“People have asked me if I realized how odd or strange the story was. Then and now, I never thought of it [that way]—as a slightly offbeat story, perhaps—but I’ve always thought of it as a normal story.”–George Barry, 2003 DVD introduction to Death Bed: The Bed That Eats
DIRECTED BY: George Barry
FEATURING: Rosa Luxemburg, William Russ (as Rusty Russ), Dave Marsh, voice of Patrick Spence-Thomas
PLOT: A ghost trapped in a chamber behind a painting relates the story of his companion, a bed who eats all those who lie on it. The bed was brought to life by a demon’s tears and is tied to the spirit that birthed it. Several young people stumble upon the bed and are consumed by it, until one girl arrives who, with the ghost’s help, has the power to defeat it.
- George Barry began shooting Death Bed in 1972, but did not complete the film until 1977.
- Death Bed was the only move credit for most of the cast and crew, including director Barry. One notable exception is William Russ (billed here as Rusty Russ), who went on to a long career as a character actor, with over 100 appearances in movies and TV shows.
- Barry tried to sell the completed film but could not find a distributor willing to shoulder the expense of blowing the film up from 16 millimeter to 32 millimeter. He gave up his attempts to find a distributor in the early 1980s and opened a bookstore instead. Then, while surfing a horror fan forum one night in the early 2000s, he discovered people discussing his forgotten film. Barry learned that an unscrupulous English company had screened the film and released an unlicensed VHS tape, which was then bootlegged and circulated by collectors. Discovering there was now some interest in Death Bed as a cult item, Barry was able to secure an actual official premiere and a DVD release in 2004, more than 25 years after the film had been completed.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: While shots of the bed’s digestive system in action are certainly tempting, the take home image involves the man whose hands are reduced to Halloween props after he unwisely digs into the hungry mattress.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Man behind the painting; Pepto Bismal in a bed’s belly; fleshless phalanges
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A horror movie where the antagonist is a bed would be strange enough. Death Bed, however, is even stranger; a mix of exploitation tropes, fairy tale poetry, black comedy gags, and arthouse pretensions, with deadpan amateur actors sleepwalking their way through a script that takes as many weird turns as that dyspeptic dream you had when you feel asleep after eating too much fried chicken and drinking too much red wine.
Clips from Death Bed: The Bed That Eats
COMMENTS: began filming Eraserhead in California in 1972, using a grant from the American Film Institute. George Barry began filming Death Bed: The Bed That Eats in Detroit in 1972, using $10,000 he borrowed. Both men took a painstaking five years to shoot their movies, finishing in 1977. Lynch’s Gothic nightmare on film was originally lambasted by a bemused press, but was eventually hailed as a masterpiece. A surrealist exploitation-horror with an absurd antagonist, Death Bed could not find a distributor, and sunk into obscurity before it was rediscovered and officially released twenty six years after it was made. Lynch went on to become one of the world’s most acclaimed directors; Barry never made a film again.
The line between genius and inanity can be tissue paper thin. Death Bed is no Eraserhead, but the two films share some weird DNA, as if the furniture-horror film was the monster-baby movie’s less successful brother, the one who never moved out of mom’s basement. Death Bed isn’t incompetent, although it has scenes that defy good sense: one of the bed’s victims escapes his maw and crawls away from her devourer, red paint slathered all over the backs of her denim jeans, for an agonizingly senseless three minutes of real time. Other moments suggest that Barry has real talent for crafting images: after one death, a bouquet of red poppies sprouts in a field outside the bed’s chamber, and a tracking shot takes us under the soil to see its roots are wrapped around the base of a skull. Some of the movie’s other choices are neither good nor bad per se, just so unexpectedly strange that they are sui generis to George Barry. Many people could have come up with the idea of a bed that consumes those who lie on it, but who else would have shot so many scenes of victims and random objects being digested inside the bed’s gut, which looks like a tank filled with Mello Yello and Alka Seltzer? It is that mixture of cheap, bad scenes, genuinely good moments, and consistently strange directorial choices that give Death Bed its weird texture.
