The brilliant Dr. Colin Ramzi has turned fiendish, deciding that it makes more sense to use the patients at the mental hospital where he works as test subjects, rather than bothering to try and heal them. His colleague Dr. Swan disagrees, and the resulting showdown in the basement leaves Ramzi dead amongst his pile of equally dead test subjects. Deciding to cover up the incident rather than face his own complicity, Swan seals off access to the basement in the abandoned wing of the hospital and hopes that’s the end of Ramzi’s evil legacy.
But twenty years later, the arrival of a mysterious woman with no memory of her past coincides with an earthquake at the asylum, which breaks the seal Swan placed around the basement, freeing the very alive, though still evil Dr. Ramzi, and his legion of undead experiments.
I know he’s evil and all, but I gotta admit, I do like a man with an appreciation of ambiance.
Dead Pit is an American supernatural horror/zombie pic from 1989, and is the directorial debut of Brett Leonard, who’s credits also include films like Hideaway and The Lawnmower Man. As far as first films go, Dead Pit is a pretty solid, and surprisingly honest little zombie outing. There are many characters that are indeed dead and there is a pit that they all crawl out of. So let the record show that the film title does not fib. But with a name like that it’s also, perhaps predictably, a very low-budget, B-grade affair that was written in the span of about three weeks. Which means you should expect a lot of plot and visuals oddities, and for at least one character to say the name of the film out loud, because when you’re starting out, adding stuff like that always seems cool to do when you’re in the midst of writing the first or second draft of….well, anything.
Like all low-budget films, Dead Pit suffers from many of the same drawbacks that plague similar films. The story is riddled with plot holes, middling acting, and cliche’s galore. Expect things like an inexplicable skimpily-clad leading lady, an overabundance of black lighting, smoke machines, and instances where characters utter stereotypical phrases related to their jobs, like when the oblivious policemen end up being eaten because they were too immersed in their deep discussion about donuts to notice the shambling zombie horde coming up right next to them. The film is also filled with a bevy of familiar character tropes ripped right out of other, more famous movies. The reanimated Dr. Ramzi essentially acts like a poor man’s Freddy Kruger, and the ever odious Nurse Kygar is essentially a less sophisticated take on Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a coincidence that may or may not have been intentional, as both movies were filmed at the same location: Agnew’s Development Center in Santa Clara, California. The only difference here is that Ramzi isn’t nearly as intimidating and Kygar ultimately gets her comeuppance for her lack of compassion in the end, when she ends up Nom-Nom-ed by a coworker she wrote-off earlier in the film. A move which undoubtedly makes Dead Pit 100% more cathartic than the Jack Nicholson film could ever hope to be.
So, go zombies, go.
Something tells me this isn’t relegation nightwear at a mental institution….
Uh, guys….guys? Is your peripheral vision shot or something?
Seriously, F-you and all your ilk.
One of the things Dead Pit gets truly right is the gore. The viewer may be forced to wait, as the film takes its sweet time getting to the real meat of the story, but their patience will be rewarded with blood, guts, severed heads, eaten corpses, melting bodies, and even a live lobotomy. And the effects used here are actually very impressive for such a low-budget affair. There are a couple of very noticeable scrimp-and-save moments here and there of course. The movie makes liberal use of small scale models for certain scenes (because they didn’t have a crane and couldn’t actually recreate and blow up an honest to god water tower for the film’s climax,) and some of the human body parts, like the brains, look more like they came out of a Jello mold than they do a live human body. But all in all I think most gorehounds will be satisfied with the film’s output.
The other thing the film gets right is the atmosphere. The isolated location, the long, empty hallways, the apparent unfettered use of an abandoned wing at the hospital, and even being forced to use small models for certain scenes, it all comes together to give the film a perfectly dreary, almost dreamlike feel. The use of the abandoned part of Agnew State Hospital in particular is used to full effect. At the time of filming the wing, which at one point had housed some of the hospital’s most dangerous patients, had already been closed and cut off for years. So it had no water, no power, and had long ago fallen into disrepair. The film couldn’t have asked for a more perfect dark, gloomy, decrepit, or morbid filming location. And that dank and depressing tonne really follows the film all the way through to the end. There are no lighthearted moments or comic relief to be found here. The closest you get to any kind of “lightheartedness” comes from the odd touch of gallows humor. Beyond that, and the one instance of forced nudity that is a contractual requirement for such slightly sleazy horror movies, Dead Pit sticks with a pretty solid surreal-like, “doom and gloom” feel almost exclusively through its entire run.
At its core, Dead Pit is a pretty standard example of low-budget 80s horror outings. The plot’s filled with holes, the pacing is poor, the dialogue is wonky, the characters are pretty predictable, and it’s filled with a bunch of bizarre design choices. But on the plus side, the production values are surprisingly good, the cinematography is decent, the practical effects are incredibly well done considering what they had to work with, and the ending ends up being pretty fun, even though they pull the predictable “But wait!” type of ending that plagues 99% of horror movie finales. Still, all in all I think it ends up being a pretty fun zombie outing. It’s not perfect, and you do have to wait quite a while to get to the good part, as the movie tends to plod along a little too much for the first half. But I’d say it’s a rather solid film for a director’s first outing. If you like zombie films, or just 80s horror in general, and have a bit of patience, then Dead Pit could be right up your ally. But if slow build-up isn’t your thing, or you’re looking for a lot more action, then perhaps you should reconsider.
Dead Pit is available on a variety of streaming services.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray.