Monday, December 17, 2012

Messiah of Evil (1973)

... aka: Dead People
... aka: Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming
... aka: Return of the Living Dead
... aka: Revenge of the Screaming Dead, The
... aka: Second Coming, The

Directed by:
Willard Huyck
Gloria Katz (uncredited)

After the death of her mother, Arletty (gorgeous Marianna Hill) and her reclusive painter father Joseph (Royal Dano) have become estranged, keeping in contact only via letter. The letters have become increasingly more bizarre as time has gone by, so Arletty travels to the small coastal town of Point Dune to check in on him. At a gas station right outside of town, she bumps into a frantic attendant (Charles Dierkop) shooting at strange noises coming from the darkness and a tall, creepy albino (Bennie Robinson) with corpses hidden under a tarp on his truck bed. Immediately after she leave, the attendant is murdered. Her father isn't home when she arrives, so the next day she heads into town to track him down. No one is very cooperative and the townsfolk just stare and back away when asked questions. The local art gallery owner is a little more helpful and points her in the direction of a hotel where some other people who are also looking for her father are staying. She arrives there right as Thom (Michael Greer), a "collector of old legends," is recording an interview with town drunk Charlie (Elisha Cook Jr.), who babbles incoherently about the "Blood Moon" and children eating raw meat. Outside, Charlie tells Arletty she must kill her father and burn his body. She just figures he's crazy.

Soon after relaying the information, the drunk is murdered (and partially eaten), so Thom and his two female traveling companions; exotic model Laura (Anitra Ford) and "half-wit" blonde Toni (Joy Bang), are kicked out of the hotel and come to stay with Arletty. Thom doesn't hide his attraction for his hostess and, jealous, Laura takes off and decides to hitchhike her way to San Francisco. She doesn't make it very far. After an encounter with the albino (who eats a live sea rat right in front of her), she follows a man into a grocery store and runs into a rabid group of townsfolk feasting on raw meat. She becomes the next item on their menu. Lots of other downright bizarre things happen. Someone keeps sneaking into the beach house late at night, Thom sees people gathering on the beach by a bonfire, people's eyes bleed, they stop feeling pain and puke up beetles, maggots and lizards and cops try to pass off the corpse of some other man for Arletty's father to get her to leave. And that's just the tip of the iceberg!

Arletty finds her father's journal, which sheds light on his deteriorating mental state, as well as the history of the town and how the "Dark Stranger" arrived there a century earlier, leading to all kinds of monstrous acts in Point Dune back when it was called New Bethlehem. Apparently The Stranger, possibly the son of Satan himself, was a survivor of the Donner Party and had his first taste of human flesh there. After the denizens of the area became infected with the desire to cannibalize and kill, The Stranger disappeared into the sea, promising to return 100 years later to a world tired and disillusioned. And then he'd oversea the destruction and death of the entire town once again. The story is told from our heroine's point-of-view, as she recounts her tale from a nuthouse ("They're waiting for you and they'll take you one by one and no one will hear you scream!"), and utilizes narration from multiple characters (Hill and Dano's).

A unique, unpredictable spin on both living dead and possession themes, this is muddled and clumsy at times, but it's rather fascinating all the same. The material is very stylistically and artistically done; almost recalling Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977) at times; particularly in the blue and red lighting and the interiors of the beach house, which have plants, an escalator and leering people painted directly onto the walls. There are also some very well done (and creepy) set pieces that really deliver. The gas station scene, the supermarket scene, a scene with 'dead people' peering in through a skylight and one where Arletty is finally reunited with her father being just a few. The real stand out sequence - obviously inspired by the jungle gym scene in THE BIRDS (1963) - has Bang's character going to a showing of "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" and having the theater slowly start to fill up with flesh-hungry townspeople, who file into the theater one by one and start sitting right behind her.

Filmed in 1971 as The Second Coming, this was taken from the directors for one reason or another before completion and was re-edited. Because of that, it's saddled with a rather poor cop out of an ending. A new theme song as well as clips from the failed Sammy Davis Jr. western-comedy GONE WITH THE WEST - also rumored to have been unfinished - were added somewhere along the line and the resulting film was finally released to theaters in 1975 under the title Messiah of Evil. In 1978, it was very briefly reissued as Return of the Living Dead, but because of a potential lawsuit both the title and tagline (which ripped off DAWN OF THE DEAD) had to be changed. It then became Revenge of the Screaming Dead. In 1982, the film was reissued theatrically a third and final time under the title Dead People, which prominently used the creepy albino character in the ad art.

Husband / wife writer team Huyck and Katz went on to write hits for George Lucas (AMERICAN GRAFFITI) and Steven Spielberg (INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM). They also made HOWARD THE DUCK (1986), but this one's good enough to help us forgive 'em for that. A young Walter Hill (now a big name Hollywood writer / director / producer) is in the opening sequence getting his throat cut by a little girl and director B.W.L. Norton (who went on to make the popular TV movie GARGOYLES) also has a small role.

Nice try.

Messiah hasn't had the same fate as most other readily-available public domain titles out there. It was actually remastered and restored by Code Red, who issued a DVD a few years back with lots of extras. As you can probably tell from my screen shots, I didn't watch their release., but I'm definitely interested in picking it up now. You hear me Santa?



Thomas L. Vaultonburg said...

I think they should have gone with the title The return of the Screaming Dead since the dead don't say anything in this movie. Nice work. Messiah of Evil

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Thanks Thomas. I'm kind of partial to the 'Messiah' title myself. Been meaning to check out the Code Red release but I haven't yet.

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