So, in the grand tradition of not putting enough thought into his titles, Roger Corman's The Undead features characters who are only living or dead, but not both--not even a little. Also, the poster is emblazoned with the words "Terror... That screams from the grave!" which again, is nonsense.
But I shouldn't be so hard on The Undead because I really enjoyed it. I don't remember which website turned me on to The Undead, but somebody recommended it over the summer, and I took a look at the time, but didn't get as far as actually watching it.
The film opens with Satan, the Prince of Darkness looking more like Gary, the Assistant Produce Manager. He addresses the audience directly and tells us to pray that we never fall into his clutches (you know, it's the kind of thing Satan's always saying) and at the end he throws his head back and cackles madly. Always cackling, this guy.
Cut to a darkened city street. Diana Love is um, a professional lady who needs a light for her cigarette. One is offered by Dr. Quintus Ratcliffe, and she accepts it and goes off with him, because That's How These Things Are Done. Now, I know what you're thinking but they go straight to the American Institute of Psychical Research, where Ratcliffe's old mentor, Professor Ulbrecht Olinger glares dourly from behind his desk.
"I've been expecting you for seven years", says Olinger.
"All of your old students return, don't they, professor? Even the ones you've failed."
"Particularly the ones I've failed. They always want to prove me wrong."
The two of them trade insults, and it becomes clear that there's a history of mutual resentment between teacher and student. Ratcliffe intends to "invade the depths of the mind," which Olinger believes to be "nonsense" and "idiocy". Nevertheless, he allows Ratcliffe to hypnotize Diana on his couch. Ratcliffe takes her back, through her past lives to her earliest incarnation: Helene, a woman accused of witchcraft during the middle ages. Diana, now inhabiting Helene's body, escapes her incarceration, presumably altering the course of history. Olinger insists that this is nonsense, that this is all in Diana's mind, and that history will be fine, but an injury to Helene causes a real bruise to form on Diana's body, which Ratcliffe takes to mean that her consciousness has actually traveled through time.
The crimes Helene is accused of were in fact perpetrated by a witch named Livia, who has framed Helene in order to woo Helene's suitor, a knight named Pendragon. Helene is safe for now, but the authorities are looking for her. The hypnotized Diana is able to answer questions in the present, but in the past, Diana is Helene; she has forgotten her life in the 20th century.
Olinger and Ratcliffe realize that this will be a problem; if Helena lives, her line will be extinguished and Diana will never be born (don't ask me how that works--but they know for certain). If Helena's execution proceeds as planned, then her spirit (or whatever) will continue through the ages. Ratcliffe is placed into the same hypnotic state, seeks Helena out, and explains the situation. Ratcliffe says that he doesn't care how this plays out, so the rest of the cast take sides, with the Devil gleefully encouraging Helene to live.
A story like this would not have been out of place in print or as an episode of an anthology TV or radio series, but the ideas seem awfully abstract to me for a movie made in 1957. The difference, I guess, is that you can take your time developing a good story in a novel, and a misfire episode has the rest of the anthology to bolster it, but Corman was making these movies for the kind of casual audiences (especially drive-in audiences) that probably don't have the attention span to pick up the nuances of a plot like this. And while this is a silly, B-movie with half-baked psychobabble at its heart, The Undead is an impressively unusual film.
It may help that the idea of reincarnation was a fashionable curiosity in the '50s. It was written by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, two regular Corman collaborators who reportedly delivered it in iambic pentameter, which would have been interesting but was nixed by Corman who didn't think audiences could handle it. Part of me wants to point out that this is the guy who thought the inverted ice cream cone with teeth from It Conquered the World was a really scary image, but most of me is willing to acknowledge that Corman is among the very most successful film producers who ever lived[Citation needed], as far as his ROI is concerned.
Of course, all of Corman's success comes from pouring a very small budget into a very cheap production, and then cutting as many more corners as possible. His filmmaking philosophy was offensively exploitative (look up the story behind the original The Little Shop of Horrors sometime). The result is that the magical, medieval world of The Undead is full of exterior shots were obviously filmed on a tiny sound stage with the walls painted black to look like it's the middle of the night. The special effects involve sparklers, rubber bats, rats, and spiders, and dubious facial witch prostheses that you could knock together in your own kitchen. None of this matters--the "cheepnis" is charming and almost a selling point in a movie like this.
Otherwise, I don't have a lot to say about the talent involved in this film. If you're interested in B-movies, you'll recognize Pamela Duncan (Diana) and Allison Hayes (Livia) as two of Corman's favorite female leads (but in a Corman movie, "female lead" pretty much means "eye candy"). Mel Welles (the original Gravis
The Undead is free to stream on YouTube: