Psychotronic Ketchup: The Alien Dead (1980)

Is success in the motion picture industry truly only to be measured in dollars earned at the box office or in awards gathered in one's arms? Or should success also include the ability to hang about the fringes of the movie industry for over 30 years, and getting the chance to direct almost a hundred features in that time, even if the quality of those features ranges variably from OK time-wasters to the truly inept?

In a world where a film is generally considered to be a "bomb" if it hasn't earned a $100 million at the box office, people like to heap abuse on those like Edward D. Wood, Jr., filmmakers who pour their souls and every ort of art within them, no matter how lacking in actual talent, to make their movies their way. Wood gave us Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, and all he has gotten for the past fifty years is some rather savage mockery. He has also pretty much been declared, by much of the western world it seems, as the "The Worst Filmmaker of All Time". Yes, his films are quite clearly "bad", if that term must be used; every single element in every single frame oozes with manic dopiness, and each line of his screenplay is stilted, and then delivered awkwardly by actors who should have never left their jobs picking up the garbage at Central Casting, not walking through the door of it. And yet, in even his worst moments, there is a certain art to Wood's artlessness, and this stems from the feeling upon watching his oeuvre (even before the Ed Wood revival) that he was making the movies that he simply had to make. While one likes to lump them in with other "bad" 50's sci-fi pictures, there really are no other pictures like Wood's movies, and they definitely portrayed his inner longings and obsessions on their shabby exteriors. (Cringe you cinephiles, if you will, but to a certain extent, Wood might be the truest example of the auteur theory...)

I don't know if Fred Olen Ray is truly making the films that he simply has to make anymore (his output is far too high and seemingly random to give him the air of a man deeply troubled over getting his message "out there"), but at one point, he must have been hungry and desperate enough for success to be such a director. Certainly, watching his second film (and the first released into theatres), The Alien Dead, there is a "can-do" spirit alive in the frames of his strangely huggable Z-effort. There is the feeling of a small-town guy gathering every person within a two-mile radius and putting them to work on his little home movie about a meteor that turns rednecks into zombies that hide underwater and eat alligators, and then start attacking the populace of the nearby town. Somehow, to play the sheriff of this town, he manages to land an aged Buster Crabbe, the ex-swimming champion and world-famous portrayer of the amazing Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the serials, who apparently had a hard time remembering his lines and improvised many of them. You can't make this stuff up, and the details of the making of this film would make a terrific self-referential comedy, if only Ray would get around to directing it himself. The scenario would be like Babes in Arms or Summer Stock with the Living Dead: "Hey, kids! Let's put on a show in the swamp!" And then chaos ensues on their way to making a mediocre (at best) picture.

The film itself is barely over an hour long, but even with the actuality that the film is kind of huggable in that "so pathetic I love it" sort of way, if you are watching it by yourself and not in a party setting, it is a bit of a chore getting through it. The film itself is rather dull until the last twenty minutes or so. Yeah, there are breasts, but belonging to no one that you wouldn't throw a rock at, and there are some laughable effects scenes that keep the interest up, but the film plods along like a lame duck President in his last two years in office towards its inane climax. My thought through most of it is that there must be some great behind-the-scenes stories about this film, and they at least had to be far more interesting than actually watching it. (Listening to Ray's commentary on my second trip through the film proved this to be true, and this track provided the "party" setting that one needs to steamroll and laugh your way through the flick.)

So, we have a "bad" film, and one could probably take a look at the titles in his resume and surmise that Ray might be one of the modern front-runners for Wood's title of "Worst Filmmaker of All Time". But wouldn't the "worst filmmaker" actually be someone who couldn't get his movies made? Wood may be universally derided, but he did get a surprising amount of his films on the screen, both by his hand or in screenplay form. Roger Corman is often, quite wrongly, ripped for his contributions to the "bad movie" field, but as Corman has stated many times, he never made a film that lost money. And if that isn't the purest form of financial success, then what is? (Artistically, he also proved himself with many of his Poe series and some of his quickie comedies.) And here is Ray, who, like his cronies David DeCoteau and Jim Wynorksi, might make a lot of bad movies, but at least he gets to make them. Clearly, he has an audience "out there", or he would never get the chance to direct again. At least, not at a studio. but, 26 years after The Alien Dead, Ray has numerous movies on the horizon, and even if they aren't the movies he simply has to make (they may be, for all I know), he is making them.

Even if he never gets the top box office spot for the weekend or a nomination for Best Director,
I would call that success. At least, color me envious: he's making pictures. I'm not...

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