Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dead Mate (1988)

... aka: Encuentro con la muerte (Brush with Death)
... aka: Grave Robbers
... aka: Obitorium

Directed by:
Straw Weisman

I very vividly remember how the Prism video box art for this one really caught my eye as a kid. The lurid image of a naked and nearly-departed (“Don't kiss me, I'm not dead... yet.”) woman being romantically embraced by a hunky mortician coupled with the insinuation of necrophilia was enough to spark both my imagination and my morbid curiosity. I always wondered what the film itself was like but, being about 9 or 10 years old at the time, was way too embarrassed to try to rent it, especially considering the only video store in my area that had a copy made you carry the actual VHS box up to the counter. So then I forgot all about this one for many years until I stumbled upon something called Grave Robbers. “No way!,” I initially thought, “An 80s horror I'd never even heard of before? This must be too good to be true!” Indeed it was. It wasn't until I started looking into this “new” movie that I discovered Grave Robbers was just a lame alternate title for Dead Mate. Uhhh... Grave Robbers?? Nope. Sorry. I'm not gonna tarnish my precious childhood memories by calling it that and not even the cool Grave Robbers poster featuring a zombie riding a motorcycle is gonna sway me.

Diner waitress / former prostitute Nore Mae Edwards (the very pretty Elizabeth Mannino in her only known role), who has a recurring nightmare about hands ripping her beating heart right out of her chest, shows up for work late one evening. After turning down the advances of a perverted condom salesman (and spitting in his coffee), a well-dressed man shows up in a limousine. He introduces himself as John Henry Cox (David Gregory) and, after a few minutes of conversation, he whips out a diamond ring, asks her to marry him and slips it on her finger. The ring draws blood, she becomes lightheaded and, in a daze, agrees to the man's offer. After all, at the very least the guy has money, is promising to take her away from her dead end job and she has no family and grew up in foster homes and on the streets so, she figures, why not? John, whom she prefers to call Henry because John is such a common name, then whisks her away to her new life in a new town.

Immediately upon arrival in the small town of Newbury, Nora learns Henry is a widower and a third generation mortician who runs the Cox Funeral Home. Awaiting them there as soon as they arrive are a handful of townspeople, including Sheriff Porter Potter (Lawrence Bockius), librarian Emmaline Strickland (Judith Mayes), bank president Bill Billings (Kenneth Giek), clergyman Reverend Collins (Kevin Scullin) and creepy mute chauffeur Morley (Kelvin Keraga). Everyone acts strangely and secretively. Nora is given a wedding gown that fits perfectly and reluctantly goes through with the marriage ceremony. Then it's time for the honeymoon, which proves to be equally as strange when Henry shows a preference for her not moving at all while they make love in his uncommonly cold bed. The following day Nora finds a closet full of clothes that are all just her size and then discovers a secret closet upstairs that has a peep hole looking right into an elaborate operating room. Henry doesn't mention it, but he does tell her his downstairs “preparing room” is strictly off limits.

While passing through town, a big-chested blonde named Cicely Matthews (Kathleen Margo) finds her brakes have been cut, which causes her to crash into a lake and drown. A couple of ambulance drivers decide to diddle her corpse (“One of the cutest dead ones I ever saw!”) and then she's taken off to the funeral home for more of the same. Nora watches through the peephole as the girl is stripped naked, fondled by multiple pairs of gloved hands and then has electrodes applied to her nipples than shock her until her eyes turn white (!) while a song that rips off ABBA's “Fernando” (!!!) plays on the soundtrack. Henry's voice is then heard informing the others that “Best of all, she's safe. It's safe sex now because we can't get AIDS from dead people.” Because of Nora's history of nightmares and periods where she becomes light-headed and blacks out, Henry somehow manages to convince her it was all a bad dream.

Nora then goes into town to look around, where most of the townspeople act weird and stare her down. The sheriff bugs his eyes out and strains until his face turns beet red as he awkwardly spits out his dialogue and the elderly lady librarian gives her a porno romance novel and Stephen King to read. Evan (Adam Wahl), the brother of the car crash victim, shows her tombstones of Henry's other dead wives – who were all Nora's age when they died – and then an empty casket where his sister's body should be. One thing leads to another and Nora finally comes to the conclusion that the entire found is filled with psychos, perverts, grave robbers, necrophiliacs and (apparently) deranged necrophiliac enablers. She's chased around all over town by nearly everyone until the infuriatingly senseless surprise ending.

The acting and dialogue are both uniformly terrible throughout, there's extremely clumsy use made of voice-over and it can never seem to decide on a tone. You'll have a hard time finding another movie that so completely and thoroughly falls apart in its final act as badly as this one does. It feels almost as if the filmmakers threw in the towel at some point and just opted for random absurdity and forced camp because they had no clue what else to do. Attempts at black and / or sick humor are dumb, puerile and painfully unfunny, there's only a bit of mild gore (including a decapitation with a shovel) and, for some reason, they eventually throw a zombie into the mix for just one scene. And, yes, it does ride a motorcycle. The sad thing about all this is that there's a good and disturbing concept hidden inside this inept mess and certain earlier scenes show a bit of promise or, at the very least, some basic competence. Same goes for a few of the actors, who get progressively worse as the film goes along.

This was the last film produced by Lew Mishkin, the son of William Mishkin, a man who ran several low grade distribution companies; William Mishkin Motion Pictures, which specialized mostly in low budget sexploitation flicks and, later, Constitution Films, which handled Andy Milligan's amazing little gore / horror movies. According to many sources, Mishkin Sr. was pretty much a lying thief. He always provided Milligan with anemic budgets that only sometimes crossed over into five figures and made plenty of money off the actual movies... though Milligan never saw the profits and his budgets stayed about the same his entire time working with him. And, as the old saying goes, the apple usually doesn't fall far from the tree... 

Son Lew eventually took over where his father left off, destroyed many prints of their film library (leading to a loss of numerous films, perhaps forever) and promptly ran the family company into the ground. He also worked some with Milligan (on 1984's Carnage and 1987's Monstrosity) and, supposedly, treated the troubled director as poorly as his father did. Of course, a lot of this is hearsay, but nearly everything I've ever read about both father (who died in 1997) and son (who died in 2001) has been negative. Below is an excerpt from a TIME Magazine article written by Richard Corliss about Jimmy McDonough's Milligan bio The Ghastly Ones: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Andy Milligan.

Director Weisman, who has gone on to have a somewhat busy career as a producer, production manager and sometimes writer and director, had worked with both Mishkin's on projects like the cult classic Fight for Your Life (1977) and the musical-comedy Pelvis (1977).  Distributor Video Kart finally released restored versions of both Dead Mate (as Grave Robbers) and Milligan's Monstrosity on the same DVD.

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