Ten Years Dead: Night of the Living Dead Essay (Warning: Spoilers)


From 2005, no less. Whoa that’s 10 years since I wrote about George A. Romero’s masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unfortunately I was unable to discuss the film in full detail without using spoilers and mentioning key plot points, although at this point if you haven’t seen George A. Romero’s classic film then you should go fix that ASAP.

Despite the snubbing the horror movie genre receives from many critics, there are actually a good many horror films that have received substantial praise from both critics and fans. One such film is original Night of the Living Dead, made in 1968 by the famous and renowned director George A. Romero. I’ve heard it referred to as the Citizen Kane of horror movies, and while I haven’t seen enough to agree with that statement, Night is indeed a landmark in the history of horror movies, and in cinema.

Before I begin my attempt to discuss the film’s plot, stars, and the finer points of human flesh, I feel the need to say how I discovered this film in the first place. It was back in the fall of 2001, when I was a sophomore at my local high school. Being that it was Halloween, we decided to rent a couple of horror movies, thus continuing a tradition of sorts that we’ve done every year since the 8th Grade.

After walking through the door and being greeted by one of the store clerks wearing some freaky mask, we wandered into the video store aisle marked “Horror.” While my friend picked Scream 3, which was a fairly new release, I noticed a VHS cover, which I think had a zombie on it (my memory is kind of fuzzy). I read the back of the movie, which said it was about some people getting attacked by zombies, and I thought it would be gory fun. Get this: there were two copies of Night of the Living Dead, both the original and the remake. I thought I was getting the remake. But no, when my friend and I popped the tape in back at his house, I discovered to my surprise that it was an old black and white film instead.

Being young and wanting quick scares, my friend didn’t like the film and I found it to be alright at best, with the ending quite shocking and the famous “girl zombie” scene to be gruesome. Turning to the fun of Scream 3, which I found scary at the time (I only saw the rest of the trilogy two Halloweens ago), we both forgot about the other film. That was roughly four years and four viewings ago. Multiple viewings quickly changed my thoughts and views on the flick, but one could say that about a number of movies. I could go on all about me, but I’d rather focus on the film itself.

As the movie opens, we see Johnny boy and his sister Barbara on their way to place flowers on some dead person’s grave. Who that person is isn’t relevant to the story, but instead it serves as an ample plot device, since Johnny is reminded of how he used to scare Barbra, going on to say “They coming to get you Barbara,” with a stupid look on his face. He should have kept his mouth shut, because one of them comes alright. He’s defiantly not human, looks like Lurch’s long lost cousin, and he proceeds to bash Johnny’s head into a tomb stone. Lurch attempts to grab Barbara, but she ditches her car (“Johnny has the keys” is what she says later on), and runs like hell, finally reaching an abandoned farmhouse. This scene marks the change in the movie from quiet and relaxed to a freaky, heavy sense of dread, and I find the zombie attack to be somewhat surreal and almost out of place, which is why it works. Rising from the grave, clearly awakened by gongs being banged by crazed Buddhist monks, dozens of zombies slowly converge upon the farmhouse. All hope seems lost for poor Barbara, who by this point has become a buddle of fried nerves, scared out of her bloody mind, and clearly in no shape to battle the undead hordes.

That’s when the protagonist of our film comes in out of nowhere, riding in an old broke down car and wielding what looks like a tire iron. His name is Ben, and he is her knight in shinning armor, or, in actual reality, an African-American male completely surrounded by whitey. Seriously, Ben is the only black man we see in the entire flick-even the zombies are white! While Romero claims that his decision to cast Duane Jones in the role wasn’t motivated by race, the film’s events (which I will get to later) make me wonder. Completely unfazed by the fact that he’s surrounded by flesh eaters, he walks out on the front porch and sets some of the creatures on fire, and also quickly boards up the house. The guy even finds a lever action shotgun, and starts loading the weapon; Ben is a man of action, and here we witness what has become a common cliché in many movies: the quick thinking man of action, who stays calm, knows what to do, and isn’t afraid to act.

The movie wouldn’t be complete without some drama within the house itself, and this is supplied by Harry, a racist, his wife and child, and the young couple Tom and Judy. Harry doesn’t trust Ben’s decisions and wants to be in charge, providing the film with an added and interesting dimension: Harry feels that he is the bigger man, that he’s right, that he has to be the alpha male of the group. It’s not just a matter of race, but also a matter of serious pride; this pride ends up leading to the destruction of the group, and a bitter irony: that Harry was right about the basement of the house being the safest place to hide. Well at least in the end for the most part; although at the same time staying up in the main house, where there are multiple escape routes makes sense too.

