According to the reviews and synopsis posted on IMDB, the plot centers on an independent documentary film-maker, played by writer/director Emerson Bixby, who sets out with crew in tow to investigate what he believes is a UFO crash near a small California town. In fact, the object turns out to be a downed weapons satellite, carrying a payload of deadly biochemical agents which has transformed the local population into ravenous flesh-eating zombies. Desperate to make history at all costs, the director places his crew in incredible danger, attempting to document the horrors he finds, and many of the characters meet with blackly-comic, jaw-droppingly grotesque ends.
The coincidental similarities of the plot to 2007's Diary of the Dead are certainly striking, but more interesting are the numerous cinematic in-jokes alluded to by most sources; the IMDB page lists nearly ninety such "movie connections" for Dead End, mostly in the form of dialogue swipes and complex, surreal sight gags. Given the volume and obscurity of the references, coupled with their apparently manic, off-the-wall, non-sequitur execution in an otherwise ultraviolent, low-budget zombie flick, it seems difficult to make clear sense of the film's tone. Is it Airplane! with misery and evisceration, or Cannibal Holocaust by way of Quentin Tarantino? The apparent conflict of a movie which has, to quote one reviewer, "an unusual 'realism' [...] which is unnerving, and at times I felt like I was watching a snuff film", and yet also features Rocky Horror zombies waiting outside a movie theatre in suspenders and high heels, might testify to a strange and unique film-making style, or it might indicate that not all is as it seems...
I recall some years ago, probably sometime around the early 2000s, performing an Internet Movie Database keyword search for "banned-film" and stumbling upon a 1997 Hong Kong/South Korean co-production by the lurid title of Indian Fetish Cult (aka. Chi fei zhou). Starring Hong Kong Cat III heart-throb Amy Yip, this notoriously violent tale of demonic possession was apparently so brutal and horrific, with near-unwatchable cruelty and disturbing sexual acts, that it had been rejected by more censor boards, in more countries, than almost any other picture. As with Dead End, precious little information was available beyond what was contained in the IMDB listing and repeated around the web by film fans trying (and failing) to secure a copy. This didn't strike me as odd at the time; after all, if it was so widely-banned, it made perfect sense that so few people would have seen it (this was long before I knew anything about the Barbara Streisand effect). So, I filed the title away in the back of my brain under "obscure shit to look out for", and soon forgot all about it. I wouldn't come across it again for several years, but, when I did, it was presented as an example of a hoax film; a fabrication submitted to IMDB by persons unknown, and from there lifted, repeated and propagated across the internet via forum posts, machine-generated film listings, and poorly-researched articles about Amy Yip (many citing the 1997 picture as her last film, when in fact she retired three years prior). Of the multitude of references to IFC, conspicuous by their absence were any reliable news items or official records relating to its banning. As a comparison, try typing 'Serbian Film banned' into any search engine and you will quickly realise why this is so suspicious.
Indian Fetish Cult is not a real movie, and has subsequently been removed from the IMDB, but the idea was convincing and compelling enough to horror fans that it took on a life of its own and become something of a cult item, despite the minor handicap of its complete non-existence.
Could the legend of Dead End fall into the same category? There do seem to be parallels: both films have/had extensively and suspiciously-detailed IMDB entries, in spite of virtually no one claiming to have seen them (so who submitted the data and why haven't they come forward to corroborate it?); both films supposedly feature intriguingly outrageous and/or taboo subject matter; and both IMDB entries make reference to elements that seem deeply implausible for such vanishingly obscure films (a well-known, established star in one; elaborate stunts, explosions, optical effects, a large cast and celebrity lookalikes, etc. in the other). Also, according to archive.org, the "unique" IMDB url for Dead End was, until October 2005 at latest, occupied by a movie called Alien Lust. Six months later it had been changed to Dead End, by which point it already had user reviews, 51 votes, and a rating of 8.3 (a lot of activity in such a small space of time, considering that six years later, it has only gathered a further 25 votes). Might pranksters have created the Dead End listing by amending an existing entry, in order to avoid the automatically greater scrutiny a new listing would have attracted? Or does IMDB occasionally re-allocate titles codes? I haven't been able to get a straight answer on that, but I don't think we need to squint very hard to see similarities in M.O. between this and Indian Fetish Cult.
