In a very real sense, if you’ve seen Mick Millard’s other SOV/DTV offering from 1987, Criminally Insane 2 a.k.a. Crazy Fat Ethel 2, then you’ve seen Death Nurse. Only you haven’t. Confused yet? Read on, all will made clear — sort of.
At its core, Death Nurse more or less amounts to Criminally Insane 2 in unconvincing hospital costumes (okay, in fairness the nurse’s getup worn by star Priscilla Alden and the lab coat worn by her pseudo-doctor brother, played by fellow Millard regular Albert Eskinazi, are perfectly fine, but look for the little touches, like a dish rag attached with rubber bands standing in for a surgical mask, to show just how little money our guy Nick spent on this movie) — after all, it’s shot in Millard’s Pacifica, California condo, it stars Alden, Eskinazi, Millard’s mom, and his stepfather, and it’s about a homicidal fat lady, all of which should sound pretty familiar if you’ve seen CI2/CFE2. In addition, Death Nurse also runs just under 60 minutes in length and looks to have been shot on a consumer-grade VHS camcorder and then haphazardly edited with a basic two-VCRs-hooked-up-at-home set-up.
And yet — it’s the subtle differences here that show Millard’s creativity in the face of no resources whatsoever. His spread is now a clinic (that takes care of everything from open heart surgery to TB treatment to Betty Ford-style alcohol rehab) rather than a halfway house, his mom plays a social worker who takes care of indigent medical patients rather than a social worker who takes care of newly-released indigent mental hospital patients, and the larger-than-life Ms. Alden plays Edith Mortley, psycho RN, rather than Ethel Janowski, psycho food lover.
So yes — even though both flicks are hopelessly padded to fill out their meager runtimes with “flashback” footage from the first Criminally Insane film (which in this context makes absolutely no sense being that Alden is supposedly playing an “entirely different” character here — oh, and the opening credits are borrowed from CI again this time as well, right down to the “directed by Nick Philips”), and even though they both linger on certain scenes waaaaaayyyy too long (check out how much time Millard spends showing us Eskinazi’s Gordon Mortley character digging a “grave,” for instance, or eating ice cream just a few minutes later), there are some key differences. And it’s one of those key differences that, in my mind, makes Death Nurse the superior “feature” (to the extent that either of them can be said to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever) of the two — and it’s not the dish rag “surgical masks,” awesome as they are.No, friends, what sets Death Nurse apart from its contemporary entry into the Millard canon is its (entirely unintentional, I’m sure, which makes it all the better in my book) full-throttle, no-holds-barred, do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-$200 leap into the realm of pure, unadulterated absurdity in pursuit of its less-than-lofty mission to simply kill 60 minutes’ worth of videotape. While Criminally Insane 2 still tepidly clings to the notion of making some kind of rational sense, rest assured that Death Nurse has no such hang-ups.
Consider — the “plot” here revolves around a nurse and doctor (who according to Millard are apparently phonies with no medical training, although the “screenplay,” ad-libbed for the most part as it is, makes no explicit mention of this fact) who take in broke patients and then kill them and keep collecting money from Medicare/Medicaid for their “treatment.” Even though county social workers still have to come by and check on these people. In addition, they don’t even put up the pretense of having real surgical equipment about, resorting instead to using hacksaws and steak knives on their (fully conscious, I shit you not!) patients. Ethel — I mean, Edith — then feeds the dead remains of their charges to her pet rats in the garage (cue stock footage from Willard) before feeding the rats to others in her care (such is the delicate cycle of nature, I guess). Then a cop (Millard’s step dad) comes along and busts up their little racket and our quaint homemade “epic” is over.
If any of that makes a lick of sense to you, then congratulations on possessing enough suspension of disbelief to almost take Death Nurse seriously. But fear not — Millard’s heavy-handed attempts at “black comedy” still ensure that you won’t (or can’t). Consider : a dead TB sufferer (played by Millard himself with his face covered by a handkerchief at all times) is dug out from his shallow grave and hosed off to “prove” to the pesky lady from county social services that he’s still alive (wouldn’t she notice the smell?). Gordon attempts a heart transplant by inserting the ticker of his dead dog into a human patient — and their cat (who wanders about the clinic freely, apparently) makes off with it. And ol’ Gordo is trading sex for booze with his alcoholic patient (played by Millard’s wife, who also evidently “produced” this movie, whatever that even means).
So yeah, I think it’s fair to say that Death Nurse is more than willing to loose itself from the moorings of reality. But you still can’t really escape the sense that more or less nothing is happening in this movie because, well — it’s not. It just sounds like it is. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean — Millard possesses the unique ability to make even the truly absurd seem hopelessly mundane and to almost hermetically cleanse any scene of all dramatic tension. He could make a real-live snuff film and I swear to God the thing would seem tedious and drawn out. And while some readers out there may find that to be rather insulting to good Nicholas, I genuinely mean it as praise, because it’s a feat I’ve never seen any other director duplicate with the kind of consistently vigorous non-vigor (hell, anti-vigor) that he does. One thing that’s definitely worthy of admiration, though, regardless of how you feel about Death Nurse itself, is the quality of Slasher Video’s new 25th Anniversary DVD release of the movie. Both picture and sound have been remastered to the point of being genuinely passable (no small feat there I would imagine), and it’s loaded with terrific extras including an on-camera interview with Millard (who’s definitely an amiable guy and pretty darn honest about the “quality” of his product), a terrific feature-length commentary with Millard and his wife, Irmi, that’s engaging throughout, a Priscilla Alden tribute featurette showcasing scenes she’s in from numerous Millard productions, a short-but-sweet still photo gallery, and a YouTube-style “review video” from the head honcho of VHSCollector.com. All in all, it’s a more comprehensive package than any right-thinking person would ever have dreamed a flick like this would receive. Kudos all around.
At the end of the day, it’s pointless to compare Death Nurse to anything other than Millard’s other late-80s SOV productions, not so much because it doesn’t play by the same rules as “normal” cinema, but because it doesn’t even seem to know what those rules are. Although in many ways it’s hopelessly redundant when viewed alongside Criminally Insane 2 (which is already hopelessly redundant in and of itself if you’ve seen the first Criminally Insane), it’s the sheer temerity of Millard thinking he could basically do the same flick again (I picture in my mind him yelling “Cut! — And print!” when he wrapped up CI2 and then saying “Now let’s shoot it again quick in the hospital costumes!,” but I guess they were made a good six or so months apart, which for some strange reason I actually find kind of disappointing), coupled with his absolute unconcern with, if not outright disdain for, trying to be in any way “believable,” that elevates — or knocks down, depending on how you look at things — Death Nurse to its own plateau. This is a work of art — and I don’t use that term lightly, off-handedly, or in any way condescendingly — that manages to be both a complete rip-off and yet defy comparison at the same time. In its steadfast inability to be anything other than what it is, even if “what it is” amounts to being a total rehash of an earlier rehash, it stands alone as perhaps the most jaw-droppingly, amazingly, near-hypnotically pointless movie ever made — until, of course, Death Nurse 2 came along the very next year. Let’s hope Slasher Video sees fit to give it similar treatment in the not-too-distant future.