In spite of what some believe, "Night of the Living Dead" didn't catch the world on fire immediately. It took a while for the movie to garner any serious buzz, and this being the earlier days of horror, it was only a matter of time until people started offering their take on the concept. Some were pretty damn successful at attaining their goal ("Shivers", "Let's Scare Jessica to Death") while others were forgettable or just plain bad ("Garden of the Dead.") Fortunately, Willard Huyck's 1973 low budget wonder "Messiah of Evil" is one of the best "Post "Night", pre "Dawn"" zombie films, and deserves the recognition it's been getting as of late.
In a California town called Pointe Dune, Arletty Lang (Marianna Hill) has been looking for her reclusive artist father (Royal Dano.) She decides to shack up with some artsy hippie types, but things seem to be odd with the town. Why are there people bleeding from their eyes? Why do they seem to walk in droves as if they are a group? What are they up to? Oh, and who or what is this "Messiah of Evil" figure?
Shot for less than $100,000, "Messiah of Evil" is one of those horror movies that was talked about and celebrated among a small circle of horror fans that as of late, has been getting more recognition, most likely thanks to the informative article in Stephen Thrower's tome to forgotten horror/exploitation of the 70's and 80's "Nightmare USA", as well as the special edition DVD from Code Red. If you ask me, a more worthy film couldn't be rediscovered.
"Messiah" works mostly because director Hyuck understands how to make a movie work in spite of budgetary limitations. This is an atmospheric little movie, with a pervading sense of unease and dread dripping from nearly every frame, and when something bad does happen, it leaves an impact, all without having to rely on buckets of gore. The two that stand out the most are scenes involving a supermarket and a movie theater. The supermarket scene predates Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" by five years, with the image of pale, soulless bodies munching on raw meat being one that's not easy to shake off. Then there's the movie theater scene, in which one girl sits in the theater, while unbeknown-st to her, the dead begin to slowly populate it. It's a real nail biter, which pays off in blood chilling fashion.
Also worthy of mention is the way Hyuck incorporates other influences. While "Night of the Living Dead" is an obvious one, the movie also owes heavily to the dread and otherworldly terrors written by H.P. Lovecraft (the fact that the Messiah of Evil rises from the sea speaks a lot), as well as European cinema in the way it uses paintings and color schemes to create a look that at times wouldn't be out of place in a Dario Argento film.
I highly recommend "Messiah of Evil", as it's one of the best little known horror films of the 70's that deserves to be seen, especially for those wanting a unique take on the living dead.
Willard Hyuck would go on write screenplays for "American Graffiti" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Then came "Howard the Duck", and...