Movie Review: The Frozen Dead

Directed by Herbert J. Leder
Starring Dana Andrews, Anna Palk, Philip Gilbert, Kathleen Breck, Karel Stepanek,
Basil Henson, Alan Tilvern, Ann Tirard

There are those films we first see in our youth that sent a sense of awe through our brain, as well as chills down your spine. A time way before we’re smart enough to know whether something could really happen or not, or how far science could really go, when most concepts or ideas where completely new and therefore fascinating to our young minds, sparking that imagination. That is when I first experienced The Frozen Dead. I can remember telling the kids on the playground the next day at school, about a wall of arms that were still alive, or Nazi soldiers that could only comb their hair or bounce an imaginary ball, or even more exciting, a decapitated head that was STILL ALIVE!!! Years or maybe even decades later when we see these films again, we’re a little ashamed to think that it was it was that amazing at the time. But others, like this particular film, even though it might be a little silly or even outrageous, it still impresses me.

The film was written, directed, and produced by Herbert J. Leder, who didn’t work that long in the industry. In fact, besides writing Fiend Without a Face (1958) and writing, directing, and producing It! (1967), starring Roddy McDowall, the following year, he only directed three other feature films. Which is a shame, I feel, because with It! and The Frozen Dead, they were two fond memories from my childhood. While critics even today might say that it is boring, or with comments like it should have stayed frozen, there are a few besides me that have a fondness for it. In his book Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Michael Weldon calls The Frozen Dead “an incredible film”, as well as being “an unheralded wonder of silliness.” So, there you go. I loved them then, and I still do now.

Dana Andrews plays Dr. Norberg, a Nazi doctor hiding out incognito in England as he continues his experiments on being able to freeze a human body, sort of like in cryogenic status, which he has done with several German soldiers at the end of WWII. The idea is to bring back the “party” at the right time to take control. The only problem is that the good doctor hasn’t exactly perfected the part about bringing these frozen bodies back to life, at least with them having complete motor functions and the full use of their brain. So far, the ones he’s brought back only remember one thing, such as one soldier constantly combs his hair, while another constantly cries out in sadness. On a side note, he also has a wall of severed arms that are able to move through electronic impulses. Not sure what all this has to do with cryogenics, but who cares. A wall of arms was pretty damn cool when you were a kid!

But just when some higher ups in the Nazi party pay a visit to the doctor to see his progress, progress that was falsely stated by his devious assistant Essen, played wonderfully by Alan Tilvern, and unexpected visit from his niece and her friend throw a wrench into everything. Essen devises a plan on his own to get rid of the niece’s friend, as well as getting a severed head the doctor needed to continue the research on bringing back the soldiers with full brain capacity. This results in one of the films best developments, when the severed head is alive and starts to communicate.

Now, Andrews, who had become a big star after the film Laura (1944), had a long career but battled alcoholism the later part of it. In fact, he was one of the first celebrities to speak out publicly about the evils of it. As far as the horror genre, besides The Frozen Dead, and an appearance in The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, Andrews only really appeared in one other genre title, and it was a big one, Night of the Demon (1957). In Frozen, he doesn’t skip out on his performance, no matter the subject matter or how downright silly some of it seems, it took the role completely serious, even with the slight German accent. Sure, while he does play it somewhat for sympathy, he does take his role in the science more importantly than his thought for human life.

Anna Palk plays Andrews’ niece, who does an okay job here, but really isn’t given much to do other than have either different emotional reactions, or just seem like she’s staring off into space. But it is Kathleen Breck, who plays her friend and meets a grisly end, who really shines here. Yes, most of her screen time is as a decapitated head, but it her performance that gives the viewers the most lasting images.

But for a young horror fan, it was probably the work of Art Director and Production Designer Scott MacGregor that fascinated me the most, even though I never realized it at the time. One can only assume it was MacGregor that created not only the doctor’s lab, but also the wall of arms, the frozen body chamber, as well as how to pull off the talking severed head on the table. There is obviously an optical shot in when we see the full shot of the head on the table with nothing underneath it, hiding the Breck’s body. Sure, looking at it now, it can look a bit dated, but back in the early ‘70s, it was pretty damn effective. And looking at it now, it takes me back to a time when you were watching this stuff with a much younger and more open mind than now.

MacGregor had worked on films like Doctor Blood’s Coffin (1961) as well as Leder’s next film, It!, before joining Hammer Films, replacing production designer Bernard Robinson when he passed away. He worked with the studio through the last of their gothic pictures, such as Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Vampire Circus (1972), with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) being the last title he worked on. Like most art directors and production designers, they don’t seem to get the credit they richly deserve, especially when it comes to the labs of mad scientists!

Yes, there are going to be some reviews out there that really criticize and dismiss this film as dumb, silly, or just cheesy. No matter what, I still have great fondness for this title and think that it holds up as an effective story, which some chilling moments. This might be the 8-year-old horror fan in me writing this, but if he’s still entertained by it, then so am I.

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