Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Messiah of Evil (1973): I see "Dead People".

Originally released in 1973, Messiah of Evil was directed by Willard Huyck and written by Huyck with Gloria Katz. Huyck and Katz wrote American Graffiti, as well as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Like so many of my 70s favorites, Messiah of Evil was issued under a slew of alternate titles. 

The film opens to a haunting love ballad sung in a minor key. This one warns "Hold On To Love", and it features such lyrics as "Hold on to love, but beware of men who became beasts of prey / how many are they? / their one hungry goal: to tear your life apart / they are without shame / this is not a game / from them stay away, for you could become one, I say". Hmm, what could she singing about here? If you said "zombies", you're correct. Sealing the fact that this is a 70s doom song, the visual depicts a man running in terror from something and being comforted by a pretty girl, only for her to slit his throat with a razor blade for no apparent reason.

Then we meet our heroine, Arletty (Marianna Hill), a groovy chick who just happens to be confined to a mental institution. She narrates the film in voiceover, which helps to explain the oftentimes incomprehensible script. It seems she ran into some trouble in a small California town called Point Dune. Well, it used to be called "New Bethlehem" until the moon turned blood red, but never mind. Point Dune is where Arletty went to find her father, who had suddenly cut off all communication with her before warning her to stay away. Since when did THAT ever work?

Arletty's father is an artist, and a rather far-out one at that. He has a wild art studio in his seaside home, where the walls are all painted with giant murals of people, escalators, and lots of clouds. He also apparently was a trapeze artist in another life, because he sleeps on a platform that hangs from the ceiling by chains. This is where he keeps his turntable, too, which makes me wonder if he'd keep his record player on a waterbed if he had one. Oh, those artist types.

After stopping at the local gallery, which is run by a blind woman, Arletty runs into a trio of swinging hipsters who are in town for some unknown reason: Thom (Michael Greer), Toni (Joy Bang), and Laura (Anitra Ford). Yes, THAT Anitra Ford, one of Bob Barker's original "Price Is Right" babes and star of "Invasion of the Bee Girls". As you can see here, she has quite a way with a blow dryer. Thom is a rich kid, while Toni and Laura are apparently just two chicks along for the ride (not to mention the sex and drugs). Thom collects legends, and he's traced one to Point Dune, something about the moon turning to blood. Hmmmmm...could that be what Arletty's father was talking about in the extensive, delirious diary pages he left behind in his sketch book? The local drunk (Elisha Cook, Jr) tries to warn Arletty about what's going on -- he advises her to burn her father to death if she sees him -- but he's soon murdered for his trouble, his body found "as if it had been torn apart by animals". That's how half-eaten corpses are explained away several times in Point Dune.

Eventually Arletty meets her undead father, who offers some much-needed exposition about what the eff is going on in Point Dune. The residents are turning into flesh eating zombies due to the imminent return of the "Messiah of Evil", a sinister figure who is something of an evangelical cannibal. He got his taste for human flesh when he was part of the Donner party -- apparently eating people will curse you and you'll never be able to stop. You'll also bleed from your eyes a lot. The MoE's crusade turned all of the locals into zombies, at which point he disappeared, promising to return in a hundred years. Point Dune's current culture of cannibalism compels the residents to burn fires on the beach waiting for the Messiah of Evil to emerge from the sea, where he is presumably convincing common sea creatures to eat their own species.

Cleanup needed in the meat cooler aisle, pronto!

Although Messiah of Evil is often described as a zombie movie, it isn't what anybody would really expect. It's often too abstract to really be frightening (unless ultra 70s hairstyles and decor really scare the shit out of you), with only two main murder scenes providing some suspenseful moments. There is blood, but there's nothing too explicit and it would have only been considered shocking in 1973. The "zombies" are not exactly walking corpses. Everyone who is a zombie here moves and speaks just like an ordinary person, although they do tend to bleed from the eyes. There are precious few moments in the film that can be taken literally, and stuff just doesn't make sense. At one point Toni goes to the movies and doesn't find anyone working at the concession stand, so she just helps herself to a carton of popcorn. Then she sits there munching on it for what seems like hours, and it never empties. Eventually she dumps it out and there's STILL more popcorn in there. It's too bad the zombies got her, cause Toni could have solved the world's hunger problems had she lived.

Toni finds out why the movie theater offers free popcorn.

The loose narrative loses its way towards the end, but the main problem is that we have expectations about movies where people are dead and eat human flesh, and they are mostly defied here. Messiah of Evil also never bothers to explain itself, just giving us subtle hints and visual clues about what is turning these ordinary-looking people into the murderous undead. The movie almost seems unfinished, it leaves out so much. The lack of explanations makes for some strange moments, like Arletty freaking out as if she's on a bad acid trip and discovering bugs in her mouth.

Messiah of Evil is best for its quiet, doomy atmosphere. Everything in it is just so damn weird, and the way the characters behave is dreamlike. The visual look of the film is very colorful and unusual, full of odd sets and truly strange moments. Make sure to seek out the official DVD release...the crummy low budget video transfers that are available do not do the movie justice at all, due to the washed out colors, the print damage, and the harsh full frame crop. But even in the worst home video presentations, the style of the film is hard to ignore, as when Arletty confronts her father and he winds up covered in paint, his face and hands turned a shocking blue. Since it was filmed in the early 70s, everything that's depicted in the movie has an ultra-retro look to it. The lighting and design of the film is a little reminiscent of both Suspiria and Creepshow although it predates them by a number of years. The scene where Toni is mobbed in the movie theater reminded me of The Birds, with a steady parade of undead movie patrons filing into the theater and taking seats behind her, until she turns and realizes the theater is full of zombies.

Arletty's father expresses his disappointment after being rejected by the Blue Man Group.

Although Messiah of Evil is the most common title by which the film is known, it was re-released a number of times, most notoriously in 1979 when its then-distributor attempted to present it as a sequel to George Romero's films by calling it Return of the Living Dead, ripping off the poster from Night of the Living Dead, and using the tagline "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth" from Dawn of the Dead. Romero got a court order and put a stop to it, and the film reappeared as Revenge of the Screaming Dead and Night of the Damned. It was re-released again in 1981 under the title Dead People.


lachi said...

Thanks for posting this! This movie played on our local access station this morning, and I missed the very beginning and the station cut it for other programing during the movie theater scene. I thought it was also very interesting visually, and thought I'd never find out what it was! I recognized Elisha but couldn't think of his name. So I googled "Point Dune Red Moon" and you popped right up. Thanks for keeping me wondering for days what this atmosphere-y odd film was! Now I'll have to see if I can find it somewhere to see the end...

GroovyDoom said...

"Point Dune Red Moon" sounds very poetic. They should have named the movie this instead of "Dead People". Or "Messiah of Evil". Or any of the other titles they gave it!