A Night with the Ghouls: ‘Orgy of the Dead’ and the Joy of Schlock

Orgy of the Dead (1965) begins with two muscular men opening up a crypt. They enter and approach a sarcophagus in the middle of the room. One of the men attends to the head of the sarcophagus as the other reaches for the foot, which at this point is central in the camera’s framing. In an effort to not obscure the shot though, he stands slightly to the right, lifting the tomb in a seemingly very uncomfortable manner. It’s hard to clearly tell but his awkward body language seems to suggest it. They lift the top of the ‘stone’ sarcophagus off with ease and place it on the floor, once again very awkwardly, and proceed to leave the room, walking back towards the camera before clumsily manoeuvring around it. 

Lying in the tomb is our antagonist and compère played by famed psychic The Amazing Criswell. Criswell dons a patchy fake tan, and uncomfortably coifed and dyed-blonde hair. It’s frustrating to mention but it’s hard to deny that he clearly bares an uncanny resemblance to America’s resident stroppy tangerine too. The shot then fades into another from the same angle and he delivers the film’s opening monologue, a setup for what’s to come. I’d take a guess at this point and suggest that the proceeding fade cut would’ve been necessary to aid a swift production as, even in the monologue present, Criswell’s cadence is stiff, unpredictable and, well, just baffling. During a seemingly conventional straight-down-the-barrel monologue, his eyeline is focused below the camera, most likely in an effort to read his lines. Criswell is delivering a direct-to-audience introduction which leads into the intertitle and beginning of the movie. 

It may not be a statement of intent but it’s definitely a statement of what’s to come. Orgy of the Dead, directed by Stephen C. Apostolof (under the alias A. C. Stephen) and written by Ed Wood, is a schlocky, erotic ‘nudie cutie’. The plot is straightforward, a horror writer and his wife are searching search of a graveyard where he can source inspiration for his next book. Upon driving down a dark road, they crash their car and wake up to find themselves being held captive. They are then forced to watch as The Emperor (Criswell) orders the dead to dance for his pleasure, deciding whether their souls are set for eternal damnation. 

The dance sequences, which play out in lengthy singular shots, constitute the majority of the movie and are accompanied by a variety of musicals styles. For example, traditional Spanish music features during a scene with a flamenco dancer. These singular shots are often intercut with reactions from The Emperor who responds with awkward nods of approval whilst sharing overacted looks with his assistant, ‘The Black Ghoul’. 

About halfway through, a Werewolf and a Mummy turn up and proceed to behave like the old men from The Muppets as they react and dance along to the performances with glee. The Mummy speaks with overdubbed dialogue accompanied by a dirtily reverbed sound effect and The Werewolf, the highlight of the movie, has a howl more akin to wrestling legend Ric Flair’s signature “Woo”, than anything remotely wolf-like. It’s all wickedly entertaining. You know what you’re going to get with an Ed Wood film, and all these observations are made in jest because it’s good entertainment. It’s a film clearly designed around the need for these dance sequences. But it’s said design which makes the film so pleasurable. It’s the pure joy of creating, and the freedom of not caring. It’s a movie.

So, why watch schlock? Initially, it may seem to appease the impulse to point and laugh. To see something seemingly lesser than yourself. Make you feel good about your insecurities. But it can’t be as simple as that. These movies are celebrated. The Prince Charles Cinema in London hosts screenings of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) consistently every year where fans flock to get photos with Wiseau and throw spoons. These movies are cult attractions and there’s a sense of community of knowing that everyone with you is there for the same reason. A faculty lost in modern blockbusters. Sitting down to watch Star Wars in a theatre these days, you feel as surrounded by as many fans as you are cynics seeking to gain a sense of self-importance via overthought plot criticisms, which are always essentially end with “It didn’t go the way I wanted it to”. Doesn’t really feel just for a silly space movie with light swords and talking bears?

So, maybe schlock is the place for it. The place to enjoy the supposedly non-enjoyable. Being able to watch uncovered gems from the past helps too and there’s a comfort in being introduced to something that’s been out there for a long time. You just have to find it. Fortunately you can, courtesy of the folks at byNWR.com who are presenting restored versions of Orgy of the Dead and other cult classics online for free.

If you’d like to send us your film or contribute to Twelve Cabins, contact james@twelvecabins.com for all the details.

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