There’s a good occasion to review Messiah of Evil (a.k.a. Dead People) now: it became a public domain movie a couple of years ago, but now it’s become downloadable (legally!) at the Internet Archive.
The film’s plot is wacky enough: a young woman (Marianne Hill) goes to California to find out what has happened to her father, an eccentric artist. Once she arrives at the beach house, she finds out her father wasn’t the only peculiar guy around. What a strange town it appears to be!
The movie is decent and the scene in the movie theatre should be labelled as downright classic. Five years before Romero’s Dawn of the Dead this movie had an idea where zombies go when they’re roaming around. The supermall is fine, how about a ticket to the movies?
The theatre sequence builds up slowly (it lasts well over six minutes) but effectively: we (unlike the girl) know she’s the only human in the theatre and know trouble is brewing when the audience is filling up (ever so slowly) by dead people. While the character is awaiting the main attraction (Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye – surely a joke if you know the town is taken over by zombies) she and you are treated to some trailers. That’s always a sign of a love for cinema… genuine cult cinema likes to include clips from other movies, just remember how Django was incorporated into The Harder They Come (1972).
(If you can’t wait to watch this scene from Messiah of Evil, don’t despair: you can find it at the bottom of this article.)
The writer and director of Messiah of Evil is Willard Huyck. Huyck directed only four movies, with Messiah of Evil as his debut and Howard The Duck as his (erm) swan song. His penultimate directing job was Best Defense, a comedy with Dudley Moore and Eddie Murphy. All this makes you wonder: how can it go so bad for a director?
But, rather than wondering about that, let’s look at what Huyck was able to pen: that list includes Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and American Graffiti. American Graffiti was released in the same year as Messiah of Evil, by the way: 1973 must’ve been Huyck’s creative peak. Let us also not forget the influence of Huyck’s wife, Gloria Katz. Huyck and Katz tended to write together. Messiah of Evil is the only movie where she also helped him direct (albeit uncredited).
As 70s cult movies come, Messiah of Evil was released under a shower of alternative titles. Apparently the official title is Dead People, but I must confess I never saw a print of the movie under that title. The quite generic The Second Coming is another title and of course there’s Revenge of the Screaming Dead, which makes you assume you’ll be treated to a gore movie. Messiah of Evil sounds more occult and is therefore the best title for this movie. It may not be the scariest movie you’ll ever see, but it packs loads of atmosphere and definitely deserves more recognition.
Occasionally the movie plays like a bad trip, especially in the scene where our heroine, in the artist’s peculiar house, sticks a needle into her leg and has a rather nasty hallucination:
Messiah of Evil is available (as Dead People) over at the Internet Archive. You can download it as MPEG1, MPEG2 or MPEG4 here. You can also download it from the equally legal Public Domain Torrents (link). It’s also available on DVD. It’s on a double bill with the Belgian horror The Devil’s Nightmare, courtesy of TGG Direct (link) or, courtesy of Alpha Video, on a disc together with Sisters of Death (link). Both fine movies, but let’s not forget today’s star attraction: Messiah of Evil.
And here it is, the doomed trip to the movies…