9/15/13

The Laughing Dead (1989) What's So Funny About (Priest's Love And Aztec Resurrection)

I've seen movies with zombies. I've seen movies with mad scientists. I've seen movies with Priests that have lost their path. I've even seen movies where the Aztec people attempt to resurrect their culture. And I have seen plenty of movies where students on a field trip get menaced by any number of things. What I had never seen was a climax that boiled down to a basketball game that turns into a Ray Harryhausen style monster brawl, but that's just what The Laughing Dead delivered. Perhaps that's what happens when you get a Thai-American avant garde composer, poet,  and science fiction and horror novelist in the director's chair. Billed under a shortened version of his full name, Somtow Sucharitkul, in literary circles he would be known better as author S.P. Somtow. The first time director, writer, and star fashioned am intriguingly cheesy vision that both captured the flavor of early 80s horror fiction and the spirit of the cheapo horror feature. So come with me and let's have a few chuckles with The Laughing Dead.

Things start out hilarious as we meet Father O'Sullivan (Tim Sullivan), a Catholic priest who has lost his faith in the aftermath of an affair with a nun ten years prior which caused her removal from the order and the birth of a son. These days, the priest keeps himself busy gearing up to lead an archeological field trip to Mexico, but one of his young charges Laurie (Premika Eaton) has thoughts of getting busy with him. Embarking on the trip, O'Sullivan is surprised to see Tessie (Wendy Webb), the defrocked nun, and their son Ivan booked as passengers. As the trip gets underway, it's fraught with bad omens from the start. Though running over a zombie is a bit more than bad omens. The group runs afoul of Dr. Um-tzek (S.P. Somtow),  a crazed doctor of divinity who seeks to bring back the Aztec god of death and with it the prominence of the tribe. To do that, he exploits O'Sullivan's lack of faith, and the middling priest is soon overwhelmed by an ancient and angry Aztec spirit. In order to stop the Aztec apocalypse, Laurie and the rest of the group are forced to play Aztec basketball against zombies, but when that fails, only their own pleading to a forgotten Aztec god can save them.

When hell is out of adjectives, someone will use 'Laughing' to describe the dead, and that someone was S.P. Somtow. Getting past the nonsensical title, (Though Somtow's very alive mad scientist/witch doctor does put on a hell of an evil laugh.) The Laughing Dead is a movie in two parts. The unlaughable first half is filled with sexual intrigue for Father O'Sullivan as he flashes back on his tryst with the nun and gets plenty of innuendo thrown at him by young Laurie. It has the kind of sleazy sexuality that I recall from horror books that appeared on supermarket shelves in the 1980s in the wake of Stephen King and V.C Andrews. Then there's the second half of the movie which is pure insanity. It becomes a funhouse ride complete with headless corpses running around on tracks, loads of cobwebs, and sporting events played with a severed noggin. The spook house vibe completely diminishes the heaviness of the front half of the film however those story lines aren't dropped, but rather they evolve during all the splattery madness. It was like Somtow had a solidly dramatic film in mind, but at the last minute decided to make it into a meld of The House on Haunted Hill and City of the Living Dead. Somehow, despite the odds, it works.

Some of the credit has to go to the unflappable Tim Sullivan as similarly named Father O'Sullivan. The first time actor's dead set determination to play the role straight pulls the plot through the mire of the second half. Sullivan parlayed his appearance in The Laughing Dead into a string of direct to video titles in the 90s and early 2000s, and I'm kind of intrigued to look a little deeper into his career. Wendy Webb and Premika Eaton, on the other hand, have only The Laughing Dead as their sole credit, and while they both contribute to the film's success, it's not easy to see why acting didn't become their career. The other standout performance comes from the always troubling area of child actors. Patrick Roskowick, also in his only film role, brings a gleeful exuberance to the role of Ivan the terrible, the difficult to control spawn of O'Sullivan and his nun lover. From bratty kid to Aztec basketball phenom, Ivan gets the best character arc in the flick, and little Pat rises to the occasion. I also brings a bit of Goonies to the proceedings.

When I first stumbled onto The Laughing Dead, I determined I wanted to review it because of the title alone, and I was certain that nothing that transpired within it's running time could amount to anything better than the name. Imagine my surprise when I not only really liked the movie, I wanted to watch it again. The very next day, paired with the aforementioned City of the Living Dead, I had a priests in undead peril double feature, and it couldn't have been a better night of cheap thrills, gushing gore, and religion off the rails. S.P. Somtow may have made his mark in the horror world as a novelist, but his one attempt at directing deserves some attention. Authors behind the camera is a decidedly mixed lot with Clive Barker showing a deft hand while Stephen King was more unsure of himself. Somtow falls somewhere right in the middle in that sweet spot of horror cinema that deserves a cult following. So check it out, and have a few laughs with the dead. 

Bug Rating 


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