by Steve Habrat
These days, it’s nearly impossible to meet someone who isn’t familiar with zombies. The undead are everywhere, devouring pop culture like it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. They have invaded video games, the local Regal Cinemas, Barnes and Noble, and even television sets on Sunday nights. Even my ninety-two year-old grandmother knows what a zombie is! It seems that with each passing day, the rotting ghouls get more and more popular with new movies, books, and video games rolling off the assembly line. If you’ve ever been curious where these cannibalistic ghouls originated, then you should seek out the zippy new documentary Birth of the Living Dead. Tugging us back to 1967, director Rob Kuhns sits down with zombie godfather George A. Romero, who reflects back on the making of his horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. Boasting numerous interviews with film historians, professors, critics, and even a producer of AMC’s The Walking Dead, and filled with electrifying stock footage and animated behind-the-scenes flashbacks, Birth of the Living Dead is an enlightening look back at one of the most beloved horror films of all time.
Birth of the Living Dead tells the story of how aspiring filmmaker George A. Romero went from shooting beer commercials and small segments of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to making Night of the Living Dead, one of the most popular horror films of all time. Inspired by Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend and surrounded by supportive friends and family, Romero and his crew rented out an abandoned farmhouse and got to work creating a new monster that would become just as iconic as Frankenstein, Dracula, and the radioactive beasts of the Atomic Age. In the process, Romero would create a time capsule that captured the anger, confusion, and violence that gripped America in the late 1960s. As Romero reflects back on the making of Night of the Living Dead, a number of guests including independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden, The Walking Dead producer Gale Ann Hurd, Shock Value author Jason Zinoman, film critic Elvis Mitchell, film historian Mark Harris, and film professor Samuel D. Pollard dissect the film and explain why Night of the Living Dead is an essential piece of American independent filmmaking.
If you’re a massive fan of Night of the Living Dead—or George A. Romero—some of the information Birth of the Living Dead presents may not be exactly new or thrilling. There are discussions of the lack of a copyright on the film and the story of how Romero went from making commercials to horror films won’t have fan’s jaws on the floor. It’s stuff you would have heard about on the special features of the Dawn of the Dead DVD or read about in Joe Kane’s book Night of the Living Dead. However, hardcore fans can’t fully dismiss Birth of the Living Dead because the film dares to recreate what it was like behind-the scenes through quirky little animated segments provided by Gary Pullin. We get to see what it might have been like for softie star Duane Jones as he geared up for an especially violent scene here and Romero pouring over strips of film there. It’s pretty nifty, especially when iconic scenes from the film are given the comic book treatment complete with bright red splashes of blood. In addition to the charming cartoons, there is also plenty of jarring stock footage used during the critical analysis portion of the documentary. There are brutal images of the Vietnam War, racial violence, riots, and protests, all held up to images from Night of the Living Dead to effectively drive home the historical importance of Romero’s accomplishment.
What’s especially wonderful of Birth of the Living Dead is the interview with Romero, who seems as laid back as ever. He sits slumped on a couch, lighting up cigarettes, sipping a cup of coffee, and reminiscing about all of those who took a risk on this young college dropout. The camera is tight on Romero’s face, so close at times that you fear it might bump into his giant glasses and knock them off his face. On the Dawn of the Dead DVD, Romero would only mention Night of the Living Dead in passing, but here, he really digs deep. He reveals that he never truly had an agenda with the film, only that he just wanted to use the film to move on to bigger and better things. He wasn’t exactly keen on being labeled a horror director, but its something that he had grown comfortable with over the years. What’s especially interesting is seeing him shrug his shoulders over the lack of a copyright on the film. The glimmer of disappointment is apparent, but that discouragement is quickly masked with a warm smile that says he is just happy that the film has become as popular as it has. My personal favorite moment is when he reflects back on premiering the film at a local drive-in. He mentions grabbing some snacks and settling down to marvel at his achievement. It’s here that you realize why Kuhns has his camera so close—it was to capture the twinkling nostalgia in Romero’s eye.
