“That was a strange tale, wasn’t it, Bobby?”–Shirley L. Jones in Tales from the Quadead Zone
DIRECTED BY: Chester Novell Turner
FEATURING: Shirley L. Jones, Keefe L. Turner
PLOT: A woman reads her invisible child two stories from a book entitled “Tales of the Quadead Zone.” In one, a redneck family never has enough food for everyone at the table to eat, until one of the clan figures out a solution. In another, a man retrieves his dead brothers’ corpse in order to ritually abuse it.
- Chester Turner’s 1984 movie Black Devil Doll from Hell was originally written as one of the segments in this anthology film, but was expanded to a full-length feature instead. A remnant of that intention may linger in the theme song, which claims that “dolls will kill…”
- Although they did almost all of the technical work themselves, Turner and Shirley Jones made up fictitious names for the camera and sound credits so the crew would seem larger than it was. Turner is still credited with direction, writing, music, special effects, and editing.
- Most of the cast and crew have surnames of either “Jones” or “Turner.”
- Disappointed after receiving less than $1,000 from the distributor of Black Devil Doll from Hell, Turner and Jones decided to sell copies of Tales from the Quadead Zone themselves. They traveled to every video store they could find within a 25 mile radius of Chicago selling their tapes.
- After completing Quadead Zone, Turner quit filmmaking (because he hadn’t made any money at it) and started a construction business. For two decades he was unaware that his videotapes were being bootlegged and circulated among a small cult of trash-film devotees. (One original VHS copy of Quadead sold for $1,300). Internet rumors circulated claiming that Turner was dead, but Massacre Video’s Louis Justin eventually tracked him down by calling every Chester Turner for whom he could find a telephone number.
- Turner has publicly stated he’s interested in making Tales from the Quadead Zone 2 and Black Devil Doll from Hell 2 (for which he’s already written a script—it’s subtitled “The Goddoll” and will be a spoof of The Godfather).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The corpse dressed up as a clown. Who dresses up a corpse as a clown? What makes the scene especially unforgettable is the basic chroma-key technology used to depict an orangish-red blob of pure spirit entering the dead body.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: What the heck is a “quadead” zone? A zone with four dead people in it? You’ll have no more clue after watching the movie than you did before, but you will at least understand that any film made by the unique Chester Novell Turner deserves a name that doesn’t make sense. Turner’s two-movie horror universe is a world of puppet rapists, killer rednecks, undead clowns and invisible child ghosts, shot through a camcorder lens, acted out by friends and family, and accompanied by a homemade Casio keyboard score that frequently drowns out the dialogue. Of his two brain-damaged films, Tales from the Quadead Zone earns a slight edge over Black Devil Doll from Hell, mainly because it’s a half-hour shorter, and features a broader range of non-actors engaging in awkward pauses in more varied environments.
Scarecrow Video’s trailer for a screening of Tales from the Quadead Zone
COMMENTS: The credits and theme song really tell you what you’re getting into with Tales from the Quadead Zone. With the unmetrical opening lines “If you like your terror adult and strong, welcome here you can’t go wrong,” rapped arrhythmically by a man (director/composer Chester Turner himself) in a screechy “demonic” falsetto, you know you are miles away from the slick professionalism of Hollywood. Pen-and-ink drawings (by lead actress Shirley Jones, who proves a better artist than thespian) prefigure the horrors to come: a clown strangles a man, a body sits up in a coffin, and green fingers dig into eye sockets, holding up a severed head while in the background the decapitated body flees in fright (that last scene didn’t actually make it into the movie). In a Fat Albert growl, a second voice advises, “ghosts may scare, bats may bite, but we all know there are no rules in the game of fright!” The pictures are drawn on paper uncomfortably colored somewhere between lemon yellow and lime green. The rapping castrato’s final words of advice are meant to be given out to any ghosts and ghouls who might arrive during the screening of Quadead Zone: “So be smart and tell them they’re groovy/And ask them to stay and watch the movie!” If a team of fourth graders came up with this opening as a school project, you would probably give them an “A.”
