by Steve Habrat
At a quick glance, director Frank Perry’s surreal 1968 drama The Swimmer doesn’t jump out at you as a cult classic. When you watch the trailer, it swells with emotion as star Burt Lancaster proudly proclaims that he is going to swim home across a number of swimming pools that dot his scenic, upper class Connecticut suburb. Melodramatic music takes the wheel as the handsome Lancaster flirts with a number of beautiful socialite women, races a horse, and yellow on-screen text asks, “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the type of film that would fit into the cult classic mold—a mold that was constructed over time by B-movie cheapies, ultra-violent midnight movies, grindhouse filler, and quirky failures. In all honesty, it seems like the type of movie your mother would love. However, when you dive deep into The Swimmer, you realize that the film, which was based upon a shot story by John Cheever, is a haunting tragedy dressed up in studio-drama garb. Led by an unforgettable performance by Lancaster, this overlooked gem is a film unlike any other—a strange, moody experience that slowly evolves from a sunny daydream into a stormy nightmare.
The Swimmer introduces us to Ned Merrill (played by Burt Lancaster), a charismatic and seemingly well-off advertising executive who unexpectedly appears in an old friend’s manicured back yard. Wearing nothing but a pair of navy blue swimming trunks, Ned is met with handshakes, smiles, and warm welcomes from all sitting around the pool. While peering out across the backyard, Ned realizes that there is a river of swimming pools that lead right to his own home, and he is suddenly compelled to swim the entire way home. Dubbing the river of swimming pools the “Lucinda River” after his often-mentioned but never-seen wife, Ned embarks on a journey that takes him to the homes of several old friends and acquaintances, all of which react to Ned’s sudden appearance in drastically different manners. Upon his journey, he reconnects with a young babysitter, Julie Ann Hooper (played by Janet Langard), who had developed a crush on Ned while watching his daughters, and Shirley Abbott (played by Janice Rule), a cold stage actress whom Ned had shared a brief fling with. Yet as Ned gets closer and closer to home, he realizes that several of his relationships and his lavish lifestyle may not be as sunny as they appear.
Early on, very little is overly strange or surreal about The Swimmer, the only peculiar things being Ned’s sudden appearance and his reluctance to reveal what he has recently been up to. He masks this unwillingness to speak about the present by offering up suave charms that tickle his old friends nursing hangovers by the pool. Upon getting the idea to swim home to his family, The Swimmer becomes increasingly moody, constantly bouncing between warm, sunny, charming, romantic, uncomfortable, psychedelic, and spontaneous before cowering down underneath gathering storm clouds in the final half hour. This constant shift in tone makes The Swimmer an incredibly unpredictable drama, as old friends and acquaintances welcome Ned with increasingly mixed reactions. Some people are icy and instantly order Ned off their property, while others are a bit uneasy with him dropping by. One encounter is fairly romantic, but it ends in squirm inducing rejection that leaves an emotionally wounded Ned limping off towards his next pool to dive into. One of the most stinging encounters comes when Ned meets up with Shirley Abbott, a woman Ned had a fling with many years earlier. Where once Ned’s playful flirtations were met with giggles and smiles, now they are met with put downs and the admittance that Shirley never enjoyed her intimate moments with Ned. Watching Shirley kill off what’s left of Ned’s cool optimism is immensely painful, ending with a venomous sting that leaves our bathing suit clad protagonist shivering in the dying sun. (This emotional encounter with Janice was actually ghost directed by newcomer Sydney Pollack.)
Aiding with The Swimmer’s shattering power is Burt Lancaster, who gives a mesmeric performance as Ned, the mystifying advertising executive on a mission to swim his way home. While Eleanor Perry’s script almost paints Ned as an apparition who just suddenly materializes from the nearby woods, Lancaster really pivots around all the emotions like the graceful professional that he was, using his massively expressive, baby-blue eyes to really emit Ned’s early wonder and his final soul-shaking trauma. He also draws from his career as an acrobat, leaping, jumping, and playing with Julie in a horse pen like a couple of invincible school children who believe they are capable of anything and everything. And then there are the small touches, especially near the end when Ned is growing weary on his journey. His face is drooping into exhaustion and emotional defeat as he begs his way in to a public pool and limps his way through the rusted gate that guards his mansion. In the supporting roles, Langard’s Julie is a young, naïve sunbeam who has yet to experience the sadness and disappointment that Ned has encountered. She rambles on about silly school girl crushes that she hid just years before, and sheepishly admits that she stole one of Ned’s shirts one evening while she babysat his daughters. Janice Rule’s Shirley is like a viper lying out in the sun, one that Ned tramples on with his bare feet and ends up with her venom pumping into his exposed ankles.
Since The Swimmer offers very little about Ned’s background, the viewer is left to piece together his rocky past through his swim across the “Lucinda River.” As far as one can tell, life started out great for Ned—a man with a great career, a loving family, a slew of friends, and a lavish lifestyle in the sun. Behind his wife’s back, he carried out flings and affairs that ended with broken hearts, and he wronged several of his friends, leaving them seething with bitter hatred. As relationships fizzled, so did Ned’s lavish lifestyle, as money problems struck the Merrill household, his daughters ran rampant through the neighborhood, and his wife’s elitist personality left many acquaintances sour. This all added up to tragedy and ruin for the swimmer, as he crawls his way through an early fall thunderstorm for a place to rest his aching bones. As far as the technical aspects of The Swimmer go, the film’s cinematography looks beautiful and radiant, and the score from Marvin Hamlisch is a rush of melodramatic strings that compliment Ned’s successes and failures in suburbia. Overall, The Swimmer is a unique work of art that can be interpreted many different ways. No matter how you choose to look at it, Perry’s film will haunt every inch of your brain long after you’ve walked away from it. It’s a true one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
The Swimmer is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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.
