Friday, May 1, 2009

The Unsung Hero of Dead and Buried

In George Miller's Mad Max, the Night Rider instructs us to remember him when we "look at the night sky."

A couple of years later, after the teenage Phantom was blown away by Gary Sherman's Dead and Buried, I would ask others to "Remember the Piping Smoking Man from the film's (Salo-esque) beach bashing."

My brother Colin and I share a fierce passion for cinematic bashings, burning, and beatings.

The bashing of Freddy in the opening sequence of Dead and Buried is one of the finest slices of cinema I've ever seen, easily rivaling (for me, at least) Clark Gable meeting Vivien Leigh on the stairs in Gone With The Wind ('39).

The sequence is impeccably set up, cast, and directed. If anybody ever doubted the importance of casting every part like it was the lead, look no further than this. The Pipe Smoking Man (actor unknown), a featured extra with less than five seconds of screen time, rises to the level of a horror legend.

Freddie (Christopher Allport) arrives in Potter's Bluff (Mendocino, CA) to take some photos. He's from St. Louis, we learn. "Photographers don't get famous in St. Louis," he says.

Freddie got that one wrong. He's about to get very, very famous.

After snapping a couple of nature pics...

... Freddie from St. Louis meets Lisa (Lisa Blount) on the beach.

Happy to be photographed, Lisa engages Freddie in some small talk...

... then makes him an offer he can't refuse.

"Do you want me, Freddie?"

Of course, Freddie doesn't hesitate to reel in his catch, motivated perhaps by a niggling fear that the offer may be retracted.

Which it is.

And this is where things get very interesting.

The film plunges into surrealism at this point (or dream logic?). Suddenly, a crowd of people surround Freddie.
These are not ordinary people.

They're violent people who attack Freddie for no apparent reason.

They're not strangers to the area; Freddie's the stranger. And he's about to get fingered and fucked.

These folks appear to be repeating a ritual.

The bashing of Freddie is systematic, efficient, and brutal.

A crowbar to the shins smarts, don't it?

The guy doesn't stand a chance.

Director Sherman serves this cold, bloody dish to us in a series of masterful cuts and beautifully framed compositions.

Note the edge action and background activity in these frame grabs.

The perfectly cast locals project a frightening sense of righteousness and sincerity.

The use of familiar sound effects such as a metal shovel being slammed into the back of Freddie's head heighten the realism of this sequence.

Allport's performance is exceptional. We buy right into his pain and acceptance of impending destruction.

There is a Salo-esque mood to this sequence. The indifference of the townsfolk to the suffering of the stranger possesses a nihilism that is not nearly as strong in any other part of the movie.

Once again, we see an example of smart, impeccable casting and truly inspired composition (Steven Poster shot the movie).

"Welcome to Potter's Bluff!"

Note the expression on the face of Linda Shusett, who turns up later as Midge the Waitress.

Behind her, the male onlooker's face is tilted to the right.

Now the onlooker's face is tilted left. He is thinking, quite calmly, about the act of incineration that is about to take place. He is also gaining a better vantage point with his head tilted that way.

Now he's back to the right again. His indifference to Freddie's suffering is mesmerizing.

The Pipe Smoking man (known as "Pipe" by my brother and I) is introduced. He is the picturebook "Old Salt", someone who could be the grandfather or uncle of a million viewers.

He is just so fuckin perfect! I love how he checks to make sure that the film in his camera has advanced before calmly snapping another photo of a human being being deliberately burnt to death.

The understatement, the juxtaposition of imagery, is inspired.

For me, Pipe IS Dead and Buried.

The crevasses of age that sculpt his face are witness to a thousand screaming horrors.

Take a bow, Pipe Smoking Man, you King of the Charbroiled Cadaver, Prince of the Perfectly Placed Pipe, Sultan of the Smoking Skeleton, for you have, in just five fiery seconds, blazed your way into horror history.

Truly you are an Apostle of Pulp.

The scene has been posted on youtube:


  1. Dead and Buried used to be on cable all the time when I was a kid and I used to watch it over and over again. I just loved it. Thanks for the new appreciation of this classic!

  2. I love this twisted little gem. "Weird murderous townsfolk" is a premise of which I will never tire.

  3. What can I possibly add, Phantom, except to say that while you're focused so reverentially on the enigmatic 'pipe', I'm on the sofa, stroking myself to the irrepresible, insatiable, irresistable (albeit irredeemably homicidal) Lisa Blount, who judging by her classic sultry southern turn as Purlene in the amazing "Box of Moonlight", is still, to this day, every bit the red hot tamale she was in the days of 'D.A.B.'

    She weren't too shabby neither in the recent flick 'Chrystal', as it happens, holding her own up against red neck trash like Billy Bob and Harry Dean; that girl still has plenty of spunk her after all these years...and I'll bet she got a few shots more by the time Badass Badboy Bothersome Billy Bob Thorton, scourge of the south, got a whiff of her action!

    'The South Will Rise!!'

  4. Bad-ass post! You totally nailed the brilliance of D&B's opening scene. Even had the rest of the movie sucked wind, the brutal bashing and burning of Freddie would've made this movie stick in my mind forever.