FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*
CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is a fine idea given mediocre execution. Even without researching the career of its director Edward Dein-- who co-wrote the script with his wife Mildred-- I suspected that this was a "writer's film," one in which the business of following the plot took precedence over finding interesting visual ways to direct the film. Sure enough, even before his first directorial credit in 1952, Dein spent most of the 1940s scripting assorted flicks, including JUNGLE WOMAN. As director UNDEAD is surely Dein's best known credit, though he also helmed 1960's THE LEECH WOMAN, which if anything is even more workmanlike than this film.
The inhabitants of a small Western town are besieged by two disparate menaces. One is a standard Western element, a landowner who covets his neighbors' property. Ambitious rancher Buffer tries all sorts of barely legal tricks in his quest to drive the Carter family-- the widowed Doc Carter and his children, young Dolores and her teen-aged brother Tim-- off their ranch. The other menace appears to be nothing but an infectious disease, but it only seems to target nubile young women, and the local preacher, Dan Young, notices that one of the victims has curious bite-marks on her neck.
The two menaces converge on the Carters roughly at the same time, perhaps a bit too conveniently even in a B-film. The source of the mysterious deaths-- a black-clad gunman named Drake Robey-- suddenly decides to take an old man as a victim, the aforementioned Doc Carter. For some reason, though, the disease doesn't get the blame when the doctor's body is found. Hot-headed Tim Carter, who already nursed a grudge against Buffer, challenges the rancher to a duel, and loses. This moves Dolores to post "wanted" posters in town, inviting any hired gun to take down the man who killed her relatives. Then, for the first time, Drake Robey shows his face, first to the townspeople (and his intended victim, Buffer), and then to Dolores Carter. Preacher Dan, engaged to Dolores, already doesn't approve of her hiring a killer, naturally dislikes Robey on sight, but can't prevent Dolores from letting the gunfighter stay at her ranch. This western female's assertiveness, however, results in her getting a night-visit from Robey. As will have become obvious by this time, Robey is a vampire, and he drains Dolores of her blood without her knowledge.
The main plot, with Young eventually figuring out Robey's true nature, plays out efficiently if predictably. It's a shame that the Deins' plotting and characterizations weren't a little more venturesome, though, because their twists on the vampire concept are ingenious, far superior to those of the previous year's RETURN OF DRACULA. The preacher discovers an old document, explainin how Robey became a vampire because in life he committed the crime of suicide-- not to mention fratricide, though this isn't a direct cause of his curse. When Robey first rose from the dead, his distraught father located his corpse, sleeping its day-sleep, and tried to impale him with a silver knife. This fails to contain Robey, because something along the lines of a wooden stake is needed. This foregrounding of the knife-gambit suggests that the Deins knew that the stake-mythology came about as a means of "pinning down" the unquiet dead. Still, at the conclusion Robey is "staked" in a very anomalous manner, using wood supposedly taken from Christ's crown of thorns.
The actors all turn in solid performances, with Michael Pate's vampiric gunslinger naturally being the standout. In fact, the script had so much under-used potential that I wouldn't mind seeing some modern talent take a shot at remaking UNDEAD. I for one think it would be better to try improving on a less-than-great film, rather than endlessly seeking to remake films that are already well-executed, as with later versions of INVADERS FROM MARS, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and so on.