Among the Confederate soldier ghost and zombie movies of the 1980s, which there aren’t too many, is the underrated low-budget item The Supernaturals (1986) as well as the ultra-low-budget movies of Tony Malanowski (1948-).
The Supernaturals has a robust b-cast and production values compared to Malanowski’s shot for a few pennies or so productions Night of Horror (1981) and its follow-up Curse of the Screaming Dead (1982) aka Curse of the Cannibal Confederates.
Let’s look at The Supernaturals first, which opens in Berkeley, Alabama on 12 April 1865, which is the last day of the American Civil War when the Confederate South surrendered to the Union of the North.
On this day, we have a child named Jeremy, who is forced, along with adult Confederate soldiers, to walk across a minefield to clear it of explosives. All are killed except Jeremy and he is told to cross again – all of a sudden there is a gust of wind and a glow starts to emit itself from the closed fist of the child.
It is supernatural and the name Jeremy comes from Jeremiah which means “God will uplift”. The Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament contains little good news for its audience as it tells of the reason for the exile of The Chosen from their lands among other things. To look deeply into it in terms of The Supernaturals and you could say that the end of the American Civil War saw the South and its people suddenly become exiled in their own states. And as a result, there has been a lingering bitterness among certain sections of the population.
That is just the beginning of the movie. The Supernaturals is based on a screenplay by the same guy who wrote another cult movie Trick or Treat (1986) which features cameos by KISS’s Gene Simmons (1949-) and Ozzy Osbourne (1948-). The Supernaturals may not be the better movie by screenwriter Michael S. Murphey (no info) but it cannot easily be dismissed as simply awful.
I have always liked this movie and the cast includes a couple of Star Trek personnel in the form of Nichelle Nicholls (1932-) and LeVar Burton (1957). The main star is Maxwell Caulfield (1959-) of Grease 2 (1982) infamy as well as Talia Balsam (1959), who is the daughter of actors Martin Balsam (1919-96 stroke) and Joyce Van Patten (1934-). Do you remember her in the Klaus Kinski (1926-91 heart attack) horror movie Crawlspace (1986)? Other cast members include Bobby Di Cicco (1954-), who made an impression in Samuel Fuller’s (1912-97 natural causes) The Big Red One (1980), and former teen star Scott Jacoby (1956-) who was in the cult item The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane (1976) starring Jodie Foster (1962-).
What sounds like a cast of has-beens and those on the ropes as well as soon-to-be Burton, is instead an ensemble which plays well of each other thanks to the direction of Armand Mastroianni (1948-). This director was responsible for the okay horror He Knows You’re Alone (1980) and the atmosphere-less misfire The Clairvoyant (1982) aka The Killing Hour. He would go on to direct Cameron’s Closet (1988) with a screenplay by The Howling novelist Gary Brandner (1930-2013 oesophageal cancer) but little else which I am acquainted with in terms of well-known titles. It’s the 1980s movies we’re concerned with here anyway.
The Supernaturals moves from the end of the Civil War to the present day, as it concerns an army platoon on patrol in the very woods where Jeremy was put through his ordeal over a hundred years earlier.
It is here we are introduced to Caulfield, who is betting he can jump from the back of the army truck the platoon is travelling in and keep up with it on foot as he crosses the woods and then jumps back aboard… He does it in spectacular fashion.
I met Caulfield after a play he and his wife Juliet Mills (1941-) performed and asked him, half-jokingly, if he could still run that fast: “No, bad knees,” he said and seemed disinterested when I told him The Supernaturals was a decent horror movie. Wife Juliet, who I also spoke to briefly was friendlier as she waved and called: “See you, Jason!” as I left the ever-growing throng of autograph hunters, which Caulfield, with his eye on a dinner date with friends, obviously thought he’d never escape. You’re a beautiful girl, Juliet! So, along with most critics, even the star of The Supernaturals doesn’t seem to think much of this maligned movie!!
Anyway, a little later, Di Cicco desecrates the skull of a Confederate soldier by using it for target practice… We know later, after he fails to seduce Balsam in her tent that night, his character won’t last long. He is dispatched by zombies as he tries to escape them in the tunnels of a long-forgotten underground bunker. They emerge from the walls of the bunker as rotting corpses on a mission to kill, just like back in the good old days.
Next day, his buddies find him sitting against a tree wearing the same sunglasses he placed on the skull when he took a shot at it. It makes an iconic poster for the movie.
