Frozen Scream (1980)

Zombies get frozen and unfrozen — in a fever dream of bizarre ADR-dubbing, hypodermic needles to eyeballs, and laughable gore effects — before they kill people in this not-so-well known zom-effort. And what notoriety this zom-romp received came courtesy of the puritanical purveyors of England placing Frozen Scream on the U.K.’s “Video Nasties” Section 2 list.

Nothing like a stuffy Brit inspiring you to watch a movie. You know how it is: tell me it’s taboo — I only want it more. Heck, shoot it on film in a start-stop-start production, screw it all up, have no one see in the the drive-ins, then make it “look” like we’re getting a piece of the SOV ’80s (click through to our SOV category for more films) by sticking it on hungry-for-product home video store shelves alongside “real” camcordered SOVs — I only want it more.

Two scientists, Lil Stanhope (producer Renee Harmon) and Sven Johnson (Lee James, a makeup artist who worked on Al Adamson’s late ’60s ditties Blood of Ghastly Horror and Brain of Blood; let that serve as a quality caveat, here) are, as all scientists of the VHS variety, on a maniacal quest to unlock the secrets of immorality. To that end, the “secret” is that the subjects are kidnap and murder victims (medical students who get too nosy for their own good) revived by the way of electronic neurosurgery. (Uh-oh, Ulli Lommel’s BrainWaves!)

Only the neck-installed device (looks like a radio audio connector, and probably is; the wonders of spirit gum and a vial of rigid collodion) has a side effect: it turns subjects into homicidal zombies that must be stored in freezers. When Tom Girard, one of the project’s scientists (Wolf Muser in his debut; still in the business with a resume rife with U.S. TV credits, he recently portrayed Adolf Hitler in the stellar streaming series The Man in the High Castle), refuses to be part of the experiments any longer, he’s murdered by a gang of zombie-hooded monks (all sporting bushy, ’70s porn-style staches). Now his wife Ann (Lynne Kocol, later of the production-connected Nomad Riders), who witnessed the murder, is under Stanhope’s care — and brainwashing Ann into believing it was all a hallucination.

As with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Ken Wiederhorn’s superior Shock Waves (1977): Ann, along with Stanhope and her ex-hubby detective (Thomas McGowan; 20-some films, none notable; he serves as the voice-over thread for the film) are on the case — and face a zombie siege at a house during a (cliché) Halloween Party — complete with screaming kids, natch — and a final mad scientist showdown in Stanhope’s lab of terror.

Since this film is an across-the-years start-stop production on a shoestring budget, the zero-production values hamper the somewhat decent plot (that sort of reminds of Stuart Gordon’s later-amazing Re-Animator), and the hampering goes deeper with the strained voice-overs to thread the film’s vignettes into a coherent plot. The non-cinematography, the audio (the voice-overs are placed over the actor’s dialogs; in fact, the entire film was ADR’d in post) is beyond muddy, and the painful thespin’ throughout — especially from star Renee Harmon in a bad German accent, probably to give us a Nazi subtext (but it’s never explored beyond the accents from her and Lee James) — and makes Don Dohler’s efforts look like award winners. Only Frozen Scream has none of that rooting-for-the-underdog-filmmaker charm of a Dohler effort. Perhaps if Dohler made this, I’d dig it as much as I do Fiend (1980), which is an admittedly weak cup of tea, but . . . I don’t know why, I just love that Dohler film.

All in all, Frozen Scream is a great idea, but one woefully in need of a) a budget, b) a consistent, fluent shooting schedule that doesn’t leave it looking like an Al Adamson chop-shop joint, c) a guy like Ken Wiederhorn to pull it off, and d) a pacing and logic that doesn’t leave a renter (well, today, a streamer) needing to take five attempts to make it through the entire film with their sanity intact (yes, it took me a week to even start to write this review, as result).

Overall, it’s a hard watch of poorly-framed shots where you want to jump through the screen to operate the camera: the static wide shots that offer no mediums or close-ups, the over-the-shoulder shots with no reverse angles, and lighting so dark and muddy, that you want to break out a couple of flashlights are frustrating as hell. But when you’re shooting on 35 mm short ends, that’s par for the course. And it still looks like a shot-on-video delight via post-U-Matic camera. And I care way too much about this film than it deserves.

