The Video Dead (1987) Retrospective

SUMMARY
An unsolicited television is delivered to a writer’s house. The writer discovers that the only program the television is capable of picking up is a seemingly endless, plotless, black and white zombie film titled Zombie Blood Nightmare. Despite unplugging the television, it reactivates and spawns the film’s zombies, who attack and kill the writer. The next day, the delivery men arrive to claim the set, realizing it was meant to go to the Institute for Paranormal Research; they find only the body of the writer, bound in his front hallway and dressed in party clothes.

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Three months later, teenagers Zoe and Jeff arrive at the house ahead of their parents, who are moving back to the United States after years abroad. Jeff befriends dog walker April and accompanies her home, where the dog she is watching escapes into the woods. It stumbles upon the zombies that escaped the set and have been living there ever since. The zombies kill the dog, leave it for Jeff and Zoe to find, and follow the pair back to the neighborhood.

That afternoon, a man named Joshua Daniels comes looking for the television set, claiming he bought it at a yard sale and mailed it to the Paranormal Institute after it killed his wife. Jeff turns him away but later that night discovers the television set, which has mysteriously migrated to the attic. A bizarre woman briefly appears on the set, beckoning to Jeff, before a man appears and kills her, revealing her to be a zombie. The man, who calls himself “The Garbage Man”, says the only way to prevent more zombies from appearing is to tape a mirror to it.

The next day, the zombies kill April’s father, his maid, and their next-door neighbors before laying siege to Zoe and Jeff’s house. Jeff, Zoe, and April barricade themselves along with Joshua, who has returned to reclaim the television set. Joshua explains the psychology of the zombies: realizing that they are in a liminal state between life and death, the zombies kill humans out of envy. They are repulsed by mirrors because it reminds them of their own hideousness, and attack when they sense fear. The zombies can be tricked into believing they are dead by wounding and then dismembering them, but they must be left unburied. They can also be destroyed by trapping them in an enclosed space, which causes them to enter a psychotic state and cannibalize one another.

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Despite the fortifications, a zombie breaks in and incapacitates April. Zoe and Jeff lock the zombie out of the house after it leaves with April’s body. The next morning, Joshua and Jeff head into the woods to hunt down the zombies. Joshua sets traps and takes up a sniper position while using Jeff as bait. Using a bow and arrows, they shoot and incapacitate all the zombies but one, whom they pursue. Joshua is killed, and Jeff gets trapped in a shed, where he discovers April’s dead body. The lone remaining zombie wakes the others from their delusions of death and kills Jeff as he decapitates it.

The remaining zombies return to the house, where Zoe is alone. Remembering the zombies only attack when they sense fear, Zoe invites the zombies in, and they become docile. Zoe discovers a mirror on the basement door, tricks the zombies into entering the basement, and they go berserk. After they consume each other, their remains are sucked back into the television, and Zombie Blood Nightmare finally ends.

Sometime later, Zoe’s parents come to visit her in the hospital, where she is being treated for post traumatic stress disorder. They unwittingly bring her the possessed television set from the house, hoping a familiar item will aid her recovery. After everyone leaves, the television plays Zombie Blood Nightmare again. Zoe looks at the screen in horror as one of the zombies within the TV looks directly at her and starts growling.

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DEVELOPMENT/PRODUCTION/BEHIND THE SCENES
The Video Dead originated from a real-life nightmare for soon-to-be first-time director Robert Scott. As he came fully awake in front of a still-playing TV, he knew he had the idea for a movie. It was 1985, and the VHS market was at its peak. Going to the corner video store was what most people did in their free time in the era before Facebook, texting and YouTube. Scott knew this would be the perfect market for his film-something both funny and scary for the cassette-viewing crowd. A flick about zombies crawling out of a cursed TV set was the perfect idea for the time, and he knew he had to get it made.

Casting would prove to be a challenge for the 27-year-old fledgling filmmaker, as well as assembling a crew willing to work long hours for no money up front. The promise was a payday sometime off in the future-if the movie ever got done and was a success. The mostly young group saw it as an open opportunity to be a part of the filmmaking business, despite being located “off Hollywood” in San Francisco.

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“I think most of us were just hoping it would open doors to other work in the business,” says actor Lory-Michael Ringuette. “Robert gave me my first speaking role, as well as the part of a lead zombie. By doing that for a couple of us, he gave us principal roles instead of us being thought of as extras. I was always grateful for that.”

