Movie Review: The Night of the Living Dead

People Arguing

I admit that I was not looking forward to rewatching The Night of the Living Dead. I last saw this movie a number of years ago, and can recall being glad that I wouldn’t have to watch it again. So I came prepared, opening my iPhone to Pokemon Go and preparing for ninety-five minutes of zombies and culling unwanted Pokemon.

The Pokemon cull did not go as planned. To make a long story short, I really enjoyed this movie. Yes, I know what I said about zombies in my review of World War Z, but The Night of the Living Dead subverts expectations. When I started watching, this movie’s look and music lulled me into thinking it might be just another B-horror film. It isn’t.

The plot: Barbara and her brother Johnny drive to their father’s grave. Contrary to expectations, neither of them is the protagonist. Johnny dies in the first ten minutes, slain by a zombie. The fact that these zombies don’t eat brains is another interesting twist; they are cannibals in the traditional sense, feasting on the flesh of the living.

Barbara ends up in a seemingly abandoned house, where we meet the movie’s hero. Ben boards up the doors and windows as more zombies arrive. We learn that the newly dead are reanimating. A space shuttle to Venus and high levels of radiation – both staples of 1950’s science fiction – are mentioned as possible causes. It’s another trick. The authorities have no clue why the dead are rising, and the movie never tells us.

Ben and Barbara eventually meet the people hiding in the house’s basement. Tom and Judy are a nice young couple. Harry Cooper isn’t so nice. He has a wife, who doesn’t seem to like him much, and a sick child. More zombies arrive. Instead of working together the survivors bicker, another subversion of expectations and a reminder of the unofficial motto of The Walking Dead (see image above).

Our heroes try to escape. If this was a conventional horror movie, they might succeed. Instead they fail miserably. The remaining survivors are more interested in killing each other than the zombies. The violence is graphic; our heroes die horribly. Harry’s child reanimates and kills her mother. A few of the zombies are naked, and we see them feasting on viscera and intestines. Ben hides in the basement. When the rescue team arrives in the morning they mistakenly shoot him in the head, which is the movie’s final twist. The end.

The Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking movie. Duane Jones, the man who plays Ben, was the first African American actor to be cast as the lead in a mainstream American horror movie (according to IMDB). The ‘rescue’ party at the end comes complete with barking dogs, and would be a familiar sight to television news watchers of the 1960’s; all that’s missing are the fire hoses.

This movie is also an interesting case study on how people react under stress. The answer is, not too well. Barbara goes into shock, which is realistic. Harry Cooper is scared shitless, which makes him do stupid things. It doesn’t matter, because the people who keep their heads die also.

I liked The Night of the Living Dead a lot more than I expected. The acting is good,  the screenplay is tight and there’s plenty of action. The film’s visceral subject matter was shocking for the 1960’s, and a few of the scenes still pack a punch today. Overall, this movie deserves every bit of praise it gets as a horror classic.

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I Hate Zombies, So Why Did I Like This Book? Max Brooks’ World War Z

World War Z

Besides being the best zombie book I’ve ever read, World War Z is also a great horror novel. Please note that this comes from a person who doesn’t like zombies (more on that later). I read World War Z for the first time over a decade ago. I bought the book at my local B&N because I liked the cover. Yes, sometimes I buy books because I like the cover, and the results are often surprisingly good. When I recommended World War Z to a friend he loved it, and asked me where I’d heard of it. When I told him how much I liked the cover he gave me a strange look.

Anyway: I reread World War Z last week. I realized I was reading a great book when Mr. Brooks informed me that those who transformed into zombies while driving have no idea how to unbuckle their seatbelts, and are thus stuck in their cars for all eternity. Great detail. I have relatives who live in Yonkers, and the author’s description of that city is dead-on, down to the A&P (which is now an ACME). What can you do but tip your hat to such attention to detail?

I won’t even go into Mr. Brooks’ masterful description of other cultures, the way he puts the zombie apocalypse into a socioeconopolitical (is that a word?) perspective and his successful use of over twenty different voices, all of which sounded distinct. After all, this is an oral history of the zombie wars, and the survivors interviewed all have riveting stories to tell.

