The Laughing Dead is a cheesy horror feature from 1990 known for its insane splatterhouse effects and supernatural mysticism. The story follows an archeological tour led by a priest who becomes the unwilling vehicle for a Mayan demon. Never released in North America, the feature has only been seen at conventions or through international VHS tapes. Vinegar Syndrome brings the lost film to Blu-ray with an excellent A/V package and enough special features to please fans of the film. For fans of effects-heavy flicks and cheesy horror this one comes Recommended.
“It’s the festival, it’s evil!”
Father O’ Sullivan (Tim Sullivan) is a troubled Catholic priest in Tucson who plans to lead a ragtag group on an archeological exploration of Oaxaca, Mexico. Their trip will culminate in the village of Torros Santos for the Festival of the Laughing Dead. Plagued with horrific visions of demonic possession, the hip basketball-playing man of God seems an unlikely chaperone for a bunch of weirdos. We’re introduced to the busload of characters and conveniently open the Pandora’s Box of Father O’Sullivan’s family dramas. The bus encounters a roadside corpse resurrected by vanishing Mayan priests but the tourists think it's all part of the “show”. Arriving in Mexico their run-down hotel is filled with suspicious characters preparing for the festivities. When O’Sullivan is asked to perform an exorcism he meets the piano playing harbinger of death Dr. Um-tzec (Sucharitkul) who has appeared in O’Sullivan’s terrifying visions of demonic possession.
The Laughing Dead spends the first half developing the tragic backstory of Father O’Sullivan and his traumas which visit him as he devotes his life to God, helping runaway kids, and longing for a long-lost love. During this time Director Somtow Sucharitkul allows us to experience the anguish of Sullivan’s pain but also the agony of watching non-professional actors unfold their amusing characters. Thankfully when we get to Mexico priorities change for the feature and our patience is rewarded with insane practical effects, supernatural mysticism, and cheesy plot devices.
Sucharitkul (here billed as S. P. Somtow) is mostly known for authoring a well-respected run of horror novels in the late '80s and early ’90s. For his debut feature the director also acted, wrote, composed music, and executive produced which allowed him more control over the DIY production. Makeup effects were provided by the legendary John Carl Buechler who is responsible for elevating this low-budget feature from a mystic thriller into a gory funhouse. Buechler has worked on hits like Re-Animator, Ghoulies, and Zone Troopers plus he directed a little film you might know called Troll and the weird but gnarly Friday the 13th: Part VII The New Blood.
Performances are memorable from “the usual eccentric assemblage” of characters brought along for the journey. Sucharitkul smartly filled his unusual horror film with local theater actors, sci-fi writers, and amateurs who would all cling to the premise easily. Choosing for himself the role of Dr. Um-tzec, Sucharitkul infuses the evil Mayan prophet with plenty of tongue-in-cheek '80s jokes about stockbrokers and American Express Gold Cards. Father O’Sullivan is played by sci-fi author Tim Sullivan who brings a comical gravitas to the proceedings though when tasked with the outrageous effects sequences he fully commits to the bit. Supporting characters are all golden from the New Agers clamoring for enlightenment to the runaway kid Laurie who spouts my favorite line, “Foxy… for a nun”.
The Laughing Dead errs on the side of fun allowing the premise of a Mayan demon resurrection to co-exist with the goofiness of New Agers, stockbroker humor, and bratty kids. While a meandering plot and uneven tone could test your patience, Sucharitkul rewards it with a clever blend of Splatterhouse effects and a Mayan vs Catholicism zombie basketball game.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Laughing Dead arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Vinegar Syndrome in a transparent keepcase with reversible artwork. The film is pressed onto a BD-50 disc that when loaded offers the Vinegar Syndrome logo before landing on the static Main Menu screen with typical navigation options.
The Laughing Dead finds the blood star in an impressive AVC encoded 1.85:1 HD image. This new HD transfer is quite vivid with strong and distinct primaries. Fine detail is evident in costume stitching and facial lines. Blacks are inky from the robes on Father O’ Sullivan to the eerie shadows that grace the bus as the crew ride overnight to Mexico.
The 35mm source is pristine and with this new 4k scan The Laughing Dead looks incredible! Plenty of depth and solid contrast levels offer a pleasing experience whether within darkened indoor spaces or an arid desert landscape. Practical effects work shows loads of detail within the appliances and prosthetics used for the insane Splatterhouse gore.
Never available on home video in North America, this release from Vinegar Syndrome marks the first official release of the cult classic. Those with Japanese VHS copies or bootlegs from conventions should rightly consider adding this release to your collection.
Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray offers a single DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono track for The Laughing Dead. The audio is well defined and clear but suffers from occasional damage. Dialogue exchanges are clear though some sibilance is apparent. While not the cleanest track, it supports all the gruesome effects, classical piano scoring, and dialogue confidently.
Vinegar Syndrome doesn't offer much for special features but what is brought to the sacrificial altar is worth checking out. Fans will no doubt enjoy the commentary track with Somtow Sucharitkul!
The Laughing Dead is a unique horror film that combines supernatural mythology, splatterhouse, and an odd family dynamic. Cast with science fiction writers, theater actors, and amateurs, this low budget feature has memorable performances and lots of amazing practical gore effects. Infused with over-the-top comedy and a weird family reunion through-line, the film easily caters to many tastes.
Vinegar Syndrome brings the lost film to Blu-ray with an excellent HD image but pairs it with a rocky DTS track. Special features are limited but totally worthwhile for longtime fans of the film. For fans of cheesy horror movies this one comes Recommended.