Dead and Buried (1981) Retrospective

James Farentino stars as Dan Gillis, sheriff of the small New England coastal town of Potter’s Bluff. In the film’s opening scene, a mob of townspeople attempt to kill a visiting photographer. He is beaten, tied to a post then set on fire. He survives and is taken to a hospital, where he is murdered just out of sight of the sheriff and the doctor.

More visitors are murdered by the townspeople. Sheriff Gillis, assisted by Dobbs, the local coroner-mortician (Jack Albertson), works hard to discover the motive for the killings. Gillis becomes increasingly disconcerted as a grisly death occurs every day. In each case, the killers photograph the victims as they are murdered.

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Gillis accidentally hits someone with his squad car following an attack. On the grill of his car, Gillis finds the twitching severed arm of the accident victim, who attacks him and flees with the arm. After the attack, Gillis scrapes some flesh from the vehicle and takes it to the local doctor, who tells him that the tissue sample has been dead approximately four months. Gillis grows suspicious of Dobbs and conducts a background check. He discovers that Dobbs was formerly the chief pathologist in Providence, Rhode Island, until he was dismissed 10 years before for conducting unauthorized autopsies in the county morgue.

At the climax, it is revealed that Dobbs has developed a secret technique for reanimating the dead, and all of the townspeople are reanimated corpses under his control. They obey Dobbs slavishly, and believe only what he tells them to believe. Dobbs considers himself an “artist” who uses his zombies to murder the living in order to create more corpses for him to manipulate as his puppets.

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Gillis sees his hands decomposing, and Dobbs offers to repair them. To his horror, the Sheriff realizes that he is also one of the dead when Dobbs shows him a movie of his undead wife murdering him in bed during sex, under Dobbs’ orders.

What Ron Shusett said attracted him to it in the first place: “If you do something as successful, Hollywood wants you to do it again. Jeff Millar and Alex Stern wrote the original story of Dead & Buried, and brought it to my attention. What appealed to me was its outlandish premise and its remarkable twist ending, one of the best I’ve ever come across. When it happens, it changes everything you’ve seen in the film up to that point.


Shussett and Dan O’Bannon rewrote the original story as a screenplay. According to Shusett, “Dan and I have a rapport, a real chemistry as co-writers. Every time we turn out something together, it excites people. We sat in a room and started banging out the D&B screenplay, sometimes each taking the part of one of the characters. We work so well that way that, often, we don’t even have to revise our original scripts.”

As producer, Shusett decided to shoot D&B independently. “You have so much more creative freedom,” he explained. “We had the power to do anything we wanted with it.

“Unfortunately,” he admitted, “some of what worked so well on the printed page did not translate as well onto the screen. We found that audiences didn’t buy certain elements of the ‘spirits of the dead’ on screen fantasy. So, to take their minds off some of the more far-fetched areas of the storyline, we shot some additional footage.”


Makeup effects man Bill Munns was brought in late in the production to handle additional effects involving a slashed throat and collapsible head. Mainly the guy with tubes put into his nose and acid pumped into his sinuses so his face dissolves and collapses. There were two animatronic heads of him for two takes of the scene. I think I did something with a slit throat, too, but my memory is vague about that one (it was a harpoon slashing). That experience was great for me, all the time, money, and crew to do it perfectly. – Bill Munns

This new footage, Shusett, explained, was mainly scenes of explicit gore. “Generally in a film,” he stated, “you overshoot the violence and then tone it down in the editing process. In the case of D&B, we actually shot less violence at first, hoping the atmosphere and story would compensate. We wanted to achieve the effect without the blood. But in the end we cut in more violence than we’d originally intended.”

Shusett admitted that violent scenes were also added to satisfy horror-glutted audiences’ gore expectations. “In comparison to the explicitness of the other films out now, the violence in D&B didn’t seem as powerful, so we cut in some more explicit scenes. However, none of it was prolonged on screen; it was just quick, shocking moments. Also, we worked at keeping the violence in a surreal, fantasy vein, so it wasn’t just brutality and meanness. I’m not attracted to films of homicidal maniacs stabbing people; I like fantasy films to be more far-fetched, so it’s not just like a real-life mugging. If I can control the violence by keeping it in this fantasy vein I think it takes the onus off its being a ‘terror’ film.”

To achieve these gore effects, Shusett hired make-up artist Stan Winston, a two- time Emmy-award-winner. Winston’s work on D&B Shusett boasted, “There are some extraordinary effects in it; I feel it will be nominated for an Oscar for its special effects work by Stan. ‘He put in some effects that are remarkable for their ingenuity, and should stun even the most astute genre fans.”

