(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
Doctor Death isn’t your typical Halloween movie. For starters, it’s more sci-fi than horror. Nevertheless, you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that better captures the childhood thrill of dressing up in cool costumes, whipping up a batch of fake blood, pulling pranks with your friends, and trying to gross out some adults. In that sense, Doctor Death is quintessential Halloween stuff.
Doctor Death is a Super 8 film from 1989, made by a teenaged Webster Colcord and starring his friends and family. They produced this little post-apocalyptic masterpiece during their free time while attending high school in Eugene, Oregon. The age is apparent when you watch the film, but only insofar as the actors are obviously kids. Featuring homemade special effects that would make Rick Baker or Tom Savini smile, everything else about Doctor Death achieves levels of imagination and craft that are far beyond what you’d expect from a group of high schoolers.
In the dystopian world of Doctor Death, the nuclear fallout has dissipated as our titular anti-hero cruises around in his tricked-out school bus, tossing chemical bombs out the window and generally terrorizing anyone (or anything — poor dog) unfortunate enough to cross his path. He’s having a blast until his precious bus goes kablooey and he’s forced to tussle with a long-haired mutant, tries to steal a car from some dudes with a rocket launcher, and faces off against a monstrous bad guy with a fully weaponized wheelchair. While Mad Max will definitely come to mind, Colcord claims the true inspiration is, oddly enough, Metalstorm, a 1983 movie from the prolific schlock maestro Charles Band, who’s perhaps better known for Trancers, some Puppet Master sequels, or the magnum opus that is his seven-part Evil Bong series. So yeah… In a way, the man responsible for 2020’s Corona Zombies is also indirectly responsible for this gem.
While it’s impressive for any high schoolers to shoot and edit a movie on film — and have it be legitimately entertaining — Doctor Death takes every aspect of this proposition and pushes it one step further. First of all, Colcord creates a unique soundscape to go with the film by adding a moody, synthy score, recording all the sounds in post. Wisely, Concord eschews the whole concept of dialog (which tends to sink a lot of similar teenaged-produced film projects) and shoots the film like a silent movie, relying instead on editing, special effects and all the things you can do to a film after principle photography is done. He even hand-colors some of the gun-blast effects onto the film itself. Images are slowed down, sped-up, reversed, or recorded off of a television. All of this gloriously comes together in the midpoint section of this mini-adventure. After accidentally blowing himself up, Doctor Death falls unconscious and we’re treated to a dream sequence that allows the film to reach cosmic transcendence. Through a combination of sound, editing, and imagery, this brief montage manages to evoke a kind of poetic existential turmoil that countless professional filmmakers have struggled to attain. When most cinematic efforts by people too young to vote are barely watchable, Doctor Death has an actual cool aesthetic and style to spare. Hell, there’s even a little stop-motion animated coda after the hand-drawn credits.
This brings us to the impressive career that Colcord would go on to have after this charming debut. Early on, he worked as an animator for Vinton Studios, the claymation folks who brought to life the ubiquitous singing and dancing California Raisins of the late 80s, early 90s. He then went on to do animation and visual effects for movies like Antz, Minority Report, The Host, The Wolverine, Godzilla, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. Unfortunately, there have not been many other directorial efforts like Doctor Death, though he did have an entry (entitled “Bladder Trouble”) in the inaugural 1993 edition of Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. Awhile back, he was one of the co-directors on a Primus video for their weirdo cover of “Candyman.” He also did the animated portion of a video for The Lennon-Claypool Delirium’s “Bubbles Burst,” featuring the memorable scenario of Michael Jackson and his beloved chimpanzee flying around in a bathtub.
Fingers crossed, maybe one day we’ll get the further adventures of Doctor Death, either live action or animated. I like to think our troubled hero was able to get his hands on another school bus and make the most out of his nightmarish post-apocalyptic, mutant-ridden world. | s erickson