Messiah of Evil aka Dead People (1973) EXT (SiRiUs sHaRe)
Immigrant radical Bartolomeo Romagna is falsely condemned and executed for a payroll robbery. Years later, his son Mio sets out to find the truth of the crime and to bring to account the gangster Trock Estrella
Michael Greer ... Thom
Marianna Hill ... Arletty (as Mariana Hill)
Joy Bang ... Toni
Anitra Ford ... Laura
Royal Dano ... Joseph Long
Elisha Cook Jr. ... Charlie
DEAD PEOPLE (or MESSIAH OF EVIL) is one of those rare horror films that comes along only a few instances in one's lifetime. I had heard about it years ago but never sought it, mostly because of the really bad reviews it got (Michael Weldon says it's crap in his Psychotronic book) but after deciding to check it out and paying only 4 bucks for the DVD, I have to say that all those naysayers were wrong. Really wrong.
I was totally knocked-out by this forgotten film. Everything about it is mesmerizing. The thing I was impressed the most about DEAD PEOPLE is the mood. I've rarely seen a horror this darkly moody, not since SUSPIRIA. Horror fans looking for gore or fast paced action or even the standard way horror films are usually made (high body count, an unstoppable killer, etc) will be disappointed by DEAD PEOPLE. It's none of those things.
DEAD PEOPLE is directed like a nightmare and everything about it is disorienting. There's almost no familiar point of reference in the movie. Everything about it is deliberately done as to make the viewers feel like they cannot relate to what's going on, which is probably why this film looks like a failure to many. But for me, the effect is fantastic. This "disorientating" technique is very common now, with celebrated filmmakers, such as David Lynch, who have made entire careers utilizing this style of film-making.
Take the threesome for instance, played by Michael Greer, Joy Bang and the luscious Anitra Ford. When was the last time you saw a threesome in a horror film? This threesome could have easily been used to titillate fans of horror or exploitation films but it is shown matter-of-factly and yet, to most people, a threesome is still not something they're comfortable with. The "matter-of-fact" way the threesome is portrayed might indicate to many that their characters are poorly written when it's the opposite. The fact that the movie never delves into the most salacious aspects of a threesome tells me more about what the filmmakers believed was important to the story than anything else.
But these incidental, disorienting aspects of the story do not even begin to explain the non-clichéd horror aspects of DEAD PEOPLE, which can only be described as beautiful. Something horrific is going on in town. People are turning into "dead people", not because they were bitten by a vampire or a zombie, but because of some unseen force. The creeping terror that occurs in DP is not that different than what happens in something like THE BIRDS or INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, sans cold war paranoia. Thanks to the spooky voice overs, one from the daughter and one from the father, we learn that the unseen force affect people through the mind or soul (the father, who's an artist, is aware of this unseen force and it affects his art. Brilliant!) Comparing DEAD PEOPLE to other films is sorta a disservice because this is a totally original film. Unlike so many horror movies, the horror elements in DEAD PEOPLE are not used by the filmmakers to "punish" the characters but to create a nightmarish world, which oddly enough, because of the subtle way the creeping terror unfolds, makes the movie look more real than real.
The acting from everyone rangs from OK to pretty good, with Michael Greer being a revelation. He has a very commanding presence. It's a shame his film career never amounted to much. And Anitra Ford is ridiculously hot. I've rarely seen such a sensuous woman in movies. Again, it's a shame her career went nowhere. The music is low key but effective. The cinematography is excellent. The amazing use of depth of field enhances the nightmarish goings on. The only thing that's bad is the song at the end. It just doesn't fit the rest of the movie.
For a film that's supposed to be bad, there are several stand-out scenes in it. About 6 or 7. That's a lot! Most have already mentioned those stand-out scenes here (at the supermarket and cinema) but there are others: at the beginning, at the gas station. When the daughter finds her father's notes. Joy Bang looking at the paintings when getting ready to sleep. The scene when the cops start shooting at people. And the dead people crashing though skylight. The sound effects are a little weak during that scene but the whole moment is still powerful.
I hope one day this film will be completely restored and maybe be re-released on the big screen, which would rock. If your a fan of horror and love atmospheric, moody, nightmarish horror films make sure to check out DEAD PEOPLE. It's simply mesmerizing!
Arletty (Marianna Hill) travels to the coastal California town of Point Dune to visit her bohemian father, from whom she has received worrisome letters of late. Once there she discovers he has vanished, leaving behind cryptic diary entries. Joined by aristocratic loafer Thom (Michael Greer) and his two "groupies" (Joy Bang and Anitra Ford), Arletty investigates her father's disappearance and is struck by the strange behavior of the townsfolk.
MESSIAH OF EVIL (DEAD PEOPLE) is an inchoate, jumbled narrative, given a boost by some of the more atmospheric scenes in the horror genre: The opening encounter with the albino at the gas station; Anitra Ford stumbling upon some late-night grocery store scavengers; Joy Bang sitting in a movie theatre while the seats around her gradually fill with the undead; the climactic raid on the beach house during which attackers crash down through the skylights; to mention just a few.
On the other hand, aspects of the film such as the morose, faux-literate narration, and the Thom character, are pretentious. Michael Greer is a good actor, but his role isn't well fleshed out. Joy Bang is a hot little number with an infectious petulance, but not much of an actress. Choppy editing and a surfeit of inconsequential scenes are also detriments. Furthermore, we are never given an adequate explanation as to what causes the zombification to spread and why. The entire basis of the film's horror is not fully formed. In that respect (as well as in others) I was reminded of LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, John Hancock's creepy 1971 classic. Both films are conceptually confused - as a matter of fact, the latter even more so since it's never clear whether the monsters are zombies, vampires, or ghosts...or all three - , both films begin and end with a voice-over account from the heroine, and both involve the intrusion of a mentally fragile woman in a small town full of altered, threatening beings. "Let's Scare Jessica to Death", ignoring the ludicrous title, is easily the better of the two. It has a much more evocative sense of specific location ambience, and is, on the whole, more satisfying and cohesive.
Complaints aside, "Messiah of Evil" is a good find for 1970s Horror aficionados. A remastered, re-edited version would be welcome.
Unsettling... surreal... otherworldly... those are just a few words one can use to describe this picture. Engrossing... unforgettable... a few more. This movie is worth a thousand words only because no one word will suffice.
Messiah of Evil is the story of a woman who goes looking for her father after he mysteriously stops correspondence with her. When she arrives at his seaside home, she finds that the whole town has gone quite batty. She is joined by a far out new-age couple who were curiously attracted to the strange town. Together, the trio find out that the town has become one big, evil, flesh and blood craving, moon worshiping zombie cult.
This movie is filled to the brim with creepy atmosphere, chilling scenes, very strange and memorable characters, and plenty of genuine w.t.f. moments. Watching this film it, at times, felt like it was shot in another dimension. A world of its own creation.
Don't hesitate to seek out this hidden piece of 70s surrealism and fright. Just sit back and let it catch you off guard.