Category Archives: THE DOCTOR’S PROGNOSIS

The Doctor’s Prognosis

Phantasm (1979)

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THE PATIENTS

Director: Don Coscarelli
Writers: Don Coscarelli
Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Bill Cone, Mary Ellen Shaw, Terrie Kalbus, and Angus Scrimm!

THE PATHOLOGY

Young Mike (Baldwin) is convinced that something strange is going on at the local mortuary, where the enigmatic and decidedly creepy Tall Man (Scrimm) can lift coffins entirely by himself. Investigating with the help of older brother Jody (Thornbury) and ice cream man Reggie (Bannister), Mike soon uncovers a sinister plot to turn dead humans into zombie dwarf slaves for transport back to the Tall Man’s alien dimension. Or it’s all just a dream; either way, it’s pretty weird.

THE PROGNOSIS

Forget for a moment that this film went on to spawn four sequels and that it led to further elaboration on the history of the Tall Man (although not much and all of it pretty ambiguous). Just think of it as a one-off experience, which indeed it was when it first came out. Evaluating it purely on its own terms, it’s one of the most effective dramatizations of a grief-induced nightmare ever made. Nothing that happens in the movie is necessarily real, but all of it is certainly creepy and a superb example of low-budget horror cinema. With the recent Remastered restoration in particular, it’s a stunning way to revisit ’70s film making at its most evocative, and that distinctive soundscape – including the incredibly hummable theme song – has never sounded more (ironically enough) real. Even the visuals, which look more vibrant than they ever did when the movie first came out, retain enough of the texture and feel that serves the material very well indeed.

By picking through the clues strewn throughout the movie, we can gather that Mike’s older brother Jody has just died. Suffering from the immense loss, Mike descends into a convoluted series of feverish dreams that mix elements evidently drawn from reality – the graveside service, the funeral parlor, life with Jody and their friend Reggie before the accident – and throws in a few bizarre additions – the dwarves, the dimensional gateway, the flying bug-thing – to create a dark landscape of the mind in which Mike and the audience are trapped.

It’s one of the most effective dramatizations of a grief-induced nightmare ever made.

It’s a nifty piece of work when interpreted in that light, but even if you want to watch it as a straight-forward if surreal story about an alien posing as a funeral director and ensnaring a local boy in a web of intrigue and mind-bending horror – and who wouldn’t when you put it that way? – then by all means feel free. It works on both levels. But really: crushing down and re-animating human corpses, canning them, and then sending them through a dimensional rip in order to provide slave labor for a distant desert world? Doesn’t really sound too cost effective, does it? And don’t you love how quickly our heroes just accept the sheer insanity of the premise with little more than a shrug?

The Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, is one of those men whose physical presence is so innately unsettling that he could only have been put on this Earth to become one of our undying icons of sheer terror. The rest of the cast tries very hard, but it may be to Scrimm’s benefit that he has little dialogue and only has to glower menacingly. The others have to tackle actually speaking, and occasionally their acting is rough around the edges. But earnestness counts, and everyone is doing their best to be “in the moment.” Special kudos to Baldwin, who cries on cue, convincingly conveys anger and frustration, and makes me genuinely believe he’s figuring out how to put together his makeshift shotgun shell hammer device in the moment.

But never mind a bit of uneven acting. What makes this movie a classic is its suitably languid pace and visual style, enveloping you in the nightmare world of the Tall Man while one of the eeriest musical scores ever written (by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave) chills your very bones. The otherworldly hum of the gateway hidden in the funeral parlor is also cause for goose bumps, and there are numerous inexplicable bits and pieces that enhance the dreamscape, like the Jawa-esque dwarf zombies and the cackling psychic lady in shades. Does she know more than she’s telling when she gives Mike a test of bravery that foreshadows Luke Skywalker’s own in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK one year later? Could she even be a long-time nemesis of the Tall Man? No answers are forthcoming, at least not yet, and that’s also part of PHANTASM‘s eternal charm. It hints at the edges of a grander saga, a bizarre mash-up of horror, science fiction, action adventure, and family drama, and it manages to keep all those balls in the air (had to, sorry) while never quite focusing in on any single one of them to the detriment of the others.

[This] bizarre mash-up of horror, science fiction, action adventure, and family drama…manages to keep all those balls in the air.

