Gamma 693 (1981), aka Night of the Zombies

Writer, director and actor Joel M. Reed wowed us on the ’80s home video fringes with his 1976 drive-in ditty Bloodsucking Freaks. Do read B&S bossman Sam Panico’s review, as he waxes nostalgic over the lost bricks-and-mortar era of video stores that afforded us, the jock-bullied, wee horror and metal lovin’ pups of its discovery — and of today’s feature film.

“Who is this whack job?” we pondered as we searched the video racks for other Joel M. Reed product.

Courtesy of the pulpy monster mags we got at the corner smoke shop or, if on a family excursion to the mall, Waldenbooks, we learned (Googling is no fun) Reed made his debut with two sexploitation flicks: Sex by Advertisement (1968) and Career Bed (1969). (Eh, buying online is no fun; mail-order catalogin’ from the back of monster rags for VHS-greys is the way to go.) Then Reed changed it up with an action flick — as only Joel M. Reed can make one — with a “Rambo” that has herpes (?) in Wit’s End, (1971). Of course, with Sly-Namexploitation in full swing in the ’80s, it was repacked as The G.I. Executioner.

So, this is the part of the film review and Reed career examination where we drop CBS-TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond into the discussion . . . because Marie Barone, aka Doris Roberts, stars . . . alongside Harve Presnell (Fargo, Saving Private Ryan; “Mr. Parker” in NBC-TV’s The Pretender) in Reed’s twist on the Amicus anthology format with Blood Bath (1975).

And that’s Joel M. Reed’s six-film career as a writer and director — a “tribute week” in one fell swoop of a review. Prior to his April 2020 passing, Reed appeared as himself (he has 15 other character-acting credits) in uber-fan Eric Eichelberger’s retro-SOV’er Ghoul Scout Zombie Massacre (2020).

Now, before we get into the movie at hand . . . let’s clear up the title confusion, as there are two movies with the title/alternate title of Gamma 693: First, there’s Joel M. Reed’s sixth and final film released onto video in 1981. Then there’s the other one starring Linda Blair and Troy Donahue from 1989 — which served as the lone directing credit by Jack A. Sunseri. Oh, you know Jack: he gave us the cheesy “puffbox” timewaster, The Dead Pit (1989) — that’s not to be confused with The Pit (1981). No, we’re talking about the one with the blinking zombie eyes on the VHS Box (You Tube clip of the box in action).

Now, I’ve personally never sought out The Chilling starring Linda and Troy. In fact, I don’t ever recall seeing it on the store shelves, even though it came out as a theatrical in 1989 and hit U.S. video shelves in 1992. It’s said The Chilling played on USA Network’s “Up All Night” and “Night Flight” weekend programming blocks, but not to my knowledge. Is Jack A. Sunseri’s flick a homage or loose faux-sequel to Reed’s film, we wonder. Alas, it’s an analogy quandary I shall delve into not, as The Chilling is so awful in its inept Return of the Living Dead (1985) ripoffery. Let’s just say Sunseri attempted to hornswoggle us Joel M. Reed freaks into renting a Sunseri boondoggle, and just leave it at that.

To add to the bad analog Intel: It is also said that Reed’s Gamma 693, aka Night of the Zombies, also carries the title alternate of The Chilling. Not only have the B&S worker bees not been able to locate any theatrical one-sheets with the Gamma 693 title, we were unable to locate any VHS or DVD reissue slipcovers with The Chilling title. So, let’s just say The Chilling alternate title is an Intel cut-n-paste snafu resulting from Sunseri’s film coping the Gamma 693 title at some point during its own video shelf life. And it wasn’t it enough to piggyback on Reed’s works; Sunseri swinehumped Wes Craven’s superior cryogenic horror, Chiller (1985), which starred Michael Beck (The Warriors, Battletruck) and Jill Schoelen (Thunder Alley) that aired as a first-run TV movie on the USA Network.

If you’re in a NaziZom* binge-mood: Other films you can check out are They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1964) and its fellow Nazi scientist-cum-world-conquest villains in She Demons (1958), The Flesh Eaters (1964), and Flesh Feast (1970). To a lesser extent, there’s the Nazi we-never-see ghosts of Death Ship (1980). Then there’s the later NaziZomsploitation sub-genres homages Outpost (2007), with its own sequels War of the Dead (2011) and Bunker of the Dead (2015; in a found footage format), and the Finland-made dark comedy of Dead Snow (2009), which has its own sequel-verse. No, while it’s cool: not Iron Sky (2012), for that has no zoms, but Nazi UFOs on the moon, even though the dark side of the moon is a cold bitch.

Now that you are a well-informed, frozen-Nazi zombie consuming streamer, on with today’s feature presentation.

Ah, the VHS slipcover art I remember, aka Gamma 693, aka Hell of the Living Dead. Don’t be fooled by the “X,” as this is not the least bit “video nasty.”