Principal photography began in summer 1985 in the suburban communities of affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge. The Video Dead was shot primarily on weekends, or when the cast or crew had a free day or two. The production would prove to be a sometimes grueling process, as early morning call times and long hours in makeup made the process somewhat difficult—but that didn’t stop the young cast and crew from overcoming any obstacles that stood in their way. “I was happy to be there and pretty independent, so I just tried to relax, be present, enjoy it, learn and be a part of a creative effort with everybody,” recalls actor Al Millan, some funds to complete it and bring it to market. I had been cutting music videos and corporate projects at the time, and working on big feature films as an assistant editor; I was chomping at the bit to edit a feature myself, and the low-budget aspect didn’t concern me much.

“When he first came to me.” Sarles continues, “he said something to the effect that we weren’t remaking Citizen Kane here. It was a modest film with many limitations. His expectations were not to deliver the greatest horror film ever made, but to make the best film the dailies would deliver. That was a very realistic expectation for the film, and I think we met it and went beyond.”

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After the movie was edited and mixed, Manson took it to the 1987 American Film Market and had multiple eager bidders for the U.S. rights. It was picked up by Embassy Pictures, which had a huge hand in the home-video distribution market at the time. Their titles were stocked in stores nationwide, and The Video Dead became no exception. The cover art was created by Chris Winters, featuring an Iron Maiden-esque zombie bursting out of a television set-a surefire image to attract viewers and impulse renters. “We all know Robert Scott was way ahead of the curve in the direct-to-video market, and actually helped create a genre, the ‘Wow, that’s a cool cover, let’s rent it!” says makeup FX artist Patrick Denver.

The film’s success continued as it was picked up for televised syndication, and had frequent airings on USA’s Up All Night. Roxanna Manuel, who played Zoe (credited as Roxanna Augesen), enjoyed an experience with a fan during the film’s run in that showcase. “I was in New Haven in the early ’90s, getting an MFA in acting at the Yale School of Drama,” she remembers. “I was playing Lady Macbeth in a production of Macbeth, and I was walking down the street with my fiancé when a man walked up to me and said, ‘I think I know you.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ He said, ‘Yes. Aren’t you an actress?’ So I feeling extremely full of myself, said, “Why, yes. You’ve probably seen me in the production of Macbeth going on at the school right now.’ He said, ‘No, that’s not it. The Video Dead! You’re in The Video Dead! It’s playing right now on Up All Night!'”

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Jennifer Miro (Jennifer Andersom) who played “The Woman” in The Video Dead was more well known as the lead singer in “The Nuns”.  Anderson was born May 3, 1957, and raised in the Marin suburb of Mill Valley. Her father, the artist Jeremy Anderson, is considered one of the founding fathers of Bay Area sculpture and has work in the Oakland Museum.

In 1975, Anderson met Alejandro Escovedo and Jeff Olener — who were then film students at the College of Marin — in a Terra Linda rehearsal space. Unhappy with the Doobie Brothers cover band she’d been performing in, Anderson quickly joined the pair, contributing keyboards and vocals to what would become the Nuns.

Although they struggled to find acceptance at first, the Nuns became a mainstay of the San Francisco punk scene in the mid-70’s, performing regularly at venues like the Mabuhay Gardens. Along with the Avengers, another important S.F. band of the time, the Nuns opened for the Sex Pistols at Winterland on January 14, 1978 — the final show of the Sex Pistols’ original career. For a brief time, the band was even managed by live music impresario Bill Graham, but the two parties split over Graham’s offense at the Nuns’ single “Decadent Jew.” The band also helped launch Escovedo’s ongoing career as a singer-songwriter.

With her lithe figure, long blonde hair, and elegant countenance — she claimed to have descended from Welsh royalty — Anderson helped make the Nuns an especially memorable addition to the S.F. scene. Even after the band first broke up in 1979 (and went on to periodically reform over the next few decades), her looks helped Anderson find work as a model — particularly in the fetish and S&M worlds, which fascinated Anderson and inspired much of the imagery for the Nuns’ album art and later live performances.

