WTF Cinema: Tales from the Quadead Zone

Ashley recently introduced me to the Cinema Snob, an online film reviewer associated with That Guy With The Glasses. The Cinema Snob (aka Brad Jones) talks about movies that are weirder than weird, worse than the worst, the kind of shit that even MST3K wouldn’t touch. This includes foreign knock-offs of American action/sci-fi franchises, superlatively bad monster movies like the infamous Troll 2, and all varieties of -sploitation cinema. Out of all these movies, Tales from the Quadead Zone (1987) is an extreme example, and it’s pretty near the bottom of the barrel. An ultra-cheap horror movie shot on video (or what the Snob calls “Shot on Shiteo”), it just barely qualifies as being a “movie” in the first place. Its writing is uniformly incoherent and the actors somehow make it even harder to understand the plot, while the visuals and sound quality are easily surpassed by your average 1987 video game.

Yet there’s something bizarrely compelling in Quadead Zone‘s non-artistry, and I’d like to tap into this by exposing you, the reader, to the film’s noxious images. It was directed by Chester Novell Turner, who’s even more of an enigma to his fans than The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau. I can only piece together fragments of a biography from various Internet sources (IMDb, Bleeding Skull, and B-Movie Dumpster): Turner was born in 1950, made his first feature film Black Devil Doll from Hell in 1984 (possibly in the Philadelphia area), made Quadead Zone three years later, and supposedly died in a car crash in 1996. It’s surprising that more research hasn’t been done, because Turner turned out some readymade cult classics – two hodgepodges of slasher horror, low-grade exploitation, pornography, blaxploitation, and surrealism – and he was a one-man show. It’d take less time to list the functions that Turner didn’t perform on his two movies. This also makes it clear that he was a universally untalented, but passionate man.

So, with that context, let’s descend into the Quadead Zone itself, which is a half-assed anthology film. It comes complete with a very half-assed framing story, in which a woman (played by Devil Doll star Shirley L. Jones) reads to the ghost of her son Bobby out of the titular book. Between Jones’ strangely detached acting style and the dreadful SFX, you can’t help but read in some kind of incest subtext; wind whooshes through her hair whenever her son speaks, and her eyes close as she listens. The opening really sets up the film’s truly dreamlike atmosphere – and I don’t mean “dreamlike” as in ethereal or magical. I mean dreamlike: disjointed, confusing, and lacking any form of logic or rationality. This movie is like one of those vaguely upsetting dreams where you only remember fragments the morning after.

And of course, I can’t fail to mention the film’s theme song (written and performed, naturally, by Turner himself, with help from his brother Keefe). Like the theme song for Spider Baby, it tries to situate Quadead Zone within the long-standing, Halloween-y tradition of “ghosts and ghouls,” but it’s obvious from the uneven flow of the Turners’ semi-rapping – complete with Keefe’s Cookie Monster impersonation – and the gory, rainbow-colored drawings (by Shirley L. Jones) that serve as the credits’ backdrop that this is something else altogether. Spider Baby was full of sly self-parody; Quadead Zone is more like a mangled imitation. It reminds me of those bizarre Ghanaian movie posters – it’s as if Turner had seen a few minutes of Tales of the Crypt once and thought, “Hey, I can do that.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is a rare cinematic example of outsider art, made possible by advances in video technology. Working totally outside the system, and presumably self-taught, with just a bunch of friends and relatives, Turner made a movie. And man, does it reflect his personal vision! For example, the first vignette, entitled “Food for ?”, proves that he never gave in to conventional storytelling. From what any sane viewer can gather, it’s about a poor family of eight rednecks who only have enough sandwiches to feed four – so every meal devolves into a “survival of the fittest” ritual where the father rings a bell and each family member grabs whatever he or she can get. This makes little enough sense, but then the largest and hungriest brother goes on a bloody shooting spree, and the others barely react. The segment ends with titles superimposed over those who survive the first attack, with fates like “DIED JULY 21 – RIFLE SHOT IN THE HEAD” or “LIVING HIGH ON THE HOG IN WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM.” (The spree killer dies in the “state gas chair” [wtf is a gas chair; those don’t even exist!]… making it uncertain why witness protection is necessary.)