Speaking of telling stories, I have no idea why Max Brooks (who is filmmaker Mel Brooks’ son) hasn’t written another horror novel. Besides his zombie material (three books), he wrote a graphic novel called The Harlem Hellfighters, a comic series titled The Extinction Parade and a Minecraft novel. It’s a damn shame Mr. Brooks hasn’t followed up, because World War Z puts him in the pantheon of great horror writers of my generation.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book, because as a rule I don’t like zombie novels. I can tolerate zombie movies if they are funny (Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead) or have an interesting twist (28 Days Later, Pontypool), but I don’t like reading about them.

Actually, I don’t like zombies period. I have trouble taking a monster that combines the speed of a grandpa on his walker with the motor skills of an overstimulated toddler seriously. Here’s an idea: why not wear a winter jacket and three pairs of snow pants if you’re scared of being bitten?

Yes, you may say, but there’s millions of the undead! True, but there are billions of the living. Many of my fellow humans have been stockpiling baked beans and guns for years, eagerly awaiting the day civilization collapses so that they can declare themselves the Lords of Weehawken, N.J. That’s truly terrifying. And I’m supposed to be scared of a smelly corpse?

How did there get to be millions of zombies anyway? I’m going to guess it went something like this:

  1. The first zombie searches for a hearty meal of brains.
  2. ???
  3. Earth is overrun by zombies!

Another reason I don’t like zombies is because they are so unhealthy. Zombies crave brains, which are high in cholesterol and can also cause you to contract kuru, the human version of Mad Cow Disease. Yes, I know zombies are dead and thus don’t care about their cholesterol levels, but that just proves another point. Zombies are dead but they don’t rot, because don’t think about it. If zombies were subject to the Law of Conservation of Energy, they would not even have the strength to shamble, unless the zombie in question was getting three square meals of brains per day. It would probably take more calories than that, but whatever.

Anyway… apologies to any of my classmates who love zombies. I’m sorry for hating on your favorite monster; I know my favorite monsters are just as unrealistic. I’m guessing my dislike stems from working retail for years. Give me a horde of bloodthirsty zombies over a mob of last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve any day!

City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead is the first movie in Lucio Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Lucio Fulci is an Italian horror movie director who worked in the late 20th century (mostly the 70’s and 80’s). His movies are cheaply made, nihilistic affairs that revel in excess; Fulci is the guy who goes for the gross-out every time. Love him or hate him, he’s hugely influential.

Set in scenic Dunwich New England, City of the Living Dead opens with a priest hanging himself. Cut to a séance in New York City, where psychic Mary Woodhouse dies of fright, leading to a scene where a hardboiled trench-coated cop questions the other members of the séance. Ah, I thought, here’s our main character, except the cop never appears again.

It’s hard to figure out who the main character of City of the Living Dead is. Is it Mary Woodhouse, miraculously resurrected from the dead? Perhaps it’s Peter Bell, the crusty yet lovable reporter who is old enough to be her father. Or it could be Gerry the psychiatrist, who tells us that 70% of the women in this country are neurotic. Maybe it’s the woman who draws rhinos for a living or young John-John, who wears a Yankees jersey in New England (one of the most unbelievable things about this movie).

In many ways City of the Living Dead is the Spoon River Anthology of horror movies. There are almost too many characters to keep track of. We have the guys who hang around the bar drinking Schlitz; the necking teenagers; the lecherous mortician. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention town pervert Bob and his blow-up doll, who is unfortunately uncredited. Well, you get the idea. An ensemble cast!

The priest starts hanging around Dunwich. When he stares at you, your eyes bleed. This leads to one of the grossest scenes in horror movie history where a character literally pukes her guts out. A word of warning: don’t eat dinner while watching this. The dead start to rise. We learn there’s a deadline: if Father Vomit isn’t killed a second time by midnight of All Saint’s Day, the Gates of Hell will open! The rest of City of the Living Dead consists of our inept heroes bumbling around while Father Vomit creates teleporting zombies and blows maggot swarms at people.

I have a love-hate relationship with Lucio Fulci: I hated The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, the second and third movies in the “Gates of Hell” trilogy. But I must admit to really liking City of the Living Dead, right up to its gonzo wtf? ending, which supposedly came about because the editor spilled coffee on the film of the original ending. I don’t know if that’s a true story, but I sure hope it is!

The Living Dead Girl

Living Dead Girl

Living Dead Girl is a return to form for director Jean Rollin. After viewing the disappointing Iron Rose months ago, I worried that the master was losing his touch. I needn’t have fretted; Living Dead Girl is vintage Eurotrash, chockful of sex, violence, gore and nudity.

Three movers haul barrels of toxic waste into a chateau’s crypt. They are in the process of robbing the dead people in said crypt when an earthquake smashes the barrels, releasing toxic fumes into the air. Catherine, who has been dead for two years but still looks great, revives and manages to kill the movers in the bloodiest way possible (poking out eyes, fingers through the throat) without staining her white dress.

Cut to a pair of American tourists. We know they’re Americans because they’re loud assholes who speak English. What else could they be? They’re in a field arguing when the wife snaps a picture of Catherine, who is staggering around in a daze. At this point I was wondering what the hell the plot was going to be, but I needn’t have worried. Many of Mr. Rollin’s movies begin with the characters running/staggering about.

Catherine ends up back in her chateau. She’s wearing white and the walls are deep red, so the symbolism isn’t exactly subtle. The next victims are the chateau’s realtor and her boyfriend, who decide to spend a dirty weekend at the chateau. They get naked in record time, but their lovely moment is interrupted by a ravenous Catherine, who kills and eats them.

A side note: I’m not sure if Catherine is a vampire, a zombie or the Toxic Avenger’s little sister. I’d say a zombie except we see a bat during one of her kill sequences, which makes me think vampire. Anyway, Catherine snaps out of her funk when she hears the voice of Helene – her friend/lover – on the phone. Mr. Rollin is uncharacteristically coy about the particulars of their relationship, but it must have been intense, because Helene is the engine that drives the plot.

Helene rushes to the chateau. Instead of taking Catherine to a hospital or calling the police, she lovingly washes the blood off her friend’s naked body and then hides the bodies of her victims in the crypt. When Catherine gets hungry Helene goes in search of food. Unfortunately, Catherine eats people.

Living Dead Girl is one of the better Jean Rollin movies I’ve seen this year; it ranks up there with Fascination and The Grapes of Death. The sets and scenery are lovely, interspersed with short bursts of over-the-top gore that would make a giallo director proud. Yes, Living Dead Girl is skimpy on plot, but that’s okay. If you like Eurotrash, it doesn’t get much better than this.

 

Helloween Day One: Nightmare City

Do you crave bad zombie movies? If so, Nightmare City qualifies! Be warned, though: this movie is bad. If you were to get really, really drunk at a party you might like it. Say you ate a bunch of Oreo cookies while watching it, and then vomited them up before blacking out on the bathroom floor. That’s the kind of drunk Nightmare City requires.

Dean Miller is a reporter. His assignment: interview an important nuclear scientist. Miller goes to the airport, where an airplane full of zombies lands. The zombies kill everyone. Miller rushes to his news station, interrupting footage of a bunch of women in tights doing aerobics (this was the early 80’s!) to try to warn the public of the danger. Soon afterwards the zombies storm the news station and kill everyone. I’m sensing a pattern here.

Miller rushes to the hospital, where his wife works as a doctor. They get out just before the zombies storm the joint and – you guessed it – kill everyone. These zombies are badasses! Instead of shuffling, they sprint around like cheetahs chasing down frightened gazelle. They wield knives and axes and even guns. At one point they are referred to as vampires, but that’s a dubbing error. Trust me, these are zombies.

The best part of Nightmare City is the climax, which takes place in an amusement park and reminded me of Zombieland. Maybe the scene in Zombieland is a homage. Who knows? The last two minutes of Nightmare City contains a twist that anyone who’s ever seen a Twilight Zone episode knows is coming.

