Color, 1986, 85 mins. 38 secs. / 80 mins. 26 secs. / 72 mins. 32 secs.
Directed by Samuel M. Sherman (and Brett Piper)
Starring Robert Deveau, Donna Asali, Scotty Schwartz, Bob Allen, Zita Johann, Corri Burt
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
In the ongoing debate over which film might take the crown as the worst zombie film ever made, there are many fierce contenders -- from adorable crackpot European ones like Zombie Lake and Oasis of the Living Dead to multiple unwatchable films with Day of the Dead somewhere in their title. However, there's nothing else on earth quite like Raiders of the Living Dead, a baffling patchwork of a film in which every shot, every plot point, every line delivery seems to be the wrong one. Officially this is a 1986 horror film release by Sam Sherman's Independent International, with Sherman himself taking directorial credit and the movie getting awarded a PG-13 rating by the MPAA for a theatrical release that never happened. It also inspired one of the goofiest trailers ever made, and in 2003, the mystery of how this mangled but weirdly endearing mutation came to be was answered with the release of a two-disc DVD set from Image Entertainment. Essentially this all began well before 1986 when a young Brett Piper, future director of Bacterum, Mutant War, and A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, made his scrappy, never-completed second feature, Dying Day. He managed to sell it off to Sherman, which led to an attempt to work it into something releasable with some major plot reworking as Dark Night. When that didn't work, Sherman himself directed a slew of new footage, reworked the entire story, and brought forth what we now know as Raiders of the Living Dead.
So... the plot of Raiders starts with some terrorists target a tanker that leads to an offscreen hostage situation and ecological disaster due to their involvement in the handiwork of mad scientist Dr. Carstairs (classic cowboy actor Allen), which in turn unleashes some zombies. Meanwhile young Jonathan (Schwartz) is whipping up a death ray using his grandpa's laserdisc player because "I wanna rule this block," zapping his hamster Felix in the process and finding a cohort in best friend Michelle (Burt). Meanwhile reporter Morgan Randall (Deveau) and sidekick Shelly (Asali) are looking into the growing zombie plague, and all these plot strands will eventually merge. Or maybe not.
By the time this film came out, the big selling point (if it had one) was the presence of Schwartz, who had played the pole-licking Flick in A Christmas Story and starred opposite Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason in The Toy. Unfortunately his career took a hit when his next starring vehicle, Kidco, got buried by studio politics at Fox, and things were never the same. After this he took a short and bizarre detour acting in hardcore porn films for a while in the '90s before resuming a more mainstream acting career that continues to this day. In addition to Allen, the film tips its hat to the classic days of Hollywood by giving an extended cameo to Zita Johann, star of the original The Mummy with Boris Karloff, in what would be her final film role as a pivotal librarian. As disjointed and confusing as the final film may be, it certainly has a compelling "what am I watching quality" and boasts an unquestionably killer main title sequence with an infectious rock theme song.
The DVD from Image featured Raiders and Dying Day on the first disc, with Dark Night on the second disc along with the usual batch of Sherman bonuses (a House of Terror promo, still gallery, and trailers for all of his Filipino Blood movies). The main extra there was a Sherman audio commentary for Raiders, laying out the entire saga in detail and making for interesting, non-scene specific listening. For the record, the 80-minute Dying Day is the darkest and most somber film of the trio with Deveau's Morgan instead being the latest descendant in a long line of cursed Randall family members going back to an atrocity committed against a slave, which provokes intermittent zombie attacks. Clocking in at 72 minutes, Dark Night overhauls that to make him a reporter looking into Allen's scientific experiments, the source of that material in the Raiders cut.
In 2023, Severin Films essentially made that set obsolete with a single-disc Blu-ray edition featuring a new 2K scan of Raiders from the negative, looking and sounding about as good as that film possibly could (with the expected DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track with optional English subtitles), with the other two versions presented here in SD looking identical to what was on the earlier release. Bear in mind that both of those latter ones are incomplete and have no finished music scores, and large swaths of Dark Night are totally silent. The Sherman commentary is ported over here, while Deveau provides a new second commentary in which he goes into detail about the on and off shooting, the differences in the approaches of Piper and Sherman, and adjusting to the demands of his character as it radically altered on the way to the final product. "Things To Do In Jersey When You're Dead" (23m36s) features interviews With Fangoria writer Tim Ferrante, editor John Donaldson, and soundtrack composer George Edward Ott about the process of making the Raiders footage with Sherman often rewriting on the spot and coming up with ways to keep the story together in some form. That included finding a way to help Johann with her lines, which was pulled off with a respectful and elegant solution. And yes, you get to hear all about that theme song, the best thing in the movie. Also included here are the amazing trailer, Sherman's short film The Weird Stranger (3m21s) about a guy in black skulking around on the way to a horror movie punchline, a "Dark Nights and Dying Days" behind-the-scenes gallery for the two Piper versions (3m55s), and a "Documents of the Dead" gallery (3m2s) for the production of Raiders.
Reviewed on November 23, 2023