Where it all began, almost fifty years ago, nothing more to say. Rest In Peace, unlike your ravenous creations;
Let us open with what can charitably be anointed as a joke – Zombie Lord ‘WHAT DO WE WANT?’, Zombie Horde ‘BRAINS’, Zombie Lord ‘WHEN DO WE WANT ‘EM?’ Zombie Horde ‘BRAINS’. Well, fuck you, it made me laugh. The Lord of the Zombies as we know them is the almighty George A. Romero, the Bronx born, Philadelphia based industrial training filmmaker turned horror maestro with his 1968 macabre Midnight Movie masterpiece The Night Of The Living Dead which seismically changed the foundations of horror cinema. This black & white, independently made staple of the drive-in and grindhouses sparked a cultural nerve during a period of social turbulence in the US, we’ll get into that a little later but its certainly one of the top dozen most influential post War horror films, so the opportunity to see Romero in conversation as part of the BFI’s Gothic season was an opportunity that was impossible to miss. It’s difficult to imagine but prior to this picture zombie cinema meant Lugosi in White Zombie or the eeriely atmospheric I Walked With A Zombie, two golden era tales where somnolent mannequins were being manipulated by Haitian voodoo warlocks to yield to their bidding, and only in 1968 was the idea of reanimated, brain ravenous mouldering corpses regarded as the cultural manifestation of the term ‘zombie’ which has since seized popular culture by the groaning throat. Now the undead hordes are everywhere, my weekly Lovefilm perusal of new releases can barely contain the epidemic of shambling cyphers which are of an increasingly deteriorating quality, alpha status stars are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into blockbuster translations of the pandemic, and of course the fantastic The Walking Dead has devoured the TV schedules – if you’d have told a teenage Minty that a popular, uncompromising, incredibly violent and gory long running series revolving around a groups fragile survival in post outbreak universe, well, hmph, I would have had no choice other than to impale you to a tree with my trusty spear-gun and strip your still twitching corpse of all reasonable resources and rations, whilst shaking my head in an excited glee.
Again with Alan Frightfest Jones in the interviewer chair the first thing that struck me was just what a humble and easy-going chap he was, I think he’s quite down to earth due to the relative financial returns of his movies, despite the wider cultural meme that his work has entombed and enjoyed over the past half century. I wasn’t aware that he started as career as general blue-collar production assistant on North By Northwest no less although alas he never met Hitchcock, before moving on to making commercial and industrial films he finally made the plunge into fiction filmmaking with the epoch defining Night Of The Living Dead. It was quite clearly an attempt at commercial success as horror movies generally enjoy the most efficient cheap production / maximum profit schemata of the entire industry, he wanted to make a return of course and pay back the crew whom all worked for free, but he said he was too busy working on his next project to pay much attention to the critical praise and financial success which was mostly diverted to their rather shady distributors. The deployment of a black & white patina to this hungry nightmare was fostered as a a financial decision, but he does feel that an alternate unsettling aura can be veiled over a film with monochrome photography, I think I know what he means when you consider films such as The Haunting or The Innocents which excel in the brooding and evocative over the gruesome and glutinous. This remains one of the great all-time horror film openings;
Socially speaking this was a
miletombstone for the genre, and Romero revealed that the night he and his producer partner picked up the first answer print from the lab and were driving back to the studio the radio crackled into life to inform them of the horrific news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The sense of social malaise, of a society turning in upon and devouring itself is Night’s great gift to the masses, not to mention the racial undertones of casting a African American guy in the lead (Romero still maintains that this was purely because Duane Jones was the best actor, I’m sure he was but he must have appreciated the cultural undertones this casting would have inflamed in 1968) whom is executed by red-neck hunters in the final reel, not necessarily because he is black, but at a distance he appears to just be another shambling threat. Jones was quite rightly worried about his starring role given that at one point he has to slap a hysterical woman in order to bring her to her senses, and feared for his own safety after being seen on-screen as a black dude striking a white woman. Cities were ablaze, beatings were the norm, as the civil rights infestation struggled to infect the conservative body politic.
