Color, 1960, 68 mins. 15 secs.
Directed by Barry Mahon
Starring John MacKay, Linda Ormond, Monica Davis, Clyde Kelly, Darlene Myrick
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Media Blasters (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
For many years, the indie horror film The Dead One was considered a lost drive-in oddity whose existence could only be proven by posters and a few tantalizing stills that popped up occasionally in monster magazines. Notable as one of the earliest zombie movies in color, it was the handiwork of exploitation veteran Barry Mahon, a onetime World War II pilot turned Errol Flynn manager (circa Cuban Rebel Girls, which he directed) and showman behind a number of strange nudie films and kiddie matinee entertainments. The Dead One came early in his career, well before titles like The Beast That Killed Women and The Wonderful Land of Oz, and here he tried to give it some extra prestige by shooting in scope and injecting lots of New Orleans music and burlesque routines. It's a bizarre choice for a zombie horror movie, but hey, that's what makes it special.
In the middle of the night on her Louisiana plantation, Monica Carlton (Davis) performs a voodoo ritual to raise her dead brother, Jonas (Kelly), from his stone crypt on a mission to kill. The target: Linda (Ormond), who has just married Monica's cousin, John (McKay), and thrown a wrench in the family's inheritance plans. After taking in lots of the local nightlife, Linda and John head to the Carlton plantation after picking up a stranded nightclub dancer, Bella Bella (Myrick). Upon their arrival, strange things start happening on the estate with the staff all too aware that the lady of the house is up to something evil...
As should be obvious right away, Mahon wasn't exactly an expert cinematic stylist; his use of the budget-friendly Ultrascope process here makes no interesting use of the wide framing at all. However, the film has a perverse, colorful appeal, especially if you're into other directors like Ray Dennis Steckler, and it's fascinating as a postwar zombie film before Hammer and George Romero upped the scare factor considerably later on in the same decade. Exactly how and where this one played seems to vary depending on who's telling the story, but it did get some regional bookings in the South as a supporting feature and left behind a trail of marketing collateral that turned it into such a tantalizing mystery title for so long.
Exactly how The Dead One came to home video is something of a saga unto itself. As part of its ongoing distribution deal with Image Entertainment, Something Weird Video announced a release on DVD in 2002 as the headliner in a double feature with Monstrosity, with cover art released and a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 master prepared. Just before that release got to the check disc stage, distributor Sam Sherman claimed ownership over the title and put a stop to that disc with intentions to release it himself. The Something Weird version thus never saw the light of day, and the following year, Sherman issued it as part of his deal with Media Blasters; at the time he was changing the titles of many of his films to work the word "Blood" into the title to ride the popularity of his Filipino horror movies like Mad Doctor of Blood Island. Thus The Dead One ended up hitting DVD as Blood of the Zombie (with Voodoo Swamp tossed in as a barely noticeable co-feature), and the result was a complete train wreck of a release. The original scope framing was completely destroyed, with the opening credits heavily cropped down to 1.78:1 and the rest of the film severely squeezed to the point of unwatchability. (See the frame grab comparisons below; those DVD ones are actually how it looked.) The release was never corrected, and for two decades it seemed we'd be stuck with a completely botched transfer of this film for good.
Fortunately the tide turned in 2023 with a Blu-ray release from Severin Films, which finally presents the film in good quality in its original aspect ratio. Everything here is a major improvement -- detail, white levels, overall color timing, you name it. The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track sounds fine given the very basic nature of the original mix, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. The film also features an audio conversation by Sherman and Severin's David Gregory via Skype talks about his connections to Mahon via Pagan Island and Joe Franklin, as well as various showbiz stories from the '60s involving other distributors and various players in the East Coast low-budget playground. In "The Crazy Wild and Crazy Life of Barry Mahon" (28m59s), C. Courtney Joyner elaborating on the bizarre, truly unique career of the California-born director, whose life in Hollywood and elsewhere was as colorful and ambitious as his output. The very musical theatrical trailer is also included and probably didn't pack 'em in much.
Severin Films (Blu-ray)
Media Blasters (DVD)
Reviewed on November 23, 2023