Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE FROZEN DEAD (1966)

(UK - 1966; US release 1967)

Written and directed by Herbert J. Leder.  Cast: Dana Andrews, Anna Palk, Philip Gilbert, Kathleen Breck, Karel Stepanek, Basil Henson, Alan Tilvern, Edward Fox, Oliver MacGreevy, Ann Tirard, Tom Chatto. (Unrated, 95 mins)

A longtime late-night TV favorite of horror fans back in the '70s and '80s, THE FROZEN DEAD boasts a memorably catchy title that only partially applies to the horrors contained in the entertainingly disjointed film.  Boasting more ideas than it can handle, THE FROZEN DEAD would seem to have arrived at the Nazisploitation party about a decade early, with Nazi zombie films like Ken Wiederhorn's SHOCK WAVES (1977),  Jean Rollin's ZOMBIE LAKE (1980), and Jess Franco's OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES (1981), to the post-SALON KITTY (1976) wave of Italian scuzz that became popular around the same time.  The trend even included the prestigious THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978), which gave us Gregory Peck as a crazed Josef Mengele trying to create clones of Hitler (as much as we should, we also can't forget a bottom-scraping Veronica Lake trying to resurrect Hitler with flesh-eating maggots in 1970's FLESH FEAST, which proved to be the star's swan song).  For the most part, however, despite its Nazi angle, THE FROZEN DEAD is more in line with the severed-headsploitation subgenre that became a strange Z-movie phenomenon in the 1960s.  The 1959 German film THE HEAD was released in the US in 1961 and soon we had THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1963) and THE MADMEN OF MANDORAS (1963), better known under its 1968 TV re-edit THEY SAVED HITLER'S BRAIN.  Written and directed by American Herbert J. Leder (who scripted 1958's FIEND WITHOUT A FACE), the British-made THE FROZEN DEAD is still B-movie trash, but it's glossier and better-made than others of the severed head/Nazi undead ilk and boasts several iconic images that have stuck with fans for nearly 50 years.

Twenty years after Germany's defeat in WWII, Nazi Dr. Norberg (Dana Andrews) is living in London, still under the employ of what's left of the Third Reich, represented by the demanding General Lubeck (Karel Stepanek) and Dr. Tirpitz (Basil Henson).  Along with his well-meaning but oafish assistant Karl Essen (Alan Tilvern), Norberg is working on reanimating SS officers who have been kept in a state of frozen suspension in Germany, France, and Egypt since the end of the war, including his brother (a young Edward Fox, paying his dues before working his way up to classier fare like THE DAY OF THE JACKAL).  Thus far, he's been unsuccessful in regenerating brain activity and has only succeeded in creating a few slobbering brutes that he keeps in a dungeon in his laboratory.  Things get complicated with the unexpected arrival of Norberg's niece Jean (Anna Palk) and her friend Elsa (Kathleen Breck).  Of course, Jean has no idea what her uncle is up to or that he's a Nazi-in-hiding, and the same goes for American Dr. Roberts (Philip Gilbert), who arrives to help Norberg with his research.  When Norberg tells his benefactors that he needs a living head to conduct experiments in brain activity, the hapless Karl Essen takes matters into his own hands and kills Elsa, prompting Norberg to tell his niece that her friend just left unexpectedly.  Jean isn't buying it and has a hard time convincing Roberts that something weird is going on as Lubeck and Tirpitz get increasingly antsy about the snooping interlopers.  All the while, Elsa's still-living head starts exhibiting more capabilities than Norberg thought possible.

Despite a sluggish, talky middle, THE FROZEN DEAD still holds up as enjoyable trash.  This was the first of back-to-back horror films that Leder made in the UK, the other being the universally-derided golem outing IT! (1967), and it does a nice job of mimicking the look and feel of a Hammer film.  Both films were released on a double bill in the US in late 1967, though for some reason, Warner Bros-Seven Arts released THE FROZEN DEAD in black & white, even though it was shot in color and shown that way to British audiences a year earlier.  The color version is what appeared on TV and on the remastered Warner Archive DVD released last fall, and with its vibrant colors, the cold, icy look of the dead SS officers, and the eerie blue on Elsa's face, it's really hard to picture much of this in black & white.  Leder's script is prone to clumsy exposition and lunkheaded visual foreshadowing--why else would Norberg have a wall lined with severed arms connected to electrodes if they weren't there specifically to strangle him at the end?--but the arms, the image of three SS officers hanging frozen, and especially Elsa's blue-lit face with her mouth gasping "Bury me!" are things not easily forgotten, and on that level, THE FROZEN DEAD scores.

