Messiah of Evil
|Messiah of Evil|
Original USA movie poster
|Directed by||Willard Huyck
|Produced by||Willard Huyck
|Written by||Willard Huyck
and Elisha Cook Jr.
|Edited by||Scott Conrad|
International Cine Film Corp.
|Distributed by||Bedford Entertainment|
|2 May 1973|
Messiah of Evil (later also shown under the title Dead People) is a horror film made in 1973 by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, the husband and wife team behind the film version of Howard the Duck as well as the screenplays for American Graffiti and Star Wars.
There are several alternate titles of the film, including: Dead People, Return of the Living Dead, Revenge of the Screaming Dead, and The Second Coming
The film was involved in a 1970s dispute over its name, when a Chicago distributor released it under the title Return of the Living Dead. The title was chosen to make it sound as part of the Living Dead franchise and this was misleading. The Laurel Group (also known as Laurel Entertainment), founded in 1976 by George A. Romero and Richard P. Rubinstein, took legal action against this use of the title. Eventually the Motion Picture Association of America decided that Romero did not hold exclusive rights to the terms Living Dead, but ruled against the use of the misleading title for Messiah. 
A young woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) drives to the beach town of Point Dune, California, to visit her estranged father, an artist. She finds his house, abandoned. He left a diary in which he addresses her specifically. In it he complains about darkness consuming the town, and horrible nightmares he is having, and implores Arletty to never, ever look for him. His letter tells her to talk to the owner of the art gallery, who sells his paintings. The gallery owner says he has none of her father's paintings, does not sell them, no one ever comes in looking to buy his works, and says he doesn't know where he went. He says Point Dune is 'an artist colony', and he only vaguely remembers her father (his paintings are eerie pop art portraits of groups of people in black, white, and gray, standing; the men are always dressed in black suits, white shirts, and black ties, like dead men at a funeral). It is never clear if these are townspeople, or figures from his visions, or both.
By chance, Arletty meets a Portuguese-American aristocrat Thom (Michael Greer) and his two extremely provocative, groupie-like female companions, Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anitra Ford). They are drinking, smoking, and walking around in states of undress, except for the man. He always wears an ivory three piece suit, 24 hours a day. He is fascinated by the town, and the legend that a blood moon rises above it periodically, and darkness then consumes the town. Back at his motel, he is interviewing Charlie (Elisha Cook, Jr.) a village idiot/'wino'-type character. He tape records his bizarre rants. Charlie speaks at length about 'the blood moon' and 'the dark stranger' and how he has lived through both. He says very soon it will be the 100 year anniversary of the first appearance of the 'dark stranger', he will return, the moon will turn red, and the town will be overrun with evil. He says the stranger's followers do not kill him as they think he is a harmless hobo—they let him sleep on the sidewalk undisturbed every night. Charlie warns Arletty about her father, he says he is 'one of them' now, and must be killed, but with fire, as only fire will do the job. Moments later he is murdered off screen. Thom tells Arletty he also went to the gallery, and saw one of her father's paintings in the window.
The man and his women are kicked out of the motel, supposedly because the police questioned them about the wino, and it bothered the management (all the police in town are 'normal' and clueless about the vampires massing at night). They all move in together at Arletty's father's house. Each night at the house, strange things happen, shadows crawl about on the skylights, and Arletty reads more of the diary. In it, her father reveals his body temperature is 85 degrees. This proves he is dead, but thinking and moving about, and suggests the local vampires are fully sentient and aware of what they do, and only Arletty's father feels remorse and is actively fighting his 'condition'. Meanwhile, each night, creatures gather on the beach in front of bonfires, staring straight up at the moon. The locals call it 'The Waiting'. These 'vampires' will eat anything: dead vampires, dead people, live people, live animals, etc. Each day 'order' returns to Point Dune.
These vampires are especially interested in eating Arletty, Thom, Toni, and Laura. First to die is Laura, devoured inside a Ralphs supermarket, in one of the film's two semi-famous scenes. Next to die is Toni, in the other semi-famous scene, she is literally devoured in a movie theater filled with blood red seats and greenish vampire-like creatures. These 'things' act like vampires, bite their victims' necks, but then eat them like George Romero's zombies. The night Toni is eaten alive, Thom races downtown, realizing she is in danger. But he's too late. Things quickly get completely crazy as the 'blood moon' rises, every resident turns into a monster, and the titular Messiah of Evil returns. Through voice-over of Charlie's taped interviews, we learn that this 'Messiah' was a former minister and a Donner Party survivor from the late 19th century turned vampire/cannibal, who has come to spread his new 'religion' and lead his people up the coast and inland. While Thom hides, two policemen in riot gear drive up and fire their guns into a swarm of townspeople/vampire/zombies; however, one of the cops suddenly begins to bleed, causing his now-former partner to shoot him and flee. Undaunted, the undead cop shoots his former ally, and he and the other vampire/zombies go to feast on his flesh.