At its core, Night of the Living Dead is many things. It’s clear that the movie is a horror version of those old westerns where the cowboys are holed up in a small cabin or fort, with the savage Indians attacking it, trying to break in and scalp everyone inside. Of course the Indians never ate the cowboys (last time I checked), but that seems to be the main reason why most of the movie takes place inside an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. The claustrophobic feeling of the house has a clear effect upon the inhabitants, and this only ups the film’s slowly building sense of tension. I also feel that the movie in a way mirrors the social and political upheavals that were taking place at that time in America. Ben and Harry’s struggles for control certainly reflect upon the racial conflicts that had exploded in many American cities, along with the film’s ending, which caught me completely off guard. Also, the movie’s few extremely violent scenes are perhaps references to the Vietnam War; in that American troops mowed down countless, nameless Vietnamese communists-only replace the communists with flesh eating zombies. I also have to note that many of the zombies had the look of dirty, druggy hippies, which makes me wonder if Romero was commenting on the country’s counterculture as well.

A final theme I think the movie touches on is the horrifying thought that mankind at its worst reverts to its most primitive, primal and gruesome instincts, and I think the zombies reflect this. That at any time, any place, and your loved one may go berserk and decide to either gnaw on your flesh, or stab you to death with a garden trowel. They are no longer human, and reasoning with them won’t save you. Which is to me a very scary thought indeed.

“Night,” like most horror movies isn’t well known for its actors, or good acting in general. That seems to be an extra bonus, especially if you take a look at the slasher films of the 1980s. But even on a shoe string budget Romero manages to get some pretty good acting out of some of the movie’s cast, especially Duane Jones. Jones as Ben is really the film’s strongest character, and while it’s not an entirely fleshed out role, Jones does a wonderful job portraying a man surrounded by what one could call a surrealistic nightmare. What makes Ben so damn cool is that he takes no prisoners, refuses to surrender, uses everything at his disposal to kill the zombies, and until the second half of the film, he has a plan. What also makes his character so fascinating is how Ben slowly comes to realize that even he is human, and that despite all his planning everything goes terribly wrong. This feeling is further explored in a scene where Ben is trapped in the basement, haunted by the fact that he is now all alone, and that the bastard hippie people eaters have finally broken into the house. Ben has been defeated, and he knows it.

As for the other actors, Karl Hardman as Harry, we see a man who is the complete opposite of Ben. Harry seems to be nervous, racist, (one could say that Ben was racists at times also), and paranoid. His struggles with Ben and the distrust that exists between them do indeed add the needed dynamic to the film, and his demise is equal parts gory, tragic, and horrifying, and showcase’s the film’s third theme about lack of true humanity. Judith O’Dea, who as Barbara is stuck in the role of the woman in need of rescue, is the film’s truly realistic side, in that she’s scared out of her mind. While most of us think that we’d act like Ben in such a situation, more than likely many of us would be frightened, and wondering whether or not we would survive. Oh, and what happens to poor Barb is something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, and is horribly ironic.

The film in itself has plenty of irony, some people who get their just deserts, and others who were unlucky enough to be caught of the middle of two angry men and the horde of the undead. Romero by the way smartly only has a few scenes of gore, and so their shock value and the effect of disgust they aim to project are seared onto the audience’s mind; this is in sharp contrast to the rest of his zombie series. Although the part where the zombie girl stabs her mother to death with a garden tool is a clear homage (or rip off if that’s your opinion) of the famous shower scene in “Psycho,” with the blood splattering, the screams of the dying, and the sharp musical notes in the background. That scene gets me every time, simply because the image of a woman’s spawn butchering her is to me quite cringe worthy, and somewhat shocking.

Stamped with Romero’s unique vision, driven by tension, gore, a cast of realistic characters, and a thoughtful commentary on humanity that may or may not have been intentional, Night of the Living Dead is a movie experience every horror fan should have. The movie proves that not all horror films are mindless, gory thrill machines, and that the genre has contributed more to the world of cinema than is generally acknowledge.

Horrorfest 2014 Presents: The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton)


How to know you are in a horror movie: a playboy uncle tasks you with being the governess to a pair of children in a gigantic mansion located in the countryside, far away from help or people of any kind. Plus the previous mistress died in mysterious circumstances, but hey that’s not important and the added bonus is you don’t know how she died. Good times. This is the basis for The Innocents, based on the Turning of the Screw, a movie that I’m not sure can be called a haunted house movie or a crazy people movie. The film nicely leaves the viewer to interpret that for themselves, and it results in an ending that is haunting although a tad unclear to me, which is also fine I guess.

