Monday, May 14, 2012

When There is No More Room in Hell

Film: Night of the Living Dead; Dawn of the Dead
Format: Streaming video from Drive-In Classics on rockin’ flatscreen (Night); DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player (Dawn)

I’m a fan of the zombie sub-genre of horror films. It’s taken me awhile to figure out precisely why, though. The simple reason is that zombie movies are just about the only form of supernatural horror that has the potential to scare the monkey shit out of me. Ghosts, vampires, and demons don’t have that potential, but zombies? Yeah, I admit it. They scare me. Because of this, there is a certain level of respect I have for zombie movies, and the really great ones rank high on my list. If I really want to get pedantic here, I could complain that these are actually movies about ghouls, but that would just be confusing. There should be no surprise at this point that I’m talking about Night of the Living Dead and its eventual sequel, Dawn of the Dead.

One of the great favors that George Romero did for the horror industry (inadvertent, I’m certain) was to leave Night of the Living Dead without a copyright notice, putting the film in the public domain, thus giving every other filmmaker in the world the opportunity to make more zombie films. The film is thought by many to be a sort of allegory for race relations, although this was never intended according to George Romero—it just happens to have worked out that way. Instead, it is a ferociously original idea for a horror film, so original that it spawned hundreds of imitators.

So we have Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O’Dea), who are siblings visiting the grave of their father. Johnny teases her because she is uncomfortable in the cemetery, and he really gets into it when he sees an old man shambling through. Unfortunately for the pair, this is the first of our zombies, who attacks Barbra. Johnny rescues her, but is thrown against a gravestone and knocked unconscious (or possibly killed). Barbra runs, with the zombie pursuing her. Eventually, she arrives at an old house in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, there are more zombies, and they start shambling up to the house in ones and twos. This heralds the arrival of Ben (Duane Jones), who manages to beat a couple of the creatures to their second death with a tire iron. Barbra, by this point, is switching between catatonia and mania, wanting to go out and find her brother. Ben reins her in and boards up the house, and shows a great deal of inventiveness in doing so.

So it comes as something of a surprise when we discover a family in the basement of the house. Harry (Karl Hardman) is irrational and domineering, and wants everyone to retreat to the basement, a plan Ben dislikes because it leaves them trapped inside with no point of exit. Helen (Marilyn Eastman) is more concerned for their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who is wounded. We also meet Judy (Judith Ridley) and Tom (Keith Wayne), also hiding in the basement. We learn through a series of radio reports that the problem is widespread and that the gangs of creatures are eating their victims.

The rest, essentially, is mayhem and survival. Slowly, one by one, the survivors are picked off and devoured by the slow-moving, encircling horde of living dead. Night of the Living Dead is known for being relentless and brutal and for having one of the most famous downer endings in existence. It’s a grueling film start to finish, and it doesn’t let up at the end.

But it all works. It’s no surprise that Night of the Living Dead created scores of imitators. It’s also noteworthy in the sense that our hero, Ben, is a character who takes charge, fights for his survival, is smart, and just happens to be black. Certainly there had been black characters like Ben before this in films, but none that could have just as easily been any other race. Earlier black protagonists were black by design; Ben is black simply because he is.

It’s also worth noting that all of the tropes of the genre start here—shooting them in the head, a single bite being fatal, the recent dead rising back up, the use of fire, etc. Romero created the whole ball of wax, including the slow, stumbling gait of the creatures. For the record, I’m a bigger fan of the slow zombies. The reason is simple; fast zombies are always a threat. Slow ones are comic on their own and terrifying in large groups. This allows the scares to be ratcheted up throughout the film, letting things build.

As a final note, I watched this on a free movie channel on the Roku. This channel, Drive-In Classics, cuts into the film at regular intervals with advertising. I don’t much mind the ads, except that many of them cut off halfway through and take a long time to queue up. It would bother me a lot less if someone would find good places to slip the ads in. Frequently, the ads show up in the middle of someone’s line or a tense sequence, which sort of kills the mood.