How about a trailer double-shot for Halloween? First up is the trailer for John Carpenter’s immortal classic. Halloween.
Now that you’ve hung out with Michael Myers, spend some time with George A. Romero and his zombies in the trailer for Night of the Living Dead. It’s a night of total terror!
-Theater Management (Steve)
When Steve from Anti-Film School asked me if I wanted to contribute a list of my five favourite movie monsters the first thought that came to mind was Toho. I did a month-long feature on the Japanese production company Toho and covered a few of the studios monster flicks. It would be pretty simple to compile a list of five of my favourite Toho monsters. Godzilla was the first horror film I ever loved. If it is easy it isn’t worth doing, right? Who the hell said that anyway? I thought I should challenge myself and at the same time come up with five titles that were lesser known. What variety of monster seems to get less love? By Georgette; I’ve got it! Female monsters! I am bringing the “girl” in Goregirl to the table for my favourite movie monster list; Cinq Monstres Féminins (Five Female Monsters).
Cinq Monstres Féminins
Delphine Seyrig as COUNTESS BATHORY in Harry Kümel’s 1971 film DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS.
A newly married couple’s lives are forever changed after meeting a countess while staying at a beautiful old hotel.
…THE SEDUCTIVE MONSTER…
I could have easily filled this list with five female vampires. There are countless brilliant performances in the sub-genre by women. The sexy, smart, seductive female vampire. Both men and women fall under her spell and oh, what a way to go! One of the absolute sexiest, smartest and most seductive of them all is the immensely talented Delphine Seyrig’s Countess Bathory. The infamous Countess Elizabeth Báthory who allegedly tortured and killed hundreds of women and bathed in their blood to maintain her youth. The Countess arrives with her assistant as the sun is setting at the nearly abandoned hotel; only the newlyweds to keep her company. She quickly acquaints herself with the couple and sweet sadism soon follows. Daughters Of Darkness is a sexy, stylish and psychological trip where violence and eroticism reign. The beautiful locations adds an old world charm to the contemporary setting as does its Countess. Countess Bathory seems to have come from another time, another century perhaps. As sophisticated as she is nasty; a chic, sexual, hungry beast. Delphine Seyrig is outstanding as the sophisticated, powerful and brutal creature. One of the most elegant movie monsters of all time; Seyrig is a class act.
Aurora Bautista as MARTA and Esperanza Roy as VERONICA in Eugenio Martín’s 1973 film A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL.
Marta and Veronica run an inn in a tiny Spanish village where sexy, young female guests check in but don’t check out.
…THE RELIGIOUS MONSTER…
Marta and Veronica are two sisters with repressive attitudes guided by religious principles who believe they are doing god’s work. At least that is what Marta, the more dominant of the two believes. Marta takes the accidental death of a female tourist tanning topless on their rooftop as a sign that they are to punish women of loose morals. Veronica is the subservient sister and goes along with Marta regardless of her comfort level. Veronica is having an affair with a young man who works for them and is twenty years her junior. She refuses to get completely undressed during these trysts for <em>moral reasons</em>. Marta has no such outlet for her sexual frustrations and was once engaged to be married until her fiancée ran off with a younger woman. Marta is a severe woman who is not easy to like. Is she a monster though? Blinded by her jealousy and hatred for other women she uses religion as an excuse to murder. Despite Veronica also being blinded by her religion (and an accomplice to her sister’s crimes) it is clear she is not comfortable with Marta’s decisions. The sisters are a fascinating pair and their escapades are complimented by all manner of religious imagery and expression. In one of my favourite scenes, Marta is spying on some young men swimming and runs guilty through thorny bushes arriving home lashed, bleeding and breathless; frantically she washes and scrubs the sin from her flesh. Aurora Bautista and Esperanza Roy who plays Marta and Veronica do one hell of a job! Although these are two huge personalities they are played with a great deal of restraint. A Candle for the Devil is stylishly filmed with gorgeous scenery but it is all about the sisters who use their religion as an excuse to murder nubile young beauties who are unfortunate enough to end up as guests in their inn.
Meredyth Herold as DAUGHTER and Michele Valley as MOTHER in Nikos Nikolaidis’ 1990 film SINGAPORE SLING.
A private eye is searching for a woman named Laura, and follows the trail to the home of an incestuous, sadomasochistic mother and daughter team.
…THE SEXUALLY DEPRAVED MONSTER…
If ever a film deserved the tag of polarizing it is Nikos Nikolaidis’ 1990 film Singapore Sling. There is more unsavory sex acts in this thing than you can shake a stick at. The comedy and the black and white photography do take some of the edge off, but I doubt this film is going to be palatable for most people. The women are killers, but they are far more interested in exploring the lines between pain and pleasure. Prepare yourself for shock therapy, water torture, golden showers, vomit orgasms and excessive amounts of masturbation. Mother looks like a silent movie star and has a flare for dramatics. She speaks her dialog in French and translates herself in English. Despite Daughter‘s actions she comes off as slightly naive and is in a constant state of pre-orgasm. Singapore Sling is partially narrated and Mother and Daughter often speak directly to the camera. Mother and Daughter are pleasure monsters. They will do anything in the name of sating themselves regardless of the results. They torture each other and the male guests who end up in their home. Mother and Daughter are definitely the most sexually depraved monsters on this list. Mother played by Michele