Some cult movies are so bad that they’re bad (The Dead Next Door) while others are so bad that they’re good (The Evil Dead). Cult flicks are weird like that. The Dead Pit is a strange example in that, at least from my point of view, it seems to land somewhere in-between those two territories. Director Brett Leonard puts enough thought and effort into the cinematography to keep it from being an entirely bland experience, but not enough for it to really stand out in any way. Likewise, the acting isn’t as dreadful as, say, The Chilling, but it’s just bad enough to keep you in a light-cringe from start to finish.
The Dead Pit (1989)
At an overfilled and under-staffed mental hospital, Dr. Colin Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer) decides to use the excess patients for his own personal experiments into death and the unknown. His evil deeds are ended abruptly when his colleague, Dr. Gerald Swan (Jeremy Slate), puts a bullet in his head. Dr. Ramzi and the corpses of his experiments are then sealed up in a mass grave beneath the hospital and forgotten about for twenty years.
Now it’s the present day, and a mysterious Jane Doe (Cheryl Lawson) arrives at the hospital with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Her presence triggers a violent reaction from the dead pit below the hospital, freeing the demented spirit of Dr. Ramzi. Ramzi is eager to continue his experiments and this time around he has a legion of loyal zombies to help him out.
Brett Leonard would go on to direct such B-movie “classics” as The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity and Man-Thing. The guy is strictly a smalltime B-movie director, but his work has its fanbase and I’ll admit — there are worse directors out there. The Dead Pit also happens to be his first professional work, so as you can imagine, it has that reek of low-budget ‘80s horror about it. To Leonard’s credit, he seems to have a pretty good idea of what he’s doing, employing some very nice angles, long-shots, trippy use of perspective and some fine use of light and shadow. His use of colors, on the other hand, seem like they want to channel Suspiria, but all I got was Future-Kill (and that’s not a compliment). While from a visual standpoint there isn’t much to write home about, there’s just enough creativity employed to keep it from looking dull.
The acting isn’t heinously bad, for the most part, but you’ll still wince from time to time. Cheryl Lawson plays the lead, and while she’s a very accomplished stunt woman with a long and successful career, you’ll find her filmography as an actress to be shorter than your “thank you” note to Grandma last Christmas. Stephen Gregory Foster plays the other lead, a patient named Christian Meyers who helps save the day while having absolutely no personality in the process. And as far as Gochnauer’s Dr. Ramzi goes, well, prepare to laugh.
The Dead Pit provides some nice gore, so it isn’t a total waste. The zombies actually look fairly decent, though the actors tend to ham it up a little too much. At the end of the day, zombies are zombies, so there isn’t much more to say about them.
The rest is up to Dr. Ramzi, who walks that fine line between being so silly he’s entertaining and so silly you can’t stand him. He haunts the hospital in full surgeon’s garb, with long claw-like fingernails, an oversized ring, a bullet-hole in his forehead and ridiculous glowing red eyes. He never misses an opportunity to make a bad pun, such as “I’m the head of this hospital” (before throwing a severed head at a window) or “Dr. Meyers wanted to give you a piece of his mind” (before presenting Jane with Dr. Meyers’ brain). And did I mention that the animation on his glowing red eyes is absolutely excruciating? Yes? Well, it bears repeating.
With directors such as Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, you can look at their early works, like The Evil Dead and Dead Alive, and see hints of the innovation and greatness that would come to be. With Brett Leonard, when you look at his earliest picture, The Dead Pit, all you can really see are hints of the mediocrity that would spell out his career. The Dead Pit isn’t a bad movie, it’s just very forgettable.