L: The Laughing Dead (1990)

I really have no idea how long this VHS copy of The Laughing Dead has been in my collection, unwatched and unloved. Since Vinegar Syndrome is putting this out on blu-ray (as far as I know, the first legitimate video of the movie domestically), I say it’s time to dust off that box and give it a watch. I also thought that the flick might benefit from a grainy VHS bootleg ambiance.

(I was wrong about that, incidentally. No film deserves a 4×3 image with slapdash video quality)

So you have the traditional priest who has lost his faith, Father O’Sullivan (Tim Sullivan), still soldiering on despite his lingering love for Tessie (Wendy Webb), a nun with whom he had an affair and a son, which caused her to be booted from the convent. O’Sullivan is also an amateur archeologist, who leads an annual bus tour of Mayan ruins during “The Festival of the Laughing Dead”. On this year’s tour is the usual bunch of stereotypes, along with Tessie and O’Sullivan’s son, who has turned into a figurative bastard to match his literal status.

“I may be evil, but I’m FABULOUS!!!”

Turns out all this has been set up by the villainous Dr. Um-tzec (writer/director/composer S.P. Somtow), to gain all the pieces and sacrifices he will need to become the living personification of the God of Death after whom he is named. Gore and carnage follow.

The Laughing Dead does provide you with an interesting case study: Somtow is an award-winning writer and accomplished musical composer. Branching out into movies probably seemed a savvy move, but is, in this case, an unfortunately over-reaching one. Dialogue that looks good on the printed page can sink leadenly when spoken aloud, especially when the writer and director are the same person and likely feels nothing needs to be changed, or doesn’t appear to have much experience working with actors.

Also not helping: when a lot of them aren’t actors, they’re fellow writers that were convinced to come along for the ride. Admittedly I didn’t spot most of them until the closing credits, but I’ll give Edward Bryant props for being memorable as the Southern Deadhead Bus Driver, who gets a great death.

Aaaaah, these guys again.

I also give Somtow credit for using a non-typical mythology to drive his story forward, though the lines between Aztec and Mayan gets crossed a few times. The FX work is practical, gooey in that late 1980s way, and mostly excellent – some of it downright nasty. Alas, most of the fun stuff is loaded into the second half of the story, with a whole lot of – well, not character building but cardboard dialogue that hopes it accomplishes the same thing (a truly amazing amount of people seem to know about that convent scandal). There are a number of characters you earnestly hope will die, and rather quickly, but you’re going to be disappointed. The crystal-worshipping New Age couple that informs us that “The Mayans invented the harmonic convergence!” among them. Okay, okay, they wind up being germane to the plot, but Odious Comic Relief is still Odious Comic Relief. At least the worst example is the first to die. (Yep, 3 OCRs for the price of one)

There are, incidentally, bigass monsters, if that helps.

Still, a lot of these criticisms can be leveled at a certain other low-budget movie with the initials F.E., so I can’t bring myself to hate it – it’s more like I sympathize with it, and I’m actually looking forward to Vinegar Syndrome’s cleaned-up version. It’s not truly a buried gem, but it has enough interesting stuff going on in the final act that I’d like to see it under better circumstances.

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