Orgy of the Dead
The talking-pig movie Babe featured the idea that there was a certain Sacred Phrase; any sheep who heard it was obliged to obey the speaker without question. I don't know the words that might make dedicated Bad Movie Fans bow to your every whim, but if you'll bear with me a moment I will reveal to you the Words of Power which will turn them into pitiful quivering wrecks, curled up in fetal position and whimpering softly. I feel safe in revealing this secret, because in order for you to get the incantation right, you'll have to know where the Words come from and how to sing them (yes, you have to sing them). And if you know where the words come from, you've already experienced their Awesome Power.

The Words are as follows:

HEY — YA — HO-O-O-O...
HEY — YA — HO-O-O-O...

Those of you who don't recognize this dreadful incantation may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Well, you can keep wondering while the rest of us pick ourselves back up off the floor, take our medication, make a quick call to our therapists and nerve ourselves to keep reading. For the rest of us, I don't even need to provide the melody — once heard, it can never be completely forgotten. Singing this chant in a room full of movie masochists is as dangerous as shouting "Steven Seagal!" in a crowded theater.

OK: perhaps I'm exaggerating just a bit. Maybe this doesn't have the effect, say, that the Looney Tunes theme does on anyone who's survived Andy Milligan's Monstrosity. Still, you may understand what I mean when I tell you these simple syllables come from Orgy of the Dead, the 1965 travesty written by Edward D. Wood.

Wood is famous for writing and directing terrible movies, but few films of any provenance can compete with Orgy of the Dead for sheer idiocy. Sure, other Wood movies feature actors barely worthy of the name; sure, others combine inappropriate music, poor lighting, inept make-up and camera work, and plenty of turgid, incomprehensible dialog. But in Orgy, these Woodisms are the movie's strong points... and what's more, they only take up about a third of the movie's running time. The bulk of the film consists of nothing more... and nothing less... than ten of the worst strip-tease acts anyone's ever seen.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that although the movie has Wood's angora-lint all over it, Wood himself didn't direct it. The guy in charge of this ghastly mess was Stephen Apostolov (hiding behind the name A.C. Stephens — I'm sure he had reasons), who has the dubious honor of having made a less-watchable Ed Wood movie than Ed Wood himself.

The movie's opening is familiar territory for Wood fans — not just because his regular narrator, Criswell the "psychic", is on hand to provide the introduction, but also because his intro is taken almost verbatim from the opening of Night of the Ghouls (1959). I can't hold Wood's self-plagiarism against him, though: at the time, he believed his earlier film to be lost. He'd been unable to pay for the developing costs, and had simply abandoned the whole movie. It wasn't until after his death that somebody retrieved it. So in 1965, Wood had no reason to believe anyone would ever recognize Criswell's opening speech.

Now, though, this little speech is one of the most famous quotations of the whole Wood canon. In fact, in spite of the relative simplicity of Orgy's story and the brevity of the script, Orgy is one of the most quotable of all Wood's creations. In his longer scripts, he had a tendency to go off on wild tangents, and many of his howlers are funniest in context. In Orgy, though, there's only one main situation and comparatively little dialog. The essence of Wood is concentrated in a few brief, memorable lines.

Here's what Criswell says, with a few cues as to how he says it:

I am Criswell!
For many years I have told you the almost unbelievable... related the unreal... and showed it to be more ... than a fact!
Now, I tell a tale of the threshold people, so astounding that some of you may faint! This is the story of those in the twilight time; once human, now monsters, in a void between the living and the dead.
Monsters to be pitied! Monsters to be despised!
A night with the ghouls! The ghouls, reborn... from the innermost depths... of the world.
All through the speech, you can see Criswell struggling blearily to read his cue card (in spite of the fact he'd recited the exact same passage a few years before). According to others on the set, Criswell was thoroughly drunk during shooting, which may explain why we don't actually see him sit up in his coffin the way we did in the earlier film. If you listen carefully, you'll hear that he doesn't really say "depths": the word comes out emphatically as "Depps". Of course, Wood had no way to know he'd be portrayed by an actor named Depp years later, in a movie based (however loosely) on his life and career... perhaps, through the miracle of alcohol, this was as close as Criswell ever got to a real psychic revelation?

(Possibly — though I think the Randi prize is safe!)

The story proper begins: Bob, a hack horror writer, takes Shirley, his red-headed bimbo of a girlfriend, to get some inspiration by hanging out in a cemetery at night... we're told it's night, though in typical Wood fashion the mismatched footage can't seem to make up its mind. Evidently the abrupt changes between blue-filtered sunlight and total darkness are too much for them, because they suddenly (and unconvincingly) lose control of the car and swerve off the road.

Pat Barringer, who plays the bimbo girlfriend, is a terrible actress. Her delivery is so flat that even her screams convey no emotion at all. However, there's nothing flat about the rest of her, and that's why she got the job: in addition to playing Shirley, the girlfriend, she also dons a wig and takes off nearly everything else as the Gold Girl later on. As bad as she is, she's hardly a patch on the sheer awfulness of Wiliam Bates, who plays Bob. Bates often reads his reaction lines as though they were part of a completely different situation. At least he keeps his clothes on...

