The 1989 filmmaking debut of novelist S.P. Somtow, and further proof, after the Stephen King directed MAXIMUM OVEDRIVE (1986), that back in the eighties novelists were better off staying put behind the typewriter!
The Thailand-born S.P. Somtow (real name Somtow Sucharitkul) published several standout horror novels during the 1980s and 90s, including VAMPIRE JUNCTION, MOON DANCE and VALENTINE. THE LAUGHING DEAD, which Somtow wrote, directed, scored and executive produced, was highly anticipated in horror circles (receiving generous prerelease coverage in Gorezone magazine). Once the completed film was unveiled, however, the excitement immediately (and understandably) dissipated. To this day THE LAUGHING DEAD has never been released in any form in the U.S., for which I haven’t heard any complaints!
Somtow followed up this non-triumph with another film, the 1994 Shakespeare pastiche ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT, which wasn’t much better received.
Father O’Sullivan is a lapsed Catholic who headlines a Mexican archeological expedition. The point of the expedition is to explore some Mayan ruins, where the evil Dr. Um-Tzec is afoot. This nut is seeking to transform himself into the Mayan Lord of Death by cutting out the hearts of lots of innocent children. Appropriately enough, Um-Tzec’s activities are set to coincide with the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities.
Back on the archeological expedition, Father O’Sullivan is shocked to find that among his charges is Tessie, an ex-nun with whom he had an affair, as well as the product of that affair, Tessie’s bratty son Ivan. Upon reaching the Mayan ruins O’Sullivan and Tessie uneasily rekindle their romance, at least until O’Sullivan is lured into Um-Tzec’s house to perform an exorcism on the latter’s possessed daughter (never mind that O’Sullivan’s faith has long since lapsed). During the exorcism the girl rips her heart out and sticks it in O’Sullivan’s chest. This causes O’Sullivan to become possessed by murderous Mayan spirits.
From there zombies overrun the area, leading to a final showdown in which two of the protagonists somehow metamorphose into warring dinosaurs.
What’s wrong with this movie? Let’s see: the performances are uniformly abominable–with an inert Tim O’Sullivan in the lead and a not-much-better S.P. Somtow as the antagonist—being the fault of a director who evidently had little idea how to properly inspire his actors or modulate their performances. The script is scatterbrained and nonsensical (and comes complete with a hideously sappy romance), being closer in feel to the work of a first-year film student than a multi-award winning novelist. The synthesizer music, accomplished by Somtow himself, is plain amateurish, the product of a man who may be a talented musician but whose knowledge of film scoring was clearly limited. The cinematography has the ugly look of a seedy no-budget gore fest, which of course is precisely what this film is. As for the copious gore effects, they’re not bad but they’re never especially impressive, having been utilized (as in so many other horror no-budgeters) to prop up a film that wouldn’t work at all without them.
The nerdier among you will enjoy the many extended cameos by Somtow’s writer pals, including Edward Bryant as a bus driver and Arthur Byron Cover, Tim Powers and William F. Wu as zombies. One of its other writer cast members, the fantasy ace Gregory Frost, summed up THE LAUGHING DEAD thusly: “watch this thing at your own peril.”
THE LAUGHING DEAD
Director: S.P. Somtow (Somtow Sucharitkul)
Producer: Lex Nakashima
Screenplay: S.P. Somtow
Cinematography: David Boyd
Editing: Rose Anne Weinstein
Cast: Tim Sullivan, Wendy Webb, Premika Eaton, Patrick Roskowick, Larry Kagen, Krista Keim, S.P. Somtow, Gregory Frost, Raymond Ridenour, Ryan Effner, Joey Acedo, Edward Bryant, Lydia Marano