Review: The Thirsty Dead (1974)

The Thirsty Dead

Directed by Terry Becker
Starring Jennifer Billingsley, Judith McConnell, John Considine, Tani Guthrie

In the 1970s, a decade of unconditioned hair and plaid suit jackets, a cult buried deep in the jungles of the Philippines kidnapped four women from Manila in the middle of a hot summer’s night and imprisoned them in a long, winding cave full of hanging beads and bowls of fruit. And you thought dead people were involved.

The truth is, none of these people are dead. Or thirsty. Not once does someone ask for a glass of water. The only drinking that takes place is the ritualistic drinking of blood, and that’s more necessity than anything else. It’s not like cult members are mixing pitchers of Kool-Aid in the cave kitchen to hand out during morning yoga. A more appropriate title would be “The Elderly Youth.” Because you see, ah – well – it’s complicated.

The cult can be explained thusly: Certain members, those wearing the decorative robes (and sometimes super decorative collars), are “superior people” who retain their youth by drinking the blood of the lesser members, who end up dry and shriveled, locked in tiny rooms in the far recesses of a¬†labyrinthine cave. Once wrinkled and used up, these elderly people turn feral and can’t be controlled. The superior people worship their god, Raoul, described by cult leader Ranu as the “seed of [their] seed” and “father of [their] immortality.” Laura, one of the women kidnapped by the cult, is deemed to be a long-awaited princess of sorts, but she has second thoughts about drinking human blood.

In other words: This movie has no idea what it’s about.

Raoul, a shriveled head in a box, can be construed as youth culture, which is worshiped for its freshness and vitality. The cult itself might be the USA, a community that worships youth culture and discards the aged, who are kept by the cult in darkened cells. Laura, the film’s protagonist, is a voice of reason, telling Baru (of the foot-tall collar) that “worshiping yourself at the expense of others – that’s ugliness.” Baru responds: “The community that survives does so by the light of superior people. We are they.” So there’s some fascism sprinkled in here as well.

If the film is criticising the treatment of the aged in America, then why are the elderly cult members depicted as mindless zombies? If the film is criticising our culture’s constant struggle to stay youthful, what does the blood-drinking ritual represent? And why are the cult leaders all at the cusp of middle age? Tani Guthrie, Ranu in the film, was 46 during filming. John Considine was 39. Jennifer Billingsley (Laura) was an especially wrinkled 32. Is the film an attack on ageism or an attack on the aged themselves?

All I know is that the most memorable bits involve canoe trips in the rat-infested sewers of Manila, a nudity-free strip club filled with sailors in full uniform, sexual advances towards a shriveled head, and collars. I will never forget the collars. A stripper named Claire is obscenely attracted to everything she sees. If someone drew a face on a tree, she’d ask for its number. As is typical of an early ’70s low-budget science-fiction/jungle adventure film, female stomachs are always on display, hair is either dark, curly and sweaty or long and shockingly unconditioned, and religious rituals look an awful lot like drunk tai chi.

The Thirsty Dead is a 90-minute rumination on youth and age that says nothing and wastes everyone’s time in the process. I can only assume the director made it to showcase his padding expertise. Walking ¬†through sewers, canoeing down rivers, and tromping through the jungle all have more screen time than anything else.

If it weren’t for those collars, I couldn’t name a single reason to watch the thing.


Amazon – The Thirsty Dead DVD
YouTube – Original Theatrical Trailer
YouTube – Full Movie

2 Responses to “Review: The Thirsty Dead (1974)”
  1. andyrichcarr says:

    I just finished watching this film. Your review is brilliant, I did a couple of those lol things.

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