Having just has a terrible accident, our couple are now stranded between the world of the living and the world of the dead. It seems the only reason they aren't dead is because the Lord of the Dead himself (Criswell) is taking a break from his job — in that very cemetery — and enjoying the torments of the damned. By "torments of the damned", of course, I mean he's making us watch this movie.

As written by Wood and played by Criswell, the Lord of the Dead is apparently one of Hell's mid-level bureaucrats, who's taking the night off from the endless paperwork to hit the strip clubs. There he sits, sprawled in his chair, chatting amicably with his assistant, the "Black Ghoul", about eternal punishment. He says things like, "I would see for approval..." as though he were at one of Satan's board meetings. He's the least-menacing Lord of Darkness ever captured on film, especially with that hair of his — hair I'll bet nobody in Hell has the heart to mention.

Wghile Bob and Shirley stumble their way into the cemetery, Criswell instructs his companion to bring on the first act. It's the Girl who Loved Flames — insert your own "Criswell gets lucky" joke here. We see a girl dressed in what somebody evidently thought was American Indian garb: she was apparently a Native American pyromaniac, who killed her lovers by fire and was eventually killed by fire herself. On the soundtrack, we hear what is probably an authentic Southwest Indian chant. In case we didn't get the idea, or in case we didn't think all this was stereotypically "Injun" enough, we also have some (obviously Caucasian) male voices dubbed in out-of-sync, chanting:

HEY — YA — HO-O-O-O...
HEY — YA — HO-O-O-O...

And all the while, the "Indian" girl, topless now but still dead-eyed and listless, does some pathetic little gyrations. This is the first, and one of the worst, of the ten abominable topless dances that make up the bulk of the movie.

Someone should tell the members of Dead Can Dance that their group's name is a cruel, cruel lie.

To refer to what these girls do as "striptease" is to do a disservice to the art of Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee. There's no "strip" involved, and even less "tease": we see the girls in their scanty costumes, and then, as their "performance" begins, we see them drop their tops and start their shimmy. And they go on, and on, and on, repeating the same uncoordinated movements; maybe one or two of them seem to have some kind of stage presence, but it's simply not enough: even if they have the "bump", the only "grind" is coming from the audience's teeth. Admittedly, these girls are supposed to be the Living Dead, but did they need to be so damned convincing? You get the idea they're no more lively in their off-screen careers.

(Everybody in the movie seems to have at most two gestures that they perform, and the one they have in common is the Beckon. That's where they make what are supposed to be enticing movements toward Criswell or the camera. Criswell, for his part, does both the Beckon and the Finger-Point. Hey, Cris; guess what? The audience is doing the Finger-Point as well! Only they seem to be using a different finger...)

After the Streetwalker Dance (in which a pretty redhead manages to stay absolutely rigid while her breasts go round and round and round...), we have the dance of the Girl who Worshipped Gold. As I mentioned earlier, this is the multi-talented Pat Barringer herself in a challenging dual role. She proves almost as inexpressive a dancer as she is a screamer, but somehow she manages to work Criswell up into a lather (Skipp and Spector referrred to his performance as "coughing up a Thorazine hairball of approval"). "More gold!" he cries, as two of his burly slaves throw orange-colored plastic coins at her; "Let her have more gold!" Finally, he orders her dipped in a steaming cauldron. When the slaves pull her out, she's gilded à la Goldfinger. "For all eternity, she shall have gold," chortles Criswell.

By this point, Bob and Shirley are captured by Criswell's assistants: the Mummy and the Wolf-man. These two are our Comic Relief; the only thing worse than their costumes are the Mummy's feeble attempts at jokes. The Wolf-man plays straight man as best as he can, since his dialog is limited to pseudo-comic howls and grunts.

The Mummy and the Wolf-man tie Bob and Shirley to two convenient posts (which just happen to have ropes beneath them). As they tie them up, the Black Ghoul says, in apparent non sequitur, "To love the cat is to be the cat!" This is actually a badly-timed lead-in for the next dance, in which a girl in an embarrassing cat costume bounces around while one of Criswell's brawny servants cracks a whip over her. The dance is accompanied by a rinky-tink variation on the infamous "Alleycat Song"... hardly what you might expect the undead to be grooving to.

"The pussycat is born to be whipped!" says Criswell (a line that goes over particularly badly in my house).

Ginger says: 'Say That Again???'

Up next is the "slave girl with her tortures!" One of those muscular henchmen is seen beating a long-haired girl who's chained to a wall. "Torture, torture, it pleasures me!" says Criswell, as the girl begins yet another interminable amateur dance. By this time, we begin to notice a pattern to the dance numbers: just when we're sure they couldn't possibly go on any longer, just when it sounds like the music is about to come to a stop, just as we get our hopes up, it all starts up again. Torture indeed.