Made in 1980, directed by Umberto Lenzi, Nightmare City is subpar Eurotrash. The effects are dreadful, and I’m not saying that as someone spoiled by 21st century special effects. Believe me, these effects are dreadful. That said, there are some gruesome death scenes and also a few scenes where the zombies tear open their female victims’ shirts before stabbing them. If you want more of the latter watch Jean Rollins’ Grapes of Death, a vastly superior movie. If you still insist on seeing Nightmare City, it’s available on Shudder. The version I saw is both subbed and dubbed, and the sub and dub didn’t match up.

You’ve been warned.

Night of the Seagulls

Night of the Seagulls is the final movie in Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series. Starring blind Knight Templar zombies riding around on horses, these Spanish-language flicks are vintage 70’s Eurotrash, featuring oodles of blood, gore and gratuitous sex. Unfortunately, the last installment of the series leaves a lot to be desired.

The plot: the residents of an old Spanish fishing village sacrifice seven virgins on seven nights once every seven years to the undead Knight Templars. This state of affairs lasts until Doctor Stein and his wife Joan drive into town. We can tell they’re a modern couple because they have a car and because of the doc’s taste in flashy sweaters. They learn of the fishing village’s nocturnal activities with the help of the town lunatic and a young woman named Lucy, who pals around with them in hopes that she won’t be sacrificed.

A word about the virgins. That’s what I’m assuming because they’re dressed in white, which signals virtue. If I were a young woman in that village I’d lose my virtue, ASAP. Anyway: the ladies are chained to the rocks like in the Perseus and Andromeda legend, which is a nice touch, but instead of a sea monster we get grainy stock footage of the Knight Templars riding along the beach on their horses. They sacrifice the maybe-virgins to a statue of a big frog, which could be a shout-out to Howie Lovecraft.

The plot of Night of the Seagulls is sketchy and it shows. Nothing happens for the first hour and then things start moving. Doc Stein, his wife, Lucy and the town lunatic barricade themselves into a house. This leads to my favorite sequence of the movie, which I believe is repeated in all the Blind Dead films, where one of the Templars lays his bony hand on a young woman’s shoulder and she shrieks like fuck. That never, ever grows old.

I wanted to like Night of The Seagulls, but this movie is pretty dull. There’s a little semi-nudity and gore but nothing to write home about. The Tombs of the Blind Dead, the first installment of the series, features evil sex, lots of gore and a genuinely spooky scene in a mannequin factory, and is well-worth seeing. Night of the Seagulls, not so much.

Recommended for series completists and zombie fanatics only.

Grapes of Death

Jean Rollin is at it again! Instead of yet another cinematic masterpiece featuring female vampires, he serves up a zombie movie. I’m not sure if Grapes of Death is the definitive French zombie movie of the 70’s because I know nothing about French cinema, but it should be in the running. Although no lady bloodsuckers appear in Grapes of Death, Rollin’s obsession with uncovering the Platonic pair of female breasts remains.

The plot: if you watch the above trailer you will see most of the highlights. If you do, there’s not much reason to watch the movie, which would be a shame. Elizabeth is traveling by train to Roubles to meet her fiancée, who works at a vineyard. A man with pustulant sores on his neck enters the train and attacks her. She escapes and spends the next 80+ minutes wandering the French countryside, leading to many nice shots of the landscape.

Elizabeth’s first stop: a farmhouse inhabited by a farmer and his adult daughter. The farmer has sores on his hands. Mom’s indisposed, her throat slashed ear to ear. Dad kills his daughter, ripping open her blouse to reveal the sore on her chest and then finishing her off with a pitchfork. Elizabeth flees in the farmer’s car but then stops for reasons I’m not smart enough to understand.

She meets a blind woman named Lucy who is lost. They return to the blind woman’s village, where everyone seems to be dead, but Elizabeth insists on telling her everything’s fine. Lucy isn’t stupid, and flees Elizabeth as soon as she can. Big mistake. Come night, the infected – or zombies – or drunken French people – rise up, lurching through the village. This leads to Lucy’s reunion with her infected lover, which is the highlight of Grapes of Death. Elizabeth soon makes another friend, the scythe-wielding woman from Fascination, and they have a decent catfight before a pair of gun-wielding peasants show up and spoil the fun. They flee to the Roubles vineyard and a genuinely ambiguous ending. Phew, that’s a lot of plot.

