GARDEN OF THE DEAD, a 1972 offering from director John Hayes, is a grungy slice of schlock that pretty much screams drive-in second feature (which it is, batting clean-up for Hayes's GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE on its original release). The film exists in two versions: a truncated sixty-minute cut (the version reviewed here), and another running feature length (which I recall seeing in high school, but it's been so long and the movie's so unmemorable there's no way I could compare both editions). Even clocking in at just under an hour, the movie drags enough that watching a longer cut is practically unthinkable.
GARDEN takes place at a decidedly low-rent prison camp (basically a dirt lot surrounded by 2x4's strung together with chicken wire). When they're not rolling 55-gallon drums across the ground, the inmates gather around to furtively get high on formaldehyde and plot their escape. These early scenes, with the prisoners lolling around blissfully as a long phallic hose is dangled in their face, have a strange, vaguely homoerotic feel to them; had the film maintained this kind of bizarre subtextual aura, it may have had a legitimate shot at cult film status, instead of being sentenced to obscurity.
Of course, when the time comes to make a break for it, things don't go as planned and the inmates are gunned down by the warden and his crew. The warden--who thinks he's Strother Martin from COOL HAND LUKE, but is really a megalomanical mid-level manager--orders the dead prisoners buried in shallow graves, in soil that's been saturated by chemicals during the escape attempt. Big surprise, the prisoners rise from the dead, slathered in white makeup, and return to the camp for some penny-ante NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD-inspired shenanigans.
In addition to the snail-like pace, GARDEN OF THE DEAD bears little in the way of excitement. When the zombies do attack, it's generally offscreen, and the action Hayes does show is staged poorly with a minimum of impact. The only true entertainment value comes from the hilariously overdone acting across the board (at times it seems the warden and the wife of one of the prisoners are having a bad-acting contest) that should yield quite a few chuckles from those who watch movies MST3K-style.
The most astounding fact about GARDEN is that director Hayes was nominated for an Academy Award (no, not here, for the 1958 live-action short THE KISS). A glance at his resume shows that Hayes was more concerned with making a buck on the drive-in circuit than creating art, and while I'd never begrudge a filmmaker who'd prefer to make a comfortable living, it would've been nice if Hayes could've brought his award-nominated sensibility to all of his work.