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Burglar From Hell (1993)

Directed by Chip Herman
Falcon Video VHS

“Frank The Tank” is a jabroni who wears a KOOL Cigarettes t-shirt, white stone-washed jeans, and Reebok high tops. He’s also a burglar who has been resurrected from the dead by a satanic ritual. Frank shakes his pant leg while attacking a woman in her house. An object falls out. It looks like a rotten sweet potato. Frank looks at the object, then the camera. He says:

“Oh! My pee-pee!”

This scene simultaneously explains everything and nothing about what it feels like to sit through Burglar From Hell.

By the early 1990s, the distribution of shot-on-video movies had hit a saturation point. Video stores had grown wise to stocking independent product that appeared to be Lethal Weapon 2 on the outside, but was really Miami Vendetta on the inside. Much like the black and white comic book boom and collapse of 1986, the SOV wave had broken. Filmmakers could no longer hope that labels like Camp Video or Donna Michelle Productions would distribute their homemade movies. So they were forced to go deeper. Filmmakers advertised in magazines like Draculina and Film Threat. They distributed flyers at conventions. They visited video stores and sold copies of their movies out of the back of their trunk. This is the sub-no-rules landscape that birthed fearless labels like Moore Video, Chop ‘Em Ups Video, and Falcon Video. Instead of working out of offices, these companies were headquartered in one corner of someone’s zero bedroom apartment.

Burglar From Hell defines this era of ultra-mega-no-budget SOV horror. Mostly because it proves that the line between fascinating and excruciating is very tenuous.

Frank The Tank watches an old woman do her laundry. A concerned citizen approaches. Frank strangles him, then pees on him. Frank enters the woman’s house, punches her, and demands her jewels. He says, “Heaven’s scared-a me and hell don’t want no part-a me!” The old lady shoots Frank with a shotgun and buries him in the backyard. The old lady has a heart attack. She dies.

Fourteen minutes have passed. The opening credits roll.

A group of twenty-somethings argue while sitting on couches, argue while driving in cars, and argue while playing cards. A girl named Token performs a “weather ritual” in the kitchen, so it starts to rain outside. A hairy guy named Jake takes a shower. Token and her boyfriend, James, spin in circles together for almost a full minute on a beach. James gets in a fist fight with some street thugs, which turns into a debate on race wars, the Ku Klux Klan, and gang statistics. The argument ends when James says, “Spread the word and live as one — unity!” A guy named Rich has a mustache that’s painted on with shoe polish, just like Groucho Marx. An Eddie Deezen impersonator tries to score with skid row scream queen Debbie D. I struggled to figure out what any of this had to do with Frank The Tank. Before I had answers, forty minutes had passed. I wanted to claw my way out of this movie.

Then Token performs another ritual at the old lady’s house. This causes Frank to rise from the dead. Finally! Frank goes on a rampage. Double finally!! This includes removing someone’s arm and beating them with it, just like Ted Prior did in Deadly Prey. It also includes Rich puking up a pizza, Jake getting his guts ripped out with a shovel during a diarrhea fit, and Frank’s zombie face suddenly transforming into the head of the The Thing from The Fantasic Four. All of this would have been entertaining if director Chip Herman had remembered to turn on the lights.

Burglar From Hell captures the insignificance of middle-class American culture in 1993 — CBS SPORTS t-shirts, massive entertainment systems with faux woodgrain, and moldy kitchen linoleum that no one had the time to replace. That’s what makes the movie fascinating. Like The Last Of The American Hoboes and Twisted Issues, Burglar documents a specific time and place that will never exist again. In this case, it’s a slice of life with a group of young adults from Queens, New York. But as an experience, watching this movie is less engaging than watching a stranger reorganize their bookcase. Because in that situation, maybe you’d find out that the person loved the gritty noir of Chester Himes, just like you. And maybe you’d make a new friend.

If the filmmakers avoided the dumb humor, excised the empty spaces, and allowed us to actually see what was going on during most of the the movie, Burglar From Hell would be a fresh twist on home invasion exploitation of the SOV era. But since none of that is possible, the only thing that truly triumphs is the cover art, which looks like it was put together by the same deranged maniac who was responsible for the artwork of Devil Snow.

To sum up, Burglar From Hell lasts for 97 minutes.