Arrogant psychic researcher Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour) picks up sassy streetwalker Diana Love (Pamela Duncan) to serve as the test subject for a radical experiment. Using hypno-therapy, Quintus transports Diana’s subconscious mind back in time for a glimpse into the life of her Medieval ancestor, Elaine (Pamela Duncan, again) who stands wrongfully accused of witchcraft. Elaine’s sweetheart, Pendragon (Richard Garland) stands ready to rescue her, but sexy, shapeshifting witch Livia (Allison Hayes) and her hideous imp (Billy Barty) have designs on selling his soul to Satan (Richard Devon).
“Behold the subtle working of my talents. And pray that I may never turn my interest upon you. Bwah-ha-ha!” cackles bug-eyed Beelzebub in his creepy intro to The Undead, another low-budget wonder from Roger Corman that surely ranks among the most audacious and inventive horror movies of the Fifties. In 1952, amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein placed Colorado housewife Virginia Tighe under an hypnotic trance revealing her past life as a 19th century Irish woman named Bridey Murphy. Despite there being several holes in “Bridey’s” story, the book Bernstein wrote documenting this phenomenon became a national bestseller and sparked a Bridey Murphy craze resulting in two hit songs, a Bridey Murphy dance, a reincarnation themed cocktail (!), a spoof record and two movies: The Search for Bridey Murphy (1956) and I’ve Lived Before (1956).
Always quick to cash-in on a trend, drive-in kings AIP and producer-director Roger Corman concocted The Undead, based on a screenplay co-written (as The Trance of Diana Love) by the ever-ingenious Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, who also wrote Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1957) the film that immortalised statuesque beauty Allison Hayes as a B-movie icon the same year. Smouldering through a great performance while wearing a sort of medieval cocktail dress slit to the thigh, Hayes is even more memorable here and brings genuine heat to hoary lines such as: “Forgive me if this chill brings out the wildness in my blood.” Pamela Duncan is also terrific as the sympathetic Elaine who eventually faces an impossible choice between living now only to die forever or perishing so that her future selves, including the hitherto disreputable Diana, can blossom. The climactic scene wherein the entire cast hector Elaine with advice whilst her future selves urge her to let them live, proves unexpectedly moving.
In some ways the film anticipates Corman’s The Trip (1967) with its core idea involving the use of unorthodox therapy to answer questions about the inner self, but it also prefigures his later, lavish Edgar Allan Poe movies and their preoccupation with antiheroes racing recklessly towards a malefic fate. In this instance, our ambiguous antihero is Quintus. Fearful his actions have fatally disrupted Diana’s timeline, he uses another radical technique to transport himself back in time. Arriving naked, save for his wristwatch (!), Quintus grabs a handy disguise and attempts to orchestrate events, but there is a sting in the tale for our smug scientist. The film moves at a cracking pace and, despite the odd goofy moment, bristles with offbeat ideas and genuine surprises, notably its inversion of The Wizard of Oz stereotype by making the beautiful witch whilst the ugly one, Meg Maud (Dorothy Neumann - AIP’s resident witch) proves Elaine’s greatest ally. The pseudo-medieval dialogue gets pretty corny at times and some of the supporting performances are cartoony to match, but few true B-movie lovers would begrudge the presence of Mel Welles - future director of Lady Frankenstein (1971) - as a comical gravedigger who speaks entirely in ghoulish verse, Bruno VeSota - future director of The Brain Eaters (1958) - as the portly innkeeper who comes to a gruesome end, or certainly the great Dick Miller as a leper! Watch out for the three leggy Vampira look-alikes performing an interpretive dance number at Satan’s climactic shindig.