WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!
Fred Olen Ray has been making movies since 1978 Vault Dwellers – that’s (currently) forty years of boobs, blood, and beasts! Growing up, I didn’t experience a Fred Olen Ray film until my early teens when my parents finally got cable TV and I witnessed the likes of DINOSAUR ISLAND, POSSESSED BY THE NIGHT, and ATTACK OF THE 60 FOOT CENTERFOLD. (All thanks to Max After Dark!) But long before the parade of softcore creature features, bikini comedies, and children’s films (?!), Fred was shooting micro-budget Horror features like THE ALIEN DEAD.
Made two years after his debut fright flick, THE BRAIN LEECHES, THE ALIEN DEAD is Fred Olen Ray’s ode to both George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and Roger Corman’s ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES. In this swamp zombie cheapie, journalist Tom Corman (Ray Roberts) is investigating the strange goings-on in the nearby Florida bogs. In particular, it seems that the local population of alligators has mysteriously vanished!
But other than dismayed poachers, no one really seems to care much (especially the irascible Sheriff Kowalski, played by Buster Crabbe) until people start disappearing. Eventually Tom, his cute sidekick Shawn Michaels (Linda Lewis – NOT the pro wrestler), and game warden Miller Haze (Mike Bonavia) discover that “nocturnal” amphibious zombies are the culprit! Created after a meteorite slammed into a houseboat full of awkward partiers, the “alien dead” lurk about the swamps, slaying the elderly and dining upon several bathing beauties.
As THE ALIEN DEAD shambles towards its climax, our heroes are accosted by the ghouls in broad day[for night]light. They manage to find refuge in a small cabin and do their best to hold off the flesh-eaters, but the rustic dwelling is more of a death trap than a safe haven. As the film comes to its swift conclusion, the lone survivors escape in a rowboat only to later be berated from the shore by the angry Sheriff and his dimwitted deputy (Dennis Underwood).
As for those pesky aqua-ghouls, they’re still on the loose as evidenced by a freeze-frame of a zombie emerging from a pond. While this open ending is a bit on the lazy side, it is also oddly prophetic, seeing as how the populations of native fauna in the Florida Everglades is diminishing due to an overabundance of invasive species! (Except snakes are the main culprit, not zombies.)
With a production budget of approximately twelve grand, young Fred Olen Ray wrote, produced, and directed this (mercifully) short zombie film, which features some decent makeup and gore effects, and one of the final film roles of the late Buster “Flash Gordon” Crabbe. When you take all of that into consideration, THE ALIEN DEAD almost seems like a triumph of independent filmmaking! However, this fledgling zombie flick has its fair share of issues.
The movie’s most obvious technical fault is how the day for night scenes are handled. Some of the sequences that are meant to take place at night are unmistakably shot in broad daylight, while others are tinted blue and hit closer to the mark. The intended effect never truly works though because both types of “day for night” footage are edited together, which may result in you scratching your head and wondering how much time has passed within the movie and/or what time of day it is supposed to be.
While there are other gaffes in the film (e.g. a few botched slow zooms, out of focus shots, and one failed attempt to create the illusion of a zombie being impaled by a harpoon), the biggest issue in THE ALIEN DEAD is its distinct lack of a plot. When you break the movie down, here’s what the storyline boils down to: Zombies exist, the Sheriff refuses to believe it, people die, and then the two main characters narrowly escape becoming zombie chow. There’s no resolution at the climax, and ultimately no point to the proceedings!
On top of that, the film fails to set rules for its undead antagonists. While we do eventually learn about their origin via flashback, the movie doesn’t do a great job of explaining their motivations or weaknesses. Being post-Romero zombies, they do eat some of their victims (after blatantly copping a feel in several cases), but then sometimes the “alien dead” just kill people out of spite and wander off. (e.g. A little old lady gets impaled with a pitchfork; the game warden is hung from a meathook).
Though the characters surmise that the undead are only active at night, it’s hard to tell if that theory is correct because (as stated earlier) we never really know if it’s actually nighttime or not throughout the film. But perhaps the most frustrating thing about THE ALIEN DEAD is that the characters never seem to find an actual way to defeat the meteor-born ghouls, leading to a rather unsatisfying climax! Seriously, how hard would it have been to write up a quick ending where the heroes defeat the zombies?
While bullets apparently have no effect on the swamp zombies (though a harpoon to the torso seems to do the trick? Huh?!), it seems to me that Fred could have come up with some cost-effective manner for defeating the creatures. I mean, they sort of establish that the ghouls only come out at night to feed, so something as simple as sunlight could have been the tool of the alien dead’s destruction! All Fred would’ve had to do was douse his extras in gallons of fake blood and slime and have them flail around on the ground as he filmed them from various angles.
Admittedly this wouldn’t quite save the movie, but it would have at the very least fulfilled the basic obligation of telling a complete story. (i.e. A beginning, a middle, and an end.) Then again, maybe I’m being too harsh on THE ALIEN DEAD: It was created by a novice filmmaker who scraped together what money he could, and (I’m assuming) hired friends, family, and local townsfolk to star in his Roger Corman-inspired vision. And yet…. I can’t in good conscience give this film a recommendation.
THE ALIEN DEAD is not a good movie Vault Dwellers, but at the very least it deserves a modicum of respect for being a necessary stepping stone in the career of a very prolific director! (Fred currently has over one-hundred and fifty directorial credits and counting!) So if for some reason you find yourself craving a Fred Olen Ray film, I suggest looking elsewhere because THE ALIEN DEAD is barely worthy of: