The Screaming Dead DVD Review

Written by Eric Strauss

DVD released by Ventura Distribution

A B

Written and directed by Brett Piper
2003, Region 1 (NTSC), 88 minutes, Rated R
DVD released on November 22nd, 2005

Starring:
Misty Mundae as Bridget
Rachael Robbins as Maura Holloway
with Rob Monkiewicz as Sam Rogan
Joseph Farrell as Roger Neale
C.J. DiMarsico as Jennifer
Heidi Kristoffer as Lauren
Kevin G. Shinnick as Rossiter
Sylvianne Chebance as the receptionist
A.J. Khan as the model
Marc Gettis as Doc

C D

Review:

Most low-budget film fans would recognize ei Independent Cinema’s main movie line, Seduction Cinema, as a maker of screwball softcore parodies like Lord of the G-Strings: The Femaleship of the String. But ei also has a horror line: Shock-O-Rama Cinema. And The Screaming Dead was its first release.

The Screaming Dead is not a parody, but a fairly straightforward entry in the psychological-horror genre, a ghost story with some genuine suspense, plus just a touch of the requisite B-movie titillation.

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The story is basic: A famous, driven photographer barricades himself in a deserted insane asylum with three models, his assistant and a reluctant overseer from the building’s owner. Intent on a project that mixes erotic imagery with fear, he intimidates the young would-be starlets — until he unwittingly conjures up an evil hidden deep within the building.

OK, so Screaming Dead is not quite as serious as that plot summary makes it sound. Let’s be honest. This is a B-movie all the way, with its share of laughable moments and a thoroughly underwhelming climax that undoes most of the legitimacy established before it.

But before the silly conclusion, Screaming Dead also has some really well-crafted scenes, and even at the end, it has a surprising amount of charm — and a startling lack of gratuitous nudity and gore.

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The film’s biggest strength is probably its actors, who all turn in solid, if a touch erratic, performances.

Joseph Farrell is cast as a one-dimensional prick as photo-artiste Roger Neale, but he plays that one note well, and he is the only actor who could legitimately be called steady.

His opposite number, Rob Monkiewicz, as the cocky tough guy Sam Rogan, is a bit hammy in some places and a bit flat in others, but he is a charismatic actor — plus, he gets all of writer/director Brett Piper’s best lines, and, to his credit, always elicits the laugh they deserve.

Rachael Robbins, playing Neale’s browbeaten assistant, Maura Holloway, brings class, spunk and a girl-next-door sexiness to her heroine role. She has a good chemistry with both Farrell and Monkiewicz, and that really helps to hold many scenes together.

As the three models, Misty Mundae (Satan’s School for Lust), C.J. DiMarsico (The Tenement) and Heidi Kristoffer are asked to do little but look pretty, stand around in various stages of undress and scream at the top of their lungs. But all do that well, and they manage to make their cardboard characters likable enough — and vulnerable enough — to be assets to the film for more than their physical attributes.

Mundae is one of ei’s starlets, with striking eyes and willingness to get naked, and her experience as an actress shows, as she uses her naturally sweet look to give her character just the right mix of innocence and petulance. On the other hand, DiMarsico was terrific in The Tenement, so her low-key performance here is a bit disappointing. Kristoffer is given the least to do, and the most schizophrenic character — one minute meek, the next mouthy — but she fares as well as can be expected.

And the final major player, Kevin G. Shinnick, plays the film’s ultimate villain with an appropriate mix of eyebrow-raising flair and eyeball-rolling melodrama. Though his scenes at the end push the film from psychological creepiness into full-blown hokiness, that fault lies with the writer, Piper, for taking that path, and not with Shinnick’s acting.

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The special effects are most obvious toward the end, and they are disappointing. The monster depicted on the box cover is nowhere to be found, and Shinnick’s makeup pales in comparison. In addition, the computer effects are often very obvious, and other independent companies — with shorter track records than ei — have done better. There are other problems as well. The most egregious offense comes when one of the models is being “slashed” by an invisible force. Despite the lines of bright red blood all over her body, her skin is clearly undamaged — obviously, the filmmakers wouldn’t cut her in real life, but they don’t even bother with any makeup effects. This could have been a showpiece scene, and any horror film that strives for legitimacy has to do better.

On the other hand, the strength of the location cannot be questioned. The former Marlboro (N.J.) State Psychiatric Hospital gives the film an innate claustrophobic feel, and Piper milks that for all it’s worth. The veteran director (A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell) uses every trick in the book — from camera angles to lighting — to ratchet the creepy atmosphere up another notch, and that builds the film’s tension extremely well.

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Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a genuine psychological horror film a la The Silence of the Lambs, leave this one on the shelf. What Screaming Dead has to offer is more campy, throwaway entertainment. But as that kind of entertainment goes, it delivers an enjoyable hour and a half.

And anyone looking for more isn’t being fair to the movie, even if it offers hints it could have delivered.

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Video and Audio:

The full-screen image is decent, though there is noticeable digital noise in the dark and foggy scenes — and there are several of those in a film that takes place overnight in a startlingly fog-filled building.

Daylight and other well-lit shots, however, are clear, if not as crisp as bigger-budget releases.

It should be said most genre fans have realized by now a full-screen image screams “straight to video,” and it’s unfortunate Shock-O-Rama didn’t opt for a widescreen presentation. Piper shot the film on digital video, according to an interview quoted in the liner notes, so a widescreen presentation should have been possible. That might have lent even more class to this surprisingly well-made film.

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is workmanlike, though dialogue volume is a bit shaky at times, forcing some remote-handling until an appropriate level is found. There is very little in the movie to stretch the speakers, so the track gets the job done.

Q R

Special Features:

The Screaming Dead was a major release for Shock-O-Rama, and the company pulled out plenty of stops on the extras, with four featurettes as highlights, including interviews with Piper, various cast members, ei bigwig Michael L. Raso and Fangoria magazine’s Tony Timpone and Michael Gingold.

“Inside Screaming Dead” is the first featurette, but it is only about seven minutes long and is a press-kit-type set of interviews. One nice thing is that the enthusiasm Piper and his cast brought to the film shows, despite the short time frame.

“Misty Mundae: From Skin to Scream,” on the other hand, is the longest featurette. It’s a 17-minute look at ei Independent Cinema and its poster girl, and while it overplays the hype surrounding both, it is an interesting look at an actress whose face is appearing on more and more DVD boxes every year. To Mundae’s credit, she comes across in interview clips as both intelligent and knowledgeable about the horror genre she is a fan of and is trying to break into.

“Inside the Asylum” is 15-minute look at the Marlboro mental institution. While it might have been another fun, but fluffy piece, the disconcerting focus on a former patient makes the featurette more disturbing than the film itself.

The final featurette, “Inside the Weekend of Horrors,” is a seven-minute look at the January 2004 Fangoria Weekend of Horrors convention, held in East Rutherford, N.J., where Screaming Dead made its debut.

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A slide-show photo gallery has some nice behind-the-scenes pictures, but misspells actress Rachael Robbins’ first name throughout the captions, and begins to repeat itself after a while. There is also a brief newsreel-style clip from the film’s cinema premier, plus five Shock-O-Rama trailers, including Screaming Dead’s, and a smattering of offers and Web links.

In an era of keepcases that lack even chapter-stop listings, it is nice to see Shock-O-Rama included a “limited edition” booklet with a lengthy article about Piper and several color images. (The best tidbit? The film was shot in a mere 12 days — two over schedule!)

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Grades:

 
Movie: Twoandahalfstars – Cute girls, stark sets and a touch of terror for 70 minutes. But the B-movie budget shows in the effects, and the decision to go for the camp at the end is an unfortunate one.
Video: Oneandahalfstars – An unexceptional C+ image is downgraded by the too-frequent noise.
Audio: Twoandahalfstars – A solid track, but surround mixing might have added to the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere.
Features: Fourstars – The featurettes are a bit fluffy, but all are entertaining, and ei’s support for the film is admirable.
Overall: TwoandahalfstarsThe Screaming Dead is an enjoyable 88 minutes, but its inconsistency probably prevents it from rising above its straight-to-DVD peers.

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Conclusion:

The Screaming Dead is a tough film to assess. It is clearly a showpiece for ei’s Shock-O-Rama line and every effort is made to put forth a serious, quality horror film. It has likable actors and builds a surprising amount of tension. Nonetheless, it often fails to rise above its B-movie origins, with some mediocre effects and a ham-handed plot decision at the end. In the DVD’s favor, there are plenty of features that show a genuine love for the film from the cast, crew and production company. But conversely, the image and sound quality are pedestrian, again letting the B-level show.

At a $20 list, it’s tough to recommend a blind buy. But Rob Monkiewicz’s attitude-laced charisma, Joseph Farrell’s scenery-chewing and Rachael Robbins’ and Misty Mundae’s fresh-faced charm make it worth a rental flier for fans of enthusiastic low-budget horror.

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