... aka: El cementerio indio (The Indian Graveyard)
... aka: Scalps canibal (Cannibal Scalps)
Fred Olen Ray
If you're a fan of the director and his usual style, you get something a bit different with this one... though that's not always a good thing! This was Ray's third feature (out of 160+ to date!) and you can tell he was still trying to iron out the wrinkles and wasn't quite sure just what he wanted to do at this early stage. As a matter of fact, if you went into this blindly you'd probably have no clue this WAS a Ray film. The only aspect I'd really consider a typical Ray-ism is his eagerness to cast a couple of washed-up former stars and genre-friendly actors in small cameo roles that were probably filmed in a day or so. He'd already done it once before by getting elderly Buster Crabbe (a former Olympic gold medalist best known for playing Tarzan and Flash Gordon in the 1930s and 40s) into Alien Dead and does it here again, only we get three veteran performers in brief parts. This accomplishes two important things: One, being a smart business decision to help sell the film later on and, two, throwing a bone to all us horror and sci-fi fans who'd be more enticed to see this based on the cast. Aside from that, this is unlike most of what would come later from Ray...
The most obvious difference you'll notice is that Scalps is quite serious in tone, while most of Ray's subsequent output would be much sillier and campier. This is also by far one of Ray's goriest films and also his rawest and most mean-spirited. When he finally gained some traction on the home video market and started making the films he actually wanted to make, he usually shied away from graphic gore and slasher-style violence and concentrated mostly on the comedy and T&A ends of the exploitation spectrum.
Visually, this also feels a lot different, with its grainy 16mm photography, shaky camerawork, rough audio, frequently terrible lighting and, due to several different cameras being used, abrupt changes in picture quality from scene to scene. Made for just 15 thousand dollars, this is lacking the workman-like competence Ray would start displaying soon after with his 35mm productions. However, warts and all, this is actually more visually interesting than most of Ray's other work, with more varied camerawork, more extensive exterior location work and much more gloomy atmosphere. It feels like it probably took a lot longer for him to make than his later one-week wonders.
If you're confused by the pre-credits opening sequence, featuring a snarling, mountain lion-faced (?!) man in a robe, a mutant Native American decapitating some random guy and an old prospector slitting his own throat after a white-eyed latex puppet head flashes on the screen, you're not alone! Ray himself was also left scratching his head. According to the director, he gave a finished cut of the film, along with extra footage from the shoot, to the theatrical distributors, who then took it upon themselves to completely re-cut the film without his knowledge or consent. In doing so, they crammed in test shots and outtakes never meant to go into the movie in the first place, and give us unnecessary early looks at the later murders. As for why they did this, it was likely an attempt to punch up the talky, slow-moving first half. Instead, it gives this an inept, though sometimes accidentally surreal, quality that is also absent from the director's other work.
As far as guest starts are concerned, Ray pretty much gets that all out of the way at the beginning. Kirk Alyn (the very first actor to portray the Man of Steel in the live action Superman serials) pops up as Howard Machen, an absent-minded archaeology professor, while Mark of the Vampire co-star Carroll Borland (who hadn't been seen in a film since the 1930s) plays his unamused superior, Dr. Sharon Reynolds, and Famous Monsters of Filmland's Forrest J. Ackerman plays Professor Trentwood, who's fittingly seen with a monster mag in hand and exits stage left after saying a couple of lines. Due to a new California law forbidding excavation and removal of ancient Indian artifacts without permission, Dr. Reynolds informs Machen that he'll now be under strict supervision and also has to account for everything he's unearthed on previous digs. That means he has to make adjustments to a current planned expedition so he can meet an inventory deadline that's already a month overdue.
As for D.J. (Jo-Ann Robinson), Randy (Richard Alan Hench, who posed for Playgirl magazine the following year), Kershaw (Roger Maycock), Louise (Carol Sue Flockhart), Ben (Frank McDonald) and Ellen (Barbara Magnusson), the six students he was to accompany to the desert site, Machen gives them a map to their destination, doesn't say a word about digging being prohibited and then tells them to go along without him. He plans to join them in a few days after he finishes his work at the university. On their way, the students stop at a gas station, where they ignore the warnings of wise man Billy Ironwing (George Randall), who tells them to stay out of the Black Trees area. Over a century earlier, hundreds of Native Americans were slaughtered there and the area is rumored to be cursed. Naturally, that's exactly where the students end up going.
D.J., the "weird" one of the group, starts having premonitions and visions of scary faces, though her attempts at warning her friends not to dig in the Indian burial ground fall on deaf ears. Soon enough, everyone's regretting their decision. A corn grinding bowl starts bleeding, the sound of drums and chanting start emanating from the Earth and, while out walking, Ellen is chased around by the lion-faced spirit. Stumbling upon a tepee and a campfire that doesn't put out heat but somehow manages to explode, Randy is possessed by Black Claw, an ancient warrior and black magician who died there 100 years earlier, and goes about slaughtering all of his friends.
As far as the bloodshed is concerned, there's more than enough here to satisfy goremongers. The back of a head gets whacked off with a tomahawk, someone is shot with a bunch of arrows, there's a bloody decapitation, an eye gouging, a gunshot to the head, an exploding head and, during the film's nastiest sequence, one of the girls is slapped, thrown on the ground, raped, has her throat cut and is then scalped as blood sprays out all over the place.
Despite the endless technical deficiencies, this does possess a gritty, nightmarish feel to it that I quite enjoyed, has some surprisingly potent horror imagery and lots of fun make-up effects (I even liked that random animatronic lion mask). Also an A+ for the poster and the eerie synth score is quite good, though it does drown out some of the dialogue at times.
After an unsuccessful limited theatrical release from 21st Century Film Corporation (in 1984, per the copyright date found in the trailer), this was released the following year on VHS by Continental Video, who put a slightly condensed version of it on the same tape with THE SLAYER (1982). Ray's company Retromedia then put it out on both DVD (in 2004) and Blu-ray (in 2016). A heavily-censored, Spanish-dubbed version titled El cementerio indio contains alternate shots not seen in the U.S. release and has also removed the more explicit gore shots and substituted Native American paintings, stills and artifacts in their place! Here are a few shots specific to that version...
While I can't attest to the quality (or lack thereof) of the BR release, the full screen Spanish VHS has sharper picture and colors, and is overall of superior quality, to many of the highly-damaged "widescreen" (or, as it appears, stretched to take on the appearance of widescreen) film elements used for the DVD release! See for yourself...
A sequel, Scalps II: The Return of D.J., was announced in the end credits as a joke, though low budget filmmaker Dustin Ferguson took it upon himself to make it as a 25-minute, shot-on-video short. Too bad he hasn't gotten around to making Student Chainsaw Nurses yet. Both the DVD and Blu-ray releases come with a commentary track from Ray and co-writer / producer T.L. Lankford, while the BR also includes the 21-minute documentary short Remembering 'Scalps', which features interviews with Ray, Hench and McDonald.