‘Night of the Living Dead’ – Undead: Year Zero

Romero’s zombie apocalypse rewrote the rules of horror

By today’s standards, director George Romero’s disturbed 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead, looks downright antediluvian, a rough, raw, black-and-white horror hewn from primitive equipment, unremarkable locations, a game but amateurish cast and gore effects that are, measured by the grotesqueries paraded across movie screens in the decades since, quaint.

The first genuinely modern horror movie

Yet there is subversive genius amid the sometimes sketchy performances and long-winded newsbreaks. You can argue that Dawn of the Dead is sharper, slyer, more nuanced. Sure. You can point out the ferocious sociopolitical satire of Land of the Dead. Absolutely.

But none of those films cut to the gristle and bone that Romero and his crew of hungry young Pittsburgh filmmakers accomplished with their original, budget-starved masterpiece. This little seat-of-the-pants regional production chewed up and spit out taboos like raw meat in a feral feeding frenzy.

Like the shambling, dull-eyed predators that instinctively swarm about their warm-blooded prey, the original Night of the Living Dead is a slow starter (at least after the shock of the graveyard scene, where our “zombie patient zero” stumbles through the background until it turns out he really is coming to get you, Barbra). The next hour is all about the desperation of survival and the terror of a world suddenly gone hostile and predatory. The unstoppable army of flesh-eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation: They literally come from nowhere.

The strains of panic and helplessness twist the tensions of human survivors to the breaking point. It’s like low-rent Samuel Beckett snuck into an exploitation thriller. There are echoes of Vietnam in the imagery and reflections of America’s volatile race relations in the increasingly savage state of conflict within the house, where the survivors turn on themselves as they fend for their lives.

But it’s still the primal kick of the flesh feast that gives this grisly spectacle, of society feeding on itself and the nuclear family devouring its own, a place in our collective nightmares.

It’s the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the gothic horrors that defined the ’60s, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture. Night of the Living Dead changed the face of American horror movies: for better (it blazed the trail for the transgressive horror renaissance of the ’70s, seeded Romero’s own sequels and inspired Shaun of the Dead), for worse (all those crappy copycat zombie knockoffs) and forever.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

DVD of the Week – Halloween 2008 edition – Hitchcock and Horror

It must have been kismet that I received my copy of the Fox Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection late, too late to feature it the week it actually came out. Because now it leads off the Halloween week MSN DVD column. Hitch wasn’t really a horror director outside of Psycho, but The Master of Suspense was a master of thrillers, and this set features his very first thriller:

The Lodger was Alfred Hitchcock’s third film, his first classic, and arguably the first “Alfred Hitchcock movie.” Moody and textured, the 1926 silent thriller stars music hall superstar Ivor Novello as a mysterious figure who arrives at a boarding house out of the foggy night. Hitch creates some of his most expressionist images (the ceiling dissolves to a man pacing above, the fog that swirls about the mysterious lodger) and introduces his murky world of guilt and innocence in the story of an eccentric figure who may be Jack the Ripper. Previously available only in inferior versions, this remastered and digitally restored edition looks superb and offers two scores: Ashley Irwin’s vivid, dramatic orchestral score, and a more somber and impressionistic one by Paul Zaza.

The set features eight films all together, including two of his early British thrillers (the classic Sabotage with Sylvia Sidney and lighter and lesser Young and Innocent), his World War II drama Lifeboat and all four films made for David Selznick: the Gothic classic Rebecca (Hitchcock’s only film to win an Oscar for Best Picture), the Gregory Peck films Spellbound and The Paradine Case, and the romantic masterpiece Notorious. Alfred Hitchcock had everything he needed to make cinema magic when he undertook Notorious: a brilliant cast of beautiful, seductive stars (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman at their most galmorous) and excellent character actors (Claude Rains and Louis Calhern), one of Hollywood’s smartest and most adept screenwriters (Ben Hecht), and best of all a producer with lots of money and class who was too busy to interfere–for once. The result is one of his most sparkling romantic thrillers, smooth and silky with a dangerous, darkly suggestive undercurrent of sex, power, and sacrifice.

The DVD is featured on my MSN column here.

