Review Date: June 5, 2005
Released by: Retromedia
Release date: 5/23/2003
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: No
Hollywood films may have big stars and esteemed directors plastered above a title to lure in moviegoers, but horror films operate on a much more simple and primitive mantra. Simply affix “of the Dead” on the end of your title, and you are bound to have a film that will at the very least stand out on video shelves for the gory hopeful’s next big find. There have been so many "_____ of the Dead" films, from higher class stuff like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead
to low-grade fare like Curse of the Dead
, Isle of the Dead
and even Orgy of the Dead
, that surely producers are running out of locational nouns. Perhaps the least likely of all “of the Dead” leading nouns would be “Garden”, but sure enough 1974’s Garden of the Dead
features undead prisoners equipped with garden hoes, rakes, and every other potentially dangerous gardening tool. Remarkably, the film has managed several DVD releases over the years, from the likes of Troma, Ventura and Retromedia. Since it was only five bucks at my local Music World, Retromedia’s release gets the honor of Horrordvds.com scrutiny. So strap on your overalls, bring out the hose, and take your favorite seed, and let’s go gardening…zombie style.
Welcome to Camp Hoover Correctional Institute, the highest security of all American prisons. Caged in by heavy-duty strips of chicken wire attached to sparse pieces of balsa wood and outfitted with a couple old, friendly, overweight prison guards, the containment of prisoners in Camp Hoover is an inevitability. That is, until a no-nonsense con named Braddock (there is no cast list, so let’s just say he’s played by Steve McQueen
) huffs some gaseous formaldehyde and rounds up the other prisoners to stage an escape…a Great Escape. Before they start the dig, the group quickly gathers for some formaldehyde bong action, complete with euphoric moans of ecstasy. Everyone gathers but a few, one of which is Paul (also Steve McQueen
) who is in love with Carol (Hilary Swank
), and spends the time counting down the days until they can once again be together. Carol comes to visit, and with her beauty is able to stop everyone in their tracks. Not even the sweet allure of formaldehyde can stop the prisoners from admiring the bounties of woman. But this moment is short lived, and the rest of the men go back to plotting their escape.
The zombies, lead by Braddock, quickly head-off to the formaldehyde truck, where Braddock equips them with the latest in gardening technology. As if being undead wasn’t troublesome enough, they now have the power of pick axe, hoe and shovel at their disposal. The undead prisoners head back to the heavily guarded prison, where they aim to seek revenge on their incredibly kind guards. They of course still take intermittent stops in between their siege to bathe themselves with sweet formaldehyde juices. Carol, in an attempt to flee the zombies, finds herself back at the prison, where the undead will wage their final war. The zombies go after Carol, no doubt hoping that she’ll fall for the sexual possibilities of rigor mortis, but she won’t go down without a fight. Will woman get the best of man, or will formaldehyde preserve their reign of terror forever?
Garden of the Dead
, if you hadn’t already realized from the synopsis, is quite the little oddity. While much of the start is just a Z-grade riff on The Great Escape
, right down to the Steve McQueen look-alike leads, the movie does go into weirder territory. If you had ever wondered what would have happened if Steve McQueen sniffed formaldehyde before his big escape, then you needn’t wonder any longer. The film is filled with copious amounts of formaldehyde sniffing, which I was never previously aware had any sort of hallucinatory effect. The repercussions of this formaldehyde taking are never really explained, leaving explanations of what kind of high the gas actually gives, and more importantly, why it brings people back from the dead, sadly unanswered. It does bring up an interesting idea that future zombies may wish to entertain: Zombies are always characterized by their rotting skin and decaying motor skills, but with the regular formaldehyde bathing that the zombies indulge in here, it can help keep bodies preserved and functioning long after they’ve reached their expiry date.
The formaldehyde also keeps the undead limber and in top shape, which means they are able to not only run, but also talk with surprising grammatical flourish. Although they appear just as zombies do in Romero’s precursor, Night of the Living Dead
, these zombies represent a rare instance in early pre-28 Days Later
zombiedom of the undead with the ability to run. While the whole concept of formaldehyde huffing zombies is more humorous than it is scary, there are still some creepy instances to be found in Garden of the Dead
. Zombies rising from the dirt always guarantees some scares, but even more effective is a scene when a zombie runs frantically, swinging a pick axe until he is shot down and goes into convulsions. Considering how cheaply made the entire 59-minute film is, it does boast a fair bit of creepy visuals, more than a film with the title of Garden of the Dead
ought to, at any rate.
