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The Gratuitous B-Movie Column: The Dead Pit

October 7, 2021 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
The Dead Pit

The Gratuitous B-Movie Column Issue #599: The Dead Pit

Hello, everyone, and welcome once again to the internets movie review column that has never once thought about creating its own zombie army because, among other things, it sounds like a lot of work (I mean, for starters, where do you store the zombie army? Do you have to get a big hangar or warehouse or something? Who the hell has money for that kind of thing in this day and age?), The Gratuitous B-Movie Column, and I am your host Bryan Kristopowitz. In this issue, issue number five hundred and ninety-nine, I take a look at the weird as hell low budget sort of zombie flick The Dead Pit, which received some sort of limited theatrical release in October 1989 and was then unleashed on home video in very late January 1990.

The Dead Pit

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The Dead Pit, directed and co-written by Brett Leonard, is a late 1980’s/early 1990’s low budget horror flick that I never knew existed until I saw it on the Shudder streaming service. Based on some internets reading about the movie, apparently The Dead Pit was mildly famous in video store circles because (and I read this on imdb and Wikipedia and saw evidence on Yahoo) the original VHS cover lit up when you pushed a button on the box. I don’t remember ever seeing anything like that at any video store I frequented back in the day. Was the movie not widely available at that time? I also don’t remember ever seeing it on cable, either “regular” cable (like USA) or premium (like The Movie Channel. This movie definitely looks like something that could have been in heavy rotation on TMC back in 1990/1991). So where was this movie (and where the hell was I?)? Why don’t horror movie nerds talk about it more?

The Dead Pit stars Cheryl Lawson as Jane Doe, a disturbed young woman with amnesia who finds herself in a mental institution. Under the care of the somewhat sympathetic Dr. Gerald Swan (Jeremy Slate), Jane has no idea who she is or why she’s been institutionalized. The only thing she’s sure of is that someone took her memories from her. Who would do that to her? And why would someone do that to her? Dr. Swan tries to treat her with various therapies but none of them seem to work. During her therapy sessions, Jane often sees a young girl, who may or may not be her, in serious duress. But why? What is the little girl afraid of, and why is that vision/dream/whatever it is so vivid in her mind? One day, in the midst of a therapy session, there’s an earthquake that freaks everyone out, especially Jane. Will this earthquake experience ruin whatever progress Dr. Swan has made with Jane and every other patient at the institution?

The institution, as you would expect, is not a nice place. For every devoted nurse, like Robbins (Mara Everett) there’s a stern asshole type nurse (like Nurse Kygar, as played by Joan Bechtel) or jerkoff orderly (like Jimmy, as played by Randall Fontana). In fact, there’s a moment where Kygar “treats” (assaults) Jane after she has an episode and runs around the asylum in her underwear. Kygar actually hangs Jane by her wrists and blasts her with a water hose, causing Jane’s T-shirt to fly off. What the hell is the point of this? How is this treatment? And why does Jane wear skimpy underwear and, well, clothing at night?

A few days after the earthquake, weird things start to happen. Various employees suddenly go missing/don’t come into work, some patients flip out and start stabbing people (like Buddy, as played by Michael Jacobs), and a general sense of dread envelops the institution. What the hell is going on? Twenty years before the earthquake (and we all see this at the beginning of the movie), Dr. Swan confronted Dr. Colin Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer) in the basement of one of the buildings on the grounds. Dr. Ramzi had been performing weird experimental surgeries and whatnot on various patients, killing several of them in the process and dumping their bodies in a pit. So Dr. Swan shot Dr. Ramzi in the head and then covered the entrance to the basement and the pit, making sure that no one ever found out about or tried to enter the pit ever again. Twenty years later, the earthquake upsets all of this, and unleashes Dr. Ramzi, who is now (or, maybe, he always was) some sort of killer demon doctor. Dr. Ramzi starts appearing in Jane’s dreams/visions, she starts seeing him in present time (and she’s the only person that can), and he starts killing people with a drill to the eye and carrying their dead bodies back to his pit so he can turn them into zombies.

Jane doesn’t know what to do. Her only real friend at the institution, Christian Meyers (Stephen Gregory Foster), is also the only one who sort of believes that Jane is in serious trouble and that it isn’t just her imagination or mental state or whatever. There is something happening at the asylum, and it’s seriously messed up.

