Friday, January 15, 2010

The Boneyard (1991): or, All-Out Zombie Poodle ATTACK!

Wow, what a fun flick!

Even though it was made in 1991, writer/director James Cummins' zombie seige flick The Boneyard plays like a drippy slice of pure 1980s horror-film goodness. With its offbeat comedy, Ancient Chinese Magic folklore, goopy practical effects and rubber-suited monsters, it's got a little something to please everyone who ever loved a Full Moon feature or chuckled in glee at Big Trouble in Little China. Add meaty roles for TV's Mr. Roper Norman Fell and hall-of-fame comedy queen Phyllis Diller, and you get nothing but a big heaping plate-full of Vicar love.

The movie opens with police lieutenant Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson) and his inexperienced partner Gordon Mullen (James Eustermann) visiting the house of retired psychic investigator Alley Cates (Deborah Rose). Scarred by the horrors of her visions and the notoriety of being the PD's Resident Psychic, Cates has become a shut-in at her derelict house, burning her old newspaper clippings in the fireplace and completely rejecting societal pressures to "do the dishes" or "not sleep under a pile of unwashed laundry." She also tries to forget the visions that still haunt her; when Callum asks her to come out of retirement for one last case, she quickly shoots back, "Why? In case I get the urge to help you dig up baby bones again?"

"It was...the salmon mousse!"

Still, Jersey needs Cate's help--seems the police recently found the bodies of three children locked in the back room at a local mortuary. There was evidence that the Chinese mortician, the seemingly crazed Mr. Chen (Robert Yun Ju Ahn), had been feeding the children pieces of his "clientele" while keeping them captive. Callum wants Cates to use her powers to find out who the kids were, who their parents are, and exactly what (the fuck) was going on down there.

Cates initially refuses, but after a vision of her own decomposing daughter (whose death signaled the onset of her unwanted psychic powers) implores her to help them, she shakily agrees to cooperate.

Alley wonders if she's breastfed too long

Down at the station, Cates watches a video of Mr. Chen's investigation, and things go from "yuck" to "what the fuck" in a hurry. Chen claims the dead children are "kuei-shen," Chinese demons that his family has been cursed to keep contained for the good of mankind. "They are becoming restless," Chen explains, "Harder to manage!...If they are not fed, they WILL FEED!" The cops cart Chen off for psychological evaluation, but soon we learn that thanks to a lapse of watchfulness on the part of a guard and an unsecured service revolver, Chen punches his own ticket on the Ancestor Express.

Cates needs physical contact with the remains in order to kick her ESP into gear, so she and the cops take a trip to the city morgue--affectionately known as "THE BONEYARD"--in the middle of the night, naturally. Night porter Mrs. Poopinplatz (Diller, who else?) gives the cops and their charge a hard time, all while stroking and coddling her toy poodle Foosums. When they finally get down to the morgue, coroner-on-duty "Shep" Shepard (Norman Fell, sporting a ponytail and a Wilford Brimley moustache) pulls out the badly decomposed children's bodies and puts them on display. A comic relief corpse-delivery-man shows up to let them know the hydraulic doors on the lower floors (where the bodies are kept) are out of order, and the elevator is the only way in or out. If you think this might become important, go get yourself a cookie.

Norman Fell in the shocking, unaired final episode of Three's Company

While Cates fondles a lock of a deceased child's hair for vibrations, Jersey and Gordon watch Shep perform an autopsy on a recent arrival, a young girl assumed a suicide. Turns out there's been a severe clerical error, however, as at the first incision the girl sits up and screams! I kept expecting her to be part of the upcoming zombie plague, but nope--it seems she was just very unlucky and the EMTs uncharacteristically lazy. The girl, Dana (Denise Young) quickly takes a shine to Gordon, forgetting all about the crushing depression and pointlessness of existence that led her to take a bath with her hair dryer on--some guys got it and some guys don't, I guess.

At almost the same time, Cates gets a vision of a black magic ceremony taking place in Ancient China, where a pair of grieving parents hire a sorceror to raise their deceased spawn from the dead. (Presumably one of Chen's transgressive ancestors, bringing the curse into our plane.) After that she flashes forward to the body storage facility, where from the corpse's point of view she can see Jersey, Shep, and the rest through the plate glass window. The three corpses on the slabs begin to rise in a very creepy, atmospheric scene, and Cates snaps out of it, desperate to warn her friends.

"Let's play Hide and Seek. You first."

After a tussle with Poopinplatz for the elevator key that brings all of them down below (including Foosums), Cates arrives in the bloody aftermath of a zombie rampage, with several of the staff gutted and eviscerated, and the child zombies sitting over them, scooping their guts out like pudding cups! She's found by the survivors--Shep, Jersey, Gordon, and Dana--and they lock themselves in a room and prepare for the seige. Diller gets cornered by one of the ghouls but manages to knock a shelf of acid over, disintegrating it--but not before the undead menace pulls a piece of rotting flesh off its own skull and stuffs it down her gaping pie-hole!