The ghost story within The Supernaturals includes a diary that belongs to the mother of Jeremy which the soldiers find in an old cabin dating back to 1865. We have already met this woman whose name is Melanie as she turns up earlier in the film from the woods. She seems flesh and blood but is she really a ghost? And when the diary is found, there is an old man who sits cowering in the corner of the cabin wearing what appears to be a Confederate uniform… Jeremy wore an adult uniform in 1865 when he crossed the minefield!
The atrocities of the Union soldiers have come back to haunt the present-day platoon as the Civil War proves to have unfinished business in The Supernaturals. Books have been written about the ghosts of soldiers which haunt the battlefields.
As a result, the platoon must face a marauding army of unseen ghost soldiers, who use real musket guns from the era… The woods are well lit by the cinematographer with blue light and fog. The director has learnt his lesson after we got cheated by the follow-up to He Knows You’re Alone – the boring The Clairvoyant – which left Mastroianni out of work feature-wise for several years. The Supernaturals has a fair bit of excitement as a result and the director makes a fist of it, just like the child Jeremy does at the beginning of the movie.
So, yes, they’re killed off one by one in formula horror movie style while the faux Friday the 13th type score by genre expert Robert O. Ragland (1931-2012) plays in the background. There are reports that there was another original score by Bee Gee Maurice Gibb (1949-2003 complications of a twisted intestine) and that he appears in the movie as a zombie. If there was such a score it was written at a time when Gibb was unreliable due to his alcohol addiction which maybe the reason it wasn’t used.
There is also a reincarnation element to the movie and together with the diary, The Supernaturals appears to have been inspired by the earlier films of Tony Malanowski… but more on that later.
The Supernaturals is not a standard zombie or ghost flick and its slight originality shows a child give life to his mother after she is killed through supernatural powers and its consequences. This is juxtaposed with your average mass zombie attack upon the remains of the platoon, and when I say remains, it is not their intestines if that’s what you’re looking for. The movie lacks the requisite gore in that respect.
It may have little to say in the end except that a mother’s love may keep you a prisoner and not to interfere in retrospect with the course of destiny even if it is murder at the hands of others… Fate cannot be altered – just like they reckoned in the Final Destination movies! Furthermore, to commune with ghosts, or necromancy as it is known, is perhaps wrong and another aspect of the script.
It makes for an interesting climax to The Supernaturals. It was filmed in 1985 with a budget which was slashed, something that affected the quality of the special effects and it still only has a limited release to this day.
Let’s look at Tony Malanowski’s early movies and to the average viewer they are virtually unwatchable. This is reflected in that Night of Horror gets less than 1.5 out of 10 on the IMDb. This is because the filmmakers appear to be amateurs and the budget is next to zero. Malanowski is originally from Baltimore and said: “I’ve always been a history buff and living in Maryland, this was all around” about the Civil War elements contained in the film.
Night or Terror was shot in the summer of 1980 over three or four weekends and Malanowski did all the camerawork and editing and sound mixing. The film school drop-out was learning how to make films as he went through the experience. He barely knew how to use a light meter.
Night of Terror is told in retrospect by a character who seems to be the resident of a bar. He kind of looks like a long-haired Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49 unknown causes), who was a poet and horror and mystery writer that was long dead before the beginning of the American Civil War.
The fellow band members of this guy in the bar are worried he’ll quit the band because he reads “weird books” and maybe “mainlining” or using hard drugs.
“Have you ever had your beliefs, your very mind so completely and totally turned around… and not changed but challenged? …,” this Poe-like character goes on the say. “When things start to happen and you’re wide awake… and you’re straight as a pin!”
And he tells the tale of going back to Maryland for a funeral… it’s Poe country in terms of turmoil of the inner mind… and after that he is one of four young people who take their camper to the woods of Virginia. He is also one of two half-brothers have inherited a cabin from their father’s will which is way out in the woods on acreage. Add a psychic girl named Colleen along with another girl and the quartet is complete.
There are ponderous shots of the van travelling across country with a nice piano score with fingers sweeping the keys which appears to have been written for the movie. It reportedly cost composer Charlie Barnett (no info) $1200 to record and he used some members of the Washington Opera which shows in the quality of the final product. “We used it to hide any sound problems,” said Malanowski.
And we have a reading of Poe’s Bridal Ballad (1937) which tells of how even marriage cannot change who your heart really beats for. It could relate to the Confederate South and the aftermath of the civil war and how some of its people, even as a part of the Union, would always in their hearts remain Southerners.
The reading of the Bridal Ballad also predicts Colleen later in the movie being the reincarnated spirit of the wife of a Confederate soldier who is stuck in limbo… It is later that the camper breaks down… Colleen panics: “We can’t stay here… this place is wrong.” This girl who lives with “the voices she heard as a child” speaks to herself, or the ghosts, in one well-lit scene.
“The hate is over now,” she tells the ghosts and she is the voice of healing in this movie.
The naivete of the production is balanced by the seriousness of the material which is to put to rest the ghosts of the American Civil War and explain in a supernatural way why a child would hear voices into adulthood. It apparently takes innocence to commune with the dead.
The film contains some mismatched day for night shots, night shots with strong lighting and, in the finale, what appears to be night shots which are too dark to comprehend. You can understand why this film is not particularly liked and termed unwatchable.
The friends hold a séance for the troubled spirits who have been waiting for someone like Colleen to help put them to rest. The next section of the movie uses the rasping voice of the spirit leader as he tells his story.
This ghost has told us at the beginning of the movie, which is echoed by the Bridal Ballad read earlier in that: “Hatred and fear ruled our lives, ruled our thoughts, caused our deaths but love kept us sane and now brings us back.”
The ghosts brought forth are damned due to their slaughter at the hands of the Yankee Union soldiers and their very own Confederate captain’s decapitation by these men by his own sword. When the soldiers were buried on sacred ground the head of the captain was lost and as a result there was “a vow made in death, a vow to ensure his wholeness… so his spirit may find rest.”
It is almost a kind of reversal of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow in that the ghosts are peaceful and Colleen is a kind of Ichabod Crane, the Yankee outsider of that tale. Really, Malanowski said he ripped off the severed head elements from The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958). But it’s an interesting comparison.
Will the young people return the head of the dead captain? Will the ghosts find peace? And will the campervan be fixed in time? … Well, the campervan doesn’t come into it. Those who dislike this movie are disappointed that the word horror is in the title as there is no gore, sex, swearing or real chills… “There’s possibly a good 20-minute movie living in there somewhere,” said the director.
“And that’s about it,” says the character in the bar at the end, who cannot accept the appearance of ghosts in his life. And his friend leaves the bar, seeing his own reflection in the nearby inground pool and reflecting in his own head about the reflections of his friend who still remains in a state of, if not moral, then spiritual confusion and indecision.
The written warning or preface to Night of Horror says that the state of Virginia is a place where many ghosts of the civil war can be found and it is there that the action takes place. Indeed, it is the state where much of the violence and killing during that war occurred. And the reason why this spiel is so long is because it cost Malanowski next to nothing to add and it padded the running time.
Virginia is the state where Arlington Cemetery is located, a place where the war dead have long been buried since in ensuing wars. A mid-section of Night of Horror uses the recreation of a civil war battle which captured some good footage but it perhaps goes on too long… and it’s all in wide shots because Malanowski only had one camera and a short zoom lens.
Ghosts linger in the state of Virginia… says Night of Horror and they are kept alive by those who recreate the horrors even if it is only in mock fashion and others who parade the Confederate battle flag vexatiously. This movie wants us to lay those ghosts to rest and for the nation to no longer be troubled… But is that possible?
Curse of the Screaming Dead (1982) aka Curse of the Cannibal Confederates is director Malanowski’s more ambitious and perhaps slightly better written follow-up to Night of Horror. However, it lacks the poetry of that movie.
The director has learnt valuable lessons as a filmmaker, especially that the 1980s gore revolution was at its height upon its creation. The film is also better made and has a longer running time of eighty odd minutes compared to the mercifully brief, for some, Night of Horror which clocks in at around 73 minutes.
Other than that, Curse of the Screaming Dead is a kind of remake of Night of Horror, or more of a reimagining, with Confederate zombies taking the place of ghosts and the return of a group of young people travelling into the southern countryside by campervan. The same Winnebago is used from Night of Terror.
A couple of the actors return in the form of Steve Sandkuhler (no info) and Rebecca Bach (no info). Bach helped write the screenplay for Night of Horror with director Malanowski.
This time the screenplay is by Malanowski and Lon Huber (no info), who has no known further credits. As for Malanowski, his work on these two films is bookended by his credits as an assistant or second assistant director on a couple of other ultra-low-budgeters by cult director Don Dohler (1946-2006 cancer) – The Alien Factor (1978) and Nightbeast (1982).
