August 20, 2011

Guest Post: Wayne Kotke on "Orgy of the Dead"

When it comes to information about the undead, one of the voices I always turn to is that of Wayne Kotke, founder of Dead 2 Rights, the advocacy group for the "living impaired" (don't call them "zombies"). Wayne is regular on the Mail Order Zombie podcast, a writer and recorder of songs, and blogger at d2rights.blogspot.com. Wayne joins us for Hot Zombie Nights to lend insight into the Ed Wood-penned nudie film Orgy of the Dead.


"EDWARD D. WOOD, JR. kept struggling in Hollywood, but mainstream success evaded him. After a slow descent into alcoholism and monster nudie films, he died in 1978, at the age of fifty-four." - Excerpt from a caption near the end of the film Ed Wood
What happens to us after we die? This is a question which mankind has pondered for thousands of years. Scientists, theologians, and philosophers have been trying to provide us with answers to this riddle since the beginnings of their respective disciplines. Despite their diligent efforts, however, life's ultimate truth remains stubbornly hidden from our view. Even so, we cannot help but theorize about what lies beyond. Occasionally, our theories about the Great Beyond are channeled into Art -- songs, plays, novels, and even motion pictures.

One such motion picture is 1965's Orgy of the Dead, written by Edward D. Wood, Jr. and directed by Bulgarian sexploitation legend Stephen C. Apostolof (a.k.a. A.C. Stephen). This film operates under its own startling theology and presents a vision of the afterlife unlike any I have encountered in religion, philosophy, or literature. At the top of the spiritual "food chain," so to speak, is the Sole Ruler of the Dark World (portrayed by noted television psychic Criswell), a mysterious figure who sits in judgment over the souls of the damned. At his side is the Princess of Darkness (the alluring, Vampira-esque Fawn Silver), who assists him in carrying out his duties. Also at Criswell's disposal are a mummy and a werewolf, the so-called "keepers of the damned." These two act essentially as prison guards for the souls of the condemned. And what of the condemned themselves? These are, without exception, shapely and scantily clad young women practiced in the art of erotic dance. Each night, Criswell and his bizarre minions rise from the grave and hold all-night rituals in which these young women exhibit themselves for their Dark Lord's approval.





Despite its title, Orgy of the Dead does not depict an orgy. Apart from nudity (the doomed young women dance topless for many, many minutes of screen time), there is no sexual activity in the film nor even a mention of the sex act. Instead, the film essentially takes the form of a talk show. Criswell was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the 1960s, and it is that long-running series which provides the basic template for Orgy of the Dead.


In this "talk show" scenario, Criswell himself is Johnny Carson. The opening theme song plays, he does a monologue straight to the camera, and then he heads over his special throne for the remainder of the evening. He is the host of the show and presides with confidence over the proceedings. Fawn Silver, then, takes on the Ed MacMahon role as the sidekick to the host. She is there mainly to banter back and forth with the host and make him look good. While MacMahon's catchphrase was "You are correct, sir," Silver's is the more-reserved "It would seem so, Master." The werewolf and mummy are more like auxiliary sketch players, standing off to the side and doing two-man comedy bits whenever there's a break in the action. (The mummy, in particular, has a whole arsenal of jokes about Cleopatra.) The topless dancers are basically the guests who have been booked on the show that particular night. They come out, do whatever it is they do, and leave. Just as with a talk show, there is much discussion about how much time is left in the show. Criswell and Fawn Silver engage in an ongoing debate about how much time is left and whether it is still possible to squeeze in a few more guests. Of course, no talk show would be complete without a studio audience. In the case of Orgy of the Dead, the audience consists of two unlikely civilians -- writer Bob and his girlfriend Shirley -- who stumble upon the graveyard ritual after a car accident and are then tied up and forced to watch the proceedings.


This being a zombie blog, I would be remiss if I did not point out that one of the guests is, in fact, living impaired. There is a voodoo zombie who appears about 72 minutes into this 90-minute film. Her appearance is not particularly memorable. She walks out stiffly, raises her arm, lowers her arm, raises her other arm, lowers that arm, etc. Then she does a topless shimmying dance in front of Criswell which is very similar to what the other dancers in the film have done.


The great and terrible thing about Orgy of the Dead is that it does not demand one's full attention. Like a TV talk show, it's something you can have playing in the background while you do other things. I would not recommend that you actually sit down and watch all 90 minutes of this film in one sitting unless you bring a good book or have some other chore to occupy you. The film is slow-moving and repetitive in the extreme, so you can miss large chunks of it and still easily follow the film's skeletal plot. But while you're dusting or ironing, I do recommend looking up at the screen from time to time. For such a low-budget film, the full-color cinematography is sumptuous (and well-served by the DVD transfer), and the film's overall production design is quite good. The acting, typical for films in which Ed Wood was involved, ranges from monotone to hysterical, with very little in between. The dancers themselves are quite attractive in a 1960s way, so despite its many shortcomings the film actually does function as erotica.


Perhaps the best way to experience Orgy of the Dead is through its soundtrack album, released in 1995 by Strangelove Records. Along with cutting down the film to a more manageable length with nothing of value lost, the soundtrack also emphasizes the film's two most memorable aspects: the florid, highly improbably Wood-ian dialogue ("Your Puritan upbringing holds you back from my monsters, but it certainly doesn't hurt your art of kissing.") and a versatile and catchy score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava.

Here endeth the lesson. You may now go in peace to love and serve yourself.

Thanks to Wayne for his review. Must have been a punishment to watch all that naked shimmying. Everyone go check out Wayne's blog: DEAD 2 RIGHTS