Romero’s first official sequel of the world he would continue to revisit (and still revisits) is Dawn of the Dead, made almost a decade after the original film. This is a film that I saw first via osmosis. Back in the early days of video rental, my brother Tom would get this at least twice a year and sit in our den, watching it and rooting for the zombies. In particular, Tom had a fondness for Roger, and would always cheer for him.

Dawn of the Dead ramps up on the original in every way—there are something like 82 kills in the film, most of them (but not all of them) zombies. In addition to being a much more indelible stamp on the zombie genre than the original, Dawn is in full color, which both helps and hurts the film. This film is also the coming out party for special effects guru Tom Savini, who made a couple of interesting choices. First, he opted for bright red blood; the blood in this film is so red, in fact, that it looks like paint. It’s reminiscent of Italian horror and giallo in that respect, and it comes as no surprise to me that Dario Argento figured prominently in the creation of this sequel.

Second, and on the downside, Romero and Savini opted for a grey makeup for the undead ghouls, and this is applied amateurishly in places. Frequently, there are zombies with grey faces and peach necks. Others are so underdone that they look like regular humans while another subset of zombies are so overdone that they appear almost cobalt blue. It’s perhaps a little strange and breaks the spell a little, but it’s a pretty minor problem.

Like most horror movies, Dawn of the Dead is simplicity itself. It picks up essentially where the first film left off. The dead are still coming back to life, but society hasn’t broken down completely yet. Still, the signs are there that soon enough the world will be in chaos, and it will be every person for him- or herself. Into this walk Francine (Gaylen Ross), who works at a television station. She and her boyfriend Stephen (David Emge) plan to escape that night in the helicopter he uses as a traffic reporter. Meanwhile, we also meet Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), two SWAT cops who have had experience with battling the ghouls. Roger mentions the plan of his friend Stephen and invites Peter along. The four fly off and find a shopping mall with a small collection of undead in it. They decide to stay and fortify the mall, since it contains essentially everything they need to survive in style for some time.

Of course, if that were the whole film, we’d have a dull film, so there’s more conflict to come. Roger is a bit of a daredevil, which gets him into trouble as he and Peter attempt to block off the mall entrances with semis. When Fran wants to learn how to fly the helicopter (just in case), her practicing alerts a group of looters to the presence of the quartet in the mall, and brings them on the attack. This destroys the relative calm and zombie-free atmosphere of the place. All hell breaks lose, and ultimately, the group has to make some very difficult decisions if they are going to survive.

So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the important stuff here. First is the gore. While this film would certainly rate an R were it made the same way today, back in 1978, it was incredibly extreme and was threatened with the dreaded X rating. Romero opted instead to release the film unrated, labeling all of the radio and television ads with a warning that there was no sex in the film, but that no one under 17 would be admitted. It is bloody, and pretty nasty in a few places, but time has softened the gore of this film quite a bit. Additionally, some of the gore is so excessive that it becomes not disgusting, but a bit silly. At one point, a wounded Roger is grabbed by a zombie, which squeezes his leg at the site of the injury. Roger bleeds like a jelly donut from this, and it’s a bit ridiculous.

Another important point with regard to this film is the relationships between the characters. While the actors were (and pretty much still are) unknowns, they are very good in these roles an very believable. More importantly, they are extremely likable. For all their faults—Roger’s showboating, Stephen’s relative cowardice—they are characters we want to see survive and make it out, and we know going in (or at least we should) that some of them are going to die and turn into zombies by the end.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Romero if there wasn’t some sort of social commentary here. Dawn of the Dead is as much about the idea of mindless consumerism as it is about the zombies. Everybody—our heroes, the zombies, and the biker gang—show up at the mall eventually, because the mall is where everyone wants to be. Our quartet of heroes, once they clear the mall of the undead, live a life of luxury and relative ease, cooking for themselves in the mall restaurants, wearing fur coats, and even taking money out of the bank “just in case.”