Of course this sets up the us-versus-them climax, with the increasingly battered survivors trying to find their way out of the locked-down building, all the while fending off the hungry and vicious undead children. It plays out almost the way you would expect, but with a couple of WTF-worthy twists and one out-there plot development that I think must have been an inspiration to Ang Lee in one of his more divisive modern projects.


There's a lot to like in this movie, starting with the aforementioned goopy effects. The child zombies are very gross and creepy, and move in a jerky, shambling gait that calls to mind Stuart Gordon's re-animated dead. Cummins doesn't skimp on the squishy sound effects either, which really pays off when the zombies are feasting on the all-you-can-eat buffet in the morgue.

The movie is also a bit of a horror-comedy, as you would expect with people like Fell and Diller in the cast. However, the comedy is never overly broad (except in one instance, about which there will be more to say in a moment), and for the most part it works. The atmospheric lighting and scene composition also add to the movie's substantial creep factor. The dissonant, Danny Elfman-meets-Richard Band score helps as well.

"Olley olley all-come-free!"

The performances run the full gamut from good to meh. Diller is surprisingly effective in her mostly straight role as a wise-cracking battle axe, toning down her larger-than-life comedy persona to the realm of believability (she even appears without her trademark flamboyant wigs). Nelson as Jersey Callum is a bit TV sit-commy for my tastes, and Eustermann and Young are frankly awful. It's fun to see Norman Fell in an atypical costume if not an atypical role. The real heavy hitting is done by Deborah Rose as the psychic heroine, however. She's not your typical movie-star heroine--she's middle-aged, overweight, and smokes like a chimney--but she brings a simultaneous toughness and vulnerability to her portrayal that is a pleasure to see.

It's in the film's climax that things really get MAD, however. For instance, have you ever wanted to see Phyllis Diller as a gigantic flesh-eating zombie? Well brother, now's your chance:

Killer Diller

Once the rubber-suited mayhem starts it just doesn't stop, as Foosums gets a taste of one of the slain zombies' goo and hulks out to mammoth (which is to say, man-sized) proportions and terrorizes the survivor's in the wild and cottony climax. I feel a little bad spoiling the visuals for those who haven't seen the movie, but since the poster and VHS box had the giant zombie poodle plastered all over them as a selling point, I think somehow we'll all survive:

Don't make Foosums angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.

It's not a perfect movie--there are a couple of momentum-killing exposition/soul-baring scenes that strike me as serious directorial missteps--but that's a minor quibble when put up against everything the movie gets right. 2.75 thumbs for this relatively obscure monster romp from the 90s with one foot firmly in the day-glo 80s. Seek it out, parishioners--you'll be glad you did.

A few more images from The Boneyard (1991):

"Hell no, I don't know anything about a sexual assault on your pet chicken! Do you, Mullen?"

The Fell of Dark, Not Day

Madman 2: The Bride of Marz

"Gotcher nose!"

"Duke, NOOOOOO!"


Jenn said...

Wow, this looks fun as hell. I feel like the horror comedy is something that is very difficult to pull off (even as much as I love Charles Band, I often think his attempt at this is too heavy handed). It takes a certain amount of intelligence and finesse, but with this cast and the subject matter, it might not be so hard. And that zombie poodle was not what I was expecting! Very nice!

Anonymous said...

Not that I didn't appreciate your review, Vicar, but when the DVD says "Phyllis Diller" and "Norman Fell" on the cover, well... snap that one up and head straight to checkout. This one's been added to my list.
Loved the "Norman Fell/unaired episode" caption, BTW. Are all vicars so witty, I wonder?

Al Bruno III said...

Wow. Never heard of this one... I have to look for it.

Great blog as always.

J. Astro said...

Normally, I'm very ANTI-Phyllis Diller... but ok, you talked me into this one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for The Boneyard. I've never seen the movie even though parts were filmed in my hometown! They used an old empty hospital for some of the scenes and my buddy was an extra playing a corpse.(Or so he told me.) Anyway, I remember the town was very happy and excited to have the movie filmed here. Unfortunately, the movie went straight to video!! LOL

Mike said...

WoW!!!! This is a ClassiC!!!! I remember when my brother used to make me watch this movie and i would get freaked the fuck "i was only 6" now i'm 22 i Love this movie...thanx Bro!

michaelhaun said...

Fun to see this write up. I met Phyllis on the set at the old Davis hospital in Statesville NC ..we just about froze,such glamour . I learned to walk on 3 foot Sheetrock stilts to play the two creatures. Her creature and the dog. The make up for the dog took a couple hours to be fitted. Jim did an amazing job with the head. Something like 12 radio control servos and then cables running down my back to work jaws and teeth.. I Went into the sfx truck with Ray to test the pipe bomb as that thing was going off close to my head. I still have photos and the fiberglass head piece from Phyllis's creature. Rough way to pay the light bill. I actually climbed the ladder in the scene as the dog..michael

The Vicar of VHS said...

Wow, Michael, thanks for the comment! That must have been quite the experience, not only to dress up as a monster poodle, but to meet the great Ms. Diller! I would love to see those photos if you're willing to share. :)

Anonymous said...

I have been I'm that hospital n it's creepy at night :) we Hurd stuff n seen stuff that was crazy...

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