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The Undead (1957)

If ‘good-bad’ movies were a bettin’ game, we’d be cleaning up each week here at Ticklish Business. We started out with a killer house cat before upping the ante with a german shepherd masquerading as a werewolf. This week, we just might be going all in… There’s time-travel, witches, and the fantastic sight of Satan’s minions doing an artsy modern dance in a graveyard. Oh yes. Want to hear more about The Undead? Well, read on.

The Undead follows a young woman delightfully named Diana Love (Pamela Duncan). She volunteers herself for a hypnosis experiment in which a young doctor transports her spirit back to the Middle Ages, where she inhabits the body of one of her past lives, a woman awaiting execution for witchcraft. Trapped in a body that’s not hers in an unfamiliar time, will Diana Love be able to survive? Richard Garland, Allison Hayes, Mel Welles and Dorothy Neumann co-star in the movie. Roger Corman directs The Undead from a script by Charles Griffith and Mark Hana.

Most know Roger Corman for his legendary work on now classic horror movies like The Little Shop of Horrors and The Pit and The Pendulum. The Undead comes early in Corman’s directorial career and very much shows a young director paying his dues. This film is reeeeeaaallly low budget. We’re talking very, very cheap. The lack of budget shows itself clearly with unintentionally hilarious consequences in a late act two fight scene involving Richard Garland where the “stone” wall appears to shake every time someone crashes into it. This is more of an exception though. Corman keeps the movie very atmospheric– just look at the screenshots throughout this article. Often there’s more fog than actual set pieces. While I would take a guess the dark spookiness has something to do with the budget, Corman really runs with this interesting and decidedly moody aesthetic and the film is all the better for it.

Ultimately though, The Undead never manages to pull itself beyond feeling like a super-sized, experimental, high school play– or student film. This might sound like a bad thing… not so fast. Have you ever watched satan’s handmaidens do a contemporary dance in a graveyard? It is as unabashedly delightful as it sounds. Is the movie worth it for this scene alone? Yes. Yes it is. The moment is so weirdly out of place yet captivating that I was immediately reminded of Plan 9 from Outer Space (which I adore). Just trust me on this.

At the same time , the movie struggles mightily to find life in its performances. None of the leads are untrained, but on the contrary worked regularly in both independent cinema of the era as well as on television. In fact, each of the leads carried over to The Undead from Corman’s previous work, Attack of the Crab Monsters and many were a part of the director’s recurring (and regular) stable of stars.

When considering all that, the performances which made the final cut don’t make sense. Could these have been intentionally crafted in this manner? These are professional actors with a director they were familiar with, yet there are a number of moments where some of these portrayals border on distracting thanks to a lack of emotionality and generally feeling ‘flat’.

There are a few notable bright spots in the cast, particularly Mel Welles’ portrayal of gravedigger Smolkin as well as The 50 Foot Woman herself, Allison Hayes as antagonist Livia. Both actors easily embrace the absurdity in the narrative with a winking charisma. In this, the performances transcend what is happening on screen, making this more than a low budget horror film. There’s a level of awareness and self-reflexivity which gives the audience something to hang onto and really enjoy.

With all that being said, I found myself particularly sucked into The Undead, largely thanks to the Griffith and Hana script. The story is an interesting and decidedly unique one which tackles some very complicated (and contemporary) ideas, particularly into the third act. (Once again, I’m going to shy away from spoilers here).

The Undead walks a precarious line between horror, fantasy and science fiction. And to be honest, if you’re looking for a “horror” movie, this one really isn’t it. The story does get in touch with the scary side of its personality, but it isn’t until deep in the third act when things shift and go a little off the rails– in a good way, of course. In fact, I was quite surprised at the dark direction the film eventually takes. Story wise, I found myself reminded of a number of science fiction films from the last two decades and less of the studio driven fair from the middle of the twentieth centuries.

In fact, I found this final story beat a bit out of place as the film came to its eventual conclusion. Is it wrong to say that it’s just… too “good” for the product hitting the screen. There’s some heavy emotional baggage which comes with the direction the movie takes after its final twist and it leaves you with definite “feels”. Unfortunately, the film’s dated aesthetics combined with the crafting of performances really work against the strength in the strength in the story-telling.

Ultimately, watching The Undead is a strange experience. This story of hypnosis, time-travel and witchcraft feels oddly contemporary in places, yet at others you’re suddenly reminded just how small of a budget this almost 65 year old movie had. However, I have to say this one deserves a watch. While it has its fair share of struggles, The Undead brings a sense of absurdity and contradiction that is a joy to watch… it’s just all in how you look at it. .

The Undead streams on Amazon Prime (as a part of Shout Factory). MeTV subscribers can catch the movie this weekend (April 2nd) as part of Svengoolie.

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