Amid the innumerable NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD wannabes that appeared in the seventies the no budget MESSIAH OF EVIL stands out. Its as trashy and outrageous as anyone could possibly want, yet also quite artful, and contains at least two classic sequences.
This 1973 film was the first feature by the writer-producer-director team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who’d go on to make FRENCH POSTCARDS, BEST DEFENSE and HOWARD THE DUCK, and write the screenplays for AMERICAN GRAFFITI and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. MESSIAH OF EVIL was made for $80,000 in and around Malibu, CA, with HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER’S Mariana Hill in the lead role, supported by Anitra Ford (of INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS and THE LONGEST YARD), the Hollywood veterans Royal Dano and Elisha Cook Jr. and the future directors Walter Hill and B.W.L. Norton.
Production, alas, was shut down before shooting was completed. The film wound up being edited by its distributors, who added an electronic score and released it to drive-ins under a variety of different titles (DEAD PEOPLE, THE SECOND COMING, REVENGE OF THE SCREAMING DEAD and even RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD). With such spotty distribution it makes sense that MESSIAH OF EVIL never attained its ideal form on home video until Code Red’s 2008 DVD release, which restored the film to its full widescreen glory.
Arletty is a young woman en route to Pointe Dune, a small coastal town in California, to question her father. The latter, it seems, has been acting seriously odd of late, as have most of the town’s other residents. Arletty stops off at a remote gas station where it’s immediately clear that weirdness is afoot in the area—and after she drives away the station’s proprietor is attacked by shadowy zombies that emerge from out of the back of a pickup truck driven by the creepy Albert.
Upon arriving at her father’s house Arletty has to break in. She finds an empty abode whose interior is decorated with vast art deco murals (even in the bathroom). The following day Arletty happens upon the studly Tom and two young women, who are in town to investigate a local legend about a blood moon. In the meantime these three weirdoes move into the home of Arletty’s father—who, alas, is nowhere to be found.
The following night the moon turns red and one of the two women staying with Arletty embarks on a nighttime jaunt that ends with the gal meeting the creepy Albert and being devoured by ghouls in a supermarket. The now-dead woman’s companion meets a similar fate in a movie theater, while Tom, who’s been romancing Arletty, is attacked by zombies on the town streets.
Arletty, for her part, finally meets her father. He turns up at the house and reveals to her that years earlier a mysterious stranger appeared in the area, only to vanish into the sea. The stranger is scheduled to reappear when the moon turns red, and every night hordes of zombies turn up to await his arrival. That arrival is imminent, and Arletty is set to be the catalyst.
First things first: the acting in MESSIAH OF EVIL is near-uniformly lousy. The lead actress Mariana Hill is lovely but never possessed much in the way of thespian talent, and the same can be said for her co-stars, with the best performance delivered by the burly albino Bennie Robinson as the creepy (and largely mute) zombie wrangler Albert.
There are other problems, most of them inevitable given the film’s low budget and truncated production. Overall, however, MESSIAH OF EVIL must be counted as one of the most stylish and unique horror movies of the seventies. The film is genuinely atmospheric with its red-and-blue color scheme and intensely dreamlike atmosphere that wouldn’t feel out of place in a David Lynch film, while two of its sequences—the supermarket zombie attack and the movie theater slowly filling with zombie patrons—rank among the eeriest and most evocative horror movie set pieces of all time. Credit goes to ace cinematographer Stephen M. Katz (Gloria’s brother) and art director Jack Fisk (who also helped visualize seventies genre classics like THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, ERASERHEAD and DEATH GAME).
The script admittedly doesn’t make much sense, and concludes in startlingly perfunctory fashion with voice-over narration filling in the particulars of the narrative that were lost in the aborted shoot. Yet there are striking Lovecraftian overtones, including the wraparound sequences featuring the protagonist recounting the events of the film from an insane asylum. The film is actually more Lovecraftian in feel than the authorized H.P. Lovecraft adaptations of the period (such as DIE MONSTER DIE and THE DUNWICH HORROR), but the fecund strangeness of the proceedings ultimately places MESSIAH OF EVIL in a class of its own.
MESSIAH OF EVIL (DEAD PEOPLE, THE SECOND COMING, REVENGE OF THE SCREAMING DEAD, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD)
V/M Productions/International Cine Film Corp.
Director: Willard Huyck
Producer: Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz
Screenplay: Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz
Cinematography: Stephen M. Katz
Editing: Scott Conrad
Cast: Mariana Hill, Michael Greer, Joy Bang, Anitra Ford, Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jr, Bennie Robinson, Walter Hill