Next was Dawn and after an amusing head-splicing clip (this got a massive series of laughs and a round of applause, heh) he was a little dismissive of the 2004 remake, not as a film per-se or of Snyders filmmaking prowess but he questioned the point of the project (other than commercially of course), if the film really had anything to contribute as to its setting, themes, or musings then why even re-appropriate the title? Whilst I enjoy the movie the man is correct that there is really nothing that isn’t simply trading on the name, it could have been any other above average zombie movie regurgitated over the past decade, and there is no illustrative interplay between the characters so aside from a few amusing set-pieces there really isn’t much to recommend it – other than running zombies but let’s not exhume that coffin again. Alas there wasn’t much mentioned about my favourite Day Of The Dead other than they had to significantly scale back the ambitions of the production due to financial constraints, and a few action scenes and visions of a post zombie apocalypse city landscapes were abandoned, man I would have paid good money to see some of that. A quick detour into Creepshow territory then followed which marked a long friendship and series of collaborations with Stephen King – I keep meaning to revisit his (if memory serves) adequate but largely unremarkable TV adaption of The Stand which has probably dated quite badly – and he expressed surprise that this film which has built a steady fan-base over the years is the only film which he hasn’t been approached for a re-issue with a director’s commentary or retrospective reminiscence, or indeed any remake options for either the first or second installment.
He was quite candid on how Orion pictures generally fucked up two of his 1990’s efforts Monkey Shines and another Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half with their amendment of the final reels and the rigid enforcement of their horrendously restrictive contracts, a flirting with the mainstream which has soured Romero’s liaison with any studio ever since as he still sources his budgets independently by mostly trading on the waning kudos of his name. I have to say the last two Dead films have been terrible, whilst he is undoubtably a major figure in genre history (see also cult curios The Crazies, Martin and The Season Of The Witch) he has lost his touch which is no surprise as you get longer in the tooth, although I do still quite like Land Of The Dead which at least had a sense of coherence, horror and mild social commentary. For the connoisseurs this is his real contribution to the banquet of horror, a strong sense of social critique whether it be racial tensions, consumerism or the military industrial complex – three areas which are just as potently pungent as they were back in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties – as it’s the interactions and groupings that the survivors form after the outbreaks which are really the films spines, the micro examples of macro politics and groupings, whilst the gelantious gore and eviscerated entrails are the abhorrent icing on the cake.
You may be asking why I didn’t follow-up this with an actual screening of Night and the answer is quite simple – digital. They showed the clip above which looked great on the big screen, but it was obviously that this was a pixellated presentation and it just looks a little too sanitized, a little too clean for my tastes. I think we’ve established that I’m no tedious purist or Luddite when it comes to new technology, I just think that a film like Night of The Living Dead really should be savoured as a distressed print on the big screen, with sound glitches during reel changes, with claw and gnaw marks across the frames, with a sense of a diseased scrambling through the dirt if you’re really going to do justice to the films apprehensive aura. One day I’ll track it down alongside Day and Dawn (the Prince Charles regularly programmes trilogy all-nighters) but we already have quite the frightening feast to get through with this season over the next two months, with a further scares this weekend and a delious double bill at the start of December. In any case a genre nuclear reaction of Argento and Romero lurking in the same room with a throughly appreciative audience was one of the high-point of the year cinematically speaking, so let’s close with a fine montage from their chilling collaboration which asserts ‘when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth‘;
Critical horror mass was successfully achieved this evening with the presence of two of the remaining legends of the industry in the same place, at the same time. I’ve made a hesitant start on last nights Argento event but to see him in the audience this evening as his old mate George A. Romero received the interview treatment was quite the genre occasion, with a terrific buzz of excitement in the air. Now, since I am entertaining guests this weekend I won’t be crafting my thoughts until far into next week given other work related activities, so here’s a quick placeholder which will hopefully sate your ravenous, ghoulish appetites;
The screening of Suspira was good fun, not to pre-judge things but I’m not a massive Argento fan, but this was a fantastic print which made for quite a double-bill. Then of course there is the king of the zombies;
All in all a terrific twilight close to my exceptional movie year thanks to the BFI, I may be mopping up with some further Gothic screenings next month……and of course yes, this cult favourite was mentioned…..
