's seeing ("pale women with sleepless eyes").
At dawn Arletty walks down the beach, past an ocean that looks made of chrome paint. This includes possibly my favorite shot of any movie, ever: she's in the distance in a black robe, walking on a seaweed-strewn beach, and all the rest of the world is obscured by mist. That is the bleakest, doomiest, end-of-the-world-looking frame of film I can think of, and I wish I could do a screen-grab.
Arletty visits the local art gallery looking for any information on her father's whereabouts. The art dealer is a creepy blind, mute woman (that's a blind art dealer, folks, just in case you doubted this film has "absurdity" as an agenda) who communicates by tapping her fingers on her associate's palm. How she's able to convey complicated concepts like her father's name through a few finger taps is unknown and surreal.
Arletty's sent to a motel room where a wild-eyed drunk (Elisha Cook Jr.) is telling a story ("Mama delivered me herself, she took me from between her legs, a bloody little mess, just about to feed me to the chickens when Daddy said 'Maybe we could use a boy, Lottie.' That's how I came into the world."). A fancy-looking guy named Thom (with two pretty girls traveling with him) has paid him for folklore, and Cook describes past days of a red moon, with people losing religion, bleeding out of control, and children eating raw meat. Later he pulls Arletty under some stairs (where it looks like night even though it's noon everywhere else), says "I'm an ugly old man but I'm harmless!" and tells her that she needs to kill her father and burn his body. Cook is later found dead and half-eaten.
Thom and the girls move into Arletty's house uninvited, and she lets them stay, even though the girls act infuriatingly smug. Thom (played by Michael Greer, who was cast against type as a playboy, since he was well-known to be gay) wants to talk to Arletty's father about the blood moon, and tries to seduce Arletty.
One of Thom's girlfriends (knockout Anitra Ford, who was a Price Is Right model) decides she's had enough of Thom's bullshit and splits, catching a ride with our giant albino black friend,. The bed of his truck is full of dead people, but he has to eat a live beach-rat before the jaded Anitra's freaked out enough to get out of the truck. Soon after she's attacked by zombies in a nearly-deserted supermarket (everybody was at eating raw meat out of the butcher bin). This is a classically-creepy scene, with these bland-looking citizens (they look like accountants and such) chasing her through the aisles. The bright lighting and muzak add to the weirdness. If you think fast zombies started with 28 Days Later, check out these stampeding undead conservatives!
Arletty's father is then found dead on the beach under a weird sculpture he was building, but only his hand is exposed under the rubble. That's still enough for Arletty to recognize it's not her father, and there's some conspiracy going on. Arletty's soon noticing signs of encroaching zombism in herself, too; she burns her hand and doesn't feel it, she digs at her leg with a pin and feels nothing, she weeps blood and vomits bugs, lizards, and worms.
Thom's other girlfriend (played by Joy Bang -- now there's a punk rock screen-name for ya) also gets fed up and decides to go to the movies, and we get another classic scare scene that'll stack up to anything in the genre, and was likely an inspiration for Lamberto Bava's Demons. She goes to see Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (ha ha, they make funny!) but instead a Sammy Davis Jr. movie, Gone With The West, comes on. This is a real movie (but came out several years after Messiah of Evil) but what they've done to it here is crazy, and adds to the absurdity. The movie is edited hapazardly, leaving nothing but crazed nonsense. The soundtrack usually isn't appropriate to what's on the screen, either, and jumps around abruptly, like it was pasted together by a meth-amped schizophrenic. As she's watching this insanity, the nearly-empty theater fills up with zombie-folk (it's reminiscent of The Birds) and when she notices people around her bleeding and tries to leave, she finds the doors locked, and she's alone with a crowd of people who want to eat her alive. Goddamn brilliant. (My favorite bit of it is the guy down front who's turned around and staring at her just before the lights go down).
Thom wanders the empty night streets, looking for Joy but finding zombies instead. A crowd of them battle with cops and he barely escapes.
Arletty's father (Royal Dano) comes home, crazy as hell, telling stories about a preacher who survived the Donner Party, came up with a "new religion" fit for a tired, disillusioned world that's looking to old gods. In flashbacks we see this preacher, and he appears to be Thom. The film may have planned to expand on that, but doesn't, leaving it unexplained and weird. Her father paints himself blue and splashes paint all over. Arletty ends up having to kill him and set him on fire.
Thom returns and shadowy zombies are pressing themselves against the skylights and glass of the house. They attack, and Thom and Arletty fight them off and try to escape in the ocean. But she ends up in an asylum and they assume her tale is all an insane delusion. Is it? Or are we ignoring a warning if we're so quick to dismiss it?
She ends it saying, "We sit in the sun and wait. We sleep. And we dream. Each of us dying slowly in the prison of our minds."
Her first lines mention dreaming, as do her last. So I think that "confusion" and "bad editing" that was bothering some people? All intentional, kids. And damn if it doesn't work, too.
The film is very Lovecraftian, without ever actually mentioning anything Cthonian beyond a god emerging from the sea. Point Dune might as well be a sister city to Innsmouth, and the atmosphere of it is extremely evocative of little "neon-stucco" beach towns. I've been in a few, and they're creepy. Pensacola Beach, Florida, in the early 70's was a very strange, Point Dune-ian place, with boxy little stucco houses painted all kinds of horrible colors (pink, lime-sherbet green, etc.). And I was once in some town in Florida that was as deserted as Point Dune seems to be. It was on the way back from a trip to Disneyworld, I think, and I don't know the name of the town but I remember my parents and their friends trying to get something to eat there and not being able to find anyone in any of the stores, restaurants, or anywhere. It was highly creepy, and Point Dune reminds me of that place.
The zombies here may not really be zombies. I don't know if they're "dead," or if they're cultists. I do know that they're not all willing, because some people who are running from them get dismayed to notice the "zombie symptoms" appearing in themselves (such as the woman who begs Thom for help but he can only say "Your eye. I'm very sorry." because she's already weeping blood). This isn't a gory movie, really, but it has atmosphere to burn.
The film has fallen into the public domain. All the DVDs of the film seem to come from the same VHS source, full-screen and kind of grainy. Supposedly CodeRed is working on a top-quality DVD release of this, and I'd greatly appreciate that (hell, I'll probably buy more than one copy), but I'm not sure when. Until then, your options are limited to variations of the same thing, all of approximately the same quality. None will set you back more than a few bucks, though. I think maybe the best transfer is on the Chilling Classics 50 movie pack from Mill Creek (click on the picture of the box and it'll give you a list of all the movies in the set, with clickable descriptions and even clips for a lot of 'em), which is also the best deal since you get 49 other movies in the bargain, some of which are also pretty great (such as Silent Night Bloody Night, which I'm also obsessed with). Usually that's cheapest on DeepDiscount.com, but sometimes Amazon undercuts them, so shop around. The next-best quality-wise would probably be the St. Clair "Living Dead" box set, followed by the Diamond Entertainment double feature (with Devil's Nightmare, also a great film), and the Alpha double (with Sisters of Death). Brentwood used to have copies on some of their 10 movie packs, but those were sometimes defective. They're all pretty close to each other in quality, though, since they're struck from the same source. so go with whichever you can find. But, by all means, pick this one up.
Join the cult.