The hoax hypothesis offers a plausible closure to the whole situation, but there is a flaw in it. An Emerson Bixby-shaped flaw.
The listed director of Dead End, Bixby has a verifiable track record (mostly, but more on that soon) as a director and screenwriter, and currently owns and operates his own movie theatre in California. What's more, he has confirmed several times that he indeed wrote and directed this film back in 1985. In a radio interview, he mentions the title in passing, referring to it as "my first feature". Elsewhere, in response to a fan's email enquiry, he explicitly denies that Dead End is a hoax, but states that the film was never officially released, despite several tapes being sent out to potential distributors, none of whom responded. He adds that his master copy is now lost and that he has failed, as yet, to track down any of the remaining tapes which were given out to collaborators on the project. If we accept this scenario, the IMDB reviewers and others who claim to have seen it must have seen one of those cast and crew tapes, or an Nth generation copy derived from one, since those were the copies most likely to end up in the wild. One IMDB contributor claims to recall a vendor at horror conventions in the late 1980s selling bootleg copies and enthusiastically recommending it to all who would listen, but the description of the seller (long hair, overweight) could apply to two-thirds of the attendance at such events.
At one point, Bixby announced he was offering a bounty of $10,000 to anyone who could track him down a copy; not a bad price for a movie that, according to the director himself, cost a little over a sixth of that figure to produce ($1500, which seems awfully low given some of the claims about the film). That the bounty remains unclaimed illustrates - assuming the film is or was real - that it's well into London After Midnight territory at this point.
Oh, and remember those user reviews? The posters have disappeared from IMDB and won't respond to private messages.
Now, before I continue, I want to make it perfectly clear that I have found nothing to suggest Emerson Bixby has ever lied about the film. From what I have seen of the man, he seems to be an opinionated, abrasive, strangely likable and genuinely passionate film buff. In short, he's one of us, and I consider his statements on the matter truthful until proven otherwise. If you were to ask for my own honest-to-goodness, unqualified, off-the-cuff opinion, on balance I'd say Emerson Bixby probably did write and direct a zombie flick called Dead End in 1985... probably.
However, I'd be lying if I didn't admit there was something a wee bit odd about Bixby's early career. Have a look at his first three films as a writer - you will notice these pictures have a high degree of overlap in terms of cast and crew. Delving deeper, this group of names all share a markedly similar work history, centering around an isolated "cluster" of very specific movies: Bees (1998), Viper (1996), Sea Shells (1995), Savannah (1989), Scorpion (1989), War with America (1987), Dark Harvest (1986), Blood Red (1985), Dead End (1985), Dimension (1984), Space Patrol (1984), The Basement (1983) and Warrior Island (1980). For brevity's sake, we will refer to these films as the "Mystery 13". Not every regular cast and crew name appears under every film but there is a pretty tight correlation, and, excluding individuals for whom one movie is their only credit, each film in the cluster is crewed pretty much exclusively by members of the same "gang".