Apart from that, thanks to an early break by Fred Olen Ray (1954-) Malanowski has worked as an editor on many other movies throughout the 1980s and 90s and up until the present day. He showed his life-long love of history in terms of the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War by writing and directing the short documentary The Battle of Bunker Hill (2009).
Despite reports that the head of Troma, Lloyd Kaufman (1945-), regards Curse of the Screaming Dead as one of the five worst movies in the Troma library – this is an earnest attempt at horror on a non-existent budget and is only a de facto Troma movie anyway, as it enjoyed a life of its own before it was bought by that company and redubbed Curse of the Cannibal Confederates.
This time there is the actual ruins of, what he think is, a church, something mentioned but not shown in Night of Horror. This place is where the 20-somethings find a box containing a Confederate flag and a diary. The element of the diary was used in The Supernaturals, just as the ghosts used in Night of Horror were also used in that movie.
“If it belongs to anyone, it belongs to dead soldiers out there…. Do they need the money?,” says Bach about the possibility they are valuable.
There’s a blind Japanese girl named Blind Kiyomi in the movie who tells the others: “You can take anything from the dead but their pain.”
“Don’t just stand there, take the flag!,” says Bach, who says no-one gives a damn about such trifles…. Oh, but there are those who do! Both living and dead! And this is why the film still resonates today and that is because, while the battlefields have healed and become overgrown, there are those for whom it has not healed and there are still divisions between north and south in the United States.
I must admit to turning off this movie the first time I saw it back in the mid-1980s. It just took far too long to get to the point… Which is that the diary is stolen by Blind Kiyomi’s sacrilegious boyfriend played by stuntman Christopher Gummer (no info) … and leads to a gory climax hinted at by the latter-day title.
Viewers today may find the mixture of differently tinted scenes, possibly from using different light filters, and the uneven acting off-putting. But then there’s a few well composed shots thrown into the mix…. But Malanowski said this about some of the night scenes: I couldn’t afford a lot of light… We blew some lamps and didn’t have replacements… We literally pulled our cars up and put our high beams on.”
We’ve got to remember this is ultra-cheap filmmaking, and as the diary is read aloud by Gummer with its incantations of past atrocities against the Confederate soldiers… the zombies rise and populate the rest of the movie.
This film is misunderstood when not taken in context… The blind Japanese girl central to the story shows that while America may have forgiven Japan for World War Two atrocities, if you dig a little deeper, there were veterans and family members for whom scar tissue still existed in terms of that war. And, again, that goes for the American Civil War as the dead are many in these hills and the race is on to blow the heads off the Confederates yet again as if the war had never ended.
Blind Kiyomi could be another positive symbol of the blindness to the colour of a person’s skin or race and respect for the war dead of both sides – where race continues to be an issue in America, and the world, today. If only there were more Blind Kiyomis as well as Colleens from Night of Horror in the world today to lay the spectre of race and prejudice to rest.
The film is perhaps more about revenge than a curse. But isn’t revenge borne out of the original curse of wishing evil upon another? … It is self-perpetuating and the reason why the ghosts exist to this day within the living. But it is perhaps only the living which can lay them to rest!
Among the cheap exploding heads there is actor Mark Redfield (no info) who is a striking white-haired and pale-faced zombie named Captain Matthew Mahler, who is again key to the action, just as the officer was in Night of Horror. Redfield is also credited as one of the make-up artists.
Malanowski said the makers of the film had the luxury of bound scripts which they paid ten bucks each for and “we actually thought we were high budget because we had a slate” or clapperboard.
The scene which is the pay-off, for those who stick with the movie, has a number of dead characters having their entrails torn out and munched upon by Confederate zombies. But the best part of the movie is the ending as the zombie of Captain Mahler takes back the stolen diary from one of the survivors, something which contains the tortured pain of the dead. In thanks, the zombie places his hand on the heart of the returnee in a gesture which shows that while the South suffered atrocities and it will not forget its suffering, it is willing to forgive and to be left to continue in peace. This is their perspective.
Curse of the Screaming Dead was made for around $12,000, Malanowski rightly said that “the fun you have making … some of the pictures really shows… You have such a ball seeing the film come together where every day was a joy.” He sold all rights to Troma and all elements, so he won’t ever be restoring it.
There is a mini-epic built into Curse of the Screaming Dead trying to escape the confines of its low budget. Once more, it is not the battle that matters but its outcome…Compared to the cynical ending of classic zombie flick Night of the Living Dead (1968), where the surviving black character is killed by a member of a white mob, the ending of the heavily lambasted Curse of the Screaming Dead shows there is hope for the United States yet.