I very much enjoy the works of Fred Olen Ray. Sure, he makes trash, but it’s fun trash. Movies such as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Scream Queens Hot Tub Party scream "camp," but they’re deliriously fun, in the silliest way. So when I heard that Ray had made a zombie movie, as a huge fan of both his catalogue and movies that involve walking dead, I couldn’t wait to get Alien Dead into my DVD player.
Imagine my disappointment when I actually watched the movie, and concluded that Alien Dead is… oh God, I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Fred Olen Ray film… it’s boring. The "trash" half of the equation is there; but this film was totally devoid of the "fun." It starts off with reporter Tom Corman typing. Let me make this clear: No zombie flick should ever start with someone typing, because it’s not exciting. Corman isn’t even typing frantically; relaxed at his old typewriter, he explains how he never expected anything out of the ordinary in the town of Oviedo, Florida, but now something extraordinary has happened. Segue to the Griffiths, out gator hunting on a boat. When the missus falls into the swamp and goes missing, a strange series of events begins. Ever intrepid reporter Corman (whom Ray named after low budget auteur, Roger) gets no help from Buster Crabbe’s Sheriff Kowalski, even when it’s beyond obvious that there are zombies in the lake. This is not, however, the typical "refuses to believe evidence of the supernatural that’s right in his face" sheriff; instead he’s the only example I’ve ever seen of the "I’m too lazy!/Stop interrupting my card game!/Now I’ve got to yell at you again, Corman!" cop. I fully understand why this archetype doesn’t exist in horror.
The movie does, however, adhere to the Romero archetypes, as it’s an obvious rip off of Night of the Living Dead: a meteor crashes and causes the dead to rise and eat the living; the undead chase the survivors to a farm house; there’s a siege. It appears as if the zombies can be killed by head trauma. This was never going to be the classic that Night was, but it surely adheres to the formula in it’s last 20 minutes or so. Ironic, then, that Ray cops to stealing and blending the titles of Alien and Dawn of the Dead.
I can forgive Ray for stealing and blending titles. This is an exploitation film, after all. I can even forgive him for some of the other problems with Alien Dead. This was only his second film; his budget was a mere $12,000, roughly 10% of Night of the Living Dead’s, which came out 12 years earlier. Budgetary constraints obviously engendered mediocre to poor special effects makeup, poor sound quality and lighting, and the inability to hire Marlon Brando. But money doesn’t explain the meandering script. The plot moves along lazily, among a number of characters, punctuated every so often by another predictably telegraphed zombie attack. In between those attacks, nothing occurs to hold interest. With a scant running time of 74 minutes, there’s a whole lot of nothing going on in many of these scenes. The actors, and the ridiculous dialogue they speak, do everything to hinder any sense of fun. As with his later works, Ray laces the movie with zingers, but in this case, they all fall terribly flat. Part to blame is the acting; as our hero, Raymond Roberts is so wooden, he should float, and the rest of the cast delivers some of the most uninspired performances I’ve seen in a zombie movie since Hugo Stiglitz graced the screen in Nightmare City. Add to this some bizarre cutting (including a fade out during which Corman never gets to finish his sentence), a soundtrack that takes most of the scares out of 3/4 of the movie with its inclusion of country songs, and wildly inconsistent zombie makeup, and any chance Alien Dead ever had to be good gets washed away in a sea of phony looking blood. There’s even a severe lack of female nudity for a Fred Olen Ray film.
I felt really bad having to a negative review of Alien Dead. I really like Fred’s work, and he comes across as a nice, knowledgeable guy in interviews. Watching it with Ray’s commentary, however, made me feel redeemed as a reviewer. For 74 minutes, Ray trashes the film on every front, all the while distilling quality information about acting, lighting, and many of the movie’s other faults (it’s not often that one hears about a chicken pecking on an actress’ leg during filming). He’s brutally honest in his appraisal, and at the same time grateful that a fan who had a 16mm copy of the film offered it to him for the DVD release. When he explains that his goal with Alien Dead was just to get a film made, at any quality, it echoes the sentiment young filmmakers the world round must have. That’s the kind of candid one just doesn’t find in Hollywood.
There’s also a "video featurette," which is actually a six minute interview of three of the actors, sitting together, from 1992. This is sloppily edited, but gracefully short. A stills gallery fills out the package of the disc, as well as the address to Olen Ray’s bizarre website, www.retromedia.org.
Alien Dead is a dreadful films in almost every way. But it’s a formative work from a filmmaker who would years later direct many better, if still exploitative films. For this reason, I can forgive.