An example: “In one scene we see a woman’s face being reconstructed by the mad doctor. We see an empty eye socket, and then we see him put in an eyeball. In a moment she sits up, blinks, and turns around; it’s obvious she is not a dummy, nor did she have a glass eye. The effect is startling because the way it’s been’ filmed, it’s impossible to tell how it was done. Actually, Stan made a very elaborate dummy of the girl from a new, very fleshy material.  Winston built this robotic head down to the musculature. when we came in the room as to whether it was the real girl or her dummy under those sheets. Anyway, we used that dummy and without a dissolve we made a switch to the real girl. For the briefest moment, the doctor lifts his elbow to get something and it covers the audiences view of the girl on the table. But they’re so interested in what he’s doing they don’t even notice that for a few seconds, they’re not able to see the girl. In that period of time, we moved the dummy just out of camera range and substituted the real person. If you think this sort of thing is easy to do, it’s not: we shot that scene 17 times to get it right!”


Your sophomore directorial effort, DEAD & BURIED, has garnered a considerable cult following within the horror community. In an era where knife-wielding masked psychopaths were invading the horror landscape and the term “Slasher” became a subgenre of its very own, you came up with a completely original concept for a horror picture, which features one of the most bizarre endings ever committed to celluloid. What inspired the premise of DEAD & BURIED and what enticed you to do something entirely different than what was prevalent in horror at that time?
Gary Sherman: Ron Shusett and I sat down and worked on a few scripts together and Dead and Buried was one of them. I didn’t do the original script, but I sat down with [Ron] and went through it and I just kept saying, “There’s way too much mumbo-jumbo in it that you’re going to have to convince an audience to believe, and they’re not going to believe it, so I don’t think it’s going to be a very successful of a movie because I don’t think that audiences today swallow mumbo-jumbo just because you put it in front of them and expect them to believe it. I said that by integrating a kind of tongue-in-cheek attitude about the whole thing and the more tongue-in-cheek we were, the more comic relief we could put into the piece, the scarier the scary stuff would be. I felt that in Death Line I had achieved that. I felt that the Donald Pleasence comedy and the stuff that went back and forth between Donald and Norm Rossington increased the horror considerably, because you’d go from a scene where Donald was being absolutely stupid to scenes of incredible horror. You get an audience to laugh and then show them something horrific it’s going to be even more horrific because they’ve had the release of the laugh before it. So basically as we got into DEAD & BURIED, we got more and more into that kind of thing. That’s one of the reasons why we cast Jack Albertson as Dobbs, because he was a fantastic comedian. We thought that it would just give life to that part that a straight dramatic actor could have never have given that part.

What was it like working with veteran comic actor Jack Albertson in his final theatrical film before succumbing to terminal cancer?
Sherman: It was tough; Jack Albertson was an absolute joy. Whenever the camera was shut off, he was doing nothing but standup for us, and making us laugh. He was absolutely fabulous, filled with incredible stories of his career. So to have DEAD & BURIED be his last movie was quite an honor for us; I’m sorry that we lost him. We had just done his ADR about two days before he passed, and we went out to dinner that night with his wife and had an absolutely wonderful time. He wasn’t feeling really well so they went home. Then the next morning I’d heard on the radio he had been taken into the hospital and then he passed away. But we all knew that Jack was in bad shape. I think for most of us we were just gentle with him and we were lucky enough to enjoy every minute we had to spend with him. For Jimmy Farentino it was really difficult. Jimmy had just lost his father, and we were doing a scene in Dobbs embalming room where Dobbs was sitting behind a desk and the character that Jimmy was playing was sitting on the desk, and when we were doing Jimmy’s side of the shot, from Jack to Jimmy, Jack fell asleep three or four times, which was mainly from his medication that he was taking, and Jimmy just started crying because he remembered sitting with his dad in the hospital and talking to his dad and he kept falling asleep. Jimmy just broke down completely and at one point ran off the set and got into his trailer, and just didn’t want to come out. He was so upset. I had to go in and sit down with him and we talked about his father’s death. I finally got Jimmy to come back to the set and finish the scene. That was pretty moving; it was moving for everyone on the set. Working with Jack Albertson was one of my great joys.

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You also cast genre legend Robert Englund in one of his first roles, as Harry in DEAD & BURIED?
Sherman: And that wasn’t the first time that I worked with Robert Englund. I cast Robert in a TV movie that I had done right before DEAD & BURIED called Mysterious Two (1982), which was an NBC Sunday Night Big Event. I met him and just thought this guy is an amazing actor! He was pretty well unknown at the time; I mean he hadn’t done anything and I cast him in one of the leads of this television movie. He just did such a great job, and when we got the go ahead on DEAD & BURIED I just said this guy’s gotta play one of the parts in the movie cause he’s just really great. I probably would have worked with him a lot more afterwards because we had remained pretty good friends, but then he became Freddy and that became the thrust of his career. During his reign as Freddy it was pretty hard to cast him as anything else. I’m really happy that I helped start that career and he had a well-deserved career.