Is the zombie dead as a proficient cultural archetype? Alongside the vampire this numerous, working class stiff companion to the upper class parasite have enjoyed a cultural resurgence over the past dozen or so years, lurching their way into popular culture beyond the dominions of horror & film fanatic country, just recently I’ve seen child aimed vampire stories on the BBC and a horde of cheap zombie knock offs (I endured this yesterday, it bites) infecting the DVD release schedules, thus I’ve been suffering some lurking malaise or zombie fatigue, as even the arrival of the second series of The Walking Dead on terrestrial UK TV was met with an indifferent shrug on my part. Incidents such as this immediately sweep the web with humorous speculation of judgement day finally being upon us and an idea I had years ago* has finally seen fruition, in the form of a hardcore MMORG which is still in the development phase. This brings me in my usual shambling, howling manner to today’s movie The Plague of The Zombies which enjoyed a digital resuscitation and one-day only screening around the UK this week, the Hammer film has been given a new lease of life via the Made In Britain cultural film programme, so that’s one worthy thing that the £900 trillion pound Olympics has actually managed to achieve. First things first comes another shocking revelation – I’ve never seen Plague before, despite owning a copy for three or four years as part of this Hammer Boxed set that I picked up some years back. What can I say? I’ve managed to get roughly halfway through all the films in that collection, the majority of which I had already caught on late night TV back in my misspent youth, and Plague just happened to be further down the list although I know of its reputation as a genuinely creepy Hammer film – quite a rare achievement in itself – and also a core UK horror movie of the Sixties alongside the likes of Repulsion, To The Devil A Daughter, The Innocents, Witchfinder General and of course The Haunting. Personally I didn’t find it quite good enough to nestle up with such exalted company, but it’s an entertaining enough romp into the mists of the eerie and gently gruesome….
Late Victorian England, and Dr. Forbes (the terrifically haughty André Morell) receives a letter from his colleague Dr. Thompson (Brook Williams) explaining the baleful news that his quiet Cornish parish is suffering a strange ailment of unexplained deaths. Forbe’s daughter Sylvia (Diane Claire) insists on accompanying her father to the remote hamlet in order to visit her old college friend Alice (Jacqueline Pierce) who just happens to be married to Thompson, and soon the inquisitive duo are on their way to the spooky ends of the isle to investigate the mortiferous anomaly. The suspicious, ignorant locals forbid the autopsy of victims as part of their nescient customs, so both Forbes and Thompson secretly disinter a recent fatality only to discover (gasp) that the coffin is empty! What witchcraft is this? How could this mystery possibly connect to the suspicious Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) and his neglected grounds standing over the abandoned local tin mine? What are those fox-hunting, scarlet garbed ruffians doing terrorising the community? And where’s Peter Cushing when you need him?
The first thing that struck me about Plague Of The Zombies was its unique flavour, in a manner not dissimilar to The Wicker Man it is its own beast, with a strange British aura of the uncanny permeating both spooky woodlands and crumbling mansions, even if the film is quite creaky with actors hitting their marks and being obscured by the sets and associated paraphernalia, it was clearly shot on the quick with very little time to correct any focus errors or patently obvious stuntman substitutions during its flame licked climax. It’s influence on Night Of The Living Dead which arrived two years later is immediate and apparent, that being the first’ modern’ horror film that dissociated itself from the voodoo, West Indies derived source of the wicked walking dead, as this was the first zombie film to realise that now common visual trope of the undead bursting through the recently scattered earth as misty tendrils coax around age soured tombstones, and it was quite nourishing to see a film which harks back to zombies being servants to some higher purpose rather than ravenous rotting cadavers simply seeking their next snack amongst the dwindling population of the large and lame. As a consumer of all things uncanny I really enjoyed this, it was the first non-contemporary film I’ve seen at the flicks since I concluded my Lynch season back in February, and I really should make more of an effort with some of these older movies.
