Reviving the Dead

To continue a thought from the last thing I wrote, horror movies can, on the one hand, serve as mere entertainment. That is, I suspect they often act as many movies act for us: to serve as an escape from what is happening in our real lives. Fearing, for a short time, things that do not actually happen can distract us from the ongoing events in our real lives of which we are afraid or that make us anxious.

On the other hand, and more importantly, they expose things we ought to fear, but do not (in the sense of Ephesians 5:11, as my friend Scott Stiegemeyer reminded me). That may be the central question: what is the fear on which this particular film plays? (It appears that something like this is the subject of Josh Larsen’s forthcoming book, Fear Not!.) I was asking myself that question about the 1981 film Dead and Buried (streaming on the Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime).

What is the fear? Is it the fear for small-town residents of tourists and strangers over-running their town? Or is the fear that the tourist trade is drying up? Is it the fear that the visitors should have of small, insular towns, or of the secrets they may hold? Is it the fear of sudden, unexplained spikes in crime in previously peaceful small towns? In the film, the interaction between cities and small towns (always ripe for thematic exploitation) is really the cover for considering definitions of life and death. And it is the fear of death that begins to seep through (sometimes literally) in Dead and Buried.

Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) is the center of both the small town/large city dichotomy (having received a Master’s Degree in Criminology, for which he is teased at the cafe), as well as the one who begins to suspect that something more is happening in the town than simply fatal accidents. Those suspicions are connected to his wife, Janet (Melody Anderson), whose answers to his questions contain inconsistencies (which may or may not be benign). Eventually he discovers that the people in his town—though they look and talk like the people he has always known—are actually dead people who have been “reanimated.”

The fear of dead bodies is not universal in all cultures or throughout history. I am sure, however, that the fear of the dead returning to life is common. We may desire the life of our loved one to return, but trying to manufacture such life in the dead may produce something that we do not actually want—hence, the common horror trope from Frankenstein’s monster to Pet Sematary.

There is, in fact, something uncanny about bodies without their animarum, un-animated. While we may have funerals with closed caskets in the case of some severe accident, when it is simply a matter of the corpse decaying, we have the ability to inhibit that decay, at least for a while. What we are doing, however, is akin to denying the true reality of death. We say, or hear people say, things like, “She looks like she’s just sleeping.” Or “He looks so peaceful.” Those sorts of sentiments are not too far from how the funeral director, Dobbs (Jack Albertson), describes his “art.” He says he makes the dead “look good,” and that he makes “souvenirs.” He tells the corpse of one of his patients, “I will make you beautiful again; even more beautiful than before.”

The use of photography and flash bulbs throughout the movie seems to be another signifier of the human desire to preserve the dead, this time on film. Is there not a particular fascination with pictures, especially early photographs of those long dead? Movies preserve the actors at the ages they were when the films were produced. There is, for me, something jarring about watching an actor in an early film and then seeing a picture of him or her currently. 

Of course, this being the sort of film it is, Dobbs takes the idea of preservation much further when he discovers a “scientific” technique for reanimating the dead (as long as he continues to preserve their still-decaying flesh). Throughout, the special effects are that—effective—and impressive for 1981.

Sheriff Gillis soon finds out that everyone in the town, including his wife, is one of Dobbs’s “projects.” As the sheriff uncovers the source of his unease, he functions as an intriguing analogue to the Law of God (he is, in fact, “the Law” in the town). He begins to identify those who are “dead,” and at the grave of his wife, he sees all his friends—in fact, every character we’ve met in the film—and they are all showing signs of mortal decay. Eventually, that knowledge extends even to himself.

Without pretending that Dead and Buried is meant to be anything like an allegory of sin and death, I cannot help but think of Ephesians 2, in which the “walking dead” are identified by Paul as those who “walk around” in the trespasses and sins in which we all were dead, “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (2:1-2). Indeed, Janet tells her classroom of young students(!) about practices of voodoo and other witchcraft, in which people are something like walking dead. They are controlled by their master, who keeps their hearts hidden, as Dobbs does. The dead walk around in trespasses and sins, and Ephesians says that we all once lived among the sons of disobedience in the “lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (2:3).

As with so many films, Dead and Buried can tap into only half the story. When we try to control, deny, undo, or overcome death on our own, we always call it, as in the town motto of Potter’s Bluff (a play on the potter’s field?): “A New Way of Living.” However, we deceive ourselves. All our “new ways” of living are just the old ways of dying in different guise. We can no more overcome death than Dobbs can. He can only pretend that he has put it off; and even with all his power, he cannot prevent death from coming back with a vengeance in even more horrible ways. It is, Paul says, only God in Jesus Christ who, while we were still the walking dead, makes us alive with Christ, by grace and through faith. And only then will we be truly alive, recreated, newlyanimated (from the Latin for “soul”), walking around now in good works set before us by God.

Even so, Paul is not suggesting that what we have by faith is the end. He knows that death, although defeated, is not yet at its end. Our “outer man” is still wasting away. Our bodies still fall apart, cease functioning, die, and are buried. But because we have already spiritually died, and our life is hidden with Christ (who is our life) in God, our “inner man” is being renewed day by day, until we attain the hidden, invisible things, which are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

When we are confronted by the horrible reality of death, which we would often rather not face, and which we deny both before and after by means of plastic surgery and chemicals, we are given a promise that surpasses the killing effect of the knowledge of the Law. It is a promise that death has been overcome—not delayed; not covered over by all the ingenuity of people—but overcome by the actual and complete physical resurrection of Jesus. Every zombie movie, every attempt to overcome death by scientific or magical means, is the reverse of this, just as Dracula and vampires are the mythological depiction of attempting to have eternal life from blood other than Jesus’ blood. There is only one Story, and every other story aligns with or runs counter to that Story. Dead and Buried is effectively suspenseful, and a graphic witness to the first three verses of Ephesians 2 besides.