There are certain films where, from the moment you hear of them, you know exactly what you’re going to get. Films where the quality of the work is never in doubt for a second. Films where your heart immediately flutters at the thought that you will be able to view such a perfect specimen of its type. Raiders of the Living Dead is such a film. From the moment I read its title, a clear riff on both the adventure classic Raiders of the Lost Ark and the horror classic Night of the Living Dead, I knew that this was a film I had to see. I knew what I would be getting when I dug up this obscure 1986 film: a solid half-pound brick of cheese. And while the film did disappoint slightly by being a mild Colby instead of a nice smoky Gouda, it’s still a worthy contender for any group of movie watchers that feels that a movie marathon should be a metaphorical fondue party. Just look at that poster; you have to love any movie that has such an awesomely ludicrous poster.
The film opens up with an extended title sequence, with its own custom theme song by George Edward Ott. I’ve never heard of George Edward Ott. You’ve never heard of George Edward Ott. Wikipedia has never heard of George Edward Ott, and Wikipedia’s heard of just about everybody. But that’s all right, we love him anyway, because his synthesizer magnum opus, mediocre or terrible on any objective scale, is so laden with cheesy goodness that it’s a perfect introduction to what we’re in for. Just take a look at these lyrics from the last verse:
We are the Raiders of the Living Dead,
And now the hunted are hunting them instead,
Got to destroy them, the master and the slaves,
We’ve got to drive them back into their graves.
The dead… are after me,
I said the dead… are after me.
That’s pure genius, right there. Pure something, anyway. I had to turn on my audio recording program when it came around for the closing credits to be sure I can replay this magnificence as part of my Halloween mix every year.
As the melodious Mr. Ott fades into the background, we witness a car coming up along side a tanker truck carrying radioactive waste. Soon the driver makes a daring jump from his car to the back of the tanker. What’s he up to? Why, he’s pulling a gun on the driver! It’s a hijacking!
If step one of your plan is “hijack a truck filled with radioactive waste”, step two should be “find a different plan”.
Although the police (somehow) find out about the hijacking, they’re unable to prevent the terrorist from reaching his destination: the local nuclear power plant. He’s got a bomb, and he issues his demands: a list of several prisoners he wishes to have released. With a bomb, a nuclear power plant, and a truck filled with radioactive material, this has got to be where the zombies of the flick come from, right? Wrong! This has almost nothing to do with the plot at all! It’s a big red herring from director Samuel M. Sherman, who never got to direct anything ever again! The terrorist winds up tripping on some cords courtesy of a SWAT officer, and crashes into some equipment, electrocuting himself on the bare high-voltage wires that apparently come standard in nuclear plants.
OSHA? Is that one of Sea World’s whales?
His death finally gives us a glimmering of the actual plot, with someone electrically bringing him back to life, but we’re quickly whisked away to one of our two main groups of characters. Dr. Carstairs (Robert Allen) is taking care of his teenaged grandson Jonathan (Scott Schwartz, who you may remember as Flick — the kid who got his tongue stuck to the flagpole — in A Christmas Story or as Eric Bates, the brat from the Richard Pryor film The Toy.) Dr. Carstairs’s LaserDisc player is on the fritz, so instead of putting down $175 to have it professionally repaired, he’s letting his grandson take a look at it. Now, this may seem like a somewhat risky venture unless the kid is a mechanical genius, but that’s underestimating this kid. The kid is a mechanical genius, and that makes this a majorly risky venture! As Jonathan is fiddling with the machine, it emits a powerful laser that incinerates his pet hamster! (This movie, you may note, is not on speaking terms with reality.) Quickly discarding the idea of repairing the machine, Jonathan decides to rebuild it into a death ray, and enlists his friend Michelle (Corri Burt) to “borrow” her parents’ LaserDisc player so he can build a second one.
I’m not sure which is the greater fantasy here: a LaserDisc player emitting a death ray, or two families on the same block owning one.
