Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 150: The Dead Never Die (1957)

(left to right) Kirk Kirkham, Ed Wood, Criswell, and David De Mering.

Prolific as he was, Ed Wood could not possibly bring all of his film projects to fruition. He simply had too many of them and not nearly enough money and time. Eddie left behind a veritable graveyard of unfinished, unmade, or otherwise abandoned movies. I've written in depth about some of them, including Trial by Terror, The Basketballers, and Hellborn.

But today, I'd like to turn your attention to one of those cinematic orphans that even hardcore Ed-heads never seem to mention: 1957's The Dead Never Die. Here's what Rudolph Grey's indispensable Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992) has to say about this intriguing never-to-be project.

Rudolph Grey on The Dead Never Die.

What immediately sets this project apart is that Ed was going to direct someone else's script for what would have been the only time in his career. Eddie collaborated with other screenwriters, including Alex Gordon and Steve Apostolof, but he always had a hand in writing the movies he directed. This time, however, he would have been working from a story by Criswell and Paul Marco. Now that's a combination that should raise eyebrows. Cris and Paul were two of the, let's say, more eccentric members of the Wood coterie. I can only imagine the kind of tale these two men—neither of whom has a screenwriting credit to his name—might concoct.

But Criswell and Paul Marco didn't actually write the script for The Dead Never Die themselves! That chore fell to William "Bill" Harlow and Kirk Kirkham, another odd couple. Harlow (1922-1996) was an Ohio-born actor who worked mainly in television from the 1950s to the 1980s, turning up on such well-known series as The Rebel, Branded, Combat, B.J. and the Bear, and Knight Rider. As for Kirkham (1926-2001), he was a fairly well-known stage magician with only a handful of TV credits, either appearing as himself or playing a magician. I can only speculate that Kirk and Bill traveled in the same social circles as Cris, Paul, and Ed.

Now, let's turn our attention to the film's projected cast. Rudolph Grey dates this project to 1957, so naturally The Dead Never Die would have shared numerous cast members with Plan 9 from Outer Space. Cris and Paul would have been in it, of course, alongside such Plan 9 vets as Vampira, Bunny Breckinridge, and David De Mering. I'm sure Tor Johnson and Mona McKinnon could have been persuaded to take part, too. I'm even more intrigued by the other names in this list: Brad Jayson, Lynne Brighton, Lee Trant, and Judy Parks. Judy is a total mystery—no known credits, and she's never mentioned again in Nightmare of Ecstasy. Same goes for Lee Trant and Lynne Brighton. Who were these wonderful (or terrible) people? 

The only one with any kind of paper trail is Brad Jayson. This is a name that I've known for a while, since Criswell dedicated the truly bizarre, nigh-indecipherable 1972 book Criswell's Forbidden Predictions to him: 
I wish to express my deep appreciation to BRAD JAYSON for his tireless efforts in researching the heretofore unknown meanings of Nostradamus from the archaic French in which they were written.
For these noble efforts, Brad is mentioned just once in the 2023 book Fact, Fictions, and the Forbidden Predictions of the Amazing Criswell by Edwin Lee Canfield, and there his name is spelled "Brad Jason." Criswell's art director, Claudia Polifronio, describes Brad as a "good-looking actor wanting to break into Hollywood." Did he? Well, someone named Brad Jayson worked as a dialogue coach on the last three seasons of Petticoat Junction in the late 1960s and served as an associate producer on a Jack Benny special in 1965. The timeline matches up, so this could be our guy. Maybe after Petticoat Junction wrapped in 1970, Brad had plenty of time to translate Nostradamus.

As for the content of The Dead Never Die, one can only guess. Rudolph Grey provides no plot details, so all we have is the title. That phrase suggests two of Ed Wood's pet themes: death and resurrection. It's easy to imagine the film revolving around ghosts or zombies, both of which abound in the Wood canon. It's also interesting to consider that, in 2019, Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed a film with the very similar title The Dead Don't Die. (This was Jarmusch's star-studded take on the zombie subgenre.) And then there is the truly dreadful 1990 comedy Dead Men Don't Die

Perhaps we will never know the truth behind The Dead Never Die. I'm not even sure if the screenplay is extant. But that title unintentionally serves as a fitting epitaph for Ed Wood himself. As he keeps proving to us, decade after decade, the dead really never die. At least not completely.