In itself, this is not unusual; in fact, it is quite normal for indie film-makers to band together and use certain go-to actors and crew from picture-to-picture. What is strange is that, other than Bixby, virtually none of them have worked on anything outwith these thirteen films, before or since, and the very few that have tend towards extra work, walk-on parts or minor production roles that remain difficult to corroborate. This isn't a devastating revelation, but it is surprising that out of the dozens upon dozens of people who supposedly worked on these productions (and the crews ARE unusually large for shot-on-video efforts), practically no one, not even those credited as performing specialist technical duties, managed to break out or do anything vaguely notable or verifiable in the film industry. Only the film Amor (1980) appears to offer a glimmer of hope in all of this - directed by Robert Beavers, a noted art-house filmmaker, the IMDB page lists several "Mystery 13" regulars in the acting credits - Rachel McBride as Cassandra, Dominique Harris as Carmalita, Ruth Franklyn as Polly, etc. - but this too melts away under closer scrutiny: Amor is an avant-garde montage of connected images - hand signals, cloth being cut, scaffolding being erected, and so forth - shot in Italy; it is not a narrative film and, despite the decidedly suspect IMDB cast listing, by no account does it even feature actors or characters!
Nor can I find any record of any of the "Mystery 13" movies ever being released or shown anywhere, or, indeed, even being mentioned outside of the IMDB, except in a couple of cases where they are brought up in connection with Dead End. It is, I suppose, possible that they were all hobbyist productions, made purely for enjoyment and were thus never intended for distribution outwith the group, but that would raise questions of whether they even meet the nobility criteria for inclusion on the database.
In any case, one would expect, in this modern age of YouTube and blogging, that at least one person of the many, many involved would have allowed some clips, some photos, some fragments of information to slip out into the world. But I can find nothing. In all of the Google-searchable web, not a single individual has ever bothered to mention the time they were part of a large amateur film-making collective based in San Bernardino, turning out indie sci-fi and horror flicks over a period of two decades.
I must admit, it has crossed my mind that Emerson Bixby might be a trickster - aside from everything else, the title Dead End seems almost too mockingly apt to be true - but I feel he deserves the benefit of the doubt. He strikes me as a man with bigger and better things to do than painstakingly build up a vast, intricate network of false names and film titles for the purpose of trolling such a small hard-core of film geeks. Anyway, evidence of absence is not evidence of absence...
Besides the hoax theory, and the "official" picture as presented on the IMDB page, there exists a third possibility. Looking back to the example of Indian Fetish Cult, although the 1997 film was almost certainly a fabrication, there was at least a small kernel of truth amidst the lies: namely, an even more obscure Hong Kong-produced 1984 XXX film called Blood of an Indian Fetish Cult, about a Chinese Amerindian-worshipping cult performing weird sex rites in the woods. This picture's focus is directed more towards tacky T&A than gruelling horror, and features far tamer content than was claimed for the other IFC (yawn-inducing hardcore sex scenes notwithstanding), as well as virtually no gore or horror to speak of, and absolutely no sign of Amy Yip. But the film does seem to have served as a jumping-off point for whoever dreamed up the chimerical 1997 version. So, you could approach the Indian Fetish Cult controversy from the point of view that the film did, kinda, exist after all, it's just that all the interesting details which captured people's attention in the first place were either misrepresented, outright falsified, or vastly exaggerated to the point of being unrecognisable.
The situation with Dead End could be similar: maybe when Bixby says he made a shot-on-video zombie movie with some friends for $1500 he is telling the truth, while the more outrageous and large-scale elements mentioned in the IMDB trivia and reviews are fictitious or inflated far beyond the reality. This scenario resolves the inconsistency between the budget and the apparent scope of the production, without contradicting Bixby's statements. This makes believing in the existence of the film feel like less of a stretch, and to me seems the most credible option, at least in the absence of further evidence.
Of course, I could be well wide of the mark on this. Perhaps someone whose dad is a Hollywood figure as notable as Jerome Bixby would have access to the kinds of talent and resources that would be out of reach to other $1500 productions, making a much more ambitious film possible. There is still a chance, an outside chance, that the Dead End we've read about - complete with zombie babies, triffids and "tiny people in jars bitching at each other" - really does exist, gathering dust in some shady corner somewhere.
Go and check your attic.
No, really, go now and look! And while you're at it, if you worked on, or know anything about any of the films mentioned above (and actually exist) please get in touch via the comments box.