It’s really, really hard to know what we’re supposed to get out of “Food for ?”. That’s not unusual for this movie, but it’s still remarkably disorienting. The family’s behavior is so unrealistic that it feels like this should be a morality tale, but there’s no moral in sight, unless it’s “Poverty and hunger. Violence. Sudden closure.” Quadead Zone doesn’t give us time to chew this over, however, as we’re ushered on to “The Brothers,” the story of Ted Johnson (the Devil Doll himself, Keefe Turner) revenge on his dead brother Fred. While “Food for ?” was mostly about nonsensical action, “The Brothers” is about nonsensical talking. After stealing Fred’s body, Ted and his accomplices Oscar and Moby stand around and talk, and talk, and drink, and talk. This goes on for three minutes, in a 62-minute film. And as soon as his friends leave, Ted begins a monologue to end all monologues.

To be honest, this is probably the most interesting part of the movie. Ted’s wrath as he yells at his brother almost reminds me of a poor man’s Hubert Selby, sprinkled liberally as it is with the words “goddammit” and “sonuvabitch.” Keefe may at times be barely audible over the funereal Casiotone soundtrack, and (as the screenshot above demonstrates) it may all be shot in a really dull, incompetent way, but we still get some raw emotion out of the scene. Ted dresses Fred’s corpse up as a clown and plans to bury him as revenge for, well, everything; Fred’s neon silhouette ghost reinhabits his body, has a protracted fight with Ted while screaming like a banshee synthesizer, and ends up impaling him on a pitchfork. The end.

This, I think, is what’s oddly compelling about Turner’s characters: they have the most fucked-up responses to already fucked-up situations. Is your family playing a sadistic game with its food? Shoot several of them! Did your brother ruin your life and then die? Bury him in your basement wearing a ridiculous outfit! It’s like Edgar Allan Poe by way of John Waters and Jack Hill, then deprived of all funding or talent. With the final segment, we return to Bobby and his mother, and are introduced to Daryl, Bobby’s abusive father, who’s sick of his woman’s son’s-ghost-related fantasies. One more protracted fight later, he lies stabbed to death on the kitchen floor; after a run-in with the police, Bobby’s mother flees to the bathroom to slit her throat . But that’s not the end! No, Bobby’s mother comes back (“21 HRS. LATER”) as another creepy neon ghost outline, and begins reading Bobby the story of everything that just happened to them.

As should be obvious by now, this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill “so-bad-it’s-good” cheapo horror movie. It’s a lot more nightmarish than that. We’ve got three stories in a row about family members brutally murdering each other, concluding with an abused and deluded woman killing herself to join her dead son. I think there might be some deep emotional trauma exorcised here on Turner’s part. Some scenes, like the interminable conversation between Ted and his friends, even remind me of Charles Burnett’s masterpiece of urban realism Killer of Sheep (1977). So yes, this is a really bad horror movie, but could it also be partially about violence, betrayal, and abuse in very real dysfunctional families, represented through fantastical, idiosyncratic images?

Tales from the Quadead Zone just raises so many more questions than it answer. It’s laughable and absurd, but also unforgettable and depressing. It looks like it was made with the smallest amount of skill or thought, but some of its most ridiculous moments stick with you. Like many of my favorite Z-grade rip-offs, it really just shows what one man can do, no matter how little knowledge of filmmaking he has, as long as he’s got some money, some equipment, willing friends and family, and bottomless commitment to the project. Chester Novell Turner clearly had that, and in his short life he produced two films that would definitely be “cult” items if enough people bought into them.

So, have I made you at all curious to see what horrors lie within the Quadead Zone? Someone has uploaded a shitty VHS copy to YouTube, so dive into this hour-long bizarrofest, if you dare. As the theme song says, “If you like your terror adult and strong / welcome here, you can’t go wrong!” Well, CNT, you may not have made a good movie – you may have made a really, truly awful movie – but it’s a movie like no other. We can only assume that your neon ghost is sitting in an ugly room somewhere, telling other ghosts more tales… from the Quadead Zone.

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