Zombies have been portrayed in every which way from here to Timbuktu. It’s not necessary for a filmmaker to have a unique take on zombies in order to make a successful zombie film. When they do bring some new quality to the old trope, it instantly makes the film better. The Video Dead, the 1987 b-horror flick from writer, director, and producer Robert Scott, doesn’t have a lot of zombies, but they all have distinct personalities, and the way they are introduced is quite fun.
Famous writer Henry Jordan (Michael St. Michaels) is minding his business at home one morning when a delivery van arrives with a crate. Inside is a ratty television that, unbeknownst to Jordan, was supposed to be delivered to the Institute for the Studies of the Occult.
The television turns itself on, and begins showing an old black and white zombie flick. When Jordan isn’t paying attention, the zombies climb from the screen and kill him.
Fast forward a couple of months and Jordan’s house has been sold to a couple who work overseas in Saudi Arabia. They can’t get back to the States in time to move in their stuff, so they make their teenaged kids do it, and viewers meet Zoe and Jeff Blair (Roxanna Augesen and Rocky Duvall, both in their only appearance in film).
Zoe is soon to be attending an aerobics school, with a minor in music videos (both growth industries in 1987), while Jeff is a horny 16-year old who likes to smoke grass. So, typical dumbass American kids.
Viewers will have to sit through some dead reads before the action gets going again, but it doesn’t take long. The demonic television set is still in the house, ready to send forth the undead into the world once more.
The former owner of the TV, Joshua Daniels (Sam David McClelland), learns about the mishandling of his package, and drives all the way to San Rafael, California, from Texas to warn the Blairs about the danger they are in. Jeff kind of heeds the warnings, but it’s not enough to prevent the zombies from reappearing.
They wreak havoc in the small neighborhood in which stands the Blair house, giving viewers some much needed fodder in a film that has a small principle cast. There are some lovely gore effects and some decent black humor. As Joshua informs Zoe and Jeff, the undead don’t realize that they are, in fact, undead, so they show a little bit more life in their behavior, as it were. For instance, one zombie (Dianne Hadley) is wearing a wedding dress (tragic), and is still concerned with her appearance, grabbing and wearing a wig when she finds one.
Another twist to the zombie trope that Scott adds is that these undead cannot be killed, but they can be tricked. Since they think they are alive, if one injures them in a way that would be fatal to the living, say with an arrow to the chest, they will think that they are dying, and will lay down, giving potential victims the time to get away. The only way to get rid of the zombies is by locking them in a room with the cursed television, and soon after it should suck them back into the ether.
Zoe is reluctant to believe any of this is happening, so it’s up to Joshua and Jeff to save the day. Whether or not they succeed I won’t spoil. Just know that it leads to a satisfying final act and conclusion.
Scott only had around 80,000 bucks to work with, which is nothing new in horror. When it came to the decisions he made in his film, he consistently chose quality over quantity, which is how viewers end up with a film featuring only six zombies. There just weren’t the resources available for a proper hoard. This allowed him to give personalities to his baddies, and that worked quite well. In fact, the zombies are the most interesting characters in the movie, overshadowing the boilerplate teenagers and the man from Texas. It also helped that the zombies didn’t have any lines they could flub.
The budget also meant that this is a very close-in movie, with no expansiveness in plot or location. That’s fine, as Scott showed skill working in this small scale. The storytelling isn’t perfect, though, as the zombies make their appearances in scenes more as Scott needed them rather than in service to the plot. There’s no consistent logic to the zombies appearing around one of the characters in the woods or in a house other than that it’s time for another kill.
The Video Dead was a pleasant surprise. There are many horror films from this era that are much more well-known than this film, but that are also much worse. This one may have been missed by a lot of horror fans because it was released direct-to-video, rather than in a theater, and I can’t recall ever seeing it on the shelf at the video store. Maybe since the title starts with a ‘V’ it was always tucked down into the corner on the bottom shelf. Either way, it was worth the long-overdue look.