Messiah of Evil is an obscure 1973 supernatural horror thriller that has earned a reputation as a cult classic over the years.
The plot follows a young woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill), who drives to a remote California beach town in search of her father, an artist who has been sending her increasingly disturbing messages. She doesn’t find her father, but she does find herself in the middle of a town in the throes of some sort of zombie pandemic where the creatures gather on the beach at night amid bonfires as they stare up in the sky, waiting for the Messiah of Evil to return after a hundred-year absence. Arletty eventually finds herself infected with the zombie virus as well, but as part of a bargain, she is left alive but confined to a mental institution.
Two of the film’s most famous scenes involve one character being eaten alive by zombies in a supermarket and another suddenly being surrounded and then devoured by zombies in an empty theater.
Here are 25 facts about this unfairly neglected yet deservedly praised example of 1970s zombie horror.
1. Coincidence? The character of Thom (Michael Greer) narrates the line, “No one will hear you scream” after Walter Hill makes an appearance. Hill would later produce Alien (1979), whose iconic tagline was “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
2. The opening scene shows a man who is lured into a public park by a woman, who unexpectedly slashes his throat with a razor. This scene occurs before the credits roll and has nothing to do with the rest of the film.
3. As the plot unfolds, it is revealed that the townsfolk were infected by a 100-year-old curse brought on by a “dark stranger” who was a survivor of the real-life cannibalistic incident known as the Donner Party.
4. Lead actor Michael Greer says he was once pulled over by police who starred in the film but claimed they were unpaid. They called director Willard Huyck and threatened that if he didn’t pay them, they’d put Greer in jail. Huyck promptly paid them.
5. A lot of the extras were unemployed workers at NASA.
6. Bennie Robinson, who played the rodent-eating albino trucker, innocently mispronounced composer Richard Wagner’s name—it’s actually pronounced “VOG-ner” in case you were unaware—but director Willard Huyck found this so funny, he let the mistake slide.
7. In one especially disgusting scene, Arletty (Marianna Hill) vomits up beetles, mealworms, and a lizard, which is taken as a sign that she has been infected and is in the process of becoming a zombie cult member.
8. Although director/writer/producer Gloria Katz dismissed her own film as “a real bowwow,” Messiah of Evil has since been reevaluated as a horror classic. Film Comment called it “one of the top 10 classic, overlooked horror films of all time.”
9. IndieWire selected Messiah of Evil as #95 on its list of “The 150 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time,”claiming that it’s “full of iconic and memorable scenes that recall to mind some of George A. Romero’s best work.”
10. Dread Central also praised Messiah of Evil: “This surreal, coastal-set tale of the undead isn’t merely underrated, it’s perhaps the most criminally underseen 70s horror in existence. It’s…among the best atmospheric horrors of all time.”
11. In 2003, The British Film Institute called Messiah of Evil “a rare work of cinematic genius.”
12. British film critic Kim Newman categorizes Messiah of Evil into the horror category of “American Nightmare,” which he says started with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and ended ten years later with Dawn of the Dead. Newman says the American Nightmare genre came to a close in the early 1980s when more formulaic slasher franchises such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street started to gain traction.
13. Although the cult members are widely perceived as zombies—they can’t be killed and are carnivorous—they are also different from zombies in that they express awareness, such as when they deliberately start seating themselves around Toni (Joy Bang) in the movie theater scene.
14. One of the ways you can tell someone is becoming one of the Messiah’s minions is that they cry tears of blood.
15. The fictional town of Point Dune is based on Point Dume, CA, which is south of Malibu where Messiah of Evil was filmed.
16. In Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning Annie Hall (1976), a movie marquee shows both the titles of MESSIAH OF EVIL and HOUSE OF EXORCISM. Hall’s character, Alvy Singer, loathed California and Hollywood, so Allen picked the names of two actual films that he though represented the movie industry’s vapidity.
17. Anitra Ford, who plays Laura, starred on American TV from 1972-1976 as one of the models on the game show The Price is Right.
18. Messiah of Evil was originally titled The Second Coming. According to actress Anitra Ford, “A Frenchman bought the unedited footage, edited it and released the movie under the title of Messiah of Evil.”
19. Messiah of Evil was re-released in 1978 as Return of the Living Dead, and its marketing campaign even lifted images and taglines from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Romero sued the distributor and prevented them from showing the film under the title Return of the Living Dead.
20. The film was re-released in 1983 under the title Dead People. It also saw a limited run as Revenge of the Screaming Dead.
21. Messiah of Evil was written, produced, and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz when they were both recently graduated from USC film school.
22. A year after completing Messiah of Evil, Katz and Huyck wrote the screenplay for American Graffiti, a film that would be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. They also wrote the screenplay for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. They were also the directors on the legendary bomb Howard the Duck (1986).
23. In an interview, Huyck said that the main inspiration for Messiah of Evil were Italian art films of the time, specifically the giallo horror genre.
24. Gloria Katz has a cameo in Messiah of Evil as the woman inside the movie theater’s ticket booth.
25. Willard Huyck has a cameo as the shadowy figure who leaps out of the car that the gas-station attendant is working on.