Directed By: John Hayes
Starring: Philip Kenneally, Duncan McLeod, John Dullaghan
Tag line: "Death was the only living thing..."
Trivia: Originally distributed as the second feature on a double bill with Grave of the Vampire
Garden of the Dead is the kind of micro-budget horror film they used to run on UHF stations, playing as part of their late-night “Creature Feature” movie show. I have fond memories of staying up late just to see these films, and while I’m positive I never saw Garden of the Dead before, the fact that it’s as shitty as some of the flicks they used to run gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
This 1972 horror movie is set in a prison work camp that specializes in manufacturing formaldehyde. The warden (Phil Kenneally) is a hard-ass, and rules the camp with an iron fist, but that doesn’t prevent some of the prisoners from occasionally sneaking out back to get high on the fumes. Led by the volatile Braddock (Virgil Frye), these addicted inmates attempt to escape late one night, only to be gunned down before they could slip away. Per the Warden’s orders, the dead prisoners are buried in a shallow, unmarked grave just beyond the fence. But thanks to their steady diet of formaldehyde, they won’t stay buried for long. Rising out of the ground as zombies, they descend upon the camp, intent on killing everyone inside so that they can have the precious green fluid all to themselves. But with the guards and the rest of the prisoners joining forces to stop them, these undead addicts may be in for a fight they can’t possibly win.
With its low production values and poor performances, Garden of the Dead may, at first glance, seem like your average, run-of-the-mill ‘70s horror cheapie. Hell, it probably looks like that at second and third glances as well, because that’s exactly what it is! As a living dead flick, though, it does distinguish itself in a few key areas. For one, the zombies can talk; soon after clawing his way out of the ground, the now-undead Braddock shouts “We must have the liquid in back of the camp. We will destroy the living!” Which leads me to yet another of Garden of the Dead's unique aspects: instead of brains and human flesh, these zombies need formaldehyde to survive. Oh, and they can also run, which gives Braddock and his crew a constant advantage over the camp’s inept guards.
As for their weaknesses, these marauding zombie prisoners have three: bright light (which causes them to disintegrate), shotguns (which blow them away), and…
…wait for it…
Women in night gowns! That’s right, these once-dead criminals freeze in their tracks whenever a pretty girl strolls into view, and are especially taken with Carol (Susan Charney), wife of “good” prisoner Paul Johnson (Marland Proctor). In one of the film's better scenes, Braddock and his zombified posse surround Carol's RV, gawking at her until she drives away in a panic.
Considering it's a zero-budget movie, the make-up in Garden of the Dead is fairly good, even if it is a bit overdone (these prisoners were only dead a day or so, yet look as if they’ve been underground for years), and a scene in which one zombie is exposed to light and starts to melt looks pretty damn cool. Of course, none of this is enough to save the movie, and I can only recommend it to die-hard genre fans in search of something new. Odds are, with the recent glut of low-budget living dead films they’ve been subjected to over the last 10-15 years, Garden of the Dead won’t be the worst they’ve ever seen!