Monday, January 27, 2020

"I Never Saw Such a Fog or Chill as This" - Garden of the Dead (1972) - Film #171

If John Hayes had directed only Grave of the Vampire (1972) and End of the World (1977), he would be considered one of the world's finest auteurs. But he directed additional classics as well, including the early zombie film Garden of the Dead (1972), which we now consider, and which warns the world about the horrific side effects of sniffing formaldehyde.

One wonders what the reviewers of your universe are sniffing when they refuse to accept Garden of the Dead as a classic. Reviewer MetalGeek writes, "It isn't scary, isn't gory, and isn't even silly enough to be considered 'so bad it's good.'" Reviewer gattonero975 writes, "This 'Garden' should definable be left alone and left to dry and die!" Dry and die? How cruel! And reviewer pawned79 writes, "Nothing I can say can possible describe the horror that I felt when I watched this movie." (Perhaps a compliment, though this reviewer's score of 3 out of 10 for the film argues against such an interpretation.)

Read on for a true appreciation of the great John Hayes's atmospheric and innovative zombie film...

The film begins with one of the most realistic portrayals of prison ever immortalized on film, as convicts dressed in blue shirts push barrels around a dirt yard surrounded by wooden posts and wires.

The barrels contain formaldehyde, presumably because the prison doubles as a formaldehyde factory.

If Bert Convy were a James Bond villain, he would be the black-clad warden of the prison, who complains to his co-workers, “Country clubs and honor farms they want now. This letter came from the Department of Correction this morning. You’re all reassigned. Every guard, every prisoner, and you, Dr. Saunders. They said I’m not oriented enough in the new system.”

During lunch break, prisoner 3588 (whose name is hand-written over his left shoulder on the back of his shirt) decides to sniff the formaldehyde, which is gas that comes out of a hose.

He pushes the hose into a water trough, at which time other convicts join him, sniffing the gas as well as the bubbling water.

The group also continues their plan to escape, which consists of digging a tunnel from the formaldehyde factory, which for some unknown reason is unguarded, to the outside.

Meanwhile, an attractive woman wearing a waitress’s outfit named Carol drives to the front gate of the prison yard. She talks to a convict named Paul Johnson (prisoner 8571), complaining to him loudly that she doesn’t appreciate working as a waitress and waiting for him to get out of prison. Demonstrating the big heart that is stereotypical of prison guards, one of the guards lets Paul out through the gate for one minute so he doesn’t have to talk to Carol through the generously spaced wires of the prison fence.

Paul and Carol embrace. He kisses her when she tries to talk. After a minute, the guard stands by the fence and yells for Paul to return inside, which of course Paul does.

At night, the prisoners, playing an unsupervised poker game, enact their escape plan. (All the while, one of them mumbles repeatedly something like “gotta get outta here.”) Paul is reluctant to join them but prisoner 3588 (Braddock) explains the entire plan to Paul—simply put, they plan to crawl through the tunnel they have dug to the other side of the fence. They also plan to kill the nice guard who allowed Paul to leave, just to get the guard’s gun.

In a shocking twist, when Paul expresses reluctance to escape, Braddock knifes Paul and leaves him on the floor to die.

The escape occurs efficiently, with the prisoners stealing the guard’s shotgun and climbing into the tunnel near the formaldehyde (one of them taking a last sniff of the stuff from the garden hose). They climb out of the tunnel and jog (for unknown reasons) into the night. Unfortunately for the prisoners, the man who sniffed formaldehyde accidentally fires the shotgun, alerting the guards to the escape. Braddock shoots the man, and the rest of the prisoners drive off in a flatbed truck loaded with barrels of formaldehyde.

The prison guards and the police chase the truck, which crashes, spilling formaldehyde all over the ground. The police gun down nearly all the unarmed prisoners, who fall to the formaldehyde-soaked ground just as the filmmakers reveal that the accident occurred at the edge of a cemetery.

The warden, demonstrating his cruelty, has six prisoners chained to a fence. “You shall remain here for three days on bread and water.”

One of the prisoners complains eloquently: “This sort of punishment was outlawed years ago, Warden.”

The warden responds just as eloquently: “You shall stay here for four days, Mitchell. And I shall add one additional day for any word I hear from any of you.”

In an atmospherically shot scene, a guard oversees prisoners digging (for unexplained reasons) in the cemetery. “I never saw such a fog or a chill as this,” says one of the prisoners.

In classic fashion, an undead hand reaches up out of the dirt to grab the complaining prisoner’s leg. The dead prisoners suddenly appear as zombies to strangle the living prisoner to death. Scored to frightening light jazz music, the zombie prisoners approach the prison pickup truck, and one of them opens the box containing shovels and picks. He distributes the implements to the zombies.

One of the zombies says, “We must have the liquid back at the camp. We will destroy the living! We will destroy the living!”

At Carol’s rented RV, the prison’s doctor making a house call gives her an injection to help her sleep; she has learned that Paul was knifed, though he is alive. “When you awaken, this horrible nightmare will be all over, and you and Paul will be together again.”

The zombies attack a couple outside Carol’s RV, then they find her inside.

Being no fool, Carol starts the RV’s engine and drives away.

She drives right up to the prison gate, then stumbles out to talk to the guards. In a tense scene, one of the guards calls the warden, who orders the guards to lock Carol outside. Fortunately for everyone, the guards take Carol in and shut the gate after seeing Braddock and the other deceased prisoners walking toward the prison.

The sergeant escorts Carol into the prison, where they meet the warden, who asks what’s going on. “I don’t know, warden,” the sergeant says. “I don’t know if I can find the right words to tell you…what I just saw.”