After reforming in the mid-’80s, the band left its rough-hewn punk sound behind for the more ethereal, gothy style showcased on 1986’s Rumania. With Anderson’s magisterial keyboard work and the distant pulse of a drum machine, Rumania is more like morbidly obsessed New Wave than gritty guitar-rock. Later reformations saw the band play even more off of Anderson’s persona as a fetish model, although the band never attained mainstream popularity.

“She’s always been into that fetish imagery, both in the music and the visual art, but that’s not her,” says Anderson’s friend and confidant Peter Young, who knew Anderson from the early days of the Nuns and spoke with her regularly until her death. “A lot of people think of her that way, but that’s not who she really is.”

He says Anderson’s beauty concealed a sparkling mind as well. “Obviously what was striking about Jennifer was her model looks, but there was a very pronounced wit and intelligence behind it that she often did her best to cover up,” Young says. “She had much broader interests in art and even in things like medicine than people realized.”

In later years, Anderson had turned her attention to writing screenplays, which she sought to have produced into feature projects. The Nuns’ most recent release, a 2008 DVD titled New York Vampires, features two TV pilots and a film noir along with footage of past performances by the band.

Up until the beginning of September, Anderson had been working as a receptionist in the law firm of Raoul Felder, a celebrity divorce attorney. But when her cancer metastasized, Lamar says, Anderson lost the use of an arm and had to give up working. The singer was apparently not in touch with her family, and named a co-worker a the law firm her medical executor without informing them, according to her longtime neighbor and caregiver. Lamar is now in the process of sorting through the piles of Nuns memorabilia inside Anderson’s apartment, which she says includes vinyl, DATs, old show flyers, and many photographs.

The extremely private Anderson also refused painkillers and cancer treatments, preferring instead to treat herself with exercise and homeopathic drugs. Young says Anderson was aware that normal treatments might help her live longer, but that she was concerned more with the her quality of life than the length. Despite the pain, he says Anderson was in somewhat decent spirits up until her death.

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“She was very optimistic and positive,” Young says. “One of the last things she told me was … she wanted to do another modeling shoot because she was so skinny from the last bout with the disease.”

“She really suffered,” Lamar says of Anderson. “She really had nobody around her when she was dying.” Young says that Anderson’s ambition, along with her looks, never faded. “Success was always right around the corner. But unfortunately, as is often the case, she never got around the corner.”

 

As time passed, the cast and crew moved on from the film, feeling it had done all it could do and continuing with their lives and careers. Little did they know that over the years of late-night TV airings and massive continued rentals of the videocassette, it had garnered a dedicated cult following. “The Video Dead came at a time when the zombie had all but disappeared – from movie theaters,” says Craig W. Chenery, author of the recently published reference guide Blood Splatter: A Guide to Cinematic Zombie Violence. “It took the chance to do something new with the genre, but it embodies everything that was great about ’80s horror. It’s full of gore, fake suspense scenes, heroes doing stupid things and Jason Voorhees/Freddy Krueger-style over-the top killings. It never takes itself too seriously, and in doing so allows the audience to enjoy the ride.

“The Video Dead” was my first speaking role in a theatrical feature. I landed the role the old fashion way by submitting my photo/resume and getting called in to read.  Since most of my screen time was going to be as a zombie, Robert had me do a zombie walk, etc. – Lory-Michael Ringuette (The Undead Half-Creeper)

“I still remember the first time I saw the tape at my local video store, and the cover was what sold me,” he continues “In an era when the covers were frequently better than the movies within, it was a refreshing change to find one that lived up to the advertising. It’s definitely an ’80s movie, but that’s part of its charm.”

“I still occasionally get an e-mail from someone who has clearly Googled me,” says Manuel. “They contact me at my law firm address saying, “Is this the Roxanna Augesen from the Video Dead? I loved that movie! That’s always fun.”

I first saw the film in 1991, during the period when owning films was still something of a luxury, and renting was the more common option. As a young horror fan, my taste for a movie was usually determined by its cover–if it had good art, it had to be a good movie, right? The cover needed to pop for me to pick it up and this one certainly did. I immediately rented the tape, and became transfixed by the movie glowing on the screen. My father sat behind me quietly, watching along with me, every once in a while offering a quip of disgust or disbelief. The Video Dead quickly became a favorite that I played more times than anyone in my family probably cared to see-especially my dad, but watching it meant spending time with me, which he wasn’t opposed to.