As with John Howard’s Spine, Reed’s flick is also a porn-connected produced horror flick — thus, the shot-on-video production values. It was shot in the Munich, Bavaria, Germany home and on the property of noted ’70s porn purveyor, Shaun Costello. (It had pick-ups done on the sly in the wooded environs of New York’s Central Park and a “Euro-looking area” of Greenwich Village.)

Now, come on. Don’t be shy and lie, because I’m not.

When I aged-into my behind-the-taboo-green-curtain years, I rented a VHS copy of Costello’s infamous Girl Scout Cookies (1976). So, yes . . . our 420-plus credits leading actor here, Jamie Gillis, is, in fact, a porn actor who occasionally moonlighted in low-budget “mainstream” flicks, but is best known for his work in Deep Throat II (1987). As if we forgot there was already an official Deep Throat Part II in 1974 to the 1972 film. See, even porn films do the alternate-title hornswoggle.

In addition to Girl Scout Cookies — and if you’re a ’70s proto-slasher fan — Shaun Costello, after achieving success with a series of adult film short, aka loops, made his feature film debut as a writer and director with the X-rated Forced Entry (1973). Remade in 1976 as The Last Victim, the film was marketed on the grindhouse and drive-in circuits until the early ’80s, courtesy of Tanya Roberts, later of Charlie’s Angels fame, starring.

When Dawn of the Dead (1978) inspired a Euro-zom craze that soon engulfed home video shelves, Reed’s NaziZomsploitation romp appeared on VHS in 1983 under its better known title: Night of the Zombies. If you were a fan of Eliva’s Mistress of the Dark syndicated movie blocks, you may have seen it on television under that title. Maybe you caught it — as did I — at your local twin cinema in 1981 as Hell of the Living Dead, which has nothing to do with the 1980 Bruno Mattei film of the same name. To add to the confusion: Reed’s zom-romp also carries the home video title of Night of the Zombies II, as an ersatz-sequel to Bruno Mattei’s film, which itself is also known as Night of the Zombies. Later ’90s DVD reissues carry the title of Night of the Zombies: Battalion of the Living Dead.

Just wow. That’s way to much market effort for a film that doesn’t deserve the lipstick-on-a-pig marketing effort.

Where’s Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake (1981) and Jess Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies (1982) when we need ’em. Hell, where’s the Dana Andrews-starring frozen Nazi-heads flick The Frozen Dead (1966). I can’t believe I just said that. Yes, those three dopey zom romps — and Mattei’s for the matter — are far better than this Joel M. Reed mess that isn’t the least bit zombie goo-messy, it’ “twist ending” be damned. And, worst of all is that it takes us 40 minutes to get to the blue guacamole-smeared zombies — and that’s if you can see ’em through the worst night-photography ever committed to film.

Then there’s the government lamenting and spy-drivel pontificating — via stammering “actor” ad-lib. Then there’s the “set design” of government offices that don’t look like government office that look like the filmmakers guerilla-shot their way into a hotel conference room and got out before hotel security kicked them out: Pentagon and Fort Detrick, my ass. Then there’s the obvious, medical lab-borrowed skeletons — that are supposed to be what’s left of the zombies after melting — and the melting effects are questionable — that have a visible, linear mark across their caps. Remember Billy Eye Harper’s plastic-bone rotted remains in Rocktober Blood? Plastic skull is as plastic skull does, Forrest.

So, how did we get here: Upon the death of two scientists in the Bavarian Alps investigating the activities of a WW II U.S. Army Chemical Corps unit engaged top-secret chemical warfare with something called “Gamma 693,” the U.S. government sends Nick Monroe (our porn star Jamie Gillis), a not-James Bond CIA agent to investigate the deaths. During his investigation, Monroe learns of the rumors of a regiment of Nazi zombies roaming the countryside and uncovers a Nazi plot for world domination with an undead army. Without the chemical agent — designed as a healing agent for the war wounded — the Nazi ranks will age and decompose. So there’s only one thing left to do to stop the rot: eat human flesh. And since these are intelligent zoms: they tell their food that they don’t want to, but must.

Is there a creepy atmosphere? Is the plot a bit whacked? Is the soundtrack queasy-inducing? Sure. But it’s all too little too late. If only Eli Roth (re) made this, it would be so much better, for the story is there. So I’ll just take my VHS copy of Ken Weiderhorn’s Shock Waves to my movie room and call it a night.

If you’re a first-timer to Joel M. Reed’s Alpine snow-zoms, you may pass, as well. Then again, you may like it. Just as I enjoyed Weiderhorn’s Carribean aqua-zoms and others hate it. Everyone’s tolerance for B-movie cheapness and nostalgia miles for the past, may vary. Like Steel Town wrestler Shirley Doe says, “Films are funny that way.”

You can watch Reed’s contribution to the NaziZomsploitation genre on You Tube HERE (the Prism Video-version as Night of the Zombies II — with a trailer for Shock Waves!) and HERE (as Die Nacht Der Zombies).

* You can go deeper into the Nazisplotation genre courtesy of Naomi Holwill’s 2019 document Fascism on a Thread: The Strange Story of Nazisploitation Cinema (2020). You can also Google “Nazis in Cinema” to find more films.

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.

 

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