As is appropriate for a film about a bed, Death Bed offers up a dreamlike atmosphere, one that is often enhanced by its low budget. Tight funds led to most of the film being shot without live sound. This makes for long sections with no dialogue, just sound effects. In fact, the film opens with a blank screen and the sound of munching (which goes on for almost a minute!) Some conversations play outThe bed’s digestive processes are accompanied by a sound like someone frying bacon while playing clips from a Tangerine Dream album in the background, sometimes accompanied by uncouth chomping. The bed itself also chuckles wickedly, pants in hungry anticipation as a girl changes into her pajamas for the night, and even snores (a self-sleeping bed!) Most of the important points of the story are conveyed in posh echo-chamber voiceovers by the Artist, a soul trapped in an alcove hidden behind a painting, who explains the bed’s fairy tale origins but whose own ghostly existence remains mysterious. He also speaks directly to the Death Bed (“it’s been such a time since your last meal,” he observes darkly as a trio of young ladies approach the bed). The film’s unconventional soundscape was partially dictated by funding, but the results are delightfully unreal and fitting for a movie that works like a dream.
Death Bed even contains explicit dream sequences. Those who recline on their devourer rest uneasily. One morsel dreams she is being served a hissing cockroach on a bed of worms. Another sleeper sees her companion, who disappeared the day before, reading a book by the fire. When she asks what the girl is reading she responds “a book of dead people. I’m in it, and you’re in it, too.” Of course, these are just dreams-within-dreams, gratuitous events when Death Bed‘s reality is so sluggishly unreal. This is a movie where a bed swallows the crucifix of a sleeping girl into its trans-dimensional mattress, then tugs back and forth on the chain so that it saws at her neck, faster and faster, until spurts of blood squirt in front of the suspended cross. This is a movie where, when a bed scours the flesh from a man’s hands, the operation is painless and the victim’s reaction is little more than dull surprise. “Great, the cartilage is decaying,” he says with tired resignation, as the tip of his pinkie bone drops to the floor. The way the actors in this scene underplay the horror of their situation could be viewed as hilariously bad acting by the ungenerous viewer, but we recognize that it is a deliberately reflects the way the sleeper casually accepts the absurd. Death Bed plays as a dream, one perhaps dreamed inside the film by the ghost, or the demon, or even the bed itself, but certainly dreamed by George Barry. Naturally, his commentary reveals that the idea of a bed that envelops its sleeper came to him—in a dream.
George Barry doesn’t exhibit the once-in-a-generation talent of a David Lynch in this debut, but the film is no joke, either: it’s as much an uninterfered-with projection of Barry’s psyche as Eraserhead is of Lynch’s. With the right breaks, George Barry could have had the kind of career in North America thathad in Europe; Death Bed has the same Eurotrashy sensibility, focusing on languid moods, undressed girls, and unexplained occurrences chosen for their poetry rather than their utility. It is understandable that, in 1977’s film market, there was no one willing to take a chance on a project as strange and cheap as Death Bed. No one would be wiling to today, either; even a Kickstarter campaign requires within-the-year results and a ready-made pop-culture fan base for success. Who is out there right now spending five years pouring their hearts and saving accounts into making the next Death Bed? Movies need the George Barrys of the world as much as the David Lynches.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“How often does one get the chance to a see a movie that features a man-eating bed, the ghost of Audrey Beardsley, and a cinematic style that recalls underground films of the sixties by Kenneth Anger and James Broughton? Not often… quirky, dreamlike and truly unclassifiable…”–Jeff Stafford, Turner Classic Movies (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS by The Cinema Snob – Humorous/sarcastic video review by The Cinema Snob
Death Bed: The Play – Information on a stage adaptation of Death Bed performed in October 2014
LIST CANDIDATE: DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS (1977) – ‘s original recommendation of this film for this site
DVD INFO: Cult Epic’s release of the long-forgotten Death Bed on DVD in 2004 (buy) is the stuff of weird movie legend. The DVD included an introduction by George Barry and liner notes from Stephen Thrower, the horror writer most responsible for rediscovering this gem. 2015 saw a Blu-ray upgrade (buy). The film was remastered, although given the vintage 16mm source material, the added value of a high definition transfer is questionable. The new commentary by Barry and the aforementioned Thrower is a substantial improvement, however. Barry’s introduction is carried over from the DVD edition, along with an alternate take from effusive fan Thrower. The original Death Bed music credits track and a couple of home-movie style reminiscences between Barry and Thrower comprise the rest of the extras.
Death Bed is also available digitally on-demand (rent or buy).