The Dead Pit (1989): Insane Zombies, Evil Doctors, and a Forgotten Scream Queen

When it comes to memorable video box covers, The Dead Pit ranks up there with Uncle Sam, Return to Horror High, and Critters for boxes that always stuck in my mind. While I always remembered the embossed box with the blinking red eyes, I long ago forgot the name of the film. So when I was perusing the selections over at Netflix, The Dead Pit caught my eye and it all came back to me. Looking up a little information on the it, I found that it was well regarded when it came out and received critical praise from both Fangoria and esteemed movie reviewer Joe Bob Briggs. Mr. Briggs even gave the film 4 stars and complimented the screaming talents of Cheryl Lawson. So I thought it was high time I got around to seeing The Dead Pit rather than just remembering the VHS cover. So today I finally for my chance, and got introduced to Ms. Lawson our newest Beautiful Lady of Genre.

Twenty years ago at the State Institution for the Mentally Insane, Dr. Gerald Swan (Jeremy Slate) discovered that his colleague Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer) was experimenting on patients in the basement of the asylum. With no other choice, Dr. Swan put a bullet right between the eyes of Ramzi ending his reign of terror over the patient. Over the years, Swan kept the institution open, and new patient, the amnesiac Jane Doe (Cheryl Lawson) arrives on the same day an earthquake rocks the asylum. Jane doesn’t believe herself to have amnesia. She believes that someone or something robbed her of her memories, and being at the State Institution had triggered a set of nightmares that seem to point to a connection between Jane and Dr. Ramzi. Soon the diabolical doctor returns from the grave with his legion of zombies, and it’s up to Jane, her fellow inmate Christian (Steven Gregory Foster), and a disturbed nun to defeat the menace.

Filmed on location at Agnew State Hospital in Milpitas, California, The Dead Pit gains a great deal of it’s appeal from the atmosphere and setting. First time director Brett Leonard uses the location to full effect and bathes the sets in creepy lighting and obfuscating smoke. The first half of the film plays out like a psychological thriller, and if I hadn’t seen the box art, I’m not sure I would have suspected the appearance of zombies in the film. Once they do arrive, the film changes gears and the film becomes a straight up gorefest with all the head ripping, body gnawing, blood splattery fun you could ask for. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that featured so much great late '80's splatter, and it was quite fun to flashback to those great practical effects.   I also liked how homogenous the zombies looked in their bloodstained hospital gowns. Often zombies are a slapdash group of whoever has been infected or bitten, and it was nice to see a group that looked like they had it together.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the main things that spurred me on to check out this film was Cheryl Lawson. She never became a marquee scream queen, and that is really too bad. Not only did she have a great scream as Mr. Briggs noted, Ms. Lawson was also quite fetching. She is certainly not a waifish looking lady, and putting her in a cropped t-shirt and high cut panties (because, you know, that’s what they hand out in asylums) was certainly something I would like to thank the wardrobe department for. I’d also like to thank whoever came up with the scene where she’s blasted with a hose until her t-shirt, which is obviously made of paper, rips right off. Lawson is more than a pretty face, and her acting is actually surprisingly good. It’s a shame that she didn’t end up in more leading roles. In fact, after this film, she never had another one. Instead, she moved to a thankless job, stuntwoman, for such films as Swordfish, The Scorpion King, and Spider Man 2 as well as doing work on the TV series Deadwood and Firefly.

There is only really a couple of supporting players in the film with most of the actors playing inmates and/or zombies, but a couple of folks bear mentioning. Jeremy Slate, an actor best known for getting shot by John Wayne in True Grit and Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack, gets top billing as Dr. Swan, but he really has limited screen time. When he does show up, his performance goes over-the-top, but he provides a nice high end to the overblown acting in the film. Steven Gregory Foster provides a good sidekick for Cheryl Lawson’s damsel in distress,  but the accent he has in the film seemed suspect and unfortunately I could not find out if he was from the UK or not. Either way, he hammed it up like everyone else and seemed likeable enough. Danny Gouchnauer had little to do than show up in scrubs and menace folks as the evil Dr. Ramzi, but thanks to some of the lighting and camera choices, he has a couple of striking appearances. Ha also has a little bit of a “Patrick Bateman” kind of look. He doesn’t have anything on that creepy guy that Kourtney Kardashian is dating, but there was a certain similarity. When his eyes start to glow red, well, it’s a pretty amusing bad effect, and I felt like I can let it slide.

If you don’t have an interest in low budget late ’80’s zombie films, then you’ll want to pass this one by. By looking at the cover and checking out the cast, you should be able to discern what kind of film The Dead Pit is. It was just a fun film I wish I had seen back in the day. The DVD from Code Red also contains interviews with Lawson, Slate who has since passed away, director Brett Leonard, and writer/producer Gimil Everette. It’s fun to hear the tidbits behind this film, and I wish that more flicks from this era got this treatment rather than the bare bones DVD’s usually offered. The Dead Pit never claws up above being an average film, but it gave me a great nostalgic feeling for a film that I never saw before.

Bugg Rating 


  1. OOOOOHHHHH, Critters! I always did like that flick. And, I think I'll watch this one too.

  2. Nice write up. I always noticed this movie in the video store but I worried that with such a showy box the film inside must have been crappy.

    Your review has set me straight. Now I have to see it.

  3. Leonard managed a few atmospheric scenes and some sweet zombie carnage, but this one was definitely best left to the 80s. Still throw it on occasionally

  4. Funny, I was recently trying to remember some random 80s zombie film set in a mental asylum and I'm almost positive this was it. Thanks for that!

  5. Nice write-up Bugg. I saw the Dead Pit one time back in the 80's with the flashing eye light box and thought it was cool but I wonder how I would feel seeing it nowadays.

    And I love that reference to Kardashian's dude and Patrick Bateman. I say that every time my wife watches that show and that fool shows up on screen.

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  7. This horror flick was shot where I worked for almost 30 years at Agnew State Hospital in Santa Clara, CA where other flicks were shot incl "Birdy" "When Dreams May Come" "Eyes of Terror" "Baby Snatcher" and others.


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