The framing device in this anthology involves a woman reading tales from a book entitled “Tales from the Quadead Zone”; due to the film’s odd structure, we’ll circle back to that framing device at the end. The first story she reads involves a hick family living in a shack. The clan’s patriarch presides over his tribe of eight at dinner each night. Turner’s camera dwells on each individual’s face in turn as they sit around the table, doing nothing at all. After ringing the bell the father then thanks God for the day’s food—baloney sandwiches—even though there isn’t enough for everyone. When he rings the bell again, the potential diners each lunge for their supper. Those with fast reflexes devour the meal in a rush, while those who are slow on the draw mope. An intertitle informs us of the date (July 16, if you’re curious); then the whole ritual plays out again, pretty much exactly as before. Finally, one of the clan—a husky fellow in overalls with no shirt, who frankly looks like he must have been winning a lot of sandwich contests for a long time—snaps. After a massacre, the reduced family resumes the same ritual the next night. The ending is meant to be ironic, in a “Twilight Zone” way, but the twist is bungled. A few final words explain the fates of some of the family members: two are shot, two enter the witness protection program (?), and one dies in the “state gas chair” (??) The entire story lasts less then ten minutes, and the overall effect is to insulate the movie from charges of racial stereotyping by demonstrating that Quadead‘s white people act just as flatly as its black folk.
“That was a strange tale, wasn’t it, Bobby?” observes the woman, before launching into a second story, at the boy’s invisible request. Where the previous segment came in at a trim ten minutes, this second installment draws its story out for over a half-hour. This one, concerning a man who steals his successful brother’s corpse from a funeral parlor because he was upset that he died of natural causes before the opportunity for fratricide arose, has a certain Edgar Allan Poe quality to it (a comparison partially reinforced by the beating heart sound effect that Turner uses for tense moments). Pacing, never Turner’s strong suit, is particularly awful in this overlong tale. More than five minutes are devoted to pointless scenes of the burglars creeping around an empty funeral home with flashlights. The envious brother’s accusatory monologue directed at his sibling’s corpse goes on for another five minutes (including pauses). His triumphant laugh at the end goes on for forty-five seconds, which doesn’t sound like much when you read it, but it’s actually so long that Turner needed to splice together four separate takes to get it all in (the montage is interrupted by one of his trademark awkward silences, as we gaze meditatively at the corpse). The vengeance plan makes no sense: he steals his brother’s body, dresses it as a clown, and re-buries it in his own basement? No one should be surprised when the dead brother gets the upper hand, but the novelty of seeing the killer dressed as a harlequin reaches a new level of surrealism thanks to the bizarre vocoder technology, which is meant to make the avenger’s undead speech sound otherworldly, but instead garbles it so that it’s almost completely unintelligible. It doesn’t help the scene’s tension that an inspired Turner is playing one of his manic Casio riffs at a typically over-prominent volume over the scene.
“Ooh, that was one of the strangest stories I’ve ever read!” cries Bobby’s mom. Although we expect her to launch into a third tale, that is not what happens. The story of invisible Bobby, which had appeared to be a mere wraparound sequence, actually turns out to be one of Quadead‘s main segments. We first met Bobby in the opening scenes, where he appears as a series of budget-appropriate magic tricks: a levitating cup, a chair sliding on its own, seat cushions that depress as if an invisible child is sitting on them. Bobby even has his own funky Casio drum-fill theme, which plays as the camera takes a invisible child’s-eye view of him sauntering into the drawing room for Quadead story time. One of Quadead‘s strangest inventions is the private language mother and child use to communicate: Bobby’s voice is an echo-y “sha-sha-sha-sha” sound effect, and whenever he speaks a stiff breeze blows mom’s hair around as her face takes on an ecstatic expression that seems a little more than maternal. He also has the power to materialize storybooks, an ability that doesn’t faze his mother in the slightest (“‘Tales from the Quadead Zone,’ huh? That sounds good.”) Mom’s doting relationship with the obviously dead child is more than a little strange, and her husband thinks so, too. Arriving home soon after the second story has concluded, he immediately accuses his wife of spending all day reading stories to their dead son. Spousal abuse isn’t funny, but even the most dedicated anti-domestic violence advocate will hardly be able to suppress a giggle when out of the blue hubby starts beating her (on her shoulder) with a copy of “Tales from the Quadead Zone.” The awful, minor key lounge music that accompanies the ineptly-staged thrashing doesn’t help impress us with the awful seriousness of the moment. Of course, this is not the end of the movie, and further tragedy—along with Quadead‘s biggest allotment of stage blood—soon follows the husband’s rash act.