The film lacks the imposing presence of either the great Pete Cushing or imperious Chris Lee – John Carson simply isn’t in the same league when it comes to imposing villains – but Plague Of The Zombies has a few morsels of enjoyment for the discerning viewer, I particularly liked the upper class fox-hunting reprobates who terrorise the village and take a rather unpleasant liking to poor Sylvia, they remind one of a class conscious precursor to Alex and his droogies who were singing in the rain a mere five years later. The idea of having the zombie labourers smolder and smoke when flames reached their miniature voodoo avatars in the house above was a nice touch, and overall there is a refreshing lack of post colonial critiques being lathered onto the narrative, it’s just a short, brief horror tale which doesn’t outstay its festering welcome. In other undead news comes the rather distressing communique that everyone’s favourite kicking boy Damon Lindelof has been drafted in for a final act script ‘polish’ on World War Z alongside an unprecedented six weeks of re-shoots – seriously, that project must be seriously skull fucked – which may just put the final shell into the mouldering brainpan of the whole sick, shambling genre. If so then that will be a day for mourning, but we’ll always have Cornwall;
*Not that I’m claiming any unique prescience with this idea you understand, I’m sure hundreds of other horror nerds had the same brain wave years ago…..
Vampires, pixies and now zombies – what is the world coming to? Well, in ‘Zombieland‘ the world is shuddering toward an apocalyptic end as you guessed it, the zombie holocaust has struck North America and the continent is infected with the ravenous, flesh crazed fast moving undead – this is a runner not a shambler zombie movie. Lead Jesse Eisenberg, the Michael Cera clone who like his counterpart seems almost unnaturally uncomfortable in his own skin is Columbus, an introverted, phobia-ridden and friendless student whose isolation proves fortunate when the uprising begins, his lonely lifestyle protecting him from the murderous intentions of undead turned family members and friends.
In a manner not entirely dissimilar to the great ‘Zombie Survival Guide‘ the opening scenes outline Columbus personnel mantras for survival in the zombieland world, verging from always checking the back seats of stolen cars, always wearing seatbelts, remaining healthy to out-run the ghouls and insisting on the double tap – ensuring that every zombie takes a round to the brain. Smart boy. After an arresting opening sequence in which this ideology is hilariously communicated and the zombie infected world is briskly outlined Columbus teams up with the Twinkie seeking redneck hard-case Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson playing Woody Harrelson in a good way) and a couple of young grifter sisters who are traveling to California to visit an LA based theme park which represents an earlier and more innocent time now that their childhood and adolescence have been brutally crushed. Perhaps the geeks shall inherit the earth?
Rifle through the drawers for that pizza menu, chuck a six-pack in the fridge, put your feet up and lie back to enjoy one of this years most sweetly entertaining movies. There is absolutely nothing else going on here, no subtexts or camouflaged commentary and that’s actually something of a blessed relief, the film which is a bastardized offspring of an abandoned TV series is designed and succeeds as a punchy 80 minute rollercoaster ride and that’s what it delivers. There is a slight whiff of an adolescent fantasy about the whole enterprise – the geek lead, the guns, the collapse of rules and law, the conveniently available hot chick but I’ll let that slide due to the fine mix of genuine humor and wretched horror, achieving that fine balancing act between the two is difficult enough and an already infamous, absolutely superb cameo from a certain comedy legend make this unmissible for genre or comedy fans. Of course the whole enterprise brings to mind ‘Shaun Of The Dead‘ but it does bring a few new ideas to the table and would serve as an ideal double bill with our domestic tale. It doesn’t quite eclipse ‘Drag Me To Hell‘ for this years best horror/comedy hybrid but it’s certainly worth an hour and a half of your time.
