A young woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) drives to the beach town of Point Dune, California, to visit her estranged father, an artist. She finds his house, abandoned. He left a diary in which he addresses her specifically. In it he complains about darkness consuming the town, and horrible nightmares he is having, and implores Arletty to never, ever look for him. His letter tells her to talk to the owner of the art gallery, who sells his paintings. The gallery owner says he has none of her father's paintings, does not sell them, no one ever comes in looking to buy his works, and says he doesn't know where he went. He says Point Dune is "an artist colony" and he only vaguely remembers her father (his paintings are eerie pop art portraits of groups of people in black, white, and gray, standing; the men are always dressed in black suits, white shirts, and black ties, like dead men at a funeral). It is never clear if these are townspeople, or figures from his visions, or both.
Arletty meets a visiting Portuguese-American aristocrat Thom (Michael Greer) and his two extremely provocative, groupie-like female companions, Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anitra Ford). Back at his motel, Thom interviews Charlie, (Elisha Cook, Jr.) the local town eccentric. Charlie speaks at length about "the blood moon" and "the dark stranger" and how he has lived through both. He says very soon it will be the 100 year anniversary of the first appearance of the "dark stranger." He will return, the moon will turn red, and the town will be overrun with evil. Charlie warns Arletty about her father, he says he is "one of them" now. Moments later he is murdered off screen.
Thom, Toni, and Laura are kicked out of their hotel after interviewing Charlie, and stay at Arletty's father's house. Arletty reads through her father's bizarre journal entries, in which he reveals his body temperature is 85 degrees, and he mentions fighting his "condition." Meanwhile, each night, creatures gather on the beach in front of bonfires, staring straight up at the moon. The locals call it "The Waiting."
Late one evening, Laura goes into the local Ralphs supermarket, and is devoured by a hoard of vampires who are feasting on raw meat; the following day, Toni goes to see a movie, and is also eaten by the other theater patrons, who are the same creatures. That evening, the "blood moon" rises, and the town's residents turn into vampires, and the titular "Messiah of Evil" returns. Through voice-over of Charlie's taped interviews, we learn that this "Messiah" was a former minister and a Donner Party survivor from the late 19th century turned vampire/cannibal, who has come to spread his new "religion" and lead his people up the coast and inland. While Thom hides, two policemen in riot gear drive up and fire their guns into a swarm of vampires; however, one of the cops suddenly begins to bleed, causing his now-former partner to shoot him and flee. Undaunted, the undead cop shoots his former ally, and he and the other vampires go to feast on his flesh.
Thom returns to the house, where he finds Arletty half-crazed; she is cold, cannot feel pain, and thinks she may be dead or undead. She even finds a bug crawling around in her mouth and immediately vomits up various beetles, mealworms and an anole. While Thom was gone, Arletty was visited by her father, who had warned her not to follow him and begs her to leave to tell the world about Point Dune. He then attacks her, reluctantly giving in to his "vampire" urges, and after she stabs him with garden shears before burning him alive. Startled by Thom, she stabs him in the arm with the shears. The two of them flee to the beach, but the ersatz vampires follow them, even in broad daylight. They swim out to the breakers, but Thom drowns. Arletty survives and is captured by the townspeople. Instead of killing her, she is let free under the condition that she spread word of the religious movement throughout California and the world. This causes her to be locked up in an insane asylum. Each day, all day, she sits in the sun painting, dreading the day the Messiah and his followers come to take her away.Marianna Hill as Arletty
Anitra Ford as Laura
Royal Dano as Narrator / Joseph Long
Elisha Cook Jr. as Charlie
Michael Greer as Thom
Joy Bang as Toni
Charles Dierkop as Gas attendant
Bennie Robinson as Albino trucker
An urban legend regarding the film exists that a key subplot regarding the true nature of Michael Greer's character "Thom" and his connection to the "Messiah of Evil", aka the "dark stranger" was cut from the final edit of the film. Greer plays the "dark stranger" in the flashback sequence and at the end of the film, Thom tells Arletty of a dream he had, placing him in a situation similar to the "Donner Party", that the "dark stranger" was present at. This leaves the question of whether or not Thom was the reincarnation of the "dark stranger" or the actual "dark stranger". In an interview with Michael Greer to promote the film "The Gay Deceivers", he states that he will be playing "the devil's son" in his upcoming film, Messiah of Evil.