“Why don’t you just try?”

“It looked like Braddock, and maybe Nolan, and Kohler, and Donovan, all of them just coming down the road.” (The critical viewer will notice that the sergeant in fact did have the right words to describe exactly what he saw.)

The innovative approach of the filmmakers becomes clear as the zombies approach the prison gates. These zombies are different from those in Night of the Living Dead (1968), released only four years earlier. Not only do they speak and use tools, these zombies move quickly and intentionally cut off the power to the prison. The viewer can tell they are dead, however, by their method of breaking into the prison: They chop the fence wire with a hatchet rather than simply slipping between the luxuriously spaced wires.

The zombies’ first stop inside the prison is the vat of formaldehyde, which they sniff and chug aggressively for several minutes, drinking it and pouring it on their faces and chests.

The film’s most suspenseful sequence ensues as one of the running zombies attacks the guard who is tending to the prisoners chained together as punishment. Much like the blood test sequence in The Thing (1982)—clearly patterned after Garden of the Dead—the prisoners are helpless while the zombie approaches them. The zombie, however, is more interested in axing car engines and the guard, and then Carol’s RV, than in hurting the chained prisoners. He is shot multiple times by the guards, but the bullets do not affect him until he is finally murdered by a shotgun blast to the chest.

The guards also discover, through the fortuitous use of a searchlight, that the zombies are killed by bright light, somewhat like vampires. (This knowledge is ignored for much of the remainder of the film.)

When one of the zombies kicks down the door to the prisoners’ barracks, the warden and sergeant corner him. The warden shoots him in the chest with his shotgun, but the zombie survives and jumps through the window.

Shockingly, the warden is killed when another zombie attacks the helplessly chained prisoners.

The survivors, including Paul, Carol, and the doctor, barricade themselves in the warden’s office (or rather they walk to the warden’s office and shut the door). They order whoever is in the prison tower to shine the searchlight on the door so they won’t approach the warden’s office. “They won’t go near the beam of that light. Decomposes them almost instantly,” reports the guard named Jablonski, who presumably doesn’t see an offensive use of the searchlight.

Jablonski orders other guards to cover the men working with the searchlight. “Wait a minute,” he says to a prisoner. “You help too.” He hands the prisoner his rifle, demonstrating that he feels more comfortable giving a weapon to the prisoners than actually doing some work.

In another tense scene, perhaps inspired by the ending of The Birds (1963), the survivors make their way outside through the beam of light as the zombies approach, reaching with their hands toward the survivors but pulling them away when the light touches them. During their walk outside, Jablonski notices that the zombies have the chance to attack Carol, but they just stare at her.

Jablonski and Carol return to the warden’s house, where Paul lies on the sofa. He explains the conundrum: “I had to listen to their stories every night. How they’d look at her by the fence. Then they’d tell me how they’d like to touch her.”

“First they looked at her,” Jablonski says. He sees how to get out of this situation: use Carol as sexy zombie bait. (To clarify, sexy bait for zombies, not bait for sexy zombies.) “You gotta go out there.”

As if to confirm the effectiveness of the plan, the zombies croak, “Show us the girl. Send her out.”

Of course, the survivors comply with the zombies’ request. Carol stands on the warden’s front porch. The zombies shuffle toward her.

Suddenly, the survivors burst outside, guns blazing. They kill all the zombies with their firearms. While the guards check on the zombies’ bodies, Carol breaks down crying, then recovers suddenly, walks into the warden’s house, and embraces Paul, who has spent the second half of the film lying on a sofa due to his knife wound and has entirely missed the climax.

The End

A list of the innovations introduced by John Hayes in Garden of the Dead would be long indeed. First, there is the origin of the zombies as sniffers (and later drinkers) of formaldehyde. Second, the zombies move quickly and speak in complete if inelegant sentences such as "We will destroy the living!" Third, instead of feeding on the living, these zombies are motivated by addiction to formaldehyde (the shot of the living dead feeding in Night of the Living Dead are replaced in Garden of the Dead by extended shots of zombies drinking formaldehyde and pouring it on their skin), revenge against prison guards, and lust for waitresses. Additional innovations abound as well, but I cannot think of them at this particular moment.

One can only sympathize with the main characters of Garden of the Dead, Paul and Carol. Paul is imprisoned for some unnamed crime, while Carol is a local waitress in love with him. They are forced to talk (whenever they wish) with a wire fence between them. What a cruel fate! Their love story is interrupted even further by the attack of the zombie prisoners, who surround Carol's RV while Paul is recuperating from his knife wound back at the prison. In the end, though, Paul and Carol are reunited, as Paul contributes to the defeat of the zombies by lying on the warden's couch while Carol contributes by stepping outside onto the porch to serve as bait. When they embrace in the end, the audience can only feel relief that they, along with the gun-wielding guards, have put an end to the zombie menace, with the prison presumably free to continue manufacturing formaldehyde with the same risks and benefits as before.

Interestingly, the film never discusses the usefulness of formaldehyde as a reanimating agent. The undead prisoners appear relatively healthy (though their faces have for some reason decayed after their brief hours of death) and their minds are affected only a little. In the universe of the film, no doubt formaldehyde would be put to good use reanimating the dead everywhere. It is unfortunate there was no sequel to this film to explore the moral and sociological implications of the use of a relatively common substance to bring back the dead. John Hayes, sadly, died in 2000, so he would be unable to return to the director's chair to create such a sequel...unless...perhaps...

Somebody find some formaldehyde! And hurry! We need more films from John Hayes!