Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Laughing Dead (USA, 1989)




Wow! The stories behind some films are sometimes even more interesting than the films themselves! According to Cold Fusion Video, which in turn credits Fangoria for the tale, The Laughing Dead, the directorial debut of Thai Renaissance Man Somtow Sucharitkul, is the result of a chance meeting between Sucharitkul and special effects master John Carl Buechler* in a supermarket line. Sucharitkul had moved to Hollywood with the idea of breaking into films, but after two years he still hadn't gotten further than an occasional script for Saturday morning animation series (C.O.P.S and Dinosaucers). Buechler's advice was that to get the movie business to let you make movies, you had to make a movie, and to do the latter a low-budget horror film is the best. The two decided to collaborate, and Sucharitkul tossed together a script based loosely on the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations and got a bunch of buds and fellow writers together to act in it.
Thus the film was finished – and never released in the US. If Cold Fusion is to be believed, The Laughing Dead remained in limbo stateside because the rich-kid backer nixed the distribution when he suddenly got cold feet: if the film were a success, his father might cut off his living allowance and force him to go into business for real. Nice story, who knows if it's true, but we would tend to agree with Cold Fusion in stating that the kid had nothing to worry about. (So: Does anyone know why Sucharitkul's follow-up directorial effort, a "gothic punk" adaptation of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream entitled Ill Met by Moonlight [1994], was never released anywhere at all?)
In any event, we picked up our relatively low-quality, England-made DVD of The Laughing Dead over eBay, which is probably the best place to look if you ever want to watch this mildly entertaining horror film that offers some good belly laughs, some truly fine old school gore sequences and a pleasant stop-animation demonic dinosaur fight, a nicely low budget sheen, no visibly exceptional directorial talent, and a rather clumsy film script.
In other words, The Laughing Dead is not a good film, but it is an enjoyably entertaining one, once you get past the turgid first 30 minutes needed to set up the framework for the film's meager death count (of somewhere around five, excluding the bad guys and miscellaneous Mexican children).
The acting is truly abysmal, swerving between unadulterated mugging and blank-faced inability, with Sucharitkul, who takes on one of the lead roles as the Mexican-demon-god-worshipping and child-murdering Dr. Um-Tzec, faring the best: he actually manages to infuse his inane dialogue and presence with a knowing irony that helps render his presence and dialogue entertaining – the scene in which he muses about becoming a stockbroker once he no longer has to spend all his time killing kids, for example, is priceless.
One of the biggest flaws of the film is that the story introduces way too many dislikable characters that one naturally expects to die painful deaths – the crystal-carrying New Ages yuppies Wilbur (Larry Kagen) and Clarisse (Krista Keim) being the best example – only to have them not only survive unharmed, but actually assist in saving the day. (For a low-budget gore film, way too many non-essential characters survive.) Likewise, the script is oddly clunky for a supposedly professional writer; not only does it meander and most characters remain either stereotypes or ciphers, but the introduction of some characters – the archaeological student Cal, for example – is oddly out-of-the-blue, while many scenes also seem oddly tacked on (the dead girl in the road scene, for example). But then, it's these flaws and the general idiocy of the events in general that, combined with the special-effects highpoints, make The Laughing Dead pleasantly funny – had the film achieved any true level of professionalism, it would probably not be half as enjoyable as it is.
And the plot of this wanna-be Al Adamson horror film with professional special effects? Opening with a child sacrifice, The Laughing Dead quickly moves to Tucson to introduce Father O'Sullivan (Tim Sullivan, seen in many a Z-film), a caring priest who has slowly lost his faith since, some ten years earlier, he knocked up a nun. Leaving the next day for his annual educational tour to Oaxaca for the "Laughing Dead" celebrations, not only is the young love-struck parishioner Laurie (Premika Eaton, Sucharitkul's younger sister) stowed away on the bus, but O'Sullivan's sin of the past, Tessie (Wendy Webb), joins the tour with their now ten-year-old, foul-mouthed son Ivan (Patrick Roskowick), who doesn't know who his dad is. (Next to Sucharitkul, he has some of the best dialogue of the film.) This and that happens and O'Sullivan gets his heart exchanged with that of the great Death-God Um-Tzec and then kills a few people before Ivan gets kidnapped for him to sacrifice to the god so as to free the god onto the world and those westerners that haven't already gotten killed take up arms – crystals and basketballs – to stop the sacrifice and save the world. The special effects are truly top notch, with the scene of the guy who dies when he gets his own hand stuffed down his throat, a woman ripping open her chest, the through-the-knifed-stomach birthing scene, and the final showdown of the were-dinosaurs being the high points of the film.
The Laughing Dead in short: A bad but entertaining gore film that takes awhile to get rolling but delivers both enough unintentional laughs, intentional laughs and professional gore effects to go well with beer and weed. But as a calling card for breaking into Hollywood, well, it's no wonder Sucharitkul's career has hardly been stellar – the film is like a term paper with a dozen misspelt words, bad grammar and terrible structure. It might not matter at Troma U., but at Hollywood High they still expect more.

*Buechler is also a genre film director in his own right and has directed a variety of memorable and unmemorable B-films, including Curse of the Forty-Niner (2002 / trailer), Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College (1991 / trailer), Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988 / trailer), Cellar Dweller (1988 / trailer) and Troll (1986 / trailer).

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