Lost and Found: The Dead Pit

The Dead Pit (1989) is a true hidden gem of eighties horror. For a film no one ever seems to remember, this debut directorial effort by Brett Leonard (Virtuosity) has somehow managed to make it to DVD and Blu-ray formats over the years. Still, it’s a pretty deep cut for eighties horror, one which definitely deserves a wider audience.

Terrific poster and tagline.

What’s it about? Well, a user on IMDb sums it up nicely: “A renegade doctor is shot dead and entombed with his fiendish experiments in the basement of an abandoned wing of a mental hospital. Twenty years later, a mysterious woman is admitted with amnesia, and her arrival is marked by an earthquake—which cracks the seal to the Dead Pit, freeing the evil doctor to continue his work.” Soon after, zombie doc is wreaking havoc all over the asylum for his nefarious “work.”

This might be the most haunting shot, but director Brett Leonard packs the film full of similarly memorable moments.

A simple yet excellent setup, and the execution of all this is even better. Reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser—although a little schlockier than those—and 1970s-1980s zombie flicks, The Dead Pit is wonderfully atmospheric and dreamlike, with Leonard making great use of wide-angle lenses to enhance the dread. It might be low budget, but it looks fantastic. The zombie makeup and gore effects are first rate, and the ubiquitous 1980s psychiatric hospital setting is majorly creepy.

No, this is not from Flashdance.

Movie website The Pink Smoke describes star Cheryl Lawson as looking like “a busty cross between Elm Street’s Heather Langenkamp and Hellraiser’s Ashley Laurence,” and, by Satan, does she ever! It’s uncanny, in fact. Lawson is utterly effective in a role that calls for her to be disoriented while wandering the hospital’s hellscape in little more than a crop top and bikini briefs.

Cheryl Lawson brings the Heather Langenkamp-Ashley Laurence vibes, only with 50% less clothing.

According to an interview for the DVD release, she made this sartorial choice herself. IMDb informs us that, “The more her outfit was washed, the more [it] shrank and the underwear became tighter, much to the delight and amusement of the film crew.” Only in the eighties, kids! Wardrobe aside, Lawson can even act a little bit, plus she screams her lungs out for most of the movie. She could’ve been a cult movie scream queen if she’d stuck to horror, but instead she went on to become a stunt double in movies like Swordfish and Ocean’s Eleven, among others.

The doctor will see you now.

Neither Lawson nor her mostly unknown cast mates are master thespians here, but that’s part of what makes The Dead Pit a solid gold cult film. Danny Gouchnauer seems to be having fun as the insane, resurrected doctor killing everyone in the hospital, while Stephen Gregory Foster positively chews the scenery as a fellow patient who helps Lawson’s amnesiac Jane Doe. Details online for Foster are scarce, but his English accent sounds either faked or ramped up for maximum cheesiness factor here.

But did you lock the dead pit before you left?

While I’m grateful it’s gotten home media releases, I’m still kind of amazed The Dead Pit is mostly overlooked. I saw it several years ago and found it highly entertaining. It would make a terrific double feature with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, also set inside a psychiatric hospital.

The Dead Pit is streaming on Amazon Prime.

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