As far as the rest of the interviewees go, they are all extremely passionate, as these are people who have been lifelong fans of the film and have analyzed it from every angle. They gush, ooze, and beam praise as they explain the film’s importance and what they personally took away from the film. Those who don’t worship at the altar of Romero would be surprised to learn that the film wasn’t initially met with praise from film critics. Initially, Night of the Living Dead was dumped in grindhouses and waved off by American critics as just another B-horror movie, but European film critics saw the film differently, encouraging those who had already reviewed the film to give it a closer analysis. It’s also very fun to hear stories from moviegoers who remember seeing the film when it was first released and being scared out of their minds by it. The gritty realism, the graphic gore, and the bleak ending shook up many moviegoers and sent horror-loving children away in tears. There is also a misty-eyed tribute to Bill Hinzman, the original “graveyard zombie” who has become one of the most adored zombies from Romero’s Dead series. Overall, if you’ve ever seen Night of the Living Dead and taken it at face value, you owe it to yourself to check out Birth of the Living Dead. It’s a captivating look at a tense time in America, and it acts as a glowing love letter to a tiny little midnight movie that created arguably the most popular horror subgenre.
by Steve Habrat
With Hammer Films having their gothic claws around ghouls like vampires, Frankenstein monsters, mummies, werewolves, and psycho killers, it makes perfect sense that they’d also haunt the witch subgenre. In 1966, Hammer released director Cyril Frankel’s The Witches, a slow-burn effort that is based on the novel The Devil’s Own by Norah Lofts. Heavily lacking their trademark gothic atmosphere, The Witches doesn’t particularly feel like a Hammer horror film. If the credits didn’t tell you it was one of their releases, you’d have absolutely no idea they were even involved with it. With Hammer leaning so heavily on the atmosphere of their films, it is nice to find an effort that focused more on story rather than spooky graveyards and creaky old castles to really send a shiver. While the story driven approach is fine enough, The Witches suffers from a bit too much down time, resulting in a film that often times bores the viewer more than it entertains them. Despite the trudging pace and the laughable climax, the film does feature a strong performance from actress Joan Fontaine, who was the one who convinced Hammer to make the film in the first place.
The Witches introduces us to Gwen Mayfield (played by Joan Fontaine), a missionary working in Africa who has a traumatic encounter with a witch doctor. Three years after the traumatic experience, Gwen takes a job as a schoolteacher in the small English town of Heddaby. Gwen arrives in the tranquil village and slowly gets to know the locals, who all appear to be friendly enough. Life seems to be going great for Gwen until she notices a romance budding between two of her students, Ronnie (played by Martin Stephens) and Linda (played by Ingrid Boulting). The romance seems harmless enough until one day Ronnie reports that he saw Linda’s guardian, Granny Rigg (played by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies), brutally punishing her. Gwen investigates the report but Linda and Granny dismiss the incident. As the days pass, Gwen begins to notice that the locals seem to treat Linda strangely, but things really get suspicious when Gwen finds a headless voodoo doll stuck in a tree and Ronnie mysteriously falls into a coma. After Ronnie’s father turns up dead and she has another voodoo-like encounter, Gwen is convinced that the seemingly cheery town is hiding something. To make things worse, she begins to suspect that there may be a sinister side to her wealthy employers, Alan (played by Alec McCowen) and Stephanie (played by Kay Walsh) Bax.
The Witches opens on a positive note, with an uneasy scare that leaves you wanting to see just what comes next. As voodoo drums bang on the soundtrack, Gwen and two petrified men quickly try to close up shop before a witch doctor and his followers can come bursting through the door to cast his awful spells. It’s intense enough and it leads you to believe that Frankel will be able to handle to the really creepy stuff with equal amounts of gusto. This sequence is grossly misleading. The Witches then switches over to mystery and suspicion as Gwen settles into her scenic new home. The scary stuff starts out small, with a strange occurrence here and there. There is Ronnie’s chilling story about Granny Rigg putting Linda’s hand in a clothes ringer and there is Granny Rigg encouraging a cat to follow Gwen home, all little things that suggest that there might be a sinister side to this seemingly happy community. Where Frankel really starts to botch it is when the bigger scares start to emerge. In one of the sillier moments, he zooms his camera in repeatedly on Gwen’s terrified expression, all while exaggerated music screams at us to react. This jolt doesn’t work, and it makes you wish that he had handled it with the same sort of casual style that he handled the first half.