Anchoring the entire film is Deborah Kerr, who plays Miss Giddens, the governess challenged with ruling over the children. Flora is the girl, Miles is the boy, and at first they seem to be charming and wonderful but naturally are hiding darker secrets lying beneath the surface. The black and white cinematography is utterly stunning, and this is due to Freddie Francis, who went on to direct many Hammer Studios and other horror movies and is talented in his own right. Certain scenes build up the tension and add to the uncertainty of Giddens’ state of mind, while also suggesting that perhaps the spirits of the dead have come back to attack the living.

One of the main things I love about this movie is how events spiral out of control, that by the last act the film has achieved a bizarre high level that not too many horror movies reach. Another nice touch is how many scenes are without music, that silence is used to maximum effect and makes the film even more creepy. The Innocents has an otherworldly feel, and it helps that the child actors are also fantastic-Miles is particularly freaky and reminds me of the child actor they had for The Omen. This is a film that has a very good chance of cracking my Top 50 Horror Films list.

One Night, Three Bava’s


Okay so I meant to post this on October 31st, 2013 but I tend to procrastinate and I was really far behind on reviews at that point anyways. This was mostly because I was too busy watching horror movies, and I spent Halloween night at home enjoying beer, food, and a trio of Mario Bava films:

1) 5 Dolls For An August Moon (1970)

In some ways I’m not even sure that 5 Dolls For An August Moon is a horror film, as most of the movie is a murder mystery/suspense drama with plenty of bodies to go around. Still its a loose slasher film/giallo crafted by the legendary Mario Bava, and I loved its ghoulish sense of humor. There is some amusement to be found in how this film unwinds, and there is a scene that possibly violates logic yet in this film’s loose and wild narrative its a scene that makes absolute sense. Oh and this film could have been subtitled “Rich people behaving badly. Really badly.”

A group of industrialists throw a party on a secluded island, with several of them attempting to pay off a scientist for his discovery of a formula that could be revolutionary. From early on when someone is horribly murdered to the group’s horrible way of dealing with the murders going on in their midst, 5 Dolls operates as a slasher comedy, with the characters rapidly dropping like flies. Like so many other slasher movies this film quickly becomes a guessing game, where the murder hides in plain sight and no one can be trusted. Its a nice level of paranoia that works fairly well in the best slasher movies.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending, and while I really liked this movie I think its one of Bava’s most uninteresting in terms of what happens. Yet I loved the pure style of the proceedings, and the final shot is in some regards a wonderful joke. Dead people haven’t been this funny or interesting in quite some time, I think.

2) Hatchet For Honeymoon (1970)

In some ways the great looking yet sinister manic John, the main character of Hatchet For The Honeymoon, reminds me of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Both are rich psychopaths who hide their murder lusts behind perfectly constructed facades, carefully wooing lovely beauties and then killing them. However Bateman wasn’t a mother’s boy, and he was too smart to be locked into a loveless marriage of connivance like John was. Poor John, much like Patrick, can barely keep it together: his world is a house of cards, and he is a lunatic bordering on absolute madness. This is Mario Bava’s masterwork, a film that takes us inside the world of a madman and achieves the tricky part of making us care if he can actually stay one step ahead of the law, that he escapes fate.

Not to mention the fact that midway through the movie loses itself completely in the tricky confines of John’s psychotic world view, operating as crazy as John does the rest of the way. The title by the way is a complete misnomer, as John doesn’t actually murder anyone with a hatchet, choosing instead to use a meat clever to nasty effect. The killings are gorgeous, constructed perfectly and therefore shockingly up close. You can almost feel and sense the fear of his victims and pity them even as John covers his awful behavior with the lies of a gentleman of leisure.

I cannot reveal here one of the film’s best aspects, nor can I say more about the ending, which is bone chillingly eerie. What I can note is that Hatchet For The Honeymoon is a classy giallo with plenty of surprises up its sleeve. So far the only other Bava I find that comes close to matching this film is Blood and Black Lace, another nasty piece of work that is another fine contribution to the slasher sub genre of horror movie making.

3) Twitch Of The Death Nerve/A Bay Of Blood (1971)

Okay so I can see why everyone feels that Friday the 13th: Part 2 ripped off Twitch of the Death Nerve, also known as A Bay of Blood. In fact its painfully obvious, and yet I like both movies-even though A Bay of Blood is the superior of the two. Mario Bava was really good at depicting horrible mayhem occurring onscreen to the point where its no surprise that the Americans decided to rip off his kills. Especially the famous “Spear through the two lovers” death scene that was so graphic the filmmakers of Friday the 13th were forced to cut parts of the scene just to avoid the dreaded “X” rating. Bava apparently did not have that problem in Italy, although I’m sure even the censors over there were strict to a certain degree.

