Friday, August 20, 2021

Southern Shockers (1985)

... aka: El espiritu del zombie (The Spirit of the Zombie)

Directed by:
David Coleman

On the director's website, he touts his books (one about Bigfoot movies actually sounds pretty good) and working as a screenwriter and story analyst for various Hollywood studios (which must have mostly been uncredited as his IMDb page lists very few actual credits) but doesn't mention this film; his first and apparently only directorial effort. He did however do an informative interview with The Dead Next Door (FULL INTERVIEW HERE) where he provides some trivia and insight into the production. Basically, this is your standard "Film student on summer break gets together was a local TV producer with access to video equipment and drafts fellow film students, friends and family to help" type of regional production (this one's from West Point, Mississippi). It was also a production filled with the usual pitfalls and potholes of rushed, low-budget filmmaking. Despite losing some of their funding and their original script, they plugged ahead anyway and, to their credit, were actually able to complete shooting. However, post-production was riddled with additional problems to the point where the filmmakers did some last minute patch-up work, handed it off to a distributor (International Film Enterprises, Inc.) and then basically forgot all about it as they pursued other interests / jobs.

For years, most involved had no clue that their film was ever even released. However, this distributor was able to get the film out to the masses... well, the masses in one country, at least. This popped up on video in Spain, where it was dubbed into Spanish and given the new title El espiritu del zombie / "The Spirit of the Zombie." That particular release is the only version of the film that's currently available. If a version with the original English audio even still exists, it has yet to surface. The the only print being circulated around right now has been taken from the now-ancient original VHS and is in pretty awful shape. It's dark, murky and opens with a screen so blurry that you can barely even make out the title! That's followed with some synth music that drifts into waiting room mellow jazz music that thankfully mostly returns to synth music until the end credits.

At a diner, we meet three different men. The first, Craig Racine (Tom Hatcher), is a cocky, well-put-together young doctor. The second, Owen Lars (Robert Harrell), is an older alcoholic. The third, Dweazel Weldon (Mike Gordon), is geeky, jittery and unkempt, plus a liar who claims to be an urban planner but is actually a construction worker. Though they seem like an unlikely group of friends, the three go to a Sunday church service together, where Reverend Hopewell (Eric Shusterman); one of those fire-and-brimstone types, goes into an intense sermon that eventually hits on the topics of sin, hell and Satan as Sister Jones (Vicki Stevens) bangs away on her organ. The Reverend then focuses in on each of three men; one at a time, and each gets their own story.

The first tale involves Craig, who goes to a small town to take over a recently-deceased doctor's office. When he arrives, the name of the previous doctor is x'd out right on his office sign. Even more ominous are the citizens, who behave strangely and appear to be in on some kind of scheme. Craig moves into an old, run-down home where the previous doctor had lived and is immediately seduced by local woman Connie Taylor (Tammy King). When he wakes up the following day, he feels tired, ill and weak... and looks like he's doubled in age. He soon draws the conclusion that any kind of physical contact with any of the locals is going to rapidly age him but, little does he know, the townsfolk have another plan in store for him.

After the Reverend rails against the sin of drinking, we then move on to Owen's tale. He's first seen wearing a Red Man chewing tobacco cap and bib overalls and slurping down a Confederate flag shot glass full of moonshine, which is probably about as Mississippi as it gets. There's something off about Owen's latest batch of 'shine. After drinking a bit of it, his hand seems to mutate and, when his dog licks some up off the floor, it dies. However, when four hunters (two of whom wouldn't be out of place in a ZZ Top cover band) show up at his place hoping to buy some hooch, he agrees to sell them some. That goes about as well as you'd expect as all four hunters mutate, die (a few by suicide) and then return as zombies to get revenge.

Finally, after a sermon going into worshiping false idols and the golden calf, we get to Weldon's tale. The nerdy Weldon buys a new car that he hopes will help him become popular, cause the taped-up glasses and mismatched checkered shirt / saggy plaid pants ensemble sure as hell isn't gonna do it. While attempting to show off to some cool teens he's giving a ride to, he starts harassing an elderly gentleman and runs him off the road. They leave the injured old man behind and continue driving. After letting the teens out, Weldon then gets a taste of his own medicine when a Hearst with a skull ornament and driven by a seemingly-inhuman driver starts chasing after him. After going off the road into a ditch, Weldon's then chased by foot through the woods by the other driver, who turns out to be a spastic, mutant-faced, leather-clad, Grim Reaper-ish spirit of a Native American with 80s glam metal hair (?!) and armed with a scythe. Though this segment is poorly edited at times and doesn't seem complete (it appears they forgot to add sound effects in at certain points), at least the final shot is pretty amusing.

For a film of this budget range utilizing video equipment, a lot of the camerawork is quite ambitious. There are dolly shots, some creative camera placements and even a few crane shots thrown in. The make-up by Chris Witherspoon isn't bad and this also provides a lot more fast-paced action than most other SOV films from the 80s, which have a tendency to drag with endless static shots of terrible actors sitting around poorly delivering their dialogue. We get little of that here. What lets this down the most is the script. All three tales are very basic and lacking the type of story development and plot twists needed to help elevate them above the ordinary. That said, there are still far worse films out there of this type.

Though most of the cast and crew don't appear to have gone on to do much else, the assistant director was Tucker Johnston, who went on to direct the pretty good hick horror film Blood Salvage (1990) a few years later. Johnston also appears briefly in the film as a guy playing a video game. Ken Sanders, who co-wrote Salvage with Johnston, appears in the second segment and producer David Hopper has two roles himself.

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