Andrews (1909-1992) was a very popular headliner in his 1940s/1950s prime, but is rarely discussed these days other than by devout viewers of Turner Classic Movies.  He was never nominated for any Oscars, Emmys, or Golden Globes, though he had a good reputation in Hollywood, as evidenced by his 1946 Golden Apple Award for "Most Cooperative Actor."  Best known for classics like LAURA (1944), A WALK IN THE SUN (1945), THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), BOOMERANG! (1947), and WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956), Andrews hadn't quite fallen on hard times by 1966 but he'd hit some rough patches along the way.  He was still very much in-demand and turning up in occasional noteworthy films like Jacques Tourneur's NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957), but his alcoholism was causing some problems and ultimately got him bounced from the A-list.  That, coupled with the sin of getting older, relegated him to supporting roles in big movies and starring roles in smaller ones.  In 1964, Andrews' 29-year-old son died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage, after which the veteran actor threw himself into his work, starring or co-starring in no less than eight films just in 1965, including the military epics IN HARM'S WAY and BATTLE OF THE BULGE, the low-budget old-timer western TOWN TAMER, the sci-fi outing CRACK IN THE WORLD, the germ-warfare cult classic THE SATAN BUG, the absurdist comedy THE LOVED ONE, and the Italian 007 ripoff SPY IN YOUR EYE.  Like many aging leading men making the transition to character actor, Andrews went where the work was, whether he was playing a Nazi mad scientist in THE FROZEN DEAD or a square family man terrorized by some crazed kids looking for kicks in HOT RODS TO HELL (1967).  He quit drinking by the early 1970s and kept busy playing old ranch owners in westerns, old generals in war movies, and on TV shows and made-for-TV movies, not to mention inevitable appearances in a 1970s disaster movie (AIRPORT 1975), on THE LOVE BOAT, guesting on various talk shows, and even popping up in GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK (1978), an early Chuck Norris vehicle.  Andrews retired from acting after a supporting role in 1985's little-seen JFK drama PRINCE JACK and was soon diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  He spent his remaining years in a Los Angeles-area nursing home where he was frequently visited by old Hollywood friends, including Burt Lancaster, who was visiting Andrews at the facility in 1990 when he suffered a massive stroke from which he never fully recovered.

Andrews lends a considerable amount of credibility to THE FROZEN DEAD, playing the kind of Bela Lugosi "mad scientist" role that most actors would mercilessly ham their way through.  He doesn't even overdo the German accent, instead playing Norberg as a guy who isn't even that enthused about what he's doing.  It's worth pondering that the reason Norberg's been unsuccessful is because he doesn't want to succeed.  While some of it may be an inherent lack of interest on Andrews' part, it's actually a refreshing alternative to the usual overacting histrionics you'd expect an actor to give to such a character.  Through Andrews' portrayal, you almost get the sense that Norberg is rightfully ashamed of his past and wouldn't mind getting himself and his niece away from Lubeck, Tirpitz, and Karl Essen if he could.  Of course, Leder isn't interested in exploring the psychological elements because it distracts from Elsa, who is quite possibly horror cinema's most memorably melancholy talking head, a feat that's hard to pull off, considering it's almost always hilarious, either intentionally (RE-ANIMATOR) or unintentionally (pretty much everything else).  Leder seems easily distracted throughout, with the abrupt dropping of the Nazi zombie plot angle and the introduction of an interesting psychic subplot involving Elsa somehow sending messages to Jean via dreams that's never really explored.  Still, flaws and all, THE FROZEN DEAD earns its place in the cult movie pantheon and the Warner Archive DVD is a must-own for fans, even with no bonus features.  It looks better than ever, especially considering it's in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, was never in color for its US theatrical run and, was cropped to 1.33:1 for TV broadcasts.

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