Thursday, October 14, 2010

Halloween Havoc: DEATH ROW DINER (1988)

We didn’t want it to be like this.  Honestly.  But our quest to review stuff that hasn’t been done to death (do you really need us to tell you THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a classic?) has resulting in Video Junkie focusing on the worst of the worst.  And in the horror genre that usually means shot-on-video (SOV) productions that somehow managed to escape from their creators video players and get national releases.

Outside of the porno industry, the low budget horror filmmakers were foremost in utilizing the video revolution. The terrible BOARDING HOUSE (1982) is considered the first feature length horror film to use the burgeoning video medium and the floodgates were open. Soon enough the video store shelves were overflowing with poorly made SOV productions with promising titles like David Prior’s SLEDGEHAMMER (1983) and the aforementioned Bill Blair’s BLOOD CULT (1985), which had a selling point that it was made exclusively for the home video market (oh, lucky us). Personally, I lost my SOV virginity in 1990 with the Pericles Lewnes’ entertaining and obscenely gory REDNECK ZOMBIES (1987). It was all pretty much downhill from there.

DEATH ROW DINER opens in 1948 with imprisoned movie studio exec Otis Wilcox (John Content) heading to the electric chair after being framed for his wife’s murder.  His biggest beef, however, is that he hasn’t received his last meal and gets juiced while screaming “I’m hungry!” Fast forward 40 years and a low budget film crew is using the now defunct prison as a shooting location (isn’t that the same plot as the Lyle Alzado and Anthony Perkins starrer DESTROYER from the same year?).  Bill Weston (Jay Richardson), the director, is looking to exploit the fact that his lead lady and wife, Julia (Michelle Bauer), is the granddaughter of Otis.  She is sensitive to the fact and doesn’t take kindly to the subject matter.  The fact that she loathes Bill and is having an affair with the leading man also helps.

Naturally, a freak (they’re always freak) electrical storm brings the fried Otis back from the dead and he proceeds to kill the various crew members. First up is the electrical guy who gets zapped. Then he strangles a make up girl with some bodacious tatas (sadly they remain clothed, one of the film’s biggest weak points).  Next up is the twitchy Elvis caterer, who dies from ingesting Otis’ noxious gas (really).  The guy playing Otis in the movie within the movie then gets zapped while sitting in the old electric chair.  Then a crew member playing ping pong gets the eyeballs smacked out of his head.  Two more techies are killed by Otis before the film finally wraps up with him getting revenge on Weston with the help of his granddaughter.  Oh yeah, the sleazy Italian producer is killed in there at some point too.

Sorry if that all seems a bit rushed, but you can’t really say much about this 68-minute production. Otis dies --> Otis comes back 40 years later --> Otis kills --> the end.  This is by far the least offensive SOV piece I’ve endured as it tries to be an actual film, but that isn’t really saying much. Director B. Dennis Wood delivers a truly baffling product.  There are good performances from Richardson (always a pro) and Bauer.  And the little jabs at the z-grade movie industry are fun.  At the very least it would have been a good snapshot of the 80s and low budget filmmaking.  Unfortunately, they used video, so it is a time capsule but in the worst way.

The production score points for featuring some decent make-up and lots of gore. Unfortunately, like I said, it is all SOV so the porn-like productions values let the effects down. Here’s Otis taking out a skateboarding film grip:  



Now try to imagine that exact same scene, only shot on film.  It probably would have been pretty fun, right? They did have some nice locations and it looks like they filmed on the same prison set that John Saxon and Fred Olen Ray used for ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE (1987). The comedy is pretty abysmal for the most part.  I will admit I did get a kick out of the cursing film producer Tony Milano and found this exchange to be gold.

Techie: “You want to play some ping pong later?”
Milano: “You out of your fuckin’ mind?”

The biggest head scratcher is the complete lack of nudity.  This is really surprising because Michelle Bauer was more than willing to pop her top in other B-movie productions around the same time (and had done porn previous to this).  Please don’t tell me Wood thought this was a “classy” production. I’m not kidding, had this been shot on film and included some nudity, I could see it being an endearing and maybe even entertaining film.  Not in a good kind of way, but along the lines of stuff like EVIL SPAWN (1987) or HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS (1988), something Richardson starred in the same year.  Yeah, I’m that easy.

Moments of Clarity:

1 Reactions:

  1. Yes, DEATH ROW DINER was shot on the same sets, and concurrently, with ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE. And, there were other overlaps as well.

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