Released at the tail end of the 1980s, the low budget zombie horror film The Dead Pit is fondly remembered by many old-school horror fans as one of the final entries in the decade's unmistakable goopy, Day-Glo splatter horror, which happened to coincide with that other short-lived novelty, the gimmicky VHS cover box. (See Blood Roses and Frankenhooker for other prime examples.) No horror fan who came of age during the Freddy Kruger era could ever forget the Dead Pit cover box, which featured a creepy-looking zombie in a strait-jacket climbing out of a pit with eyes that glowed on and off in glorious, bright green thanks to real tiny lights imbedded in the cardboard. So, did the movie itself live up to the hype? Well, sort of, if you know what to expect.
At the State Institute for the Mentally Insane (how's that for a PC name?), Dr. Ramzi (Gochnauer) is bringing the great mad scientist tradition to the world of psychiatry by subjecting hordes of his inmates to diabolical lobotomy experiments, then chucking their bodies into a a huge subterranean pit for disposal. Fortunately one of his colleagues, Dr. Swan (Slate), catches on to the plot and dispatches the doctor with a handy bullet, but of course, the terror is just beginning. Flash forward several years as a new, busty amnesiac patient simply christened Jane Doe (Lawson) is suffering from visions of the mad doctor, his eyes now glowing red, and suffering from the delusion that her memories have been erased by force. When an earthquake hits, macabre events plague the reopened hospital, and only Jane (usually clad in her skivvies) and Swan can stop the undead doctor from continuing his sadistic mission -- with several dozen blood-soaked zombies coming along for the ride.
One of many horror films to run afoul of the MPAA during the height of the splatter craze, The Dead Pit lost a whopping six minutes in the process for its VHS release but is thankfully restored to its full running time on Code Red's DVD. The extra grue certainly helps, of course, as does the restored brain dissection sequence which wouldn't look out of place in a Stuart Gordon movie. The film itself holds up just fine for its era; if you enjoy such thematically and stylistically similar films as Bad Dreams and Renny Harlin's underrated Prison, this should certainly do the trick. Lawson doesn't exactly cut it as a first-league scream queen (surprisingly enough, she's now found a solid career as a stuntwoman), but she does eye candy duties well enough in her too-short T-shirt and undies throughout the film. This also marked the directorial debut of Brett Leonard, who went on to score a surprising box office success with The Lawnmower Man (which inexplicably has yet to receive a decent uncut DVD release) and mostly hit-and-miss work afterwards with Virtuosity, Hideaway and Feed. His film generally tend to favor visual style over narrative coherence or naturalistic acting, and The Dead Pit is no exception. The film tosses in enough spooky scares to keep fans interested throughout, but the final fifteen minutes when Leonard pulls out all the stops with a blood-splashed zombie attack revolving around the titular pit is where it really justifies its existence. Don't expect a masterpiece, but as far as direct-to-video horror goes, this is still one of the stronger efforts around.
Code Red's anamorphic transfer obviously betters the ancient Imperial VHS by a wide margin, even without those beloved blinking zombie eyes on the cover. The cinematography's aforementioned Day-Glo color scheme (with heavy use of lime greens and lavendars) comes through vividly throughout, and while the anamorphic transfer is interlaced, it still looked watchable enough when bumped up to simulated 1080p playback on a widescreen set. The film itself still has that vaguely soft look common to the era, which is to be expected. Leonard, the now-deceased Slate, Lawson and writer Gimel Everett contribute heavily to the extras, which include two quick video intros to the film, an entertaining audio commentary (which talks about the location shooting, its purported real ghosts, and the distribution snags hit afterwards), and a slightly redundant but enjoyable set of video interviews with all the participants as they talk about their favorite moments and the special FX snafus encountered during the more ambitious sequences. Other extras include the original (spoiler-packed) trailer and additional trailers for upcoming Code Red titles including the much-desired Night Warning, which promises to be their most eagerly-anticipated release so far. Interestingly, most retailers carry this single-disc edition (the one reviewed here), which Best Buy offers an exclusive two-disc set containing an additional short film and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery.