Directed by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz, 1973
Messiah of Evil is so redolent of early American horror stories-- say Hawthorne, James, or Warner-- that I was surprised to realize that it took place in a California beach town. Transplant it to England, thank Lovecraft in the credits, and you'd have a very serviceable adaptation of various ninetheenth-century short stories.
Arletty arrives in ominous Point Dune to find her artist father, whose communications have been increasingly fragmented. During her search she meets up with a mod playboy and his mismatched harem. The gradually diminishing group realizes that the hundred year-old legends about Point Dune's innate evil endanger not only Arletty's father, but their own lives.
The movie hints at werewolves, vampires, and zombies. I found it initially disorienting. In retrospect, the mutable nature of monstrosity works well-- while lulled into expectation of certain horror conventions, the audience nevertheless can't anticipate the townspeople's nature. I was also pleased if puzzled at some of the grotesque imagery: corpses with slit throats in a pick-up truck, moon-dazzled townspeople who stare peacefully at the sky, a chomp of bloody zombies enjoying a raw meat buffet in the meat aisle of an otherwise pristine grocery store.
Zombie explanation: Black magic resulting from a preacher who survived the Donner party, afterward turning to a life of Satanism and cannibalism. Every hundred years he returns to spread his new religion. It's decidedly unclear whether zombies can turn other people into the undead or whether proximity to the evil town and its blood-red moon are sufficient.
Contribution to the zombie canon: The finest movie theater scene in horror cinema! Bored by the empty town, a young visitor decides to see the only movie in town. A few others are already in the theater and it's unclear who's more eerie: the people staring dully ahead or the single person who turns to look at her. Over the course of the movie we see more townsfolk enter one by one. Soon the previously empty cinema is full of malevolent zombies-- and the audience waits for the young girl to turn around.
Favorite moment: The excellent cinema scene. The painted bedroom. The zombie attack in a bright, clean, well-stocked grocery store with cheery grocery store music.