Directed by Armando Crispino, the man best known for Autopsy, The Dead Are Alive isn't the zombie picture that it was made out to be on its American theatrical release or that it's been made out to be on various home video releases. The film is actually a lot closer to a traditional Giallo film than anything else, and it's based on a short story by Bryan Edgar Wallace.
The story revolves around Jason Porter (Alex Cord), a hard drinking and hard living American archeologist visiting in Rome with the express purpose of digging up and exploring some ancient Etruscan tombs. For some reason he's staying with a short tempered composer named Nikos (John Marley) and his family - son Igor and hot young wife Myra (Samantha Eggar). Despite the fact that Jason and Myra share a romantic past, Nikos is fine with his hanging around the place in his spare time. Spare time is something that Jason will soon find is in short supply, however, as before you know it he and his team have uncovered the lost tomb of an Etruscan god named Tuchulka!
Shortly after the discovery, a pair of love struck teenagers decide to use the old grave as a make out point - bad move, as we see them sliced and diced by an unseen assailant. If that weren't bad enough, Igor's girlfriend, Giselle, turns up dead inside the family stable. During the assault Igor was injured but he survives after he's rushed to the hospital where all fingers soon point towards Jason as the one with the penchant for murder. Given the fact that he drinks so much he tends to black out and that he's always around when the corpses start to pile up, this isn't such a crazy conclusion to jump to, but he knows he's innocent and will do what he must to prove it to everyone else, especially the cops - but is Jason involved in this at all? Is it someone else? Is it Tuchulka himself, angered over having his tomb excavated after all these years?
A little on the long side for what it is, The Dead Are Alive is nevertheless a pretty well made thriller. Some initial supernatural overtones help make the set up and interesting and original one, while at the same time setting the stage for the more 'grounded in the real world' second half of the picture. Crispino directs with a fair bit of style and isn't afraid to let the camera linger over top of some rather grisly set pieces (the murder scenes are the most memorable aspect of the picture by quite a wide margin) but is, at the same time, able to coax some decent performances out of his cast. Cord makes for a believable lead, very much looking and acting the part of a real alcoholic here, while Eggar adds some welcome sex appeal to the picture and her character adds a bit of depth to Cord's simply be being a tangible part of his mysterious past.
Also know as The Etruscan Kills Again, there's enough suspense and rock solid atmosphere on display that the periodic slow spots and pacing quirks are easy enough to look past. It's all set to an impressive score by the one and only Riz Ortolani that, while maybe not in his top five efforts, is definitely closer to the top of the list than the bottom. All of the red herrings and plot twists build to a pretty satisfying conclusion, making The Dead Are Alive an easy film to enjoy with a nice mix of traditional horror movie elements and giallo/suspense film standards.
NOTE: The following review is based on a test disc that may or may not represent final, finished, retail product.
Code Red presents The Dead Are Alive in a good 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Generally skin tones look pretty good while color reproduction looks pretty accurate. While the black levels probably could have been a bit darker, this is probably more to do with the source material than the transfer. Detail is quite good for an older low budget feature and only mild print damage is noticeable. Given the age and obscurity of the picture there's really nothing to complain about here, the movie looks a fair bit better than most will probably expect it to and is a definite visual improvement over the previous DVD release which was available via Luminous Film And Video's Eurovista label some time ago.
The audio chores are handled by a fine English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track. There's the odd pop in the mix but if you're not listening for them you're probably not going to notice them. Dialogue is easy enough to understand and the score and sound effects are all well balanced. The film shows its age in that it has got a fairly limited range but you can't fault it for that.
A trailer for Family Honor plays before the feature, and then trailers for a few other Code Red properties play after the movie. The trailer for Primal Rage itself isn't here, nor are there any menu screens at all (though the film is divided into skipable chapter stops).
The Dead Are Alive could have used more love in the extra features department but is otherwise given a pretty respectable presentation from Code Red. The film itself is a good one, with some memorable set pieces, an interesting cast, and strong camera work. Despite a few pacing problems and slow spots, this one is still absolutely worth a look for fans of Giallos and foreign horror. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.