Night Of The Zombies (1981)

It’s easy to pass judgment on people. But “easy” doesn’t always equal “better.” Sometimes, we can learn a lot through empathy. It might take more work on our end, but that effort is usually worth it. Unless we’re talking about Billy Joel. Because that guy is a turd.

Thankfully, we’re not talking about Billy Joel or his music. We’re talking about the movies of Joel M. Reed. And when it comes to Reed’s movies, a little understanding goes a long way.

Night Of The Zombies was the last of six movies that were written and directed by Joel Reed in New York City from 1968 to 1981. From perverted melodrama (Career Bed) to skull-fucking chaos (Bloodsucking Freaks), Reed’s ultra-cheap movies touched on every trend in exploitation. But unlike Al Adamson or Barry Mahon, Reed wasn’t speaking anyone’s language. He was doing his own thing. Regardless of subject matter, Reed’s work exists in a bubble. The difficult aspects of his movies — fractured structure, lethargic pace, emotional emptiness — feel deliberate. Because they happen over and over, in every movie, from Sex By Advertisement to Blood Bath. That’s why Reed’s movies need to be taken on their own terms. It’s the only that way we can tolerate them. Especially when we’re dealing with a zombie movie that’s less about zombies and more about porn star Jamie Gillis channeling Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.

At a snowy outpost, a group of secret agents search for the remains of American soldiers who have been missing since World War II. A border patrolman warns that zombies have been seen in the area. No one believes him. Too bad! They’re real! The zombies look like they just took a swim in Zombie Lake. They also shoot guns. Everyone dies a bloodless death. The zombies lurch off into the night. We won’t see them again for over forty minutes.

Meet Nick, played by Jamie Gllis (Dracula Sucks). Nick is a detective who smokes a pipe and wears a Newsboy cap. Nick’s mission is to investigate the disappearances of the secret agents while searching for a container of Gamma-693, an experimental chemical that was misplaced in the 1940s. Nick meets a scientist named Dr. Proud and his niece. The spend a lot of time talking in pubs, walking on streets, and eating. An informant, played by Joel Reed, is stabbed when he begins to share information with Nick. Then a pear-shaped man is gutted in an electronics store.

Eventually, Nick and his friends arrive at the camp from the beginning of the movie. One of the soldiers warns Dr. Proud’s niece about the potential of sexual predators in the woods. She says: “Right after dinner? They couldn’t be that primitive!” With the help of some greasepaint, Nick masquerades as a zombie and infiltrates the hideout of the undead. Two twists and four zombie skeletons later, the movie ends with dramatic shots of snowy hillsides and a speech from Hitler.

Night Of The Zombies isn’t a zombie movie. It’s a detective thriller that just happens to have seven zombies in it. Typically, this type of deceit would equal harsh, judgmental doom. But since Night Of The Zombies is a Joel Reed movie, our reaction shifts. The movie might be talky. It might be impossible to follow. It might pad the running time with the same shot of a music box five times in a row. But it also ignores the traditions of every zombie movie that came before it. And that’s what makes the movie fun. Like Reed’s previous movies, Night feels like it was shot hastily in the middle of the night, far away from anything that resembled civilization. There’s an anxious energy throughout. When a zombie accidentally laughs while being shot with a pistol, Reed leaves it in. Because there wasn’t time to do it again.

This is what endures Night Of The Zombies. It has spirit. But it also retains an otherworldly glow. The cramped sets, the minimalist electronic score, the frequent references to making movies — this is a vision that could have only resulted from one set of circumstances at one point in time. It’s not an experience that can be recommended to anyone. But it’s an experience that will always be appreciated by someone, somewhere. Unlike Billy Joel.

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