The film was released on DVD January 1, 2003, and has been fully remastered by Code Red DVD and also available alongside The Devil's Nightmare.
There are several alternate titles of the film, including: Dead People, Return of the Living Dead, Revenge of the Screaming Dead, and The Second Coming.
The film was involved in a 1970s dispute over its name, when a Chicago distributor released it under the title Return of the Living Dead. The title was chosen to make it sound as part of the Living Dead franchise and this was misleading. The Laurel Group (also known as Laurel Entertainment), founded in 1976 by George A. Romero and Richard P. Rubinstein, took legal action against this use of the title. Eventually the Motion Picture Association of America decided that Romero did not hold exclusive rights to the terms Living Dead, but ruled against the use of the misleading title for Messiah.
Katz later said the film "was a real bowwow," though Huyck said "it appeared on a marquee in a Woody Allen film, and Film Comment called it 'one of the top 10 classic, overlooked horror films of all time.' "
Kim Newman considers this film to be a "neglected" and "surreal" horror film, which has both a convoluted narrative and a peculiar atmosphere. He draws attention to details such as the vanished father being a death-obsessed painter, the daughter falling in with a group of hedonists, the town people turning into ghouls. He also notes that the "dark stranger" was a sinister preacher, whose awaited return comes from the sea. He find all these details to point to the influence of H. P. Lovecraft on the film, while the depiction of the undead derives from their depiction in the Living Dead. Newman points to the "doomed derelict", whose apt warnings are ignored, to be a cliché deriving from gothic fiction.
Ian Cooper comments that the undead of the film seem to be ghoul-like, and zombie-like vampires. He comments that there was a trend in this direction following the release of the Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Messiah was one of the films which followed it. He cites among other examples Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971), The Return of Count Yorga (1971), Deathdream/Dead of Night (1972), and Lemora (1975).
According to author Glenn Kay, one of the key weaknesses of the film is that "important plot points are never clarified". He notes that the motivations of the lead characters are never properly explained. In particular, Thom is identified as a collector of old legends. But his motivations are even more obscure than those of his female companions. Newman points that the strange behavior of the seemingly normal characters adds to the surreal feeling of the film. The titular Messiah of Evil is never properly identified. Kay finds it problematic that no character reads the father's diary to the end, until it is too late to prevent their fate.
The process of the transformation for the infected is depicted on screen, but said process is also never really explained. The film features a distinctive pattern of symptoms for the infected population of Point Dune. They start bleeding from the eyes, while becoming insensitive to pain. They consume meat and don't seem to be too picky of its source. They all seem to feast on human flesh, several of them consume the entire meat section of a supermarket, and one of them is seen eating a mouse. Once fully transformed, they reportedly "become mere shells of their former shelves". They all eagerly await the return of the so-called "dark stranger", passing the time by lighting bonfires on the beach and gathering round them. When the long-waited return occurs, they are bound to spread their disease to other areas of California.
The scene of a victim chased through a supermarket and devoured in one of its aisles remains a highlight for the film, though the death is implied and not depicted. It seems to be a depiction of consumerism, in a similar way to the satire of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead (1978). Newman finds the highlight of the film to be the scene set in the movie theater. Toni, the "nymphet" as he calls her, is watching a collage of Western scenes. Meanwhile, the decayed theater is increasingly filled up with undead people.
Brendan Riley notes that the zombie films of George A. Romero are known for their social criticism, but he believes that the same can be said of non-Romero films of the genre. He notes Messiah as an example. The undead hordes consist of straight-laced, suit-wearing people. While their targets consist of a long-haired dandy and his two lovers.
Newman places the film within a specific era of horror film, which he names "the American Nightmare". He defines it as the era starting with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and ending with Dawn of the Dead (1978). He defines it as an era where writer-directors started their own film projects, and then went in search of business partners and shady distributors. The films had commercial value, but the creators managed to express their personal concerns within the framework of the genre. He places Messiah among the one-off oddities produced in this era, and notes that such oddities were regularly released alongside the marketable hits which spawned sequels. Newman believes the era properly ended in the early 1980s, when formula-driven franchises such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street started dominating the genre.
Matt Serafini of Dread Central identifies the film as an early example of "Nightmare" films, meaning that it portrays many dream-like, psychedelic scenes in an eerie, unsettling atmosphere.