Another thing I really liked about the film was the way that Carol is made to be like a goddess to these inmates. Its common knowledge that men go through female withdrawal in prisons, but the way it is treated in Garden of the Dead
rises above the cliché. The first scene, where she enters and everyone just stares while nostalgic music plays, has a poetic beauty to it, as if woman is able to stop time and reaffirm to these men just why they continue to tough it out behind bars. The last scene, where the now undead prisoners still just want to stare at Carol, still retains a sort of elegiac beauty. Even the undead become putty in the hands of a woman, and to them Carol symbolizes this lost appreciation for the world that many of the inmates had long forgotten. These are simple scenes, done without dialogue, but even in a film filled with zombies and formaldehyde sniffing, they stand out as the most memorable.
As a whole though, once the formaldehyde novelty wears off, the film is for the most part generic and forgettable. Even at a slim hour long runtime, it can seem plodding, and the total absence of blood or gore makes it even tougher to endure at times. Other than the laughably outfitted chicken wire prison and the fact that the prisoner's ID numbers are written on their shirts in marker, there isn’t even really all that much to laugh at in a bad movie way. Hell, we don’t even get a garden! It is a movie peppered with some interesting bits, with some creepy zombie scenes, poetic women watching and formaldehyde decadence, but much of the film is still generically forgettable. It is worth seeking just so you can tell your friends you’ve seen a movie called Garden of the Dead
¸ but this isn’t quite the slam dunk that a formaldehyde addicted zombie picture should have been.
Retromedia presents the film in a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen, and the image quality is what you would expect from a 5 dollar DVD. There is a disclaimer at the start of the film saying that this is the best possible transfer available considering the elements, and to be honest I was expecting far worse. There are specs that show up here and there, but other than that the print is pretty clean. Black levels are very weak, with all the darks coming in as muddy grays, and the brightness seems to be too high at points, giving it a further washed out look. Some of the darker scenes near the end of the film are a tad hard to see, but I’d hazard a guess that VHS copies lacked even more detail. Colors aren’t much better, as flesh tones tend to differ between cuts and possess an overall muted range. Considering the age and budget of the film, the transfer is at the very least acceptable. Nobody is going to complain that a 5 dollar disc isn’t reference quality, so neither will I.
It’s mono. Dialogue and sound effects come across clearly and without distortion. Since most of the dialogue and sounds were done in post-production, it is kind of funny seeing just how poorly synchronized some of the screams are compared to the mouth movements on screen. It is a flat sounding mix, but again, like the video, it’s a perfectly acceptable transfer.
The back of the packaging boasts a “special intro by Ohio’s premiere TV horror host: Son of Ghoul!” If you are scratching your head wondering if Ohio is really a noteworthy authority on horror films, so was I. After having to sit through the Ghoul’s stilted, uninspired and painfully unfunny line readings, this basically confirmed my suspicions about Ohio’s “premiere” horror credentials. It was a good idea on Retromedia’s behalf to try and give the film a kitschy introduction, but between Son of Ghoul saying how much the film “sucks” and him leading schlockster Fred Olen Ray to throw a bowling ball into a television set, it’s 3 minutes of my life I want back. To the folks in Ohio, I am sorry you have to suffer through Son of Ghoul on a regular broadcast basis.
The only other extra is a trailer, but like the film it is preceded by a disclaimer saying that the included trailer is not for Garden of the Dead
like advertised, but instead one for its double feature partner, Grave of the Vampire
. The trailer itself is a real gem, a classic example of old school drive-in advertising, complete with a hilarious warning included in the picture above. It ranks right up there with the “Rated V For Violence!” campaign for Mark of the Devil
. The most entertaining part of the disc though, is reading the misspelling of "formaldehyde" several times on the back cover. That is what happens when you let Son of Ghoul type up your DVDs.
Although some may be sad at the overall lack of gardening featured throughout Garden of the Dead
, many should delight in seeing formaldehyde-addicted zombies ravaging a chicken wire prison. The film isn’t quite the bad movie classic it could have been, with several lulls in its short 59-minute runtime, but there are enough entertaining bits that zombie fans should appreciate. The audio and video transfers aren’t the greatest, but they serve the shoddy film just fine. The introduction by Ohio’s premiere horror guru, Son of Ghoul, is deadening, but thankfully our remotes have fast forward. Available in bargain bins for five dollars, Garden of the Dead
is a worthwhile time-passer for those licking their lips for Romero’s latest. Try watching it while inhaling formaldehyde mist for best results.
Movie - C-
Image Quality - C
Sound - C
Supplements - C-
- Running time - 59 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- Introduction by "Ohio's Premiere TV Horror Host" Son of Ghoul
- Trailer for Grave of the Vampire