Things should be getting more hectic and dare I say it darker round here as the London Film Festival kicks off this week beginning with a frankly gruelling sounding double whammy of ‘Enter The Void‘ and ‘The Road‘ over the next few days. This could be tricky as I’ve heard some pretty intimidating things about ‘Void’ including mass walk-outs and projectile vomiting from the other Film Festivals it has screened at, ‘The Road’ is also not exactly a joyous, uplifting celebration of the human experience. Wish me luck and, erm, stamina. I’m combining my efforts this year with a side project that I’m going to mysteriously not elucidate upon, all shall become clear if my efforts are successful. The NFT are back in my good books after I managed to get tickets for all the screenings I wanted as well as free tickets to both this intriguing little number and to the secret BFI Members surprise film on the 26th, I just hope it’s a comedy….
You can’t keep a good horde down. Yes that’s right, the fifth in George A Romero’s zombie quintet finally shambles onto UK shores. Old school gorehounds like yours truly get jolly excited at the prospect of a new zombie flick, raised as we were on a charming diet of exploding heads, gore-strewn guts and eviscerated soldiers. Lovely <drools uncontrolably>….
Once again the dead rise to roam the earth due to an unspecified scientific accident, or perhaps as the man says, ‘when there’s no more room in hell…‘. Romero returns much more to the feel of his early low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking roots with the undead armageddon being captured on video-cameras by a group of student film-makers who just happen to be making a low budget horror film of their own. The footage is predicitably uplifted to the web as the carnage unfolds and the body counts starts to rise…..
To be honest after the disappointing ‘Land of the Dead‘, a new Romero zombie film doesn’t fill me with the quivering fanboy anticipation that it would have a few years ago. I will of course still catch a new zombie picture on the big screen as I am a massive fan of the original trilogy – a combination of films which are amongst the best horror flicks ever made, up there with all the old Universal pictures of the 1930’s, the Italian giallos (isn’t this one of the best film titles you’ve ever heard?), the occult films of the 1970’s (The Omen, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby) and many of the better slasher films of the 1980’s and 1990’s. I’ve been hearing great things about a cycle of explotation & horror films from Indonesia of all places which I will start to track down, although I’m not confident about their availability on any format.
Unfortunately, the film is a goner and lacks any real bite. Ha, can you see what I did there? It becomes a bit of a road movie as the students travel back to their homes to find their families and is all so formulaic – drive, zombie encounter, death. Drive, zombie encounter, death. Romero usually has some interesting, unusual characters in his films not a bunch of witless students some of whom, it has to be said, really cannot act. There is never any sense of the global epidemic, of society itself disintegrating into anarchy and hysteria, no aura of terror or horror. It has a few moments, when they get to the Amish farm for example the film ratchets up a notch and you get a sense of real threat as the place becomes surrounded by the ghouls. In this sequence there are actually some amusing moments, (my favourite being the footage of the zombie clown at a children’s party which is quite perversely amusing), but these are the rare pearls in this major disappointment.
I’m getting a bit exasperated at the continual use of youtube and laptops, facebook and myspace being employed in movies in an effort to generate some vague ‘cutting edge’ kudos. If you look back at some of the films I’ve reviewed this year – ‘Cloverfield’, ‘Be Kind Rewind’ – you can see this being repeated ad nauseum. ‘Diary’ is even being referred to as a ‘reboot’ of the series, and uses the found footage technique which I’ve already discussed in my ‘Cloverfield’ review. Give. It. A. Rest. It’s all a bit like watching your Grandad dance to the Arctic Monkeys – embarrassing and just not right. It’s not edgy, it’s not hip, it’s mainstream and boring now.