Dawn of the Dead hasn’t held up in terms of the extreme nature of the gore or the makeup effects. It doesn’t matter. This is still a huge achievement of a film, not just in terms of the horror genre, but in terms of film itself. Deal with the scares, folks. It’s worth it for what you get.

As a final note, there’s quite a bit of music here from the group Goblin, who also did the soundtrack for Suspiria. They are a weird and surreal touch to the film, and they really help make the experience complete.

Why to watch Night of the Living Dead: It spawned an entire sub-genre.
Why not to watch: The bulk of its legacy isn’t that good.

Why to watch Dawn of the Dead: Gore and social commentary.
Why not to watch: You’re more scared than I am.

12 comments:

  1. Nice post. What do you think to the idea that Zack Snyder's Dawn remake as being superior to Romero's original? Personally I find the remake to be much more entertaining (a zombie baby? genius) although it has a few too many characters over the original four.

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    1. The Snyder remake has its good points, but I'll stick with the original. First, as you mention, there are too many characters in the remake, so I'm less invested in each one. Second, I like the more ambiguous ending of the original. The second's ending is "ambiguous" in that we don't see anyone get killed at the end, but it's a pretty easy conclusion. Third, I genuinely prefer the slow zombies, as mentioned above.

      Additionally, the whole idea of the looters is in many ways the point of the Romero version--our heroes get in trouble specifically because of the actions of other humans. We lose a lot of that in the remake.

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  2. I know that »Day of the dead« isn't in the book, but I had some hopes that you would write about it anyway. Haven't yet seen it myself, how does it measure up to »Night« and »Dawn«?

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    1. Day is a very different film. It is a disappointment to many because Romero doesn't go for the gore with it, although there is some. Instead, it's more about the survivors and the way they betray each other--asserting authority and power rather than a group survival instinct.

      It's probably still the least of the original trilogy, but it's better than it's reputation. I'll review it eventually, I'm certain.

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    2. Day has to be seen just for Bub, possibly the greatest character in any of these films!

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    3. Bub is pretty damn awesome. I agree completely.

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  3. After being subjected to "The Return of the Living Dead", I have denied the worth of any zombie movie other than Romero's but began embracing them since AMC's adaptation of "The Walking Dead", Edgar Wright's homagedy "Shaun of the Dead", the Canadian "Fido" and going so far as to read Max Brooks' "World War Z" when rumor arose of Brad Pitt's involvement. I also hear ANOTHER remake of "NOTLD" is in the works.

    Tip of the hat goes to Richard Matheson, without his "I Am Legend" Romero's "Dead" films may have never been realized.

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    1. I'm still of the opinion that Night borrows heavily from Hitchcock's The Birds, but there's certainly a Mattheson influence as well.

      World War Z is a great read. I recommend it to any and all.

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  4. Of the two, Night of the Living Dead is the better. I prefer the black and white cinematogrphy. However, I like the plot/story in Dawn of the Dead better. I found it hilarious that 99% of the film takes place inside a mall.

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    1. I like the sweep of Dawn more. With Night, there's a sense that maybe they'll solve the problem. With the sequel, though, we have a complete breakdown of society, and there's no going back. I like that aspect of it quite a bit, because it feels more like the problem is universal instead of just a strange occurrence.

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  5. Horror doesn't do much for me as a genre, so the zombie movie sub-genre doesn't either. I watched Night of the Living Dead just because of its place in cinema history. I didn't think it was bad, but I didn't think it was that good, either. I've never seen the original Dawn of the Dead, although strangely I have seen the remake. The zombie movies I've liked the best have actually been the ones to mix in comedy (Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead). I did like 28 Days Later, but not the sequel (and technically the people in those films aren't zombies.)

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    1. I'm with you on the 28 Days... films, although I do call them zombies (simmer down, Nick), but mostly as a convenience.

      Dawn is worth watching if only for the progression of the zombie genre into what it became. Night started it, but Dawn was the evolution.

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