If you’re searching for a ghoulishly chintzy Midnight Movie that tries to recapture the gleeful goofiness of pictures like “Re-Animator,” you could do worse than check out Glenn McQuaid’s “I Sell the Dead.” It’s an episodic tale of a team of nineteenth-century grave-robbers, grumpy veteran Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) and his young apprentice Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), who find that there’s even more of a market for “undead” corpses than the ordinary kind. It should be especially tasty for a viewer who already has a buzz on.
Otherwise, however, you might not find it all that hilarious. It starts with the execution of Willie by guillotine (making the apparent British setting a bit odd) and an interview of Arthur as he awaits a similar fate by a weirdly avuncular priest named Duffy (Ron Perlman). Blake’s history is then shown in flashback. He was taken up by Grimes when he was just a boy, and the two developed a working relationship with corpse-seeking doctor Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm, from the “Phantasm” series) until he became too demanding. That’s when they discovered their first buried zombie and handed it over to him to relieve them of an increasingly difficult patron.
That’s the point at which the movie spins off in all directions, becoming more a series of sketches (some set between Duffy and Arthur in the latter’s prison cell) rather than a coherent narrative—one sequence, for example, has the duo discovering the corpse of an alien right out of “Close Encounters,” but nothing comes of it. The final act brings in a new apprentice, Fanny (Brenda Cooney), who persuades the pliable Blake that they should invade the island redoubt of Cornelius Murphy (John Speredakos), director of a powerful family of grave robbers, to take over his business—an adventure that has dire consequences all around. There follows a two-twist ending that’s not nearly as clever as it’s meant to be.
Some of the moments in “I Sell the Dead” are humorous, and some of the effects belie what was clearly a miniscule budget (the sets, though, are obviously very cramped). And Monaghan is a cheeky presence throughout. Perlman, however, overdoes things badly, as does Fessenden, who chews the scenery with abandon. Mention should be made of Jeff Grace’s peppy score, which tries to jazz up the comedy of scenes that might otherwise fall completely flat.
If you’re old enough to remember the goofy double bills that American International used to churn out in the fifties, you’ll have some idea of the quality of this movie. Whether you’ll consider that an attractive proposition is another matter.