Where The Witches really falls apart is during the ludicrous climax that has the villagers of Heddaby performing an unintentionally hilarious ritual that finds Stephanie, the head witch, hoping to literally get inside Linda’s skin. The climax finds Frankel working in the trademark gothic atmosphere we have all come to expect from Hammer, as the ritual takes place in a muddy tomb nestled in an overgrown graveyard. Despite the atmosphere, it can’t cover for the bizarre dance routines, the overacting, the fully clothed orgy that appears to take place, or the fact that the ritual can be stopped in the most nonsensical way possible. It’s not frightening by any stretch of the imagination and we certainly don’t fear for any of our protagonists. There is also the fact that it seems to be completely out of place when joined to the rest of the film, which worked hard to establish a subtler approach to the material. Had Frankel decided not to have the villagers hop around and rub up against each other like dogs, the ritual may have taken on a spookier vibe. He even could have cut a few of the lights he has shining down on the action to give the events taking place a bit of an ominous vibe. Sadly, he doesn’t and as a result he destroys his entire picture.
While the climax may shatter the entire film, the actors still manage to give some respectable performances before the project implodes on itself. Fonataine is strong and charismatic as Gwen, the blonde-haired detective of our witchy story. You will genuinely root for her to get to the bottom of all the suspicious events that are taking place within the community. You will also catch yourself fearing for her sanity when familiar voodoo dolls start popping up around her bedroom. Kay Walsh flaunts a sinister side as Stephanie, a seemingly skeptical individual who really is the head witch. It’s a shame that the silliness of the climax does her character in the way that it does. Stephens does a fine job with his small role as Ronnie, Linda’s concerned suitor who unknowingly gets in the way of evil, and Boulting oozes mystery as the seemingly sheltered Linda. Overall, while The Witches is beautifully shot and eerily composed early on, Frankel stumbles over the later scares and a climax that wouldn’t terrify a five-year-old. It’s a low point for Hammer, and it leaves you wishing that they had stuck to what they did best—vampires, Frankenstein monsters, mummies, werewolves, and psycho killers.
The Witches is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Most spaghetti westerns that emerged from Italy between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. Most directors saw the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy or caught a glimpse of Sergio Corbucci’s coffin-dragging gunslinger in Django and they quickly began trying to capitalize on the success of those cowboy epics. They poured in all the familiar ingredients and sometimes they even slopped on a bit more of the red sauce (blood) to cater to the exploitation crowds who ate up these foreign dishes. Yet every once and a great while, a formulaic spaghetti western would gallop along that had just the right amount of attitude to make it a minor and entertaining triumph. One of those formulaic but fun triumphs would be Giulio Petroni’s moody 1967 offering Death Rides a Horse, an odd-couple revenge tale that has a particularly dark opening sequence and an apocalyptic climatic shootout that will most certainly lodge itself in the viewer’s memory. It may not have the epic reach of a film by Corbucci or Leone, but Death Rides a Horse can be lively and menacing enough to lure spaghetti western nuts back for a second and even third viewing if they so desire. I’ve personally seen the film three times and I have to say, it has never lost my interest even if I have seen all of this done before.
As a young boy, the baby faced Bill (played by John Phillip Law) watched as his family was brutally murdered in cold blood by a group of masked bandits. Just before the bandits depart, they light the family’s house on fire and leave Bill to be burned alive. At the last second, another stranger who wears a skull necklace pulls the young Bill from the flames. Fifteen years later, Bill has grown up to be a deadly gunslinger searching for the men responsible for the death of his family. Meanwhile, the aging gunslinger Ryan (played by Lee Van Cleef) has just been released from prison and is searching for the gang that framed him. Ryan’s search leads him to nearby town where he meets Burt Cavanaugh (played by Anthony Dawson), one of the men who framed Ryan and who was also present the night that Bill’s family was murdered. Ryan demands $15,000 dollars from Cavanaugh, but he is reluctant to pay such a large sum of money. Just before Ryan has a chance to kill Cavanaugh, Bill shows up and guns the thug down. Realizing that they are after the same gang, Bill and Ryan begin racing each other to track down the rest of the gang. As they try to stay one step ahead of each other, they begin to realize that they may actually need each other if they want to stay alive.
