The Dead Pit (1989)

I'm always a sucker for a zombie movie variant, and Brett Leonard's The Dead Pit is an interesting take on the good old living dead. Mister Leonard hardly hit any heights after this one - The Lawnmower Man or Virtuosity, anyone? - but at least this little gem exists out there to vindicate him in a humble way. I don't know what sort of cinema success this film had, or if indeed it even played in any cinemas, but it's always been a video delight when I first saw it years ago. Kind of a close cousin to Re-Animator, there's a lot of exploitation fun to be had here, so let's move straight into the story.

At a "State Institute For the Mentally Ill" somewhere in America, the creepy-looking Dr. Colin Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer) has been found out by his associate, for torturing and murdering some of the inmates in the Institute's basement. As Dr Gerald Swan (Jeremy Slate) discovers to his horror, Ramzi has carved strange images into a patient's body who is prone on a table, and operated on his brain, leaving an open skull. Suddenly, in a green-glowing pit of formaldehyde, Swan sees all of Ramzi's bloody, dead victims. Claiming that Swan can't kill him, Ramzi moves to attack his colleague, and Swan shoots him right between the eyes. The madman falls back dead into the pit, and Swan seals it up with mortar.

Twenty years later, a twenty-something girl (gorgeous Cheryl Lawson) who has amnesia is brought to the Institute which is now run by an older and greyer Swan. This girl, known only as Jane Doe, insists that her memory was not lost, but taken away by a surgical procedure. Despairing at the crowds of cackling and gibbering lunatics she 's going to have to live with, her introduction is suddenly interrupted by an Earthquake! Ramzi's once-sealed-up pit now shows it's green light through the cracks. "Jane" has a terrifying vision and sceams that the "people in the cellar" need help. Later sedated, she undergoes hypnotic treatment by Swan, but panics when she remembers being a three year old girl playing in a playground. Something happened to do with her mother taking her from her father, but she is too traumatised to remember it. As she walks around the asylum at night, clad only in her knickers and a too-short singlet - thank you, Herr Director - Jane begins to have visions of a blood-spattered, corpse-like man with a bullet-hole between two glowing eyes, wearing a surgical mask. Of course, no-one will believe her. Jane also has a nightmare where the nasty head nurse strings her up, and laughing maniacally, power-hoses that singlet off. Not such a bad dream for us male viewers, I guess.

Jane realises the horror is emanating from a clocktower in sight from her room. That night Ramzi appears to her, and throws a severed head at her window. The staff drug the frenzied woman yet again. Jane undergoes more hypnotherapy and this time speaks in Ramzi's voice, mocking Swan. Swan panics and tells her to wake up and get out. The horrified Doctor then proceeds to bring out the booze and get thoroughly drunk. Jane's visions turn out to be true - Ramzi is back from the dead, stalking the corridors and brutally killing off the odd nurse or orderly. As panic begins to take over the Institute, a semi-sane inmate, Christian Meyers, (Stephen Gregory Foster) offers to help break her out and discover the secret of the clock building. The pair succeed initially, but Christian is caught by a guard and Jane makes it out alone. As soon as she enters the building she's assailed by Ramzi and strapped to a table. The ghoulish surgeon beckons his twenty-odd dead victims to rise from the hideous green-lit pit, and rise they do.

As Jane screams, the zombies, gruesome and blood-streaked but still preserved from the formaldehyde, ascend the spiral staircase, leave the clock-building and attack the asylum. Ramzi then leaves himself but claims he will return. Christian escapes his cell and rescues Jane, and they find Swan back at the asylum fending off zombies. The three of them barricade themselves in a room and Swan confesses the truth. Years ago, Ramzi was investigating the biological causes of insanity. Somehow, his huge intellect was diverted towards death and he became obsessed with evil experiments. Swan admits to the murder as "his wife had left him, he had no friends ..." and the investigation was quickly abandoned. I'm not so sure about all those dead patients, but who am I to criticize? Swan leaves Jane and Christian in the lurch and goes off to the dead pit, where Ramzi and some of his zombies have returned and he's swiftly captured. The undead doctor then begins to do some unorthodox brain surgery on his old nemesis with a skull-saw. Much open-skull tampering with long needles ensues.

Jane and Christian run into one of the patients who happens to be a nun. As they flee the staggering, lurching undead, the nun throws holy water on one of their attackers and he promptly melts into a puddle of putrescent goo. As Christian was thrown into the asylum for bombing things, he comes up with the idea of blessing the water in the water-tower that's next to the clock building, bombing it and letting this water flow into the dead pit and cleanse it of evil. As Christian ascends the now-holy-water tower with his freshly made bomb, the zombies follow him up there. Jane runs but is caught by the monstrous Ramzi again, this time posing as the Nun. As the undead creature shocks Jane with a horrifying revelation, Christian's bomb explodes and holy water flows into the pit. Ramzi's face begins to melt as his, Jane and the zombies' final fates are revealed.

Zombie fans in particular will hopefully get a lot out of this film. The levels of gore aren't as high as some undead-fests, but there's still a lot of exposed brains and organs being dangled in front of us. The zombies themselves are a treat, those extras were clearly having a whale of a time playing the ghouls. They all really get a manic stagger going and are pretty fast on their feet! Though not cannibalistic, they seem to love ripping their victims limb from limb. Cheryl Lawson is certainly beautiful enough - why didn't she appear in more films? - and plays anguished quite well. I guess the skimpy outfit she wears for half of the film helps as well. Danny Gochnauer plays 'creepy' well in both living and undead guise - there's just something sick in his eyes, when they're not glowing. Brrrr. The music is appropriately bombastic and intense, especially during the first half hour. The zombie scenes take a while to arrive, but they're worth waiting for, and the lead-up with the despair of living in the asylum and Jane's worsening nightmares keeps the viewer's interest. There's no real explanation as to Ramzi's powers and how he raised the dead inmates - and himself - but it doesn't seem to matter. I guess his studies just led him to the supernatural ...

If you're a horror fan and have yet to see this one, I'd recommend you try to track it down. It seemed to get lost amidst the other more notable zombie films of this era, but has it's own oddball charms worth investigating.

© Boris "Staggers" Lugosi, 2006.

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Review written: 04/19/2006 22:30:48