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The build to the eventual zombie attack, when Dr. Ramzi fully unleashes his pit of zombies, is quite good as you know that it’s going to eventually happen but you’re never quite sure when it will happen. All of the other strange attacks make you think that, maybe, the zombie attack won’t happen until the very end of the movie and that we’re going to get an abundance of sort of slasher moments with Ramzi attacking people. When the zombie attack does happen it’s a big moment in the movie and the tension and excitement ramp up considerably. Now, these zombies don’t appear to be “traditional” zombies in the Romero mold. The zombies in this movie are something else entirely. It’s almost like they’re demonically possessed demon things. And, yes, they are scary. Not quite as scary as Dr. Ramzi in full glowing eye mode but scary nonetheless.

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The movie’s cinematography and, to a degree, the movie’s performances made me think that The Dead Pit was an Italian horror flick. There’s a real sense of heightened reality or “dream logic” to what we see. And Jeremy Slate’s performance as Dr. Swan at the beginning of the movie is so exaggerated that I really thought I was going to look The Dead Pit up on the internets and “Brett Leonard” was going to be another pseudonym for someone like Joe D’Amato. Brett Leonard, though, is a top notch director, a future visionary of sorts (he directed The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity and Man-Thing, among so many other movies). The Dead Pit is Leonard’s first movie. That fact is freaking amazing. Leonard made something insanely good right out of the gate.

The movie’s special makeup effects are top notch and, at times, absolutely disgusting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with so many exposed brains in it. The various “drill to the…” sequences are top notch and look gross as hell. And the actual dead pit? My God, that place looks like absolute hell on Earth. A mere glimpse of it will give you the willies. And the glowing eyes of Dr. Ramzi are the thing of nightmares. My only real quibble with the effects are the head shots. If a movie like The Dead Pit has a bullet to the head sequence I want to see blood and brains spraying everywhere. I want that head shot to be as disgusting as the “exposed brain surgery” sequences. That doesn’t happen, though. A bullet to the head is damaging and terrible, but it doesn’t make you wince in The Dead Pit. That just seems wrong. There are some cool as fuck body melt scenes, though, so that kind of makes up for the lack of brains everywhere.

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The main performances are generally excellent. Cheryl Lawson is fantastic as Jane Doe. She’s immediately sympathetic as soon as you see her, and when you hear her story and her predicament you root for her even more. You want to see her figure out what’s going on with her own mental state. Did someone actually steal her memories? Her nighttime wardrobe is a little weird. Would anyone in a mental institution like the one shown in the movie wear skimpy underwear and T-shirt? That just seems implausible (the institution also looks cold as hell at night. Why wouldn’t a patient at least wear pajama pants at night?). I’m surprised that, according to her imdb page, that Lawson hasn’t acted all that much since The Dead Pit came out. How did she not become a biggish horror movie star? She’s certainly an accomplished stunt performer. If she didn’t want to do the horror movie thing all of the time, why didn’t she become an action star?

Jeremy Slate is terrific as Dr. Swan. His entire arc in the movie is weird, as he starts out killing the demented Dr. Ramzi, walls off where he killed him, and then spends the rest of his life at the same institution continuing his work with various patients. Why would he do that? Was he really that worried that the demonic presence he dispatched and then made disappear would come back one day? Why would anyone think like that? And, too, why wouldn’t he contact the authorities if he thought Dr. Ramzi was a complete psychopath? I don’t get that. I don’t think you’ll be surprised by how Dr. Swan’s story ends. Fascinating as hell.

Stephen Gregory Foster is awesome as Christian, Jane’s only real friend. At first, you’re not sure if Christian is a patient or an employee at the asylum as his back and forth with the staff suggests that he may be a hip and edgy doctor or nurse/orderly. Christian isn’t a staff member, though. Christian is a patient. He’s also an explosives expert, which you know will somehow figure into the end of the movie because it just has to. He has good friend chemistry with Lawson and you totally buy them as people trying to survive a grotesque event. Christian’s final scene bummed me out a bit. I really wanted to see his character go in a different direction.

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And Danny Gochnauer is nothing short of amazing as Dr. Ramzi. He makes Ramzi bigger than life and so supremely evil that you can’t believe that he’s real and yet there he is, drilling holes into people’s heads, doing weird brain surgery on them, and turning them into zombies. As I said, his glowing red eyes are nightmare inducing, and his overall presence in the movie, from beginning to end, is unsettling as fuck. Why didn’t Gochnauer do more movies (imdb shows that this is his only movie. That just seems wrong)? Why isn’t Dr. Ramzi considered a big deal in low budget horror movie villain circles?

I loved The Dead Pit. It’s a weird, gory, unsettling horror flick with one of the great horror villain performances of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. Dr. Ramzi should be a bigger deal, and The Dead Pit itself should be a bigger deal. The movie is still on Shudder as I write this. If you have Shudder and haven’t checked out The Dead Pit I implore you to do it as soon as you can. It’s definitely worth your time. This movie needs to be a bigger deal among the horror movie world.

See The Dead Pit. See it, see it, goddamn see it!

So what do we have here?

Dead bodies: At least 10

Undead bodies: Hundreds

Explosions: One big one.

Nudity? : Yes. Briefly. It’s rather disturbing.

Doobage: A drooling patient, serious yelling, arguing doctors, probe jamming, dead body carrying, a hidden passageway, scary stairs, skulls on the ground, a dead body on a table, a hole in the ground, a weird occult symbol, brain surgery, slow motion arm slicing, bullet to the head in slow motion, barricade building, a van trip, an earthquake, white hair, therapy, walking around hooey, the common room, talk about explosives, skimpy underwear wearing, impromptu water hose abuse, exploding T-shirt, spooky hands, rubber gloves hooey, probe up through the eye socket, more dead body carrying, scary memories, attempted stabbing, a club beating,, a scalpel, straight jacket hooey, window breaking, dental drill jammed into the eye, arm wound caused by broken glass, hallucination hooey, injection hooey, a nasty breakfast, the hospital, hypnosis, a bottle of booze, a crazy nun, boiler room hooey, running and chasing, serious zombie attack, bloody face removal, top of head ripped off, brain removal by hand, head crushing, off screen car dismantling, a second serious zombie attack, a great “zombies eating brains at the lunch table in the cafeteria” sequence, holy water hooey, a very gross body melting scene, shotgun hooey, brain surgery hooey, holy water to the face, zombie throwing, exploding water tower, a nice miniature flood, more body melting, an implosion, body parts everywhere, and the passing of the evil.

Kim Richards?: None, although, with the way Jane’s flashback dreams play out, I’m surprised that it didn’t happen.

Gratuitous: A doctor with a revolver in his desk for some reason, “And Introducing Cheryl Lawson as Jane Doe,” a scary staircase, an exposed brain with multiple probes jammed into it, a stern asshole nurse, sexy underwear, a spooky hand with nasty fingernails, crazy people smoking, a story about how the government let out the crazies years ago, clock hooey, an orderly whistling the theme to The Twilight Zone, a rocking ball hypnotism treatment, red glowing eyes, severed head throwing, a character actually saying “zombies,” holy water hooey, nice miniature special effects, and the passing of the evil.

Best lines: “Doc! Doc! Hold my calls, please! I don’t have the time!,” “This is sick!,” “I can’t remember my past. That doesn’t make me crazy!,” “The people need help! The people in the cellar need help!,” “Let’s talk about amnesia,” “My friends call me Chris,” “So many people stuck in here,” “Who is that out there? Oh, that’s the crazy nun,” “Just sit back and relax. It’s a simple procedure,” “I’m not supposed to talk about Daddy,” “You’re all fools! This place is going down! This place is going down!,” “I’m the head of surgery,” “It wasn’t a nightmare!,” “It’s almost lunchtime,” “Right. It sounds completely crazy,” “What the fuck?,” “Bud! What the fuck?,” “For dead people they sure are smart,” “Stay away from me! Stay away from me! Shut up!,” “This is no time for psychoanalysis!,” “I killed him once, I’ll kill him again,” “Holy water! Holy water kills the beast!,” “Don’t cut my brain!,” “Come on, we’ve got a water balloon to drop on these assholes!,” “Dr. Swan wanted me to give you a piece of his mind!,” and “Daddy? That’s right, Sara! You’re my flesh and blood. Come to Daddy!”

Rating: 9.0/10.0

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Well, I think that’ll be about it for now. Don’t forget to sign up with disqus if you want to comment on this article and any other 411 article. You know you want to, so just go do it.

B-movies rule. Always remember that.

The Dead Pit

Cheryl Lawson– Jane Doe
Jeremy Slate– Dr. Gerald Swan
Stephen Gregory Foster– Christian Meyers
Danny Gochnauer– Dr. Colin Ramzi
Joan Bechtel– Nurse Kygar
Geha Getz– Sister Clair
Michael Jacobs– Bud Higgins
Mara Everett– Nurse Robbins

(check out the rest of the cast here)

Directed by Brett Leonard
Screenplay by Brett Leonard and Gimel Everett

Distributed by Skouras Pictures, Imperial Entertainment, Best Film & Video Corp., Code Red, Cinema Epoch, and Tubi TV

Unrated
Runtime– 95 minutes

Buy it here. Also available at the moment on Shudder.