Thom drives to the beach house, but Arletty is half-crazed; she is cold, cannot feel pain, thinks she may be dead or undead...she even finds a bug crawling around in her mouth and immediately vomits up various beetles, mealworms and an anole. While Thom was gone, Arletty was visited by her father, who had warned her not to follow him and begs her to leave to tell the world about Point Dune. He then attacks her, reluctantly giving in to his 'vampire' urges, and after she stabs him with garden shears and he keeps coming, she remembers Charlie's words and burns him alive. Startled by Thom, she stabs him with the shears. Later, bandaged up and ready to go, the two of them flee to the beach, but the ersatz vampires follow them, even in broad daylight. They swim out to the breakers. Thom drowns, but Arletty survives and is captured by the townspeople. Instead of being eaten, she is tied up to be 'sacrificed to the Messiah'. Instead of killing her, he turns her loose, and tells her to spread word of his religious movement throughout California and the world. Of course, once she is freed, Arletty tries to spread word of the menace and of his cult. This causes her to be locked up in an insane asylum. She is the woman seen dancing in the hallway at the beginning of the film. Each day, all day, she sits in the sun painting. But she says she is really waiting for, and dreading the day the Messiah and his followers come to her asylum, and she is taken away to live forever as his bride.
Almost nothing in the entire plot is ever explained, but rather left to the viewer's interpretation. The movie's dream-like structure leads the viewer to question what is going on, and with each successive scene, the mystery becomes more obscure. For example, the symptoms that Arletty experiences at the end of the movie (the coldness, inability to feel pain, and bug crawling out of her mouth) seem to suggest that she has been dead for some time without being cognizant of it.
An urban legend regarding the film exists that a key subplot regarding the true nature of Michael Greer's character "Thom" and his connection to the "Messiah of Evil", aka the "dark stranger" was cut from the final edit of the film.[unreliable source?] Greer plays the "dark stranger" in the flashback sequence and at the end of the film, Thom tells Arletty of a dream he had, placing him in a situation similar to the "Donner Party", that the "dark stranger" was present at. This leaves the question of whether or not Thom was the reincarnation of the "dark stranger" or the actual "dark stranger". In an interview with Michael Greer to promote the film "The Gay Deceivers", he states that he will be playing "the devil's son" in his upcoming film, Messiah of Evil.[unreliable source?]
Kim Newman considers this film to "neglected", and "surreal" horror film, which has both a convoluted narrative and a peculiar atmosphere. He draws attention to details such as the vanished father being a death-obsessed painter, the daughter falling in with a group of hedonists, the town people turning into ghouls. He also notes that the "dark stranger" was a sinister preacher, whose awaited return comes from the sea. He find all these details to point to the influence of H. P. Lovecraft on the film, while the depiction of the undead derives from their depiction in the Living Dead.  Newman points to the "doomed derelict", whose apt warnings are ignored, to be a cliché deriving from gothic fiction. 
Ian Cooper comments that the undead of the film seem to be ghoul-like, and zombie-like vampires. He comments that there was a trend in this direction following the release of the Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Messiah was one of the films which followed it. He cites among other examples Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971), The Return of Count Yorga (1971), Deathdream/Dead of Night (1972), and Lemora (1975).
According to reviewer Glenn Kay, one of the key weaknesses of the film is that "important plot points are never clarified". He notes that the motivations of the lead characters are never properly explained. In particular, Thom is identified as a collector of old legends. But his motivations are even more obscure than those of his female companions.  Newman points that the strange behavior of the seemingly normal characters adds to the surreal feeling of the film.  The titular Messiah of Evil is never properly identified.  Kay finds it problematic that no character reads the father's diary to the end, until it is too late to prevent their fate.
The process of the transformation for the infected is depicted on screen, but said process is also never really explained.  The film features a distinctive pattern of symptoms for the infected population of Point Dune. They start bleeding from the eyes, while becoming insensitive to pain. They consume meat and don't seem to be too picky of its source. They all seem to feast on human flesh, several of them consume the entire meat section of a supermarket, and one of them is seen eating a mouse.  Once fully transformed, they reportedly "become mere shells of their former shelves". They all eagerly await the return of the so-called "dark stranger", passing the time by lighting bonfires on the beach and gathering round them. When the long-waited return occurs, they are vound to spread their disease to other areas of California. 