While much of Death Rides a Horse is riddled with clichés, there are two parts of the film that are really allow it to stand out from the countless other spaghetti westerns released during this time. First is the opening sequence, which has to be one of the most gripping and terrifying scenes in any spaghetti western out there. You will be holding your breath as a group of masked bandits ride up to a small house in the middle of a thunderstorm, burst in on the happy family, gun down the man of the house as he reaches for a rifle, and then savagely rape the women on the dinning room table, all while a terrified and innocent young boy looks on. Then, to put the finishing touch on their heinous work, the bandits light the house on fire and ride away into the night. It is a scene that you would expect to open a really great horror movie rather than a rollicking cowboy picture. Then there is the climatic gunfight set right in the middle of a dust storm. It is ripe with apocalyptic doom as thick sheets of sand billow around and silhouette the gunfighters while they try to put each other six feet under. For as unsettling as the gunfight is, Petroni breaks it up by lacing it with a number of chuckles that have really held up over the years. While both of these set pieces send a chill, they are made even better through Ennio Morricone’s yowling score, which sounds like a terrifying Indian war chant erupting from the surrounding mountains. Good luck getting it out of your head.
In addition to these two sequences and Morricone’s hair-raising score, Death Rides a Horse is also worth the time for the performance from the always-welcome Lee Van Cleef. While he played second fiddle to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he is sneering and scowling front and center here. From the moment we see his aging and graying gunslinger, he shoots his viper-like gaze right through us and he continues to keep us on the edge of our seat with gravelly warnings like “revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold.” For all his toughness, Van Cleef does show a softer side in Death Rides a Horse and it comes through when he is forced to play mentor to the young gunslinger Bill. As far as John Phillip Law’s performance goes, he does okay as Bill but he doesn’t hold us like Van Cleef does. Law is a fine enough actor, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he seems like he is trying too hard to deepen his voice or look like a fierce bad boy (sounds sort of like Lou Castel in A Bullet for the General). You could see other spaghetti western tough guys laughing him out of the saloon if Law dared show up to their poker table. The bond that Van Cleef and Law’s characters form is certainly solid and multi-layered, at times being emotional and at times played for laughs. Law doesn’t miss a chance to bat an eye at Van Cleef’s aging wisdom and Van Cleef doesn’t shy away from chuckling at Law’s naivety.
There isn’t much depth to Death Rides a Horse but there is plenty to keep the viewer entertained and coming back for seconds, especially if they are fans of the Italian westerns. Quentin Tarantino fans will find plenty to like, as the spaghetti western-loving director littered Kill Bill: Volume 1 with numerous references to this particular film. The most obvious will be the use of Morricone’s stomping war-cry score, which is used during the showdown between the Crazy 88 and the Bride in the House of Blue Leaves. They’ll also notice that the flashbacks that Bill suffers from when he spots one of the bandits responsible for the death of his family look suspiciously similar to the flashbacks that Bride suffers from when she stares down one of her old colleagues. Oh, and how about the name “Bill?” I’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own. Overall, almost every single supporting actor blends in with the scenery and the villains are so cookie cutter, they could have been borrowed from any other spaghetti western, but there is enough action, suspense, and charms here for me to give Death Rides a Horse a solid recommendation if you are in the market for some retro action. Just remember that this isn’t Leone or Corbucci territory you’re riding through.
Death Rides a Horse is available on DVD, but it is very difficult to find a good transfer of the film. It is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.
by Steve Habrat
With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.
What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.
Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.
In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.
A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.