Few horror fans have probably heard of The Dead Pit. If you’re old enough, you might have caught it on a local television station playing late at night. Or perhaps you saw its VHS cover with the glowing zombie eyes. But Brett Leonard’s (The Lawnmower Man) early directorial effort has languished in obscurity. Neither a full-blown slasher nor a classic zombie movie, The Dead Pit also struggled to occupy a specific niche. Its release timing also coincided with a downturn in the genre’s popularity. Not even Rotten Tomatoes has much in the way of critical consensus. Now Shudder has added the forgotten late 80’s horror movie to its streaming platform.
Years ago, the mad Dr Swann conducted horrific, unethical experiments on patients deep in the basement of a mental asylum. After discovering his basement of horrors, a colleague shoots Swann in the head and leaves his lifeless body sealed in the doctor’s own pit of dead patients. Twenty years later a mysterious ‘Jane Doe’ arrives at the hospital with no memories of her past. When her arrival triggers a mysterious earthquake the seal to Dr Swann’s ‘Dead Pit’ is broken releasing the evil doctor and his zombie patients.
The Dead Pit Embodies The Best of the Midnight Movie and VHS Era
Straight out of the gate, The Dead Pit establishes its B-movie bona fides. In spite of the readily apparent budgetary limitations, writer and director Brett Leonard establishes some atmosphere, which he largely maintains. It’s the kind of atmosphere reserved for those midnight movies in the days before streaming. Thought its hospital setting is a ridiculous caricature of mental health facilities, Leonard makes it a standout for ensuring there’s enough horror for audiences even before the zombies are loose. Its opening scene even promises some truly macabre horror with some shocking contraventions of ethical medial practice. Of course, Leonard and co-writer Gimel Everett’s story doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. Things just sort of happen – like dead former patients rising out of a pit – because that’s what the writers wanted to happen.
Yes, severed head props look like props and The Dead Pit’s zombies have a noticeable bluish-green tint.
Yet the convoluted story actually adds to the movie’s charms. Anyone sitting down to watch The Dead Pit wants a specific viewing experience. And the silly story fits well alongside the movie’s rough picture quality and choppy editing. If the effects look cheesy they’re still gloriously practical. In fact most of the gore effects – particularly some of Dr Swann’s horrific medical experiments – look pretty good. Yes, severed head props look like props and The Dead Pit’s zombies have a noticeable bluish-green tint. Maybe a boom mic makes a cameo appearance once. But it’s all in keeping the movie’s aesthetic. Even if The Dead Pit’s zombie chaos never approaches Romero’s work, it embodies the spirit.
The Dead Pit Almost Not Bonkers Enough To Sustain Its Third Act
Though The Dead Pit’s low budget and illogical story may bother some horror fans, its biggest problem is the final act. As Leonard unleashes full zombie chaos across his hospital grounds, The Dead Pit falls into a repetitive pattern. That is, it actually starts feeling a little boring. And this is the worst mistake this sort of movie can make for audiences. Scenes drag too long and some moments feel a bit like filler. With just over 90s minutes of screen time, the movie simply runs out of material. Despite its bonkers screenplay, things may not get bonkers enough to hold viewers’ attention.
…things may not get bonkers enough to hold viewers’ attention.
Not suprsingly, the performances are consistent with the ‘Midnight Movie’ vibe. Only Jerry Slate, playing the evil Dr Swann, came into The Dead Pit with much in the way of acting credentials. With a few decades of westerns, war movies, and some 60s beach movies under his belt, Slate’s perfectly suitable as the scene-chewing villain. In fact, The Dead Pit might have benefitted from having a little more of Slate in the movie. All of the other performances are pretty wooden as might be expected. But The Dead Pit doesn’t really ask much of Cheryl Lawson outside of screaming and occasionally walking around in her panties.
The Dead Pit the Right Kind of Gonzo Horror For B-Movie Lovers
For fans of obscure, ultra low-budget, The Dead Pit should be a satisfying vowing experience. Whether its the wooden acting, cheesy practical effects, or nonsensical story, The Dead Pit checks the right boxes. But like Spookies or Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Brett Leonard and company were clearly passionate about their movie. And this is what separates just ‘bad movies’ from movies that are ‘so bad, they’re good’. If anything, The Dead Pit suffers from a bit of receptiveness in its final act that almost limits the insanity. Dare I say that The Dead Pit nearly borders on dull in its last final 10 to 15 minutes. Nonetheless, most ‘bad movie’ lovers will find themselves in heaven with this late 80’s obscurity.