But what use could a kid have for such a powerful weapon? Fortunately, there’s another plot line going on which introduces our other protagonist, journalist Morgan Randall (Robert Deveau), who is investigating the discovery of a mass grave a few years back. Why he’s investigating it now is anybody’s guess. Along with him is his photographer, but she quickly becomes the first casualty as the zombies are revealed. They carry her off, and choke him to unconsciousness but for some unknown reason leave him alive and un-captured.
Attempting to hitch a ride after his car broke down at the scene, Randall is struck by one of the town’s many oblivious and indifferent drivers. Fortunately for Randall, and the sake of the plot, this is witnessed by Shelly Godwin (Donna Asali) who takes him home and nurses him back to health. (Side note; I didn’t catch the name of the photographer, since she was only screen for a few minutes, but considering the only two named female characters, I’m going to assume it’s some variation on “Michelle” also.) Back on his feet, Randall (he seldom goes by his first name, which baffles me; Morgan is an awesome name!) rents a car, a room, and buys a sawed-off shotgun. Does he immediately go haring off after the zombies again? Maybe attempt to rescue his photographer before it’s too late? No! She’s forgotten for the rest of the film. Instead, his next action is to call up Shelly to make a movie date, and they go to watch the Three Stooges at the local theatre.
Far and away the smartest part of this picture.
After another zombie attack (somehow tracking him to his rented room) and going on the run, Randall’s car breaks down again, and he once again winds up hitchhiking. This time he’s picked up by Dr. Carstairs, and we finally have plot convergence! A bit of investigation from Randall and he figures out the mad doctor creating the zombies must be at the abandoned penitentiary — and a good thing too, because Shelly’s been kidnapped! He goes off on his own, but Jonathan, his grandfather, and Michelle decide to provide backup by grabbing their improvised death rays and Dr. Carstairs’s target bow.
One of these things is not like the others,
one of these things just doesn’t belong.
Our heroes save the girl (well, the girl that Randall wants to have sex with, not the photographer), stop the mad doctor, and put down the zombie horde using the power of LaserDisc and archery! Jonathan, Michelle, and Jonathan’s grandpa walk off smiling, Shelly playfully punches Randall in the arm, and the totally awesome theme music starts in again! The movie is over!
There is so much cheese to have fun with here, it’s almost a masterpiece of the art form. My one complaint is that there are some slow points where not much is happening. But the rest of it, while not good by any stretch, is highly enjoyable if taken as the glorious schlock it is. The acting is every bit as hokey as you’d expect when the biggest name in the feature is a child actor who went on to star in adult films. There’s an earnestness in everybody’s acting that almost elevates it to actual talent, but any hope that they could put in a quality acting job is wonderfully displaced by the bizarre decisions written in by the director and script writers (Brett Piper and Samuel M. Sherman, pulling double-duty as director). Fry your hamster? Who cares! What matters is the weapons potential of your video player! Photographer carried off by zombies? Take the nice lady who picked you up out to see the Three Stooges! When Shelly picks up Randall by the road side, there’s not a word of dialogue exchanged between them; she just leads him into her car without asking if he’s all right the way any normal human would do after seeing someone struck by a moving vehicle. Of course, Shelly’s also completely silent when the zombies abduct her; she could let out a scream or seven, but darn it, the script doesn’t say she screams, so the actress isn’t going to scream!
The make-up on the zombies are decent, as far as such things go, but the lasers look like they were drawn on the film strip with a ball point pen. There is no point in movie history where these lasers would have sufficed as special effects. Of course, we have to expect some technical failures from a movie that can’t even remember to keep basic equipment on. Randall spends most of one scene waving his flashlight around and clearly using it to determine where to go… but it’s not until the next scene that he actually has it turned on. Similarly, the machine that brings the terrorist back to life has a lot of dial-fiddling and sound effects going on before the director realizes that he doesn’t have the digital read-out displaying anything.
Raiders of the Living Dead is a film for a very particular type of viewer. You know who you are. If you’re looking for a quality zombie movie, or a quality movie period, stay away. But if you love to laugh at bad acting, if ridiculous plots are movie gold to you, and if you’re the type to find yourself cheerfully singing along to awesomely-bad background music, this is the film for you.
The dead… are after me,
I said the dead… are after me.