I’d like to start this review with a big thank you to Vinegar Syndrome. Not only do they share screener copies of their releases, but thanks to them, cult classic and strange films that are hard to find are preserved in the best quality available. Without their hard work, I wouldn’t get the opportunity to watch strange genre films like Somtow Sucharitkul’s The Laughing Dead, long thought lost.
A busload of travelers and their guide, on the hunt for Aztec ruins, decide to stop in an all but forgotten-to-time Mexican village on the eve of the Day of the Dead. The tour leader, a disgraced priest, is enlisted by a local doctor to perform what he believes to be an exorcism, but in actuality, the doctor is using him to begin a diabolical ritual intended to bring about Hell on Earth!
The film has moments of great horror comedy, taking cues from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films with a mix of goofy schlock and sheer, excessive violence that borders on being cartoonish. One moment has a Mayan force choke a man with a magic flute and then proceeds to run the unconscious body over with a bus. It’s so over the top brutal, it becomes hilarious in a demented way. If you like Evil Dead 2 or Peter Jackson’s early horror comedies, you’ll enjoy The Laughing Dead’s kills like above and gold dialogue like below:
“Channel me out the door.”
“Sometimes, Wilbur, I really have doubts about your ability to resonate.”
Or, after one of the Mayan ghosts slaps a man’s head clean off and into a basketball hoop, his roomie, seeing it, nonchalantly reacts to his headless corpse with:
“Looks like you, just not as fa–“
The restoration itself is pretty crisp, showing a deep color fidelity and visual clarity to The Laughing Dead. Brighter colors pop and accentuate the surreal elements that remind me of VIY and A Chinese Ghost Story, where color is naturally toned down in normal scenes but can get poppy and dramatic when supernatural elements come about. Recent releases from VinSyn have been pretty good on that front, and the restoration adds to the bizarre proceedings within the film. Given Somtow’s background in music and composing, it’s no surprise that the audio is nicely cleaned up and sounded quite nice during my home viewing.
What Didn’t Work:
The Laughing Dead is, frankly, a rollercoaster of interest and quality. The audio and visual elements are often interesting, be they freaky dream sequences and new for the time twists on possession, but the surrounding elements are all over the place. The lead performance by Tim Sullivan (as Father O’Sullivan) is dry and monotonous, and the characterizations are extremely tropey. O’Sullivan is a priest with a dark past, a loss of faith, and a child he never knew about? I think some writer just got a win on their trope Bingo card.
The rest of The Laughing Dead also has a lot going on with subplots that don’t really have weight or necessity beyond the likely fact that they helped get the runtime in over 90 minutes. There’s a hipster/occultist couple, a young girl with a crush on the priest, two roommates of indeterminate partnership, O’Sullivan’s former nun lover, and their absolute terror of a child. Almost all have extended scenes that don’t contribute much, on top of—this is a horror movie, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say—several of their death sequences.
The real part of The Laughing Dead that doesn’t work as well as what was hoped requires some minor preface. In the anime community, there is a term known as a “weeaboo,” a person who idolizes and fetishizes a Japan based off a small subset of fictional portrayals but without understanding modern cultural backgrounds and subtexts. In this film, these are the type of people that go to Akihibara, a major shopping district, dressed in Samurai armor and loudly asking where they can buy a sword.
Director Somtow’s portrayal of Mayans seems to be a cross-cultural equivalent, showing a definite interest in the culture, but not really paying it respect. The film is set in central Mexico, and I think I saw a Latin actor once in the background. If this were a case of painting one place to be like another—like films are commonly known to do like Bulgaria being turned into small Texas town in the newest Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance—I wouldn’t care as much. But the credits reveal it was filmed IN Mexico. So having a cast of white and Japanese actors play all central characters, including the ghost Mayans, in some makeup tan that the 4k restoration makes very obvious seems uncomfortable at best.
If you can take a good bit of schlock and can separate from worry in regards to the cultural sensitivity, I would recommend checking out Vinegar Syndrome’s The Laughing Dead’s 4k Blu-ray restoration. They loaded the disc with features and even a slipcover for the case, with NSFW elements removable if you’ve got sensitive guests looking through your Blu-ray collection.
• Region Free Blu-ray
• Newly scanned & restored in 4k from its 35mm original negative
• Commentary track with writer/director/producer Somtow Sucharitkul
• “Unholy Assembly: Crafting The Laughing Dead” – an extended making-of documentary with: director Somtow Sucharitkul, producer Lex Nakashima, actress Premika Eaton, actor Tim Sullivan, cinematographer David Boyd, associate producer/second unit director Michael Deak, costume designer Shellagh Hannigan and transportation/pa Ron Ford
• Reversible cover artwork
• English SDH subtitles