The scene of a victim chased through a supermarket and devoured in of its aisles remains a highlight for the film, though the death is implied and not depicted. It seems to be a depiction of consumerism, in a similar way to the satire of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead (1978).  Newman finds the highlight of the film to be the scene set in the movie theater. Toni, the "nymphet" as he calls her, is watching a collage of Western scenes. Meanwhile the decayed theater is increasingly filled up with undead people. 
Brendan Riley notes that the zombie films of George A. Romero are known for their social criticism, but he believes that the same can be said of non-Romero films of the genre. He notes Messiah as an example. The undead hordes consist of straight-laced, suit-wearing people. While their targets consist of a long-haired dandy and his two lovers. 
Newman places the film within a specific era of horror film, which he names "the American Nightmare". He defines it as the era starting with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and ending with Dawn of the Dead (1978). He defines it as an era where writer-directors started their own film projects, and then went in search of business partners and shady distributors. The films had commercial value, but the creators managed to express their personal concerns within the framework of the genre. He places Messiah among the one-off oddities produced in this era, and notes that such oddities were regularly released alongside the marketable hits which spawned sequels.  Newman believes the era properly ended in the early 1980s, when formula-driven franchises such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street started dominating the genre.
- Michael Greer – Thom
- Marianna Hill – Arletty
- Joy Bang – Toni
- Anitra Ford – Laura
- Royal Dano – narrator / Joseph Long
- Elisha Cook Jr. – Charlie
- Dyanne Asimow (as Dyanne Simon)
- Charles Dierkop – Gas Attendant
- Bennie Robinson – Albino trucker
- Morgan Fisher
- Emma Truckman
It is considered by many horror critics to be one of the earliest "Nightmare" films, meaning that it portrays many dream-like, psychedelic scenes in an eerie, unsettling atmosphere. It has often been accused of borrowing liberally from the 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls.
- Cooper, Ian (2013), "Manson, Drugs Black Power: The Countercultural Vampire", in Hunt, Leon; Lockyer, Sharon; Williamson, Milly, Screening the Undead: Vampires and Zombies in Film and Television, I.B. Tauris, ISBN 978-1848859241
- Dendle, Peter (2001), "Messiah of Evil", The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, McFarland & Company, ISBN 978-0786455201
- Kay, Glenn (2008), "Messiah of Evil (1973)", Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, Chicago Review Press, ISBN 978-1569766835
- Newman, Kim (2011), "Shoot'Em In The Head! or:The Birth of the Hate Generation", Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 978-1408817506
- Newman, Kim (2011), "Scream and Scream Again: Franchises, Post-Modernism, Remakes", Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 978-1408817506
- Riley, Brendan (2011), "The E-Dead: Zombies in the Digital Age", in Boluk, Stephanie; Lenz, Wylie, Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture, McFarland & Company, ISBN 978-0786461400
- Verevis, Constantine (2010), "Redefining the Sequel: The Case of the (Living) Dead", in Jess-Cooke, Carolyn; Verevis, Constantine, Second Takes: Critical Approaches to the Film Sequel, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-1438430317
- "Messiah of Evil (1973) – Obscure Horror". Obscure Horror. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
- Bouzereau, Laurent (1997). Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays. New York: Del Rey. ISBN 0-345-40981-7.
- Dendle (2001), p. 109
- Verevis (2010), p. 17
- "MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973) – Criticonline". Critical Condition. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
- "Messiah of Evil (aka Dead People, 1973) Movie Review". Beyond Hollywood. 2007-03-25. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
- "Messiah of Evil (1973) – They Re Coming". They're Coming. 2002-01-04. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
- Newman (2011), p. 24
- Cooper (2013), p. 25
- Kay (2008), p. 72-73
- Riley (2011), p. 195
- Newman (2011), p. 379-382
- "Saturday Nightmares: Messiah of Evil (1971)". Dread Central. 2010-03-20. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
- "10,000 Bullets » Messiah of Evil (Code Red)". 10k Bullets. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
- "The Devil's Nightmare / Messiah of Evil: Michael Greer, Marianna Hill, Joy Bang, Anitra Ford". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
- Messiah of Evil at the Internet Movie Database
- Messiah of Evil is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- Messiah of Evil at AllMovie
- Messiah of Evil at Rotten Tomatoes