“Torture! Torture! It pleasures me!”
In the 1950s and 60s, there were a string of “nudie cuties” – films in which the primary aim was to show a bevy of topless females, purely for titillation. Unlike hardcore, it’s difficult to imagine anyone finding these offensive – they’re often very innocent in their style and content (hence the “cutie” description). Orgy of the Dead isn’t quite a nudie cutie, primarily because it’s not really that cute; directed by A C Stephens (a pseudonym for Stephen C Apostolof, who went on to produce and direct a number of erotic movies), this has gained some notoriety due to its screenwriter, none other than Ed Wood. It’s not surprising, then, that Orgy of the Dead adopts a horror-inspired plot, and one that, despite the ridiculous premise, appears to include vaguely biographical details. This plot, however, is merely filler; the majority of the movie consists of a series of topless dances – dances that, despite those performing them being professional strippers, lack any sense of rhythm or eroticism. It’s a desperately dull, obviously low-budget, tacky film, but the filler-plot just about manages to make it entertaining.
Echoing other Wood-directed movies, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls, Orgy of the Dead opens with Criswell rising from his coffin, spouting gibberish (and even repeating lines of narration from Night of the Ghouls) to introduce the film. He was fifty-eight at the time of filming, and he cuts a rather lecherous figure. It’s worth noting that this is the only film I can think of in which we see Criswell in colour, but it does him no favours. He plays The Emperor – a kind of master of the dead who, along with his sidekick The Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver, clearly ripping off Vampira’s image), forces dead females to dance for his enjoyment. Their dances relate somehow to how they died – so, during the course of the movie, among others we get to see: a girl dance with the skeleton of her murdered husband; a girl who dances like a Native American because she through herself into fire after the death of her lover; a girl who loves gold having coins thrown over her; a streetwalker dancing to a smooth jazz accompaniment; a zombie; and a girl wearing a baggy onsie-style catsuit (complete with ears and tail), with breasts and buttocks exposed. Yes, I must concede that the themes of the dances are somewhat vague and abstract, but the cat girl in particular is a sight to behold.
While Criswell and Fawn Silver leer over these uncoordinated females, our heroes are introduced. Bob (William Bates) is an aspiring author (of course), who would prefer not to write about daisies, dogs and trees (?!) but about horror (naturally). Thus, he drags along his petulant girlfriend Shirley (there are many Shirleys in Wood’s writing, and his transvestite alter-ego also took that name; here Shirley is played by an utterly personality-free Pat Barrington, who also plays the Gold Girl, resulting in a strange situation where Shirley at one point ogles herself) to a graveyard for inspiration, where they stumble upon Criswell’s debauchery. Captured by a Wolfman and a Mummy (the former screams rather than howls; the latter discusses Cleopatra and his hatred of snakes), the comedy sidekicks of the movie, they are tied up and forced to watch, so that they may gain some kind of education, apparently.
Orgy of the Dead is a mess, and the discontinuity is even more obvious because of the colour. As Shirley and Bob drive to the graveyard, the shots alternate between broad daylight and pitch black night. The graveyard is obviously a set, made even more artificial and tacky by the constant overuse of a smoke machine. The dancers are the most ungainly group, and there is nothing about their routines that offer any hint of professionalism; if you’re looking for spectacle, you won’t find it here – although, that being said, one girl displays the most bizarre breast-waggling style I have ever witnessed. It’s less showgirl, more flapping lunatic. Meanwhile, Criswell remains slumped in a corner. Part creepy old man, part deluded ignoramus, it frequently appears that he has lost all sense of what is happening around him. As a result, it’s not only an uncomfortable performance because of his obvious age in contrast to the topless girls he’s ogling, but because he seems to be lacking some of his faculties.
Badfilm fans will, however, be rewarded for their patience. While the routines themselves are a true test of endurance (even cutaways to the girls’ audience show them looking bored and, at times, disgusted), the dialogue in between is wonderfully Woodian (and Wooden) – Shirley and Bob have a “massive” fight that consists of her flatly telling him, “I hate you”. Bob’s attempt at escape is the most incompetent and pointless display of masculinity (he manages about one step before being knocked unconscious). Fawn Silver spends the majority of the movie warning Criswell about the approaching sun, but when he grants her time for her own “pleasures”, she spends an inordinate amount of time writhing around and licking a knife. By the time the night eventually comes to an end, everyone emerges an idiot; perhaps even the viewer, for actually sitting through the whole thing.