Chronologically, Romero’s zombie films have examined racism, consumerism, vivisection and slavery, the War on Terror and ideological insanity and I suppose there is some sort of message about contemporary USA hidden amongst the corpses. It makes much of the fact that the authorities are suppressing details about the outbreak and only through social networking sites can the truth be revealed – so, governments lie to their populace? Well hell, I’ve got a newsflash for you – this is not news. It all ends on a terrible line of dialogue, much to the effect of ‘but hey, who are the real monsters? Do we really deserve to be saved?’ Sixth form stuff Mr. Romero, grade D-….
Probably the one thing I can thank for the film was the enormous fun I had researching the links. I stumbled across this gem which is a series of programmes that was essential viewing for a budding cult film fan back in 1980’s. Due to an almighty trademark cock-up the original ‘Night’ is in the public domain and can be seen here – ‘they’re coming to get you Barbara….look, there’s one of them now’ is a great moment. I should also recommend this which takes much the same premise as ‘Diary’, a zombie outbreak, student film makers and a verite approach, except this time set in the UK. It was released last year and is OK, worth a look. One horror film I am looking forward to this year is ‘The Orphanage‘, a spooky Spanish little number that has already been getting strong reviews.
Late November. Can’t believe it’s almost Christmas again. I dunno, I suppose it’s getting older but time does seem to accelerate as the years roll by. Then again, my dad’s been saying much the same thing, that he feels that time seems to pass more swiftly than it did ten, twenty years ago. Modern life eh? (tsk…) One thing that I enjoy about Christmas is the opportunity to re-acquaint myself with my favourite Christmas movies – yes, including the obvious – so what are your festive flicks?
Here is a nice series of articles in the New York Times where they get a actor or director to sit down and provide a running commentary of a ‘classic’ film. I haven’t read them all yet but have naturally gravitated to the two Kubrick efforts, particularly enjoying the story of Barry Sonnenfield ending all his studio memos with a quote from ‘Strangelove’. Inspired. I think I’ll do likewise with my work e-mail correspondence, I’ll be on the streets in ten minutes….
This has been doing the rounds, and I think it’s hilarious. Compare and contrast the most popular search requests punched in here versus those entered in Conservapedia, the right-wing, republican version of the on-line encyclopaedia who don’t like the mean, liberal, vegetarian, terrorist supporting moderators on wikipedia. Perhaps you’d expect some queries into right-wing foreign policy? Or fiscal responsibility? Maybe even some consideration of the separation of church and state, and the role that religion plays in the contemporary world? Not quite. The results are quite revealing ain’t they? They seem to be thinking about this subject. A lot. I don’t think you have to be a psychiatrist to draw your own conclusions from that one….
For the movie clip (or rather promo clip as all ‘proper’ clips have been taken down), I’ve opted for ‘28 Weeks Later‘ due to a quite amusing coincidence. Regular readers may recall I caught this movie when I was out in LA before I’d started my new assignment at Tower Hamlets. I watched the movie on DVD over the weekend and was pleasantly surprised to see the exterior of the building that I work in used for some location shots early in the movie, and more to the point it was satisfying to see the whole place torched at the 2.08 mark, blink and you’ll miss it. Toasty!! Always nice to see London get fucked up….
EDIT – OK, who’s trying to freak me out? The actress who played Robert Carlyle’s daughter was sat opposite me on the District line this morning (23rd November). Luckily she (and her Mum, or agent) got off at Hammersmith, if she’d followed me onto Blackwall there might have been a scene….
As it’s approaching frigid winter I’ve finally upgraded my mac and am preparing to join some friends in the MMORG of Eve. This has only been available for mac from this month (and I refuse to let a game dictate my Mac v. PC preference) but now it’s on both platforms I have no excuse. After the excesses of Christmas, January and February are usually quiet for me and I can think of no better way of passing the time than re-living my youth playing games such as Elite, except this time a slightly more advanced version! I played World of Warcraft for a few months between assignments last year which I enjoyed, Eve seems a little more adult with less teenagers spamming the discussion and talk boards, endless grinding and all that associated nonsense. Finally, here is some food for thought.