Review Date: June 29, 2008
Released by: Code Red
Release date: 06/17/2008
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
As uniformity and shelf space continue to become an issue in home video, packaging continues to get smaller and less inspired. No, with DVD and the even more standardized Blu-ray, variety, gimmick and innovation seems to have fallen on the wayside when it comes to packaging and promotion. Video was a whole other beast, and anyone old enough to remember video stores will no doubt remember Imperial’s VHS release of The Dead Pit
. I was too young to rent it when it was first released, but I’ll never forget the lasting impact it had on the store shelf. Beautifully painted with an embossed zombie rising from the titular hole with a legion behind him, the image was immediately striking. It was the interactivity, though, that gave it its legacy. You’d press as instructed on the zombie’s hand, and lo and behold his eyes would light up in glorious green.
As a kid into horror, I can tell you there was no greater thrill than living out the horror right there on the video shelves. No rental required. Even without seeing the film, it still scared the shit out of me just from the box alone. Time passes, you grow up, watch The Evil Dead
, find out about Euro-horror, and forget about all those simple delights on store shelves past. Thankfully though, Code Red strikes again with another reminder that low budget American horror was really where it was at in the eighties. It may not have the big blinking box, but The Dead Pit
is back, and now I can finally watch it.
Dr. Colin Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer
) is a world class doctor. His studies into depression and the mind have saved hundreds. Unfortunately, though, they’ve also killed thousands, the bodies stacked in one giant green foggy pit. The dead pit of the title that Ramzi puts his victims lies below the State Institution for the Mentally Insane. Ramzi lobotomizes his subjects and then exposes their brains for acupuncture testing. Once finished, into the pit they go, but after Dr. Gerald Swan (Jeremy Slate
) follows Ramzi on his trail, Ramzi too ends up a victim to the pit. Shot in the face by Swan, Ramzi tenure as a diabolical doctor looks to be finished.
Enter Jane Doe (Cheryl Lawson
). Beautiful, articulate and intelligent – she seems far from your typical psych ward patient. Yet she’s been newly admitted to that same institution that twenty years prior Ramzi lived his reign of mental terror. She claims her memories were forcefully removed from her brain, but Swan and the others peg her as crazy. Her transfer to the institution comes with its own supernatural happenings, and soon enough an emotionally linked earthquake once more wakes the dead from its pit. Ramzi’s back with them though, and death is just what the doctor ordered.
As Ramzi continues to off the patients and staff one by one, Doe starts to recall the hazy but tragic events of her past. Dr. Swan worries that Doe may know about the dead pit that he sealed off all those years ago – but she doesn’t just know that…she knows a whole lot more. The dead have risen, and into the halls they walk under Ramzi’s command. It’s going to take some serious thinking, a lot of running in your underwear, and a shitload of holy water to get out of this mess.
The Dead Pit
is a fine example of how a lot of style can take a little money a long way. Like The Evil Dead
, the plot is pretty insubstantial – clichéd even, but with Director Brett Leonard’s roaming camera, kinetic editing, colorful lighting and macabre gore effects the $300,000 budget breathes life. Like any high concept, small budget horror film, The Dead Pit
only has the means to deliver on its titular location in the last ten minutes, but what a fine ten minutes. Once the dead finally rise it’s like Romero unleashed with Bava’s light kit and Argento’s camera. Leonard makes his dozen or so zombie extras go a long way, seeming as if a serious ethical front has arisen out of Reagan’s perverted health care system. Their brains are all exposed, but they are slaves to the system no longer – they want vengeance, and so too does Leonard’s style.
While the end really kicks it up, that’s not to say the rest of the film is all just build-up. Again, even without gore and zombies, Leonard lets the asylum walls speak themselves, running his steadicam through the corridors or shaking it in a grandiose earthquake. Savvy viewers who have seen this kind of story before will instantly pick up on Jane Doe, her past, and her inevitable final shot because it has practically become lexicon. But with the camera always moving, who really cares? The first portion plays like Dream Warriors
without the wise cracks, and with a killer that’s actually scary.
The crazed doctor routine has been done before, but Leonard manages to use his location to give it a timely twist. While Re-Animator
is unabashedly old fashioned, The Dead Pit
instead turns the mirror on the Reagan era with more satisfying results. The labyrinthine asylum is perfectly symbolic of an American health care system run into disrepair. Its exterior seems sound, but inside it is a corridor of archaic mistakes waiting to crumble. The peeled paint and occasional broken glass or burnt wall suggests the seams of the system coming to a fray, but it’s the pit itself that’s most emblematic of a system that’s relied on greed rather than aid. This is what happens when, as a government, you leave a public service to opportunists.
Dr. Colin Ramzi never speaks out with any grand diabolical plan – he just is. He’s in your dreams, he’s in your head, and he can be ignored no longer. That he is dispelled with holy water seems a last gasp by citizens to hold onto the last organization with structure in an era of rampant public spending but little cohesive results. When compared with health care, religion seems the lesser of two evils.
