Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Kieran Fisher and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s.
The late, great Robert Bloch remains best known as the creator of Psycho (1960) as it was his novel from the year prior that was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock, but his stories, novels, and imagination have been behind numerous other movies and television episodes. His TV work was mostly in the form of series episodes for shows like Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, I Spy, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, Night Gallery, Tales of the Unexpected, Tales from the Darkside, and Monsters, but he also penned three TV movies in the 70s — and two of them are horror stories.
We’ll get to 1973’s The Cat Creature at a later date, but for this week’s look back at 70s TV horrors we’re focusing on a tale of murder, zombies, and marathon dance contests with The Dead Don’t Die (1975). If the title sounds familiar it’s because Jim Jarmusch used it for his horror “comedy” from last year, but the films are unrelated aside from their names and for containing the equal number of laughs.
When: January 14, 1975
Don Drake (George Hamilton) returns from a stint in the Navy to discover his brother Ralph (Jerry Douglas) has been tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of his own wife. He visits the doomed man on death row and is convinced of his innocence, so after staying to witness his execution he sets out with the promise to clear his name. His investigation brings him to a dance hall in Chicago, the scene of the crime, and the man who runs the dying entertainment venue, Jim Moss (Ray Milland).
Moss offers to assist, but a basic pursuit of the truth is interrupted by visions Drake finds difficult to believe. First he sees his dead brother walking the streets, and then a man who Drake accidentally kills makes a miraculous recovery and returns to his daily grind seemingly unharmed. Soon a mysterious woman, scarred hands, and a corpse used like a ventriloquist’s dummy turn Drake’s search for the truth into a fight for his life.
Look, they can’t all be winners. As much as I love Bloch, this TV movie is a bit of a dud. The pieces are all there in their most basic forms as a mystery involving murder and voodoo has potential — see Sugar Hill (1974), Angel Heart (1987), and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) for some solid examples — but while director Curtis Harrington manages some mildly creepy imagery those pieces just don’t come together.
Bloch’s script manages some fun beats including the seriously delivered line that “dance marathons can be pretty rough” and a beat where Drake tries to bone a woman only for her to turn him down because she’s dead. The sequence where a newly risen corpse climbs from his coffin and slowly pursues our terrified hero is effective too, but too many other elements fall flat including a ridiculously long dream sequence that long overstays its welcome.
The biggest and most damaging knock against this film, though, rests with its two lead players. Hamilton is a man of many charms, but playing it straight as a hero-type is not among them. And Milland, no stranger to calling in performances, is endlessly dull and obvious here. Bloch himself felt similarly, stating in his 1993 autobiography that “Despite Curtis’s casting of accomplished character actors, their supporting roles couldn’t prop up the lead. And Ray Milland, who had given such a deftly paced performance in my script for ‘Home Away from Home’, merely plodded through his part here like a zombie without a deadline.” Ouch.
The Dead Don’t Die finds small successes with its early teases of an undead mystery and appearances by the likes of Reggie Nalder (Salem’s Lot, 1979), but it’s not enough to sustain life. Both Bloch and Harrington have delivered far better throughout their respective filmographies so we won’t hold this one against them, but yeah, I am now a bit leery about checking out their earlier collaboration on The Cat Creature…
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