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By 1966 a few soft-core exploitation producers had begun to produce crude and offensive movies about sexual torture in concentration camps, and when the censorship barriers dropped a couple of years later European producers eager to exploit taboo territory rushed out an entire genre of trashy Nazi sex films, to complement their equally popular sleazy Nuns 'n' sex epics. Although it isn't sexually explicit, the Warner Brothers-released The Frozen Dead pushed the borders of rotten taste. The studio thought so much of it that it was released in the U.S. in B&W prints. We didn't see it in color until it showed up on local television a decade later.
Although it's too soberly directed to be exploited as a camp laugh riot, The Frozen Dead is indeed a strange hybrid. The name Hollywood star Dana Andrews toplines what is essentially an unofficial "Third Reich Strikes Back" remake of the genuine camp classic The Brain that Wouldn't Die. The similarities will become self-evident.
Twenty years after the defeat of Naziism, a cadre of ex- SS officers is in the final stages of putting a diabolical plan into action: when defeat became inevitable, the brilliant Dr. Norberg (Dana Andrews) invented a way of freezing living things and then re-animating them at will. The sinister General Lubeck (Karel Stepanek) and Dr. Tirpitz (Basil Henson) arrive at Norberg's secret lab in the English countryside (!) and tell him that tens of thousands of frozen Nazi troops are waiting in various places -- Switzerland, Egypt -- to be thawed out for the resumption of hostilities. Aided by his murderously incompetent assistant Karl Essen (Alan Tilvern). Norberg has successfully revived back a selection of test bodies, but not their minds -- the once-brilliant soldiers are now moronic goons. Norberg's devoted butler Joseph (Oliver McGreevy), another experimental subject is less affected, but goes about his work silently, like an automaton. More experiments with brains are needed, and the Nazis are ridiculously impatient: Karl has been lying to them about Norberg's progress. Making things difficult is the imminent arrival of a new helper, Dr. Ted Roberts (Philip Gilbert) and Norberg's own gorgeous niece Jean (Anna Palk), neither of whom know anything about Norberg's politics or his macabre surgery. Making things worse, Jean brings a girlfriend in tow, Elsa Tenney (Kathleen Breck). Claiming that she died by accident, the nefarious Karl takes it upon himself to 'volunteer' Elsa to serve as the Doctor's new test subject. Jean won't be a problem: they'll just tell her that Elsa took an early train back to London.
The Frozen Dead begins with Karl whipping a line of mindless post-thaw German soldiers across the Doctor's garden lawn. This will be familiar territory for horror fans: this is an updated John Carradine-style thriller, in which a brilliant but misguided medico invariably keeps a basement packed with failed human experiments. One of these staring zombie-Huns is none other thannoted actor Edward Fox. Prone to strangle people on a moment's notice, this "Prisoner #3" turns out to have a closer connection to Norberg and his niece.
Dana Andrews affects a German accent that's quite strong in the first scene and then calms down quite a bit. He also appears to wear faint red lipstick makeup, which looks a bit odd at times. The somewhat inconsistent screenplay by director Herbert J. Leder puts Andrews' Dr. Norberg in a kind of moral funk. Finally told that his assistant Karl has been killing people for years, Norberg barely raises an eyebrow. He's a Nazi, see? Just the same, Norberg also doesn't worry that his innocent niece will become suspicious when she finds two creepy Germans in the house, acting like they own the place. If anything, Norberg should have gotten rid of Karl Essen years ago, just because he's a total liability. We see Norberg insert a probe very carefully into the brain of a freshly-thawed soldier, only to have Karl ruin everything by noisily barging into the lab. Norberg flinches and the probe jerks. Whoops there goes another Rolf of the Reich, ker-plop.