Lucio Fulci’s surreal giallo masterpiece The Beyond has been out of print for years. Now Grindhouse brings their restored edition back out. Lucio “King of the Eyeball Gag” Fulci is hardly a favorite of mine, but this film is a wild, eerie, mad masterpiece. The largely incoherent plot has something to do with a turn of the century curse and a doorway to hell in the cellar of an old New Orleans hotel, but then plot in giallo is rarely more than an pretense. If you can overlook little things like wooden acting and clumsy dialogue and arbitrary twists, you’ll find an insane tale of zombies from hell invading Earth and eating their way through a cast of crucified martyrs, blind visionaries, creepy hotel handymen and befuddled cops, while a plucky pair of heroes desperately fleeing a horde of hungry undead. The blood red art direction is eerily beautiful and Fulci’s relentless long takes, punctuated by jolting shock cuts and eruptions of grotesque violence, creates a mood of sheer paranoid horror right down to the final, mind bending image. Just let yourself get carried away on the creepy visuals and it’s a surprisingly stylish treat, an eerie, edgy bit of gothic gore pitched in all it’s bone crunching, flesh ripping, organ splatting glory. But beware: this sadistic, sanguinary hell-spawn tale is for gore-hounds only.
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The Original ‘Psycho’ Thriller

Mother — what is the phrase? — isn’t quite herself today

Psycho took America completely by surprise in 1960, when middle-American theatergoers headed to the movies to see the latest offering from the director of the glamorous and sexy Rear Window and the Technicolor confection North by Northwest. Who expected the droll host of TV’s showcase for suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to get so down and dirty and tawdry?

"Psycho" - the original psycho thriller
"Psycho" - the original psycho thriller

The granddaddy of all slasher films and psycho-thrillers will never have the same impact as it did on first release. The murder of Janet Leigh has been parodied too many times to carry the same shock value for new audiences. The suggestions of sex and nudity, daring for the time, are tame next to the exhibitionism of horror cinema since the ’70s. The gruesome revelation of the mummified corpse of Mrs. Bates (ingeniously intensified by a swinging light bulb sweeping shadows across the hollow sockets of her skull) reduced original audiences to shrieks. Today, such surprises are part and parcel of the horror genre.

But Hitchcock’s craft is breathtaking. The eerie atmosphere of Norman Bates’ sitting room, with stuffed and mounted birds of prey along the wall as if frozen in mid-attack, creates a tension that Hitch shatters with the brilliantly orchestrated scream of the shower murder. Shot and cut into shards like reflections in a shattered mirror, it’s a transgressive assault on the audience at its most vulnerable (in the bathroom, naked and exposed) and a masterpiece of editing (Hitch entrusted the planning and execution to Saul Bass, who also created the slashing opening credits). The screaming violins still send shivers down my spine whenever I hear them.

And then there is Anthony Perkins, Hollywood’s gentle boy next door, as the troubled Norman, a voyeur who peeps on Janet Leigh as she undresses and who squirms in the emotional iron grip of his mother, squeezing him from beyond the grave. His fidgety, increasingly disturbing performance became so identified with his image that it all but destroyed his career as a romantic lead.

Psycho is pulpy and sordid and perverse, shot in black and white on a low budget to give it the tawdry feel of a B movie, and directed with the impeccable craft of a master who knew how to shock the sensibilities and shake up the expectations of an audience. Time may have dulled the shock, but the craft is as impressive as ever.

Originally published as part of the MSN “Cadillac of” series.

Countdown to Halloween

As we count the days down to Halloween, I’ll be posting short pieces on a few choice horror films, in addition to my regularly scheduled DVD column (which continues the theme).

