... aka: Tomb of the Undead
I am endlessly fascinated by the handful of zombie movies that were made between Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). While Night established the general template for most of the later zombies films, Dawn would further solidify them as the slow, shambling, one-track-minded flesh-eaters-back-from-the-dead that most viewers now think of when they think of zombies. In that decade-long post-Night but pre-Dawn time period, directors perhaps didn't feel as constrained to present their living dead in quite the same way and, as a result, some of the most interesting and unusual zombie films were made during this time. I'm not saying this is one of the better examples per se, but it doesn't stick to the Romero style of zombies either. There are only a handful of them featured here, but they talk, plot out their revenge, laugh, run, jump, get high (!!) and use weapons to kill instead of eating their victims.
Camp Hoover, a rather shoddy-looking prison camp where chain gang members are forced to work making and barreling up formaldehyde (?!), is on the verge of shutting down, at which time the prisoners will be relocated elsewhere and the entire staff will be reassigned to new prisons. However, inmates Coler (Eric Stern), Braddock (Virgil Frye), Donovan (Phil Hoover) and Nolan (Carmen Filpi) have no intentions of doing any of that. When they aren't getting high by huffing toxic formaldehyde vapors, they've plotting their escape and working on digging an escape tunnel, which will put them close to the camp's loading depot. There, they plan to steal a flatbed truck and then be on their way. But there are a few obstacles to get out of the way first...
Prisoner Paul Johnson (Marland Proctor) is friends with guard McGee (Lee Frost), who sometimes lets him have a minute or two of cuddle time with his frustrated wife, Carol (Susan Charney), who's been holding down the fort all on her own working as a diner waitress while waiting for his release. Since McGee will be patrolling the planned escape path, the ruthless Braddock decides to stab Paul just in case he were to tip off his buddy. They then kill Officer McGee and steal his shotgun. While fleeing the camp, Nolan falls and the gun goes off; which alerts the guards and staff. During a chase, the escapees wreck their truck in a foggy cemetery (not a garden!), spilling barrels of formaldehyde all over the ground in the process, and are gunned down. The cliché asshole warden (Philip Kenneally) decides the dead men don't deserve the dignity of a proper burial and instructs his guards to put all of the bodies in a shallow, unmarked grave. As for Mitchell (Tony Vorno) and the five other prisoners who knew about the escape but didn't squeal, their punishment involves being handcuffed in the yard, where they'll stand for three days without food or water.
While a couple of prisoners are working on burying the bodies, the dead inmates return to life, kill the guard, kill the gravediggers, raid a truck for gardening tools (rakes, pickaxes, shovels) and announce, "We will destroy the living!" Their first stop is the farm of an elderly couple who are letting Carol, who's just come back to check on her injured husband, stay in their RV. The ghouls kill the couple and then chase Carol back to the prison camp. They rip out of the electricity, disable to vehicles and kill whoever they can get their hands on. They're also still addicted to formaldehyde but, instead of inhaling the fumes,they start drinking it and rubbing it all over their bodies! Gunshots sometimes kill them but not always. The most effective way to put them out of commission is to expose them to light. That right there effectively put an end to a potential Romero-style franchise that could have included Gar-Dawn of the Dead.
I never thought I'd see a movie where drug-addled rotting zombies run around with axes slaughtering people that could keep it all within the confines of a PG rating, but that's exactly what we have here. So just how did they do it? Easy. There's no profanity, no sex, no real gore and just a tiny bit of blood. Joe Blasco, who'd soon work on David Cronenberg's early films and the bad taste classic ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1975), did the make-up fx. While his zombie designs are passable, they usually look better from a distance than they do close up. Garden was filmed in just 10 days, doesn't even run an hour and, while it's not exactly good, it's adequately entertaining if you have 59 minutes to spare. It's also worthwhile as a footnote in the evolution of the zombie subgenre for fans.
The cast includes a lot of familiar faces from trashy 70s flicks, including Duncan "McCloud" / McLeod (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) as the prison doctor, John Dennis (Mama's Dirty Girls) as the main guard, John Dullaghan (who started out doing hardcore porn, like SEX AND THE SINGLE VAMPIRE starring John Holmes) as a police sergeant and Jerome Guardino (Octaman) as another prisoner.
Usually the support feature for the same director's superior GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (1972) when this played theatrically, there have been many home video releases for this one since then. It was distributed on VHS by both Silvermine Video (under the title Tomb of the Undead, which was also the UK theatrical release title) and Premiere Entertainment. That was followed by DVD releases from Troma, who released it at both a standalone and as part of their "Troma Triple B-Header" series, which also included Buttcrack (1998) and Unspeakable (2000), and Retromedia, who also released a standalone and then paired it up with Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) as part of their "Shock-A-Thon" double feature line.