Color, 1981, 94m.
Directed by Terry Bourke
Starring Chard Hayward, Louise Howitt, Deborah Coulls, Roger Ward, Les Foxcroft
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Color, 1981, 94m.
One of the most important but least known names in Australian exploitation was the late Terry Bourke, who almost single-handedly kickstarted the Down Under horror boom in the early '70s with the controversial Night of Fear and the bizarre macabre western, Inn of the Damned. Bourke never took off like many of his peers who found success overseas, and incredibly enough, he only made one theatrical film in the 1980s: Lady Stay Dead, a particularly lurid contribution to the slasher cycle.
Clearly inspired by the likes of Maniac and The Toolbox Murders, the film immediately bombards the viewer with heavy doses of nudity and brutality as we meet our psycho main character, Gordon (Hayward), a gardener who likes to hang around his apartment in a speedo, play sappy ballads on his record player, and make out with an inflatable doll dressed as his favorite actress. Said object of affection is Marie (Couls), who's also a pop singer and TV commercial staple who lives in a remote, luxurious home on the beach. Equipped with binoculars, Gordon keeps flashing back to images of bound, terrorized women (which may or may not be real) before tromping off to his job tending Marie's home, only to set the tempestuous diva off when he tracks his dirty boots on her carpet. That sets off a very uninvited sexual attack, culminating in Gordon dunking his victim head first into an aquarium. He doesn't quite realize he's committed murder at first and tries to communicate with the limp body, but things get even more complicated with the arrival of Marie's sister, Jenny (Howitt), who was brought into watch the place while sis was off shooting a commercial. As the police slowly realize something's amiss, Jenny's left fighting for her life against the maniacal gardener who isn't above grabbing a handy chainsaw to go after his prey.
Seen today, Lady Stay Dead is a fascinating attempt at fusing together the two different strains of slasher films emerging at the start of the decade: the deviant character study and the traditional stalk and slash. The bespectacled, beefy Hayward gets more character development than usual, which has the odd effect of distancing the other actors a bit including the nominal heroine (who gets some hilariously silly lines of dialogue while dealing with an increasing arsenal of weapons and incompetent law enforcement around her). The cop subplot isn't as intrusive as usual here either, with the climactic showdown offering some truly giddy moments of ridiculous exploitative action and gunplay. It's definitely a party film ripe for rediscovery.
Barely released in Australian theaters, Lady Stay Dead didn't reach American shores until 1986 courtesy of a cheapie VHS that haunted the bottom rows of mom and pop video stores for a few years. The reliably sleazy Intervision brought it out in the UK as well, but after that the film disappeared entirely from the home video scene for decades. Code Red's 2014 feature-only Blu-ray release, available as a limited 1,000-unit edition directly from its store, looks like a completely different film compared to the old tape editions; it's in great shape from a film elements clearly kept in very careful condition. Colors look amazingly rich at times including some gorgeous ocean shots, and the night scenes finally make sense with plenty of detail utterly lost before for most viewers. It's a tragedy you'll never see a film like this shot on 35mm again. The film can be played directly or with wraparounds as part of "Katarina's Bucket List Theater" (unadvertised on the cover), with game hostess Katerina Leigh Waters sharing facts and figures about the film in front of the ocean while dealing with a pervy peeing tom giant banana. (No, really!) A certain porky co-star from her past also pops up for a welcome cameo, too.