And then there’s the scene I used to consider annoying but now find genuinely warm and pleasant, and that’s Jody and Reggie’s brief jam session on the porch. Sure, they may not quite be “hot as love,” but Phans surely think so. And besides, Reggie’s need to tune up provides a cool if sledgehammer subtle bit of foreshadowing about how to temporarily interfere with the Tall Man’s plans. If you want still more of “Sittin’ Here at Midnight,” you can track down Bill Thornbury’s complete 1995 recording on various DVD releases, as well as the disco version of the theme tune!

PHANTASM is a delightfully dreamy slab of early modern horror with tableaux that stay with you forever, particularly if you saw it first as a child. Could there be anything more terrifying than the sight of the Tall Man standing menacingly at the end of a long corridor with the whine of a silver sphere close behind? After all, you can run all you like, but the game is over boy, and now you die!

RATING

08brains

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Disaster L.A.: The Last Zombie Apocalypse Begins Here (2014)

THE PATIENTS

Director: Turner Clay
Writer: Turner Clay
Starring: Justin Ray, Jerod Meagher, Stefanie Estes, Ron Hanks, Michael Taber, Dennis Leech, Morgan Jackson

THE PATHOLOGY

Some dudes are hanging out in one of their many really nice apartments in LA, wearing striped shirts in neutral colors and drinking and generally being awesome, when meteors strike the city, bringing with them a toxic smoke that kills and reanimates the dead into mutated killers. It’s time to head for the coast, bro!

disaster2

THE PROGNOSIS

Ever felt like you couldn’t find your way out of a parking garage? You know, like in that classic SEINFELD episode? Well, get ready to relive the nightmare, because besides shooting most of their movie in a few square blocks of LA – probably in and around their own apartments – the team behind DISASTER LA decided that an action-packed location for much of their zombie romp was the nearest underground parking palace. Presumably, however, they didn’t want to risk having to clean up after themselves when filming there, leading to the awkward and frankly laughable use of CGI glass and identical sound effects every time someone smashes a car window.

There are more than a few nods to the 1984 mutant zombie classic NIGHT OF THE COMET.

There are more than a few nods to the 1984 mutant zombie classic NIGHT OF THE COMET in this lackluster effort, from the harbinger of apocalyptic doom arriving from the skies over LA to the occasionally amorphous skull-like prosthetics for the zombie creatures. There are also some genuine attempts at humor here and there, but like everything else in this movie – except the meteors, that is – nothing quite lands. Oddly, the movie is also a partial remake of film maker Turner Clay’s earlier (and I’m reliably informed, superior) effort, the slightly more CRAZIES-like 2011 STATE OF EMERGENCY. So why make it again, and not as well? Beats me.

Effects-wise, the zombies are mildly interesting, attracted to sight and sound, but barely ever seen – seems they could only afford to make up a few people and do their best to avoid showing them the rest of the time – but the production team must have fallen in love with the CGI helicopter model they made or acquired, since copied-and-pasted groups of them fly by endlessly throughout the film. Oddly, we hear jet fighters without seeing them, prompting us while watching to assume that they must not have had a plane to show. Then, toward the end, the jet fighters turn up on screen too, inexplicably held back in the mix until the final act.

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As for other production notes, the wardrobe people must have decided that the apocalypse will best be weathered in muted colors of striped polo shirts. Oh, and hoodies…tons of hoodies! Everyone is wearing them, living and dead. Honestly, did someone on the production have a hoodie store or get a ‘discount’ shipment off the back of a truck?

DISASTER LA dwells in that middle ground between almost competent storytelling and “so bad it’s good” ineptitude.

Truly the worst part of DISASTER LA is that it’s not really all that bad while not being all that good. Although this review may suggest otherwise, the movie has enough in terms of generally decent performance and production to hold interest through most of its running time, even though it fails to deliver on anything too dramatic, meaningful, or even entertaining, and then expects you to just walk away from its beach-based finale with anything more than utter disappointment. DISASTER LA dwells in that middle ground between competent storytelling and “so bad it’s good” ineptitude, a not-at-all-sweet spot of failure that nevertheless results in something dedicated zombie fans might find themselves watching once just for the hell of it. Just don’t blame me when you do.

RATING

04brains

HELP US BY ORDERING THE MOVIE VIA THIS LINK!

Last of the Living (2009)

THE PATIENTS

Director: Logan McMillan
Writer: Logan McMillan
Starring: Morgan Williams, Robert Faith, Ashleigh Southam, Stacey Stevens

THE PATHOLOGY

Three house-hopping layabouts slacking their way through the zombie apocalypse find themselves thrust into the role of unlikely heroic trio when they have to help a scientist make her way to an island base to deliver a potential cure. Can they overcome the horrific horde – and their own lack of energy – to make it there in time and in one piece?

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THE PROGNOSIS

There’s a halfway decent zombie movie here, but it’s let down by a less than polished production and an apparent waning interest on the part of the film makers, who late in the film utterly give up on scene transitions and then completely fumble the ending, cutting to black when they simply run out of things to do…or money, based on some behind the scenes reports.

We have a very good trio of unlikely heroes, each with their own distinctive personality quirks and some reasonably satisfying comedic timing (although Ashleigh Southam’s constant geeky gurning gets a bit hard to take after a while). Tooling around in an almost potentially iconic Ford Cortina Mk3, this is a zombie-fighting team you could find yourself rooting for, and indeed I did from time to time. Sadly, however, it isn’t worth getting invested in their efforts, and not because of the genre’s predictability when it comes to the mortality of a movie’s main cast.

This is a zombie-fighting team you could find yourself rooting for, and indeed I did from time to time.

One major flaw is the movie’s desire to get a bit more serious instead of sticking with the tone of a light-hearted romp as our less-than-sharp survivors hop from house to house. Once they meet the all-too-earnest scientist and become part of her crusade, we’re in for a poorly paced ticking clock of a plot that only serves to unravel the already threadbare proceedings.

What I initially took to be the clever if familiar tactic of naming the main characters after zombie genre icons – Ash (EVIL DEAD), Morgan (LAST MAN ON EARTH), and Johnny (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) – turned out after seeing one of the cast interview extras to be less than calculated, with the characters simply named after a couple of the actors playing the parts! So much for giving them credit for nods to zombie history…except of course for when they blatantly lift entire shots from films like 28 DAYS LATER.

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Ultimately, my main disappointment with LAST OF THE LIVING is not that it’s a bad movie, but that it occasionally shows signs of having the potential to be a halfway decent one, or at least a “so bad it’s good” experience. There’s the aforementioned rapport between the leads, a few good lines, some reliably impressive New Zealand landscapes as backdrop, and even a couple clever ideas desperately looking for a better film to surround them. The worst part is that after investing the time and being buoyed by those few positive factors, the final ten minutes or so plays out like less than an afterthought, with two major deaths and a non-ending that almost rivals that of MONSTER A-GO GO.

The final ten minutes or so plays out like less than an afterthought.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe – to paraphrase the ending of that infamous MST3K subject – there were no zombies, no hapless trio, nothing in my living room but two puzzled zombie fans of courage who suddenly found themselves alone with shadows and darkness.

*instantly cut to black*

RATING

03brains

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The Doctor of the Dead Visits Evans City PA – The Living Dead Museum (Part Three of Three)

meavatarjessuJZDfxbFAs covered in the first installment of this multi-part journey to the home of zombie history, Evans City PA, we visited the local cemetery and briefly inhabited the same space as the likes of Judith O’Dea, Russ Streiner, and Bill Hinzman from the opening sequence of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD!

But that was the second part of the day. First, we traveled to a deceptively quiet street and a distinctively decorated store front to meet with Kevin Kriess of the Living Dead Museum, a veritable treasure trove of information, artifacts, and memorabilia related to NIGHT, DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DEAD, and many other aspects of zombie genre history dating both before and after Romero’s immortal trilogy.

Formerly based in the Monroeville Mall, site of DAWN, the museum is now just minutes away from the aforementioned Evans City Cemetery. In the second installment of this series, we covered the beginning of the museum visit. Now it’s time to finish this photo-essay review of a one-of-a-kind zombie destination!