I am going to assume George Romero’s Dead duology and The Crazies influenced Grapes of Death – sort of. American zombies movies in the 70’s weren’t interested in things like sex, unless you count Dave Cronenberg up in Canada. They were mostly about showing the hair on the wall. Jean Rollin has a different aesthetic – The Grapes of Death has plenty of gore, but doesn’t skimp on the torn blouses, bare breasts and nudity. I will be kind and say that the makeup in this movie is mediocre. The sores are okay, but most of the effects are quite cheesy, which makes sense since cheese and wine go so well together!

A must-see for Jean Rollin fans!

Rabid!

I watched David Cronenberg’s Rabid on New Year’s Day, and it was the perfect palate cleanser to a long, shitty year. Fuck you, 2016! Along with Black Christmas (the 1974 version), Rabid perfectly captures the spirit of the end-of-the year holidays and should be required viewing. Fuck you also, It’s A Wonderful Life!

Black Christmas is full of fun family exploits, if your family is from Hell: a drunken Margot Kidder making fun of her virginal sorority sister while everyone watches; the sorority’s house mother being more concerned about her missing cat than her missing charge; the homicidal maniac displaying his latest victim in the attic window like an oversized Christmas ornament with nobody noticing or caring.

Rabid is a different type of holiday movie. Those who work in retail are all-too-aware that the passing of Thanksgiving signals a sinister transformation in the general public. As the holidays loom ever closer, seemingly normal folks become frenzied lunatics, frothing and screaming and fighting and acting like the infected in Rabid. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is the worst, with people lurching around like drunks on a three-day bender, running on Jack Daniel fumes, airplane glue and Red Bull.

If you love the holidays I apologize…but it’s still true.

The plot of Rabid: Rose (Marilyn Chambers) and her boyfriend Hart get into a motorcycle accident. Luckily the accident occurs near Dr. Keloid’s clinic. Yes, the good doctor runs a plastic surgery clinic, but Rose won’t survive the trip to the hospital. Most of the people in Keloid’s clinic are repeat customers, seemingly addicted to plastic surgery. Interestingly, Cronenberg’s wonderful The Brood features characters addicted to psychotherapy.

Keloid uses an experimental plastic surgery technique, paired with a healthy dollop of pseudoscientific psychobabble, to graft skin onto Rose’s burn wounds and thus save her life. I sure don’t understand what he does, but best not to sweat the details. The gist of it is that Rose wakes with a fleshy needle penis embedded in her armpit. Piercing people with said fleshy needle penis gives Rose blood and sexual pleasure and turns her victims into frothing, raving maniacs who infect others with their saliva.

The plague spreads to Quebec, where authorities cordon off the city and shoot anyone who’s infected. A stone-faced doctor says to a television interviewer – ‘this may not be palatable to your viewers, but – ” Indeed.

Many of the deaths are quite lively, let’s put it that way. Still, life in the big city goes on as normally as possible. When a crazy attacks, the men in the hazmat suits shoot him and throw him in a dumpster. Passerbys do a fine job ignoring the hassle and getting on with their lives, which I believe to be very realistic. Yes, it’s the zombie apocalypse, but people still have to get to work.

Rose bunks with a friend in Quebec, who’s begging to be killed and doesn’t know it. Rose doesn’t want to kill her so she goes to places like the mall and sleazy movie theatres seeking prey. She tells a creep at a porno movie, ‘I like these type of movies but am afraid of being hit on by creeps.’ The creep puts an arm around her shoulder, she leans into him and it’s Game Over.

One of the interesting things about Rabid is that it’s unclear how aware Rose is that she’s a monster – or if she even is a monster. Earlier in the movie she accidentally kills a woman in a hot tub and hides her body in the freezer, so there must be a kernel of self-awareness. Still, as Rose tells her boyfriend when they meet up again (a meeting that does not go well), ‘none of this is my fault.’ And she’s right.

So whose fault is it? Rabid doesn’t blame anyone. Doctor Keloid was just trying to save Rose’s life. Rose needs blood to stay alive. Life is complicated and then you turn into a frothing maniac and the guys in the hazmat suits shoot you and you die.

