A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #18: “The Dead Pit” (1989)

by A.J. Hakari


The Dead Pit is among those special titles whose VHS covers gained more notice than the films themselves. I remember lurking about the horror section of my local Mr. Movies store as a kid, still too chicken to rent anything but entertained by the green eyes you could light up by pressing a button on the above box. It’s no big shock that the actual flick is something of a dud, but whereas Ghoulies didn’t come close to living up to its alluring art, The Dead Pit at least shows some ambition before gradually petering out.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Colin Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer) used the asylum patients he presided over as test subjects in a number of horrible experiments. But his colleague Dr. Swan (Jeremy Slate) put the kibosh on his scientific meddling, blowing his brains out and walling him up in the same pit where he chucked his guinea pigs. Little does Swan know that the arrival of a troubled amnesiac (Cheryl Lawson) is the first sign that Ramzi is on his way to a blood-soaked comeback. A well-timed earthquake releases Ramzi from his prison, and after slicing up some members of the asylum’s staff, he’s ready to sic the undead mob at his beck and call on whoever’s left.

Ironically, the movie that The Dead Pit purports to be with its poster isn’t the one it’s best at being. Those zombies up there don’t butt their rotting heads into the picture til over an hour in, the preceding screen time filled with possession, psychic phenomena, and the mere unease of being stranded in a loony bin. Director Brett Leonard (Virtuosity) handles the atmospheric build-up pretty well, resisting the temptation to partake in the typical ’80s genre sleaze in order to unsettle viewers in more tactful ways. The Dead Pit doesn’t even really need zombies, but out they come for the third act, promptly grinding the film to a halt as they claw their way through cops and orderlies. It just becomes a drag after that, with all-in-all weak gore effects (were those Jell-O brains being passed off?) and pointless plot twists hardly whetting your appetite to press on.

The Dead Pit is average fare, though it’s not without its bright spots. The first half or so is fairly interesting, Lawson plays wounded as well as she traipses around in her delicates, and Leonard makes the whole thing look impressive for costing around $350K. The Dead Pit ain’t as good as that VHS made it look, but there’s more life in it than your usual B-grade zombie jamboree.