But before I begin, let me direct your attention to a couple of pieces over at Parallax View celebrating the glory days of Italian horror:

Thirteen Landmarks of Italian Horror; or, There’s Always Room for Giallo

The Italian poster for "Black Sunday"
The Italian poster for "Black Sunday"

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties and bloomed in the seventies and beginning in the late nineties, as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and, later, DVD, in restored and uncut versions, I devoured these releases. But like so many other fans, I also discovered that the genre continued to grind through the decades. As the rest of the world took the lead, the Italian film industry – apart from inspired exceptions –continued cranking out imitations of its own creation. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for a moment of inspiration. In recent years, Japan and Spain have, in turn, taken the lead in carving out their own territory in the horror genre, and I’ve left the giallo spelunking for hardier souls than I. But I still treasure those discoveries and revel in the lush, visually stunning cinematic spectacle of the giallo at its best, a waking nightmare with the poetic grace of a musical: Italy’s dance of death. Let the ball begin.

Read the complete piece here.

Mario Bava: Master Choreographer of the Giallo’s Dance of Death

Mario Bava is a horror original.

A painter and cinematographer turned director, a craftsman turned celluloid dreamer, an industry veteran who created, almost single-handedly, the uniquely Italian genre of baroque horror known as “giallo,” he directed the most graceful and deliriously mad horror films of the 1960s and early 1970s. Always better at imagery than explanation, at set piece than story, Bava’s films are at their best dream worlds and nightmare visions. Check your logic at the door.

Bava was born into the movies in 1914. Italy was at the height of its epic historical spectacles and his father, Eugenio Bava, was one of Italy’s top cameramen; he shot, among others film, the lavish blockbuster Quo Vadis. Mario trained as a painter but soon followed in his father’s footsteps and became one of Italy’s most in-demand cameramen (Bava disdained the term “cinematographer”) and special effects artists, often working uncredited. He’s said to have made unsigned directorial contributions to such productions as Mario Camerini’s Ulysses (1955) with Kirk Douglas, Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon (1959) with Steve Reeves, and Raoul Walsh’s Esther and the King (1960) with Joan Collins.

Legend has it that Italian genre veteran Riccardo Freda “pushed” his friend Bava into the director’s chair by abandoning not one but two projects for his frequent cinematographer to finish (it’s hard to verify the real reason that Freda left the projects, but it makes for a good enough story to justify printing the legend). Based on his uncredited direction completing Freda’s I Vampiri and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, plus his imaginative work as cinematographer, special effects artist, and assistant director on Pietro Francisci’s genre-defining muscleman movies Hercules and Hercules Unchained, Bava was offered a shot a directing a project of his choosing. He chose Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy” and made his official directoral debut, at age 46, on The Mask of Satan, renamed Black Sunday for the U.S. release.

Read the complete piece here.

New Reviews: ‘Mother of Tears’ and ‘Brick Lane’

Mother of Tears (dir: Dario Argento)

Dario Argento’s “The Three Mothers” trilogy is, decades after releasing the wildly incomprehensible and luridly fascinating second film Inferno, finally completed, not with a bang but a whimper, or rather, in a metaphor more befitting the title, a glycerin tear. Mother of Tears is contrived, confused, clumsy, and quite simply dreadful. It opens on sloppiest archeologists in Italy opening an unearthed urn containing ancient talismans and describing the contents with such numbingly obviousness that you wonder if your experiencing a cheap version of descriptive video for the blind (“It’s some kind of ancient language,” he opines. Really? On an ancient artifact? What, he was expecting Esperanto?). The whole mess is sent to a museum, where an equally dubious expert manhandles the box open and inadvertently brings the talismans to life as giant golems that proceed to motheroftearssacrifice.jpgeviscerate the head archeologist and strangle her with her own intestines. Their lord and (naked) mistress pulls on an unholy T-shirt with glitter runes and proceeds to cast evil across Rome (which is actually Turin, an unconvincing stand-in made worse by poor locations and indifferent photography).

Even Dario’s daughter Asia, as a wide-eyed archeology student who watches witches from all over the world (dressed like refugees from an eighties New Wave video) swarm the streets like a gang of harpy thugs, can’t get through her lines with a modicum of conviction (Udo Kier doesn’t even bother, he just goes nuts). Written from a compendium of B movie dialogue clichés and directed as if he’d never worked with actors before, Argento’s film is a cheap production with little visual creativity and dull cinematography. He falls back on familiar shocks and images rather than delving into the abstract beauty of his glory days of horror. Once a director of high style, with cameras that danced and floated through scenes of dynamic choreography and searing colors and stunning visions, the master of abstract ballets of blood and beauty has become a tired old man.

