In the VHS glory days of the late 1980's, several low-budget video companies experimented with gimmick boxes to attract viewers' attention. Somewhere between the three-dimensional art for BLACK ROSES and FRANKENHOOKER'S talking sleeve was the box for THE DEAD PIT, which featured a 3-D image of Dr. Ramzi, the film's villain, whose eyes lit up when you pressed a button. That I remembered more about the video box than the film itself should tell you all you need to know.
Before pissing off Stephen King and Dean Koontz with mediocre adaptations of their work (THE LAWNMOWER MAN and HIDEAWAY, respectively), Brett Leonard directed this 1989 zombie variation on ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. The festivities kick off with Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer), a brain surgeon conducting unorthodox experiments on the patients of the State Institution for the Mentally Ill. When Ramzi's colleague Dr. Swan (Jeremy Slate) discovers his subterranean lab, as well as the titular pit where the botched attempts are dumped, Swan caps him with a shot to the head and seals him and his cadavers away in his underground lair.
Flash forward twenty years, when a lovely young amnesiac (Cheryl Lawson) is sent to the Institution to help regain the memory of her identity (she refers to herself as Jane Doe). Before she can learn what trauma caused her memory loss, an earthquake rocks the hospital, awakening Ramzi and his subjects. Soon Ramzi is resuming his experiments, roaming the hospital corridors at night to recruit an unwitting nurse or patient, his eyes aglow when he attacks.
Filmed in the abandoned violent ward of a real hospital, THE DEAD PIT makes the most of its location, showing an excellent use of lighting to establish mood. But the ominous atmosphere can only carry the film so far before the weaknesses in the script start showing. The film's first hour is largely uneventful, consisting mostly of Jane Doe's nightmares of Ramzi (it seems as though Leonard's trying for an ELM STREET-style vibe here, playing these scenes with a sense of ambiguity that doesn't quite work, since we know the proceedings are actually happening). These sequences soon grow repetitive, feeling more like plot padding than advancement (that Lawson wears her hospital-issue panties and baby doll-tee combo helps make these scenes watchable).
Things do start to pick up once the zombies arrive, preying on patients and staff and spilling plenty of the red stuff (a fair amount of which was cut for an R rating). In an interesting twist, holy water is used to dispatch the dead rather than the traditional bullet to the head, but for some reason this detail doesn't quite fit; perhaps it's because the quasi-scientific foundation the film's been built on doesn't mesh with the Judeo-Christian elements of good-vs-evil. But even after the brains start rolling inertia soon sets in as the film chugs toward its conclusion, where it answers the questions of Lawson's past long after we the viewing audience have figured it out. (Oh, and if anyone can explain the movie's final shot to me, I'd be eternally grateful.)
While far from perfect, THE DEAD PIT would probably please non-discriminating zombie fans looking for something a little different. Though the film has yet to be officially released on DVD, it shouldn't be too hard to locate a copy on the collector's market.