Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Dead Are Alive (1971)

Many, many years ago, advertisements for a fascinating type of pet were profligate, especially among the comic book set. The pet? Sea-monkeys. The ads depicted a family of the beasts lounging on the grounds outside their undersea castle, their creepy, pink bodies and trident-pointed heads a clear indication that these were unlike any other pet you could buy anywhere. For the measly sum of $1.25, you could own "the real, live fun-pets you grow yourself," and you were assured they were "so eager to please – they can even be 'trained.'" Never mind the small disclaimer in the bottom corner stating, "Caricatures shown not intended to depict Artemia." What you got in the mail was a plastic fish bowl with magnifying bubbles to look through and a sealed paper pouch (like what Pop Rocks candy comes in) containing the sea-monkey eggs. Following the instructions to the letter, the eggs would hatch before your very eyes to reveal...brine shrimp. What the hell?! 

I had the same sort of reaction to The Dead Are Alive (aka The Etruscan Kills Again, aka Overtime, aka L'etrusco uccide ancora). The poster graphically depicts a man half-flayed, viscera exposed and spurting, staring right out at you. Reading about the film, you'll find many references to the Etruscan god, Tuchulcha, and you'll be lead to believe that, somehow, this wrathful deity is set free and starts killing folks who come back to life as his zombie army. Here's where I give you the information that the sea-monkey shills wouldn't. This film is not a horror film. There are no supernatural aspects to it at all, so if you buy or rent this looking for a bloody monster movie, you will be disappointed. However, viewed through the proper filter, you'll find a decent Giallo with its fair share of problems.

Alcoholic archaeologist, Jason (Alex Cord) is exploring an Etruscan tomb with a probe and camera. Along come Jason's ex-girlfriend, Myra (Samantha Eggar), her son-in-law, Igor (Carlo De Mejo), and their flamboyant friend, Stephen (Horst Frank). While developing the photos, Jason notices a mural featuring the god Tuchulcha (more specifically, his eyes, as the rest of his face is indiscernible). Soon after, a pair of nubile teens sneaks into a nearby tomb and are brutally beaten to death after some brief heavy petting. Meanwhile, Myra's husband, conductor Nikos (John Marley), is concerned that sparks between Myra and Jason may be reigniting. When Jason's missing steel probe is found to be the murder weapon, the besotted tomb raider finds himself being framed for the killings. As the bodies start to pile up (and don't come back to life, might I add), Jason takes the initiative in clearing himself of the crime and uncovering the real killer.

The film is suffused with the lurid, pulp feel of the Italian Giallo subgenre. This is not surprising, as the story is adapted from a short work from writer Bryan Edgar Wallace. The name may be familiar to you, because he's the son of writer Edgar Wallace. Wallace's work became the source of the German Krimi films as well as heavily influencing Gialli-to-come. It doesn't hurt that he was also the screenwriter of King Kong (1933). The emphasis here is on two-fisted action, and Cord plays Jason so hard, he makes Ralph Meeker's Mike Hammer look like Pee Wee Herman. The killer kills in POV shots mostly, and the murders are both graphic and jarring. We're clued into his (or her, but for brevity, I'll just refer to the murderer as male) cracked mental state through the use of raspy breathing, an indication (or red herring, if you prefer) that when the killer is killing, he has devolved into little more than an animal. The murders (and most action scenes) are also set off by quick insert shots of the painted eyes of Tuchulcha, a further indication the murderer is not himself, but possessed of the evil god's spirit (not literally, of course). Interestingly, the one Giallo staple missing from the film is the black-gloved killer, made popular by Dario Argento's early work, but it's not greatly missed here and feels almost inappropriate for the material and setting.

The Giallo film is almost always concerned with style and atmosphere over story structure and coherence, and The Dead Are Alive is no exception. In fact, the film's biggest problem is its head-scratching method of doling out clues and building the plot, and I believe the editing to be the main culprit in this regard. Myra walks away from Jason, we get a shot of two teens dead in a tomb, we hear a scream, and Myra's suddenly in Jason's arms, distraught. A little later, we find out that the killer has stolen two pairs of red shoes from the local theater's costume department and placed them on victims, but it's mentioned offhand, as if we were made aware of this earlier. Things occur offscreen, and we're told nonchalantly about them later. I think it's one thing to place aesthetics over storytelling, but it's frustrating when the audience is posed with a "whodunit?" scenario, and then not be given clues that are common knowledge to all the characters. Still and all, the film does create some effectively tense ambience through the use of chiaroscuro (I finally got to use that one), and the camerawork is solid. 

One of the main motifs of the film is theatrics and artifice. We see several plays at various stages of rehearsal, and the killer even steals from the theater and uses props in his murders. Dead bodies are displayed in a staged manner. Every aspect of the story is an act put on by the killer to illustrate his mental state. Of course, the murderer's identity is hidden from the audience and the other characters through his outward appearance of normal behavior, an act to illustrate how others see him. His true personality is presaged by shots of Tuchulcha's painted eyes, both peering into his soul and stating his intent. The juxtaposition of opposites (what we see versus what is truth) is a key theme throughout, and it extends to other characters. For example, scumbag blackmailer, Otello (Vladan Milasinovic), plays the charming tomb guide for the tourists, but secretly enjoys immolating insects. Nikos is the classic temperamental artiste, pitching manic fits over just about anything, and this aspect is mirrored by his filmic opposite, Jason. Jason is also prone to quick flares of temper, but where Nikos is older, accustomed to opulence, and works in the arts, Jason is younger, accustomed to living unpretentiously, and works in the sciences. It's a classic conflict of obverse characters, but both men's melodramatics further inform the movie's sense of theatricality.

Like with many a film noir, the Giallo is often concerned with memories and how the past comes back to hurt us. The killer in Gialli has more likely than not been scarred by some event in his past (usually sexual and always violent in nature). The audience is keyed into this aspect here via the archaeological angle. Archaeology is literally digging up the past, and it's only after this particular tomb has been opened up, that the killer finally snaps. The demon mural and its overt connection with the madman's mind links the past with the present. As more clues are dropped on the viewer (some seemingly out of thin air), the connections between events of the past and the present solidify. And while the final reveal of the killer and his motivations ultimately come off as implausible, the plotting is ridiculous, and the editing is confusing to say the least, it's the film's more thoughtful components that raise it a notch or two above average.

MVT: Samantha Eggar plays her meager, thankless role totally straight, and while just about every other actor engages in wild histrionics, she remembers that it's acting, not ACTING.

Make or Break: The final reveal sequence nicely pays off what we've endured ninety minutes of confused story and editing for with a tense stalking sequence and decent melee between our pro and antagonists. That's a "Make."

Score: 6.5/10

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