Highly recommended!

Helloween Day Twenty-Four: REC

I heard about REC, a Spanish-language movie, when it first came out in 2007. There are zombie movies, and there are found-footage movies, but as far as I know REC is the first found-footage zombie movie (it’s that or Diary of the Dead, also released in 2007). Or are they zombies? Hmmm…Anyway, I borrowed REC through my local library.

The plot: Angela and Pablo are doing a feature on firemen for a show called While You’re Asleep. As one of the firemen says (paraphrasing), ‘if everyone’s sleeping who’s watching your show?’ They settle in for a long, dull night, and then the alarm goes off, and they’re racing to an apartment complex where an old lady is supposedly trapped in her apartment. The old lady is there, all right, screaming and covered in blood. She shows her gratitude at being rescued by biting one of the firemen.

Pretty soon the Barcelona authorities quarantine the building and nobody can leave. Not realizing they’re in a horror movie, the residents naturally want to know what’s going on. Besides Angela and Pablo, we have a fireman, a cop, a family of four, a bachelor, the super (they call him the intern) and a mom and little girl with tonsillitis. Or is it tonsillitis? The fact that she tries to bite her mother’s face off clues us in that maybe it’s not. Hmmm…

REC came out in 2007 when the zombie movie wave was starting to crest. Nothing much happens in the first forty-five minutes, and then things happen very quickly indeed. The virus – the movie calls it an enzyme, but that just might be the translation – messes up your eyes and makes you act like you have rabies. The disease seems to have started with a sick dog, so that makes sense.

As you don’t know (because I didn’t tell you), I waited until the final week of Helloween to watch the movies I thought would really scare me. REC didn’t. Maybe it’s because of the lack of scary music cues? This movie has a ton of jump scares, and some of the violence is really disturbing, but it’s not much more than your run-of-the-mill zombie movie. At this point the market’s oversaturated. The source of the ‘plague’ is original, but the movie never fully explores the idea it raises. Still: the ending is scary as hell, and I was entertained. I even shrieked!

Recommended, especially for found-footage fans and zombie lovers.

Helloween Day Ten: Pontypool

Pontypool, a 2008 horror movie, wasn’t on my original list, but I dropped Insidious because of my vow to not watch more than one movie per director (James Wan). I heard about Pontypool when it came out, but never got around to watching it. I think I saw an article in the New York Times, which depending on your point-of-view is either a good or bad sign. I watched it for free on Netflix Streaming.

The plot: Grant Mazzy is a shock jock radio DJ stuck in Pontypool, Ontario, which he thinks is the ass-end of nowhere. He’s in his car in the middle of a snowstorm when a woman knocks on his car window. She speaks to him, but luckily for him he can’t hear what she’s saying.

Mazzy works in a studio is in a basement. His crew consists of Sydney Briar, the producer; Laurel-Anne, the techie; and weather guy Ken Loney in his Sunshine Chopper. Mazzy does his shtick, which doesn’t play well in Pontypool, but he’s a pro. As the movie progresses that becomes obvious.

Strange things start happening. Calls come in about mobs congregating in the streets, busting shit up and assumedly eating people, although for some reason the movie is coy about that. Yes, it’s the zombie plague, but instead of being spread via zombie bite or zombie spit, the virus transmits by words, a concept that sounds cool but makes no sense at all, but then again neither do zombies. If the victim hears and understands the infected word, he or she will start babbling nonsense before turning mindless and wandering about in a zombie haze doing zombie things. The cure: kiss is kill, pen is pile. I won’t be any more specific than that.

Pontypool reminded me of The Blair Witch Project in that it looks like it was filmed on a $1,000 budget. It’s obvious the filmmakers aren’t horror veterans; there’s one jump-scare, and that’s it. The idea’s a good one that doesn’t quite make sense. The best part of the movie is the dialogue, most of which is quite strange.

Pontypool is an interesting movie that didn’t quite gel for me. I spent most of it not knowing what was going on, which for me isn’t a bad thing, but I can see how that would drive other people crazy. Still, I enjoyed Pontypool. I like it when filmmakers try new things, even if most of the movie is filmed in a basement. Recommended.