Tales from the Quadead Zone‘s main advantage over its sister movie, Black Devil Doll from Hell, is its brevity. Unofficially, we are cheating here; we mean for Quadead Zone to stand in on the List for Chester Turner’s entire cinematic output. Few movies exist on such a stylistic continuum as Devil Doll and Quadead Zone. Visually, they are almost indistinguishably nondescript. Both star non-actress Shirley Jones. Both feature Turner’s Casio keyboard compositions, which are basically simple arpeggios mixed with preset drum riffs, which he often adds at inappropriate times. Both feature hard-to-decipher sound. Other Chester Turner trademarks include scenes where we sit patiently for several seconds waiting for the actors to begin saying their lines, and unnaturally long gaps between lines. It is entirely appropriate that these two movies are not currently sold separately. No one should see one without seeing the other, and if you’re in for five minutes of Turner’s cinematic output, you might as well go ahead and watch the entire two and a half hours. Black Devil Doll was originally conceived as a segment of Quadead Zone. Devil Doll has a few grippingly bizarre scenes of dreadlocked puppet menace, but far too much filler where nothing at all happens. Devil Doll is ultimately about an hour too long, while Quadead Zone is about half an hour shy of standard feature length. Had an edited version of Devil Doll actually been incorporated into Quadead Zone, as originally conceived, it would have made for the ultimate Chester Turner movie, and a garbage classic.
There is a bizarre horror imagination buried here somewhere under the lack of craftsmanship, a vision which drove Turner to share his tales of puppet rapists and undead clowns with the world. At heart, Turner is a B-movie director with a Z-movie budget. His works aren’t outsider art—they’re outsider schlock. But they are uniquely his, and, unpolished as they might be, there is always something endearing about singular, sincere incompetence.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The combination of these weird, barely structured, obsessive stories that barely are stories at all with the unpleasantly insistent soundtrack, the obviously home-made overdubbed sound effects that still start to sound like the voices in your head after a time, the lingering of the camera on nothing in particular, the nearly-not special effects and the bad yet peculiarly intense acting… pushes the viewer into a feeling of total wrongness.”–Dennis Klotz, WTF Film (VHS)
IMDB LINK: Tales from the Quadead Zone (Video 1987)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Fairy Tale Ending in the Horror Realm: Chester Novell Turner and ‘Black Devil Doll’ Are Back – No less distinguished an outlet than The New York Times reports on the release of Turner’s oeuvre on DVD
Returning to the Quadead Zone: The Resurrection of Chester N. Turner – “Daily Grindhouse” reports on Chester Turner and Shirley Jones’ 2013 appearance at the Cinema Wasteland horror convention
TALES FROM THE QUADEAD ZONE by The Cinema Snob – Snarky video review of the film
Rock! Shop! Pop! – Tales from the Chester Turner zone – Video interview with Turner filmed at a horror convention
DVD INFO: Shot-on-video specialist Massacre Video—itself a kind of one-man underground outfit—has put out a special edition Chester Turner box set (buy) that is almost inconceivable in scope, containing the director’s entire output (i.e., both Black Devil Doll from Hell and Tales from the Quadead Zone). Obviously, the video and audio quality leave everything to be desired, but that’s part of the charm (as I wrote in the separate Devil Doll review, “these visual smudges are all part of recreating the authentic ‘just took a chance on this turkey because of the crazy title and cover’ 1980s video store experience.”) Extras on the Devil Doll disc include the essential thirty-five minute documentary Return to the Quadead Zone, featuring interviews with Turner and his star, collaborator, and former lover Shirley L. Jones. The default presentation of the movie is Turner’s “director’s cut,” but the DVD also contains the Hollywood Video version (which is how most people who originally saw the film experienced it). This edit runs twelve minutes shorter and substitutes heavy metal music for Turner’s own compositions over the opening and closing credits (amusingly, Turner finds their music choice “weird”). The homey commentary track between Turner and Jones is like listening in on a conversation between two old friends. A stills gallery, which includes a shot of contemporaneous negative review of the movie, rounds out the features on this disc.
Tales from the Quadead Zone has fewer extra features; just a short stills gallery and trailers for less interesting shot-on-video horror movies available from Massacre. Fortunately, there is another Turner/Jones commentary on this disc (someone’s kids interrupt them while they’re recording it—they shush them and forge ahead).