Another thing I love about this film is that the killers are mostly revealed-there is little secret as to who is murdering who, and the body count is rather high. Since the lake front property is worth a great fortune a greedy brood has descended upon the area, desperately killing off one another to try and take control. In some ways this movie has the feel of a gory soap opera where someone is screwing someone else, another person has murdered someone else, and everyone seems to be in on some type of demented conspiracy. Its almost difficult to keep up with the machinations of the entire situation.


By the end of this movie I was a bit exhausted, although that was more so from having spent the entire Halloween night watching Bava movies on Netflix Instant Viewing. A Bay of Blood is gory, bloody (of course) and yet manages to keep that trademark dark humor that Bava featured in some of his later movies. I smiled at how the film ended, and I realize that the Friday the 13th series would have benefited from more dark humor in the series and maybe some nicely tuned irony.

Horrorfest 2013 Presents: Tenebrae (1982, Dario Argento)


Opening in front of a crackling fire with a narrative voice over describing an unknown person sitting and reading a novel, Tenebrae  begins in typical Dario Argento mysterious fashion. Clearly we are being shown the murder of his film, and yet the black gloves and shadow cast by the deranged psychopath are the only clues given to us, the viewer. A famous novelist named Peter Neal is the creator of the book read by the killer, and upon arriving in Rome to promote his latest book and also pen another one he is beset by threats from the murder. Early on we get a horrific and shocking kill, where a young woman is slaughtered brutally in her apartment while having pages from Tenebrae shoved into her mouth. Even by Argento standards I found the murder to be rather graphic, and illustrated the film’s bleak tone early on. Sure all of Argento’s films are that way, yet I found Tenebrae to be almost beyond the pale, and even more nasty than his other films that I’ve viewed so far (most of his 70s works and two 80s films-this one and Inferno). That’s something that makes it arguably the best out of the ones I’ve seen, and yes I’m placing this movie above his other classics Deep Red and Suspiria.

Plus the fact that in some ways this is Argento discussing his own work, or at least critiques of it, as filtered through Neal’s works. Just like Argento Neal is responsible for works that feature graphic murder, sex and violence, and in one scene Neal is even attacked by a female journalist for what she argues is his “Hatred of women.” There is also the classic scene of the seemingly tortured killer, portrayed in strange vivid flashbacks that are haunting to watch. Yet at the same time Argento puts on display his technical prowless as well in a fantastic tracking crane shot that covers an apartment building housing two women lovers who end up being attacked later on. With the theme music, as scored by the remaining members of Goblin, no less. It’s an amazing moment that feels as if you are looking over a beautiful woman, peeking into her secrets-or in this case, the windows of two females. Watching them in a voyeuristic manner, which is what the killer is doing anyways.

What especially stood out to me besides the gruesome kills was that unlike some of Argento’s other films there is little humor involved, no silly moments. This was meant to be an unflinching and completely stark portrayal of a person’s murderous rampage, reportedly inspired by the works of Peter Neal. The fact that Argento made this film after receiving threats from an unhinged fan only gives the film an added dose of realism and additional terror. Sporting one of Goblin’s best soundtracks and existing as a pure form of death onscreen, Tenebrae just could be Argento’s masterwork. Love that ending, too-absolutely bone chilling.

Friday the 13th Is Just A Day….Right?


On this day, Friday the 13th, we pause to remember the fallen-those who lost their lives at the hands of one individual: Jason Voorhees. The masked murder has been responsible for countless deaths since 1980, and is still rumored to be out in force today. We, the people, those who are lucky or smart enough to have avoided Camp Crystal Lake, need to observe a moment of silence for the fallen. Those poor souls who at times literally slit their own throats, made it easy for Jason to kill them-especially the unlucky campers who should have been going out the door instead of running upstairs. Its not easy to reflect on those we have lost, and after 33 years some of the locals have become numb to the pain, the death and suffering, the carriage.

With this in mind, I actually do not have a complete list of the dead mainly since proper records have been lost, but really mostly because there have just been so many even I’ve lost track. They even say that Jason is still out there, rooming the woods, carving up new victims and stalking his prey ever so carefully. He might even be behind you right now. As for reports that I am following a one Jason L. Voorhees on Twitter, well, um….

…HEY LOOK HE’S THERE! OVER THERE! RUN!

*Jumps into car and drives away*

 

NEVER FORGET

 

Friday the 13th Warning

 

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