Jean Norberg meets the tall, handsome but vacant-looking Dr. Roberts, who soon develops a yen for her, helped no doubt by the fact that they keep getting together while she's wearing a sheer nightie. Instead of singing a Beatles tune about the National Health, Jean enlists him in helping to find out what really happened to Elsa. Their inquiries about mystery baggage at the train station and the involvement of the sinister, scarred German Mrs. Schmidt (Anne Tirard) don't even begin to suggest suspense excitement. All the important action is really happening back at the house, where the unfortunate Elsa's decapitated head is being kept alive on a lab table, amid a forest of tubing exactly as was done in the 1962 Brain that Wouldn't Die. Elsa can speak, but nobody realizes that she can also communicate telepathically, sending obscure messages of alarm to Jean asleep upstairs. 1
Writer director Leder's script is a little talky but he keeps things interesting between stranglings. Dr. Norberg keeps several quick-frozen soldier stiffs inside a walk-in lab freezer with a glass wall. This effect is quite good. The views of Elsa's head bathed in blue light aren't as impressive as those of Virginia Leith in the Joseph Green movie. Unlike Leith's dream-nightmare sense of calm, Elsa looks parched, cramped and uncomfortable. Off to her side is another of Norberg's quaint science projects, a row of human arms fastened to a wall. The mime actors making them move are quite good, but the effect is amateurish. Lined up neatly, the arms look like they are freshly washed and have been hung out to dry. Just as Virginia Leith controlled the mutant in the closet, Elsa-the-head discovers that she can control the arms with her brain waves. Jean Cocteau would not be impressed.
Most everyone ends in mincemeat, which is par for horror fare of this ilk. Murky moral back-issues aside, The Frozen Dead is a likeable hoot with a number of graces (its jolly disregard for good taste) and flaws (clumsily written characters). And if I'm not mistaken, the film neglects to account for one major Nazi character, who simply disappears in the last reel. With this cast of knuckleheads in charge, I'm surprised that the Nazi Human Popsicle Conspiracy lasted twenty days, not years. When the curtain is drawn away to reveal the three German soldiers frozen stiff in the Lager Locker, we almost wish that they would be Larry, Moe and Curly (with an appropriate music cue).
I watched The Frozen Dead for twenty minutes before finally jumping on line and confirming that the zombie soldier who looked like Edward Fox really was Edward Fox. After playing an extra in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (his brother James nabbed a featured part) Fox worked in film a full ten years before getting major attention, in the title role in Fred Zinnemann's terrific The Day of the Jackal. The ineffectual policeman summoned by Jean is none other than Tom Chatto, a respected actor that science fiction fans will immediately recognize from the great Quatermass 2, as the unfortunate Minister of Parliament who keeps a painful appointment with a mysterious alien substance.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Frozen Dead is a bright and flawless transfer of this truly odd horror thriller. Colors are especially bright. The scenes of Elsa's head in the box glowing blue seem rather grainy, which prompts me to guess that the blue color may have been accentuated with an optical trick -- there's little or no blue spill light hitting anything near her.
The film is the first half of an unofficial Herbert J. Leder color duo of horror efforts filmed in England with American stars. Released the next year, the second was It! with Roddy McDowall. A variation on the Golem legend, it's available from the Warner Archive Collection as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Frozen Dead rates:
1. Dr. Norberg recruits Roberts after reading about his successful duplication of the infamous Russian experiment in which a severed dog's head was artificially kept alive. In the 1960s this ghastly bit of vivisection was too extreme to see much mention in print, but now this kind of experimentation -- which graduated from animals to 'mental defectives' -- is regarded as not much different than Nazi atrocities. Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin documented some of these experiments in a 1926 documentary film.
Seeing the carefree Dr. Roberts accept Norberg's praise is somewhat disturbing, especially because Roberts is supposed to be the "innocent" alternative. As it is, he helps Norberg's atrocious experiments before deciding that he wants to back out. You know, the job just doesn't feel right. This is what makes The Frozen Dead lapse into questionable taste -- the movie hasn't given enough thought to its own slimy premise.
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T'was Ever Thus.