Garden of the Dead

The Male [Zombie] Gaze
John Hayes
Duncan McLeod, Lee Frost, John Dennis, Susan Charney
The Setup: 
Bunch of prisoners turn into zombies after huffing formaldehyde.

Ladies and gentlemen, how often is it that a movie’s tagline really makes you want to watch the movie? Well, when the movie costs a dollar [or, since there are two movies on this DVD, $0.50], that’s an incentive, but when it has a tagline as spectacularly ludicrous as “Death was the only living thing!” it becomes a must-see. This is of a piece with one of my other favorite taglines, from a work of military literature: “The true story that could only be told as fiction!”

We open at a bucolic prison camp in the woods. It looks quite pleasant, and is populated by prisoners and guards in snug uniforms. They are loading barrels of formaldehyde onto a truck. Good thing those barrels are clearly labeled. Then—oh my God, it’s Porter from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls! Complete with pipe and everything. There’s also some warden dude who wears black and says there’s a danger of the prison being shut down and every prisoner and guard being reassigned.

But what of these prisoners? Well, one of them sneaks a moment with the formaldehyde, huffing its white mist [does formaldehyde make white mist?] and letting it flow all over his face and head. Then he puts the end of the hose into water, and all the prisoners gather round to enjoy. Now, some may accuse me of seeing homo content in everything, but please consider that there are numerous sequences here in which groups of guys are making expressions of ecstasy as they direct a HOSE to SPEW WHITE MIST all over their faces. I’m just sayin’.

And look at this dude below. You know, people often say someone looks like a Tom of Finland drawing come to life, but look, it’s a real Tom of Finland drawing come to life! The stance, the hair and sideburds, the mustache, the shirt... it's all there!

So outside a woman pulls up in her black sports car. There’s a great musical cue as we go from an ominous hum to bwaww-waww music as she opens the door and exposes her gorgeous gams. This is Carol, girlfriend of prisoner Johnson. Her appearance causes the guys to leer and one guy—I joke not—to rub his bulge. Johnson is let out to embrace her for a second, and she complains that she spends her day as a waitress getting felt up by salesmen and truckers. Sounds like a job I could excel in. You will also have noticed that these prisoners mutter incomprehensibly a lot.

Anyway, so the prisoners are going to escape. Johnson doesn’t want to go along, so they stab and kill him! The rest of the prisoners get out through the tunnel, but they don’t make it far before they are shot and killed by the guards as the 60s-type pulp music plays.

I should mention that I was watching all this through the most pleasant daze created by a combination of two gin and tonics, consumed earlier, another enhancement that shal remain unidentified, and the lynchpin: Claritin D 24. Woo-hoo… that’ll but you in a state to accept a great number of things on your screen.

Anyway, pretty much the next night the dead prisoners get up and are soon distributing weapons and making a pact: “We will destroy the living!” Yes, these zombies speak and move around pretty fast. I also have to admire this film’s excuse for the creation of the zombies: that they huffed formaldehyde. I love it because it depends on the audience going “Formaldehyde! That’s what they preserve dead stuff in!” as its sole basis of explanation. And formaldehyde—they don’t even embalm dead people with that, do they? It’s all based on perceived audience stupidity—and I approve of that.

So Porter, who is apparently some kind of doctor, doesn’t want to hear Carol ranting and raving, so he gives her a potent sedative. This proves troubling, however, when her Winnebago is surrounded by zombies. One must admire Susan Charney’s acting skills as she expertly portrays a woman struggling toward consciousness, only to find a dark-eyed zombie staring in her window. She wakes up enough to walk, and finds about seven zombies staring in the front windshield by the driver’s seat. What is her coping strategy? Why, to sit down in the driver’s seat, right in front of the zombies, and scream. Effective! She does have the sense to start the winnebago and drive off after a while, so we must allow her that.

We then note that electrified fences are not that effective when they are four feet off the ground, allowing zombies to easily slip under them and back into the prison camp. The zombies get up to their old formaldehyde-sniffing ways again, while our heroes hole up in some building.

Turns out that Johnson is still alive! It was just a flesh wound. Then we have some observation about how the light of a spotlight decomposes the zombies almost instantly. So, in a scene I have to say was reasonably original and verging on effective, the heroes all try to walk out, right through the zombies, within the beam of a spotlight. But of course the generator is failing and the light fades periodically, and eventually the heroes are forced to return to the building. But not before Carol stands before them, making this oddly pained face, and the zombies just stop, staring at her.

Once inside, the warden or sheriff or whoever observes that they had a chance to kill her, but wouldn’t touch her. “Oh, they’da touched her all right,” says Johnson. How does he know? “Because I had to listen to them talk about all the things they would do to her.” Wait a minute—are you beginning to sense that some sort of subtext is developing here?

So then the zombies start demanding that they “send out the girl.” She goes out, again watching them with that same horrified expression—I mean it’s the exact same footage—but she refuses to shoot them. So they guys come out and easily pick them all off while they are transfixed by her. See, t’was beauty soothed the savage zombie.

Carol goes back inside to cuddle with Johnson, and the music abruptly turns to this kind of continental romantic theme. Blah, blah, soon it ends.

So what is with this bizarre theme about the men LOOKING at Carol? You recall that there was a prominent scene of them gazing at her when she showed up, and one of them even caressed his bulge. Then she talked about how the salesmen and truckers feel her up, echoed later when Johnson talks about having to hear what all the guys would do to her. What does it all mean? I’m not sure, but it lends a kind of spookiness, like there’s something at work here we don’t fully understand, and it elevates the movie as a whole. Just this weird subtext about how everyone is always looking with lust at Carol, and she is at the mercy of their invasive gazes and what is said about her. I sort of jokingly titled this about the male zombie gaze, but it really is about the male gaze!

Overall, a surprise winner! It’s got zombies, a sure-fire ingredient for success, it’s got laughably terrible acting [Carol, that’s you], and it has scenes of total bizarrity, like the guys letting the white formaldehyde vapor play all over their faces and heads. It’s weird and it’s kind of wonderful, and best of all, it’s less than an hour long!

But before I go, let me remind you that in this garden, death was the only living thing.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! If you see this somewhere for a dollar, you should definitely get it. I wouldn’t pay much more, however.