One of my favorite parts of the museum is a long timeline that runs around the perimeter, placing NIGHT and Romero's films in historic context. First up, a look at where zombies began! This guy's a big boy now, Johnny! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
One of my favorite parts of the museum is a long timeline that runs around the perimeter, placing NIGHT and Romero’s films in historic context. First up, a look at where zombies began! This guy’s a big boy now, Johnny!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The timeline truly begins with the debut of the modern zombie in 1968. Watch out for those Blind Dead...they can hear your heartbeat! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The timeline truly begins with the debut of the modern zombie in 1968. Watch out for those Blind Dead…they can hear your heartbeat!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Two truly superb full-color zombie romps with gore galore occupy an early part of the timeline. "Gather 'round, children!" Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Two truly superb full-color zombie romps with gore galore occupy an early part of the timeline. “Gather ’round, children!”
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
A face only a(n undead) mother could love! The TRUE start of the modern zombie as we know it today starts in that memorable mall... Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
A face only a(n undead) mother could love! The TRUE start of the modern zombie as we know it today starts in that memorable mall…
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Kevin keeps the timeline going right to the present, which will definitely please fans of everything from 28 DAYS LATER (yes, yes, for the thousandth time, it counts) to Z NATION and iZOMBIE! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Kevin keeps the timeline going right to the present, which will definitely please fans of everything from 28 DAYS LATER (yes, yes, for the thousandth time, it counts) to Z NATION and iZOMBIE!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I temporarily take my place in the annals of zombie history, joined by some very familiar and handsome companions! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I temporarily take my place in the annals of zombie history, joined by some very familiar and handsome companions!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
"Am I doing it right, Michael?" Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
“Am I doing it right, Michael?”
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
"It's Father's Day!" Well no, it's not, but it IS good ol' Nate from CREEPSHOW! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
“It’s Father’s Day!” Well no, it’s not, but it IS good ol’ Nate from CREEPSHOW!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Kevin and other locals take perhaps even more pride in the Evans City-set Romero film THE CRAZIES, which also gets a showcase in the museum. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Kevin and other locals take perhaps even more pride in the Evans City-set Romero film THE CRAZIES, which also gets a showcase in the museum.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Want to dress the part? The Living Dead Museum has you covered...literally! Well, at least the top part of you... Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Want to dress the part? The Living Dead Museum has you covered…literally! Well, at least the top part of you…
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Some great poster prints are available to decorate any home environment in "Early Modern Zombie." Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Some great poster prints are available to decorate any home environment in “Early Modern Zombie.”
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Kevin graciously offered to carry ZOMBIEMANIA alongside many other illustrious tomes, but sadly my book is currently out of print. One day... Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Kevin graciously offered to carry ZOMBIEMANIA alongside many other illustrious tomes, but sadly my book is currently out of print. One day…
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The back of the museum features a "Maul of Fame" that showcases bloody handprints from numerous zombie history icons. And there's the hands of the man himself, Ken "Peter" Foree! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The back of the museum features a “Maul of Fame” that showcases bloody handprints from numerous zombie history icons. And there’s the hands of the man himself, Ken “Peter” Foree!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
And there we are getting a unique round of applause from the past - Kevin Kriess of the Living Dead Museum, and me, the Doctor of the Dead! What a day! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
And there we are getting a unique round of applause from the past – Kevin Kriess of the Living Dead Museum, and me, the Doctor of the Dead! What a day!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky

It was a fantastic visit, and I hope I find myself back there soon. I hope you all enjoyed seeing this sojourn into the past too! “It’s hard for us here to be reporting this to you, but it does seem to be a fact…”

Listen to our discussion on the undying classic, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, on episode 68 of DOCTOR OF THE DEAD!

Listen to our conversation about the horror landmark, DAWN OF THE DEAD, on episode 78 of DOCTOR OF THE DEAD!

The Doctor of the Dead Visits Evans City PA – The Living Dead Museum (Part Two of Three)

meavatarjessuJZDfxbFAs covered in the first installment of this multi-part journey to the home of zombie history, Evans City PA, we visited the local cemetery and briefly inhabited the same space as the likes of Judith O’Dea, Russ Streiner, and Bill Hinzman from the opening sequence of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD!

But that was the second part of the day. First, we traveled to a deceptively quiet street and a distinctively decorated store front to meet with Kevin Kriess of the Living Dead Museum, a veritable treasure trove of information, artifacts, and memorabilia related to NIGHT, DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DEAD, and many other aspects of zombie genre history dating both before and after Romero’s immortal trilogy.

Formerly based in the Monroeville Mall, site of DAWN, the museum is now just minutes away from the aforementioned Evans City Cemetery. We’ll cover the museum visit in two installments, because it’s just too big an event to encompass in a single post. In this gallery, we arrive at the museum, and encounter some amazing and authentic artifacts from Romero’s original cinematic cycle!