In 2009, I started a campaign to get the film released on DVD through MGM, which now owned the rights. I learned of a disc release being worked on by a company I had never heard of before, and found out it was a pirated edition. Bringing this to the studio’s attention was easy; convincing them that the film had an audience and was worth releasing to the public was another story. I called on the help of anyone willing to stand alongside myself and the other fans, which brought in one of the genre’s most respected names: Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures.

“The Video Dead occupies a unique position in the zombie genre,” says Felsher, who has created documentaries for the disc editions of Evil Dead II, Survival of the Dead, Zombie and countless others. “During the home video boom of the 1980s, it was clearly designed for that growing medium. A movie called The Video Dead would have been impossible to release in 1977, but in 1987, it hit the market at the right time. Granted, its low budget shows in more ways than one, but it has a genuine spirit, and was clearly made by filmmakers trying to do something outside of the normal splatter flick.”

The numbers on the MySpace fan page I set up steadily grew, and with Felsher in my corner, it seemed the message would be heard loud and clear by MGM, and that The Video Dead would see an eventual DVD release. Now, in 2012, that has yet to occur, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. MGM has been made aware of the interest and the fan base the movie has accumulated, and has stated intentions of releasing it at some point. As I keep reminding the fans who have been waiting for the DVD, there have been many other, bigger cult flicks that took more time to get released with larger amounts of people supporting them.

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The biggest issue with some people who view the film is their over analyzing it, trying to make sense out of something that already doesn’t make any sense from the get-go. This is a movie about zombies emerging from a television set-the gaps in logic are already vast going into a film titled The Video Dead, and you should already have an idea of what you’re in for. That’s not to say it doesn’t have scenes where it becomes very effective, and something of a more serious-toned horror film is hidden beneath that exterior. A maid is brutally choked to death-toyed with by the zombie with its rotten clutches around her neck-a man’s head is twisted almost completely off…the movie has its strengths.

These undead also come with their own set of rules, which has left some fans aghast. Being that the movie was so different and unique, the zombies almost had to be more than the typical gut munchers-so it only made sense to make them as different as possible, but still retain the traditional look. “It may have poverty-row production values, but none of that matters when you consider the big-budget productions out there with far better name actors that offer viewers less,” says critic Brian Harris of Wildside Cinema and Creep Show Radio. “Why has it survived for 25 years? Passion-the passion that went into making it, and the passion that is shown to it by honest B movie-loving viewers.”

Something that’s often overlooked when discussing the film is its underlying subtext, of which it has plenty. For example, in the infamous scene where the ghouls ransack a suburban home, a zombie bride playfully pushes the button on a blender with an almost childlike curiosity-something that may have been part of her normal routine in life, had death not claimed her at the threshold. Another memorable moment occurs during the finale, when our heroine is under siege from a band of zombies that have gathered outside. The dense fog we’ve only seen in the opening shots of the film within-the-film Zombie Blood Nightmare now invades the scene, to imply that we are now in that film, and trapped within its confines unless the flesh eaters can be destroyed.

If anything, The Video Dead’s legacy might well be the countless on-line remembrances by people who saw the film as kids or teenagers and could never shake its imagery, especially the zombies coming out of the TV. Many would seek the film out as adults to revisit what had made such an impression on them years earlier-to see if what had marked them so clearly in their youth really was what they remembered. Many Hollywood movies with multi-million-dollar budgets can’t claim the same thing, but wish they could. The film was made for people who wanted to get jacked up on a no-budget zombie flick that would take them to places that mainstream features wouldn’t. It was different, weird, sometimes creepy, sometimes corny, sometimes funny, sometimes awful–and not exactly like any movie they had seen before or since.

CAST/CREW
Directed/Produced/Written
Robert Scott

Starring
Michael St. Michaels (Henry Jordan)
Thaddeus Golas (Deliveryman #1)
Douglas Bell (Deliveryman #2)
Al Millan (Taxi Driver/Undead Ironhead)
Roxanna Augesen (Zoe Blair)
Lory Ringuette (Mover #1/Undead Half Creeper)
George Kernan (Mover #2)
Rocky Duvall (Jeff Blair)
Sam David McClelland (Joshua Daniels)
Jennifer Miro (The Woman)
Vickie Bastel (April Ellison)
Libby Russler (Maria)
Garrett Dressler (Mr. Ellison)
CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Fangoria#314
racksandrazorscom/lory.html
wwwsfgatecom

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