Last September, I posted a review of Zeder, a horror film from 1983 that was directed by Pupi Avati. I spent most of the review analyzing how Zeder bears strong similarities to Lucio Fulci's "Gates of Hell" trilogy, so much so that it felt like an extension of Fulci's work. With that in mind, I recently stumbled across another movie of a similar type: Messiah of Evil (a.k.a. Dead People), a low-budget movie that was written and directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz in 1971 and released in 1973. Even though Messiah predates Fulci's trilogy of the damned by almost a decade, the films feel correspond to each other in ways that Fulci fans could appreciate. Read on for my complete review.
Messiah of Evil tells the story of Arletty (Marianna Hill), a young woman who is traveling to California to visit her estranged father. Her journey takes her to the sleepy seaside village of Point Dune, a village that is getting ready for a very important event: the arrival of the world's end.
Unlike most other horror movies, Messiah plays more like a grimly surreal hallucination than a coherent, linear plot. In fact, it would fit perfectly on a triple feature bill with like-minded, low-budget movies such as Carnival of Souls and Let's Scare Jessica to Death. Several of the scenes transform familiar, unexceptional places like grocery stores and movie theaters into sudden nightmares. Adding to the dreamlike aura of the movie are the wall-sized paintings of the eerie streets and citizens of Point Dune that dominate the home of Arletty's missing father. Such a choice in set design is a nod to silent German Expressionist classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, films where scenery was deliberately designed to represent a (fractured) state of mind.
Yet as Huyck and Katz discussed in the retrospective documentary Remembering Messiah of Evil, their approach to creating their film was strongly influenced by classic Italian cinema and the writings of H.P. Lovecraft--the same points of references that Fulci worked from when he was making his trilogy of City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery. As such, Messiah and Fulci's trilogy fit together like pieces from the same puzzle, with characters falling under the spell of madness as the line between the living and dead become blurred and ordinary people randomly become bloodthirsty monsters. In Fulci's horror universe, Point Dune could be the location for one of the seven gates of hell (or it could be a K-Zone, if you're using terminology from Avati's Zeder).
Tourist tip: If you ever need to do a late-night grocery run in Point Dune,
you should avoid the meat department at all costs.
Messiah had a very odd production history, and to this day it remains an obscure title to find. According actress Anitra Ford, who appeared in the movie as a character named Laura: "Shot in 1971, this movie was originally titled The Second Coming. Toward the end of the filming, investors pulled their money out, and the film was never finished. A Frenchman bought the unedited footage, edited it and released the movie under the title of Messiah of Evil." For a film with such a troubled and fragmented production history, Messiah somehow came together into a striking, mesmerizing horror film. The only piece of the movie that feels extremely out of place is the song "Hold On To Love", which plays during both the opening and closing credits. The song's lyrics and mood don't match the rest of the film at all, and I can only assume that it was included as part of some kind of studio deal that was needed to get the film distributed for theatrical release.
Messiah of Evil won't entertain all horror fans but it should appeal to those who are intrigued by abstract expressions of terror, as well as those who are fascinated by the more Lovecraftian aspects of Lucio Fulci's horror movies.