Investigative journalist David Norliss (Roy Thinnes), who specialises in debunking supernatural phenomena, disappears while researching his latest book but passes his tape recordings to publisher Sanford T. Evans (Don Porter). Sitting inside the paranormal researcher’s abandoned house, Sanford listens intently as the tape recounts Norliss’ involvement in the strange affair involving widow Ellen Court (Angie Dickinson). At her sprawling property in the dead of night, Ellen is drawn to investigate some strange noises. She is startled by a hideous, blue skinned, yellow eyed zombie that savages her dog and goes on a rampage across town - a creature, Ellen believes is her late husband James Court. The zombie mauls a local salesgirl, but while Sheriff Tom Hartley (Claude Akins) seeks a rational explanation, Ellen’s sister Marsha (Michele Carey) summons her friend Norliss. As the killings continue, Norliss learns the late sculptor was fascinated by the occult and may have sought immortality by making a pact with the forces of darkness…
Producer Dan Curtis, creator of the cult soap opera turned gothic horror series Dark Shadows, scored what was the highest rated television movie of its time with The Night Stalker (1971). Following the exploits of hack reporter turned paranormal investigator Carl Kolchak, this superior chiller spawned a sequel, The Night Strangler (1973) and a sadly short-lived, but unforgettable TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. By this point all sorts of imitators began to crawl out of the crypt, so Curtis undoubtedly figured he could rip himself off better than anyone else, hence this TV pilot introducing us to occult investigator David Norliss. Sadly, Norliss didn’t grab hold of the public imagination the way Carl Kolchak and the expected television series never came, but for what it is this stand-alone adventure is atmospheric and compelling.
Curtis was a master at building suspense and staging hair-raising thrills without edging too far into what was unpalatable for early Seventies television. His skilful direction compensates for the faintly comical zombie, whose costume and haircut bear a distracting resemblance to second Doctor Who played by Patrick Troughton. The music with its “duh-duh-duhhhh!!” exclamation points before every commercial break adds another layer of unintentional, Scooby-Doo style camp, but the chase sequences remain genuinely exciting and the acting is top notch. As David Norliss, Roy Thinnes - star of the cult Sixties science fiction show The Invaders - is first seen as a haggard, haunted shell of a man. Like Kolchak, he is an outsider regarded with suspicion by the authorities, if not outright mockery as “someone who chases ghosts.”
It’s a shame no other episodes followed, given these would surely explain how the soft-spoken, self-assured hero shown in the unfolding adventure came to be the jittery burnout seen in the opening flash-forward. Supporting Thinnes, lovely Angie Dickinson and Vonetta McGee, as a refreshingly benevolent practitioner of the occult arts, both deliver impeccable performances although the plot wastes the equally committed Michele Carey with her sexy voice. We never really learn why Jim the zombie kills so many people, given they don’t seem to figure into his demonic plan. Nor why he goes out of his way to spare Ellen. Norliss’ hardboiled narration proves rather intrusive, describing weather and scenery that viewers can plainly see and going so far as to recount events where he was not present. Although the outlandish plot is played commendably straight, The Norliss Tapes could have done with a dose of The Night Stalker’s acerbic wit.