I review the film for the Seattle P-I here.

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DVD of the Week – ‘The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volumes 1 & 2’ – May 13, 2008

Originally released in 2007 as a pair of exclusive box sets for Best Buy, this collection of Universal sci-fi films and atomic monster movies uses the term “classic” in the generic sense – many of the films here are on the decidedly silly side – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a lot of fun.

Yet it does feature one masterpiece of the era: Jack Arnold’s 1957 film of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (scripted by the author himself). The title is pulp but the story of a man (Grant Williams) who suddenly, inexplicably begins to grow smaller after drifting through a radiation cloud is compassionate and intelligent, a portrait of a man who becomes alienated from his own everyday world as he changes. The special effects are tremendous, of course, transforming once harmless household realities into life-threatening hazards (his battle with a spider, armed only with a sewing needle, is thrilling), but Arnold’s investment goes beyond the handsomely realized spectacle of trick photography to dig into the psyche of Williams’ increasingly diminutive hero as he deals with his sudden helplessness, his freak-show appearance in a world of giants (in one touching moment he connects with an equally petite circus midget), and the mystery of his own future as he devolves to microscopic levels. The marriage of the physical and the metaphysical makes his drama uncommonly affecting. This title has been one of the most requested of its genre.

Arnold was a prolific director of low-budget sci-fi spectacles in the fifties and it would have been nice to see a set devoted to his films. This collection features two others, including his highly entertaining atomic creature feature Tarantula (1955), with Leo G. Carroll as the experimental scientist who turns a desert spider into a menace that stalks the barren hills of the southwest desert. The hungry arachnid graduates from rabbits to cattle to people as it grows and creeps across the barren countryside in search of food, dwarfing the desert hills in simple but unsettling special effects shots. Arnold creates a surprisingly eerie mood with his austere visual style and winds the film up in building tension with his rapid pacing. Arnold’s contributions to the set also include Monster on the Campus (1958), one of his decidedly lesser efforts, and The Monolith Monsters (1957), which he wrote but did not direct.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volumes 1 & 2’ – May 13, 2008”

New reviews: ‘Diary of the Dead, ‘Definitely, Maybe’ and ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’

George Romero’s Diary of the Dead is sure to be compared to “Cloverfield,” thanks to a vague similarity in the first-person video diary style that became an instant cliche minutes after “The Blair Witch Project” made it into a high-concept horror success. They couldn’t be more different, and it’s more than simply budgets and gloss.

diaryofdead.jpgWhere “Cloverfield” begs your indulgence while a clueless schlub refuses to put down the camera in a situation where it could impede his survival, “Diary” makes the cameraman’s refusal to drop the camera the defining characteristic of the character, an aspiring filmmaker who is more concerned with making history than surviving it, and the often heated arguments.

It also shares something in common with “Redacted” – the mix of first-person video footage, news footage and streaming video uploaded to the Internet, not to mention rather awkward performances that substitute volume for commitment. Performance has never been Romero’s strong suit and he’s not one to coax convincing characters from limited actors, but at least they are more interesting than the bland nothings on display in “Cloverfield.” More importantly, however, Romero has something more on his mind. Not always subtle, but interesting and insistent and less verbal than visual and visceral. Romero follows a familiar horror narrative structure and knows how to deliver the zombie conventions – the stumbling chases, the gore, the scrambling survivors who inevitably trip in the panic of their escape – but between the conventions is a root suspicion of the veracity of the media in the way if reports on our world.

It also questions the engagement of the cameraman in such a situation. Is his duty to document, or to put down the camera and help?

I reviewed the film in the Seattle P-I here.

The motivations of the citizens aren’t necessarily altruistic, but that fits nicely with Romero’s balance of pragmatism and ambiguity.

Even as society breaks down into looting and feudalistic enclaves, information is still a commodity in the digital age.

Update – my Seattle Times colleague Mark Rahner interviewed George Romero about Diary late last year. The interview was published in the Seattle Times with an extended on-line version. Continue reading “New reviews: ‘Diary of the Dead, ‘Definitely, Maybe’ and ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’”