The wonderful museum logo on the entrance door.  Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The wonderful museum logo on the entrance door.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Loving those window treatments! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Loving those window treatments!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I flipped this one horizontally so you could clearly read the reflection of the all-too-appropriate Boylan Funeral Home across the street. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I flipped this one horizontally so you could clearly read the reflection of the all-too-appropriate Boylan Funeral Home across the street.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Inside, a marquee welcomes visitors to the home of horror cinema history! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Inside, a marquee welcomes visitors to the home of horror cinema history!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I don't know about you, but I think that ticket taker looks a bit ill. Best to move on into the museum quickly... Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I don’t know about you, but I think that ticket taker looks a bit ill. Best to move on into the museum quickly…
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
One of the first things you're greeted with at the museum is a wall of autographed photos, including these two from some familiar faces! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
One of the first things you’re greeted with at the museum is a wall of autographed photos, including these two from some familiar faces!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Need a refreshing beverage while you visit? The museum has you covered! Glad it isn't Lucozade (BIO-ZOMBIE fans will get this one). Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Need a refreshing beverage while you visit? The museum has you covered! Glad it isn’t Lucozade (BIO-ZOMBIE fans will get this one).
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Naturally the museum has quite a bit of space devoted to the film that redefined the zombie in the modern era - NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. After a fascinating wall of behind-the-scenes and publicity stills, I ran into this gentleman and tried to join him in his crooked-jawed excitement! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Naturally the museum has quite a bit of space devoted to the film that redefined the zombie in the modern era – NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. After a fascinating wall of behind-the-scenes and publicity stills, I ran into this gentleman and tried to join him in his crooked-jawed excitement!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
You never know what you might see at the museum, like this original screen-used ammo belt worn by George "Sheriff McClelland" Kosana in NIGHT! Sheriff McClelland
You never know what you might see at the museum, like this original screen-used ammo belt worn by George “Sheriff McClelland” Kosana in NIGHT!
Sheriff McClelland
One entire corner of the museum floor is devoted to some stunning displays celebrating the film that truly established the modern conception of the zombie even moreso than NIGHT: DAWN OF THE DEAD! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
One entire corner of the museum floor is devoted to some stunning displays celebrating the film that truly established the modern conception of the zombie even moreso than NIGHT: DAWN OF THE DEAD!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I take a look at some actual screen-used props from DAWN OF THE DEAD, including limbs and a gas mask. All in a day's work. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I take a look at some actual screen-used props from DAWN OF THE DEAD, including limbs and a gas mask. All in a day’s work.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
A huge diorama along one wall re-creates sections of the Monroeville Mall as seen in DAWN, including this section including a bit of the ice rink. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
A huge diorama along one wall re-creates sections of the Monroeville Mall as seen in DAWN, including this section including a bit of the ice rink.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I wonder if those poor figures on the top floor will make it out alive; probably not. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
I wonder if those poor figures on the top floor will make it out alive; probably not.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Are you humming "The Gonk" right now like I am? Good. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Are you humming “The Gonk” right now like I am? Good.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Kevin gave us a tantalizing glimpse of the original elevator doors seen in the film, awaiting a day when he can set up the elevator as a photo opportunity for patrons. And look, isn't that splashed fake blood from the production?  Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Kevin gave us a tantalizing glimpse of the original elevator doors seen in the film, awaiting a day when he can set up the elevator as a photo opportunity for patrons. And look, isn’t that splashed fake blood from the production?
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
There are some wonderful alternate and foreign posters for many zombie films on display, including this Japanese one for DAY OF THE DEAD. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
There are some wonderful alternate and foreign posters for many zombie films on display, including this Japanese one for DAY OF THE DEAD.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
All things considered, this guy has held up remarkably well since 1985! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
All things considered, this guy has held up remarkably well since 1985!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky

There’s so much more to explore, but that will have to wait until the final post covering the second half of our visit to the Living Dead Museum in Evans City! “We got this, man!”

Listen to our discussion on the undying classic, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, on episode 68 of DOCTOR OF THE DEAD!

Listen to our conversation about the horror landmark, DAWN OF THE DEAD, on episode 78 of DOCTOR OF THE DEAD!