Code Red presents the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, but like their other new releases under BCI, this is unfortunately, distractingly interlaced. Worse than any of their previous films, the interlacing effects really make themselves known here – most likely because Leonard’s camera is always kinetic. As a result, sharpness really suffers whenever anything moves, and those jagged lines stab through any sound composition. There’s also unfortunately a few color timing issues that will momentarily pop up during the end of scenes. It’s just a fleeting moment in most cases, but still distracting. I experienced some weird pixilation and artifacting during a couple sequences (most notably on the fade to black before the closing credits), which leads me to believe this, the color timing, and even the interlacing (since Code Red was previously unaware their Sole Survivor
was interlaced) that there’s a problem with their authoring contractor.
It sounds like I am being hard on the Red, and I am. I’ll say, though, that having tried to sit down with the VHS a few years ago, this is such a phenomenal improvement as is. I remember just turning it off after the scenes in the basement cellar were so dark they were nearly incomprehensible. Here the dynamic range is strong, and the picture always clear. The colors – all those greens that criticize a health care system built on money and profit, really come through with good saturation. So with this presentation, Code Red had the right approach. They just fumbled with the formalities.
Presented in English mono, The Dead Pit
sounds just fine, and even better than one would assume of a track of that stature. The menacing score really plays out through the institution walls, and the dialogue is always clear and audible. There shall be no complaints here.
While I’ve often championed Code Red’s transfers, it’s always been the supplements that really make their releases stand apart, and they deliver again here with The Dead Pit
. Now, to sort out any confusion first: there are two separate releases for the film depending on where you buy it. Best Buy and a few other online retailers have an “exclusive” 2-disc set, whereas the rest of us are “stuck” with this handsome single discer. I was only sent the single disc, but from the sounds of it, the second disc was more an opportunist imposition rather than what was ultimately conceived of and intended by Code Red. With over an hour of interviews on this single disc, I’m certainly not hankering for more.
Four of the key figures of the film are interviewed at roughly twenty minutes a piece: Writer/director Brett Leonard, writer/producer Gimel Everett and stars Jeremy Slate (who died shortly after recording the extras) and Cheryl Lawson. Code Red added some nice title cards to each subject, giving the allusion that technically they’ve stepped it up a notch – but fear not, fans, their ratty production values still affectionately endure. The nice title cards show up at the most random times – sometimes near the start and sometimes unprovoked at the end, like some kind of Godardian distancing device. Then there’s the crazy auto-focusing issues on Brett Leonard’s interview. But I digress, it’s the content that matters most, and Code Red again proves that they know how to treat a film with care.
All the participants are just bursting with positive and informative things to say about the production, and their enthusiasm really shines through. Leonard’s modest and friendly willingness to share his fight to get the film made really makes me appreciate him more than his future body of spotty work ever did. His production partner, Everett, is also a real treasure on screen, detailing just how fast, hard and heavy the two of them worked to get the script finished in three weeks and the film shot in as much time. Lawson is still a looker, and like Leonard she’s compellingly kind, and even in detailing her infamous and revealing nude scene she’s still all smiles. Jeremy Slate also has some nice recollections of how he met Leonard on a second-unit shoot for another film at the same institution, and how that was the genesis of this production. Maybe Boardinghouse
has forever destroyed my sense of criticism, but doesn’t Slate look a lot like John Wintergate?
The great assortment of interviews was certainly enough, but there’s also a real treat of a commentary with Leonard, Everett and Slate, who have a real nostalgic experience watching the film together. They make sure not to cover too much of the same ground of the interviews, instead living in the moment and really experiencing the film again. They all have so many good insights to give about the film that it’s certainly worth a listen even after all those extensive interviews.
The single-disc release is rounded off with Code Red’s trademark filmmaker introductions, this time from Lawson and Slate before the film. Then there’s the all too revealing trailer (hello final shot!) and a bunch of Code Red trailers to finish. New to the slate is Night Warning
, everyone’s favorite incest slasher. The funny thing with the trailer though, is that it totally removes all traces of the actual killer, making it instead seem like a tale of young lovers who stumble into the wrong house. That’s exploitation marketing for ya.
It should also be mentioned that this is the unrated director’s cut, which adds six minutes to the runtime. There’s more gore, a bit more story, and most notably a sequence where a doctor probes a victim’s exposed brain with acupuncture needles. The new scenes definitely add more to an already solid film.
The Dead Pit
is a wild visceral debut for future cyberpunk director Brett Leonard. The story provides some timely ribbing of America’s archaic and destructive health care system, and the style promises a continuously moving camera, elaborate effects and a color scheme to make Bava proud. It’s a small triumph of low budget filmmaking. Code Red falters a bit with an occasionally spotty interlaced transfer, but again delivers with a real personal assortment of supplements. Single-handedly they are making extras worth watching again. Even without the box art interactivity of the VHS, Code Red’s release of The Dead Pit
is a grave worth digging.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - C+
Sound - B
Supplements - A
- Running time - 1 hour 41 minutes
- 1 Disc [2 Disc Best Buy exclusive]
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- Audio commentary with Brett Leonard, producer Gimel Everett and actor Jeremy Slate
- Interviews with Leonard, Everett, Slate and actress Cheryl Lawson
- Theatrical trailer
- Introduction with Slate and Lawson
- Code Red trailers