Frozen Scream is a film that traveled a long, strange road . . . a (production) trip that began in 1975 and took five years to complete. By the time the film was finished, the drive-ins for which it was intended, were defunct — and no distributor wanted the film, anyway. Luckily, the VHS home video boom was in full effect, and Frozen Scream finally made its debut on VHS in 1983, and then was reissued on the format in 1985 — amid the flurry of shot-on-video and direct-to-video films inspired by the success of Blood Cult and Spine (thus my SOV-critical lumping). As is the case with low-budget productions always looking to maximize their dollar, Renee Harmon did the Roger Corman-sensible thing and recycled footage from Frozen Scream into the films Night of Terror (1986) and Run Coyote Run (1987), both produced, written by, and starring Renee Harmon. (The former concerns a sadistic doctor and his family kidnapping subjects for brain experiments; the latter is a crime thriller about a psychic searching for her dead sister’s killers.)

Harmon’s director, Frank Roach, made his second and final film — both as a writer and director — with Nomad Riders (1987), a Stallone-esque cop-out-for-revenge thriller regarding a rogue who, after the brutal murder of his wife and daughter by a gang of vicious bikers, exacts revenge on the bikers and the mobsters behind the bikers. (No, that’s Nomads (1985) you’re thinking of that stars Pierce Brosnan and Lesley Ann Warren under the eye of John “Die Hard” McTiernan.)

Of Frozen Scream‘s co-writing team, Doug Ferrin, never wrote another film.

The same can’t be said for writer Michael Sonye. He later wrote Star Slammer (1986) and Commando Squad (1987) for Fred Olen Ray, the Brad David and Sharon Stone thriller Cold Steel (1987), and the always-welcomed Robert Ginty-starrer Out on Bail (1989). But Sonye’s best known film to video fringe horror fans is the hugely popular horror-comedy VHS-renter, Blood Diner (1987). Across his 28 acting credits, you’ve seen Sonye appear in Star Slammer (as Krago), and the U.S. by way of Japan SOV’er Cards of Death (1986), as well as the ’80s USA Network’ers Surf Nazis Must Die, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.

If the soundtrack — to you fellow junk video hounds — sounds a wee-bit familiar to the ears, that’s because composer H. Kingsley Thurber recycled his work on Frozen Scream on another inept backyard’er, Don’t Go Into the Woods (1981) (and that film is really bad. Really bad).

You’ve also seen actress Rene Harmon in the vansploitation romp Van Nuys Blvd. (1979), the women-in-jepaordy-seeks-revenge thriller in a ghost town, Hell Riders (1984), and the aforementioned horror flick, Night of Terror (1986), across her scant 11 acting credits — eight of which she wrote. Her final film before her 2008 death was Revenge of Lady Street Fighter (1990), while her final film overall, Jungle Trap (2016) was completed posthumously. In between her acting and writer gigs, she taught screenwriting at the College of the Sequoias Community College in Visalia, California. (Heads up, Adam West fans, for he stars in Hell Riders alongside Tina “Ginger of Gilligan’s Island” Louise; hell, yeah, that’s on our watch list.)

You can watch Frozen Scream on Tubi and You Tube. Movie Trailer Graveyard You Tube offers the age-restricted sign-in trailer.

You can purchase the DVD of the original 1986 VHS two-fer with The Executioner 2 from Vinegar Syndrome, both of which starred Rene Harmon. There are also grey-market looking DVDs that pair Frozen Scream with Tobe Hooper’s mad alligator romp, Eaten Alive. Then there’s a double-sided, uncut Region 2 DVD that features the German version (Blautrausch Der Zombies) of Leon Klimovsky and Paul Naschy’s Vengeance of the Zombies (1973) on the other side. Yet another version is a single-disc grey impress. So, outside of the Vin Syn version, shop smart.

Renee Harmon, amid a flurry of a dozen or so self-published educational books on acting, filmmaking and screenwriting (see ThriftBooks and Good Reads), adapted Frozen Scream into a novel — issued under the title Evil Covenant (2001) — and used copies can be found on Amazon and eBay. Her other educational work, Hollywood Mysteries (2001), complies two of her studies, “The Hunting Party” and “Let the Dice Roll,” subtitled as “Book One,” as an insight on creating suspense-genre films. The book is of particular interest as it features the complete script from Frozen Scream, including production notes that she later used to complete the whole of Hollywood Mysteries. Sadly, Harmon passed away in 2008 before writing additional volumes to the series.

Say what you will about her films, but Renee Harmon was, as Doris Wishman, a true renaissance woman who should have her name spoken more often in the realms of indie film, alongside the fandom of Al Adamson, Larry Buchanan, Don Dohler, and countless other up-against-the-budget underbelly dreamers and schemers of the celluloid side streets and back alleys of Tinseltown. Most of her books — based on reviews — seem to be rife with typographical and layout errors. However, I read her non-self published book How to Audition for Movies and TV (1992) via a public library copy (issued by a larger publisher, natch, with a quality assurance queue to minimize errors) and found it to be a well-written, insightful book that I utilized in my own adventures “in the room” as an actor. Renee knew her stuff and then some, so she did me a solid.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.