Bob and Shirley sahre a whispered conversation about how frightened they are — so frightened that they can barely speak over a monotone. The Mummy and the Wolf-man overhear Shirley saying she might faint from fear, and go to inform the Black Ghoul. Aroused by Shirley's fear, the Black Ghoul goes to deliberately torment her, opening her blouse and carving an "x" in her flesh with her fingernail. Fawn Silver, the girl who plays the Black Ghoul, is absolutely the best thing about the movie, though admittedly this is faint praise.

Criswell holds her back from doing anything else, saying that Shirley must endure more before she becomes one of the Dead. I suppose from her inflection (or lack thereof), he's realized she's more than halfway there already. So on we go to the Skull Dance, which has something to do with bulls, and then to the Hawai'ian Dance, which is surprisingly Latin in character, and has something to do with, umm, rattlesnakes and fire.

The Black Ghoul points out that there's very little time left before the morning sun rises, and Criswell reacts by calling his faithful servants, the Mummy and the Wolf-man, and wasting still more time with them. First, the two dim-witted monsters argue with each other: did they do somethig wrong? Is the Master angry with them? Then they go and see Criswell: is the Master angry with them? No, no; he's not... so then he wants them to do something? Yes. What, then, does he want them to do? Well, since they're running out of time, and the morning sun is going to rise soon, and since the Lord of the Dead still wants entertainment, he wants them to go find him something very special. And hurry.

Before we launch into the ludicrously up-tempo skeleton dance, featuring a bride who poisoned her husband (the skeleton) on their wedding night, Bob and Shirley have another impassioned exchange. Mumbling with terror, Shirley asks Bob what he thinks the fiends intend to do with them. "They wouldn't dare put both of us in the same grave," replies Bob. "Or would they?"

"I should hope not," says Shirley; then, without a beat or a perceptible change of expression, she adds, "I hate you."

"That sudden?" asks Bob, equally stiffly.

"Yes, that sudden," says Shirley.

So on we go to the skeleton dance, wherein the bride ghoul shows us she can do something exceedingly unappealing with her chest. Criswell asks Shirley how she's enjoying the show so far; Shirley hoots with alarm. When Bob blusters at him, Criswell treats him with scorn: "No-one wishes to see a man dance!"

The Black Ghoul in the meantime gets impatient to have "her own pleasure" with the helpless Shirley. Criswell decides to play some sexual power games with her, by threatening to give Shirely to the Mummy or the Wolf-man instead. Shirley continues to berate Bob for getting them into this mess as Bob works to free his hands from the ropes.

Once Bob's hands are free of the ropes, Bob warns Shirley not to give him away: "Don't change your expression too much!" he says. Why he would think she'd do something like that when she hasn't thoughout the whole movie, I really can't guess.

Fortunately for the captives, the Lord of the Dead and his Black Ghoulfriend are having another little spat over Shirley. The Black Ghoul demands to claim her before the sun rises, and Criswell blows his pomaded top. "Your own pleasure come only after mine!" he fumes. Duly chastened, the Black Ghoul brings on the next act, the "decided change" that His Majesty has ordered.

This time it's the Zombie Girl... a girl who lived her life as a zombie, and now must spend all eternity moving stiffly, with a fixed, glassy expression on her face.

(And this is different from the others exactly... how?)

The Black Ghoul is still whining about having her turn. "There is always time!" cries Cris; "You shall have your pleasures!" And now for the final act: the girl who craved "feathers, fur and fluff" — angora, presumably. And then, at last, it's time: Criswell gives the Black Ghoul permission to claim Shirley for her own. "Hurry, hurry!" he says; "I will watch. Your desires may be my pleasure also!" Perv. Anyway, now that Criswell has stressed the need for speed, just as the Black Ghoul has been doing all along, what do you think our Vampira-wannabe does? She whips out her trusty machete and dances! Aaargh! Will this movie never end? Though I have to admit, Fawn Silver with her clothes on gives more of a show than all the nude dances that came before.

Just as the lecherous Ghoul undoes Shirley's bra and moves in for the kill, Bob springs free from his bonds... only to be immdiately knocked unconscious by the Mummy and the Wolf-man. So much for our hero. But before the Ghoul can claim Shirley's soul, the sun pops up like a jack-in-the-box... and presto! It's mid-afternoon! I guess the mismatched day/night footage problem works both ways. Criswell and the monsters turn into ratty old skeletons — and Shirley and Bob wake up at the crash scene, where an ambulance has arrived to take them away. Bob and Shirely groggily confess their undying love to each other, as the medics put Shirley on a stretcher. Evidently the props budget could only afford one stretcher, as poor Bob has to walk to the ambulance. And they lived happily ever after.

Oh — and by the way: it's night-time again.

I don't normally make fun of Ed Wood movies. Somehow it seems uncharitable. But in this case, somebody else has actually gone out of his way to make a Wood film, and what's more, he's done a horrible job of it. Orgy of the Dead lacks the loopy charm of Wood's own earlier work, and though the brief bits between the endless nude dances feature some classic Woodisms, those dances are enough to send anybody into sheer screaming insanity. I don't know how people survived this movie before the age of the Fast-Forward button.

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