DEAD & BURIED was originally intended to be a black comedy as opposed to the horror film that it came to be known as. At what point during production did your original comedic vision become skewed and how do you feel about it now, almost 35 years since its release?
Sherman: When we started the film, Richard St. Johns production company was the original producer of the film, and Richard absolutely understood what Dan and Ron and I wanted to do with this film, and he was extremely supportive of it. At one point, the secondary production company, which was Aspen Productions, actually took over the film from Richard. Richard had other commitments and John Hyde came up with some money and bought off Richard’s company. Hyde’s company had a slightly different view of what the movie should be but was still pretty supportive of what we were doing. And just as we finished production. I think I had just delivered the director’s cut PSO International bought out John Hyde’s company and it became a PSO production. There was a screening of my cut and Bob Raime, who was running AVCO Embassy at the time, and a lot of other people from PSO were there. The screening went fantastic and it was just incredible. Ronny and I felt so proud of the movie. Mark Damen comes over and takes me into a corner and he looks at me and says, you know what, if I wanted Bergman to make a horror movie for me I would have hired Bergman. Now let’s get rid of all this bullshit and make it into a horror film. I was stunned. So to try and protect the movie, I went in and did some of the stuff that I just didn’t want to have anything to do with at all. In the meantime, some of those scenes were shot without me and they were put into the film. I went to a screening of it after it had been changed and I absolutely hated it. Bob Raime, who was going to be the distributor of the film, also hated it and he wanted to change things back, so we started to change some of the stuff and then Mark Damen threatened to sue me if I assisted AVCO Embassy into making any of the changes.


When first approached, Stan Winston’s principal effect was to be the creation of a burn makeup for an actor. Winston suggested instead a mechanical head burned down to reveal muscle and bone. The film’s producers, Ron Shusett and Robert Fentress, loved the idea, but told Winston the $5 million budget couldn’t support the expense. Winston decided to build the mechanical model anyway, certain that once they saw it money would cease to be an issue.

Winston designed the charred mechanical head as a moving, blinking monstrosity, building it from the skull out to conform to molds he took of the actor’s face. Inside the acrylic skull is a series of cables that control its movements, a complex bit of mechanics similar to work Winston did for a decapitation scene in The Exterminator (1980). Over the skull, with its acrylic teeth and eyes, Winston applied a layer of muscle and another of skin, including lids for the eyes. By removing portions of these layers, a natural burn appearance was achieved, something no makeup could duplicate.

For the bandage-swathed body the head is attached to, Winston made an articulated, full-sized model from a total body cast of the actor. With the help of a push-pull system of cables, it comes to life, writhing in its bandages.


Other effects created by Winston include a dummy head for actress Lisa Marie, for a scene in which her face is completely rebuilt using wax and prosthetic appliances. For the shoot, Winston’s hands doubled for Jack Albertson’s, since the methods used by the mortician are strikingly similar to Winston’s own makeup techniques.

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All of Winston’s effects work was delivered within 16 weeks, a relatively short time considering the complexity of the makeup. Winston and crew worked around the clock to have the various appliances-including a rotting hand and a breakaway scalp ready for delivery to the shooting site, where Winston was on hand to supervise their use.

Winston experienced conflicts with director Gary Sherman early on and when it began to appear some of the money Winston had personally invested into the effects was not going to be reimbursed because of budgetary problems, his association with the film hit a snag. Not all the effects in the final film are Winston’s work.

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“I don’t know what it was,” sighed Winston. but Gary and I never came together on this show. Possibly he felt I was overstepping my boundaries when I would suggest a way something could be shot. But I’ve always done that with directors. I know this area of the business better than a lot of people, it’s where I put all my energy.”

Whatever headaches Winston may have had on Dead & Buried, he is obviously proud of his contribution. “Dead & Buried was a constant battle for me, and I hope the film holds up, at least from my end.” said Winston. “The effects will give Dead & Buried the chance to be big box office, but I know that effects can’t stand alone. Everything else, the direction, the mood, the lighting-makes them work.”

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Gary Sherman

Robert Fentress
Richard R. St. Johns

Ronald Shusett

Ronald Shusett
Dan O’Bannon

Alex Stern
Jeff Millar

Special Effects
Stan Winston

James Farentino-Sheriff Dan Gillis
Melody Anderson-Janet Gillis
Jack Albertson-William G. Dobbs
Dennis Redfield-Ron
Nancy Locke-Linda
Lisa Blount-Girl on the Beach / Lisa
Robert Englund-Harry
Bill Quinn-Ernie
Michael Currie-Herman
Christopher Allport-George LeMoyne / Freddie

Cinefantastique v11 n01 (1981)

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