When the VHS format rose to prominence in the ’80s, a wave of filmmakers got a fresh opportunity to make an impact on audiences.  Even if they would have rather hit it big at the box office, the insatiable demand for product in the home video world leveled the playing field for smaller, independent efforts who needed the attention.  Genre-oriented filmmakers benefitted the most from this trend.  A lot of the output during the prime VHS years was throwaway stuff but a select group of titles were distinctive enough to carve out their own cult following on the video store shelves.

The Video Dead is an interesting example of such a film.  The protagonists are a brother-sister duo, Jeff (Rocky Duvall) and Zoe (Roxanna Augesen).  They move into a new suburban home ahead of their parents, whose work has them trotting across the globe.  The house seems normal enough but it was recently the site of a mysterious murder.  It all has to do with a television that was delivered to this address by mistake, a television with a terrible paranormal ability.

Jeff discovers the television’s ability when he hears it playing from the attic and brings it downstairs.  In short order, he discovers that this television has a tendency to play a film called “Zombie Blood Nightmare” – and the zombies in said film have the ability to leave the television and kill whoever they find in the real world.  In short order, zombies are roaming the neighborhood and Jeff and Zoe have to figure out a way to end the madness.  Unexpected help comes from Joshua (Sam David McClelland), a man who has dealt with the t.v. before, but these extra-dimensional zombies are a resourceful lot that won’t be put down easily…

The end result wears its amateur status on its sleeve: the acting is earnest but rough in that “community theater” sort of way, the pacing has an unbalanced stop-and-start rhythm and the twist ending can be seen coming from a mile way.  More importantly, it doesn’t always know what to do with its most interesting ideas: for example, the Garbage Man, a potentially fascinating character who offers help from inside the t.v. to Jeff, is introduced in one scene and then promptly dropped from the story.

However, the “let’s make a movie on weekends” quality of The Video Dead is also an important part of its charm for horror fans.  The actors dig into their tasks with enthusiasm, including the zombies – all of whom have their own unique personalities.  Dale Hall’s zombie designs and makeup effects are very good for the budget level and he deals out some creative mayhem, like a chainsaw-achieved zombie dismemberment that is played for gross laughs.  Adding further fun are the distinctly 80’s synths-plus-power-chords score and a variety of similarly ’80s hairdos and clothing that give the film its own analog charm.

Better yet, The Video Dead uses its amateur status to play with horror genre itself. Since it was made by fans who didn’t have to answer to a studio, they dig into their work with a certain subversive glee.  Writer/director Robert Scott has a savvy horror fan’s grasp of genre conventions and uses that knowledge to rewrite zombie lore in interesting ways.  There’s a specialized set of rules for dealing with the zombies that is different from virtually every other zombie opus of the era and the use of television as a “medium” for summoning them is pretty clever.  Without getting into spoilers, the second half of the film throws out some surprising plot turns that send things in a different direction from what horror fans will be expecting.

In short, The Video Dead is a reminder of how fun low-budget horror could be at the dawn of the direct-to-video error.  Whatever its imperfections, there’s a level of raw inspiration and sheer enjoyment that helps it rise above much of the straight-to-video horror fare from this era.  If you were a teen renting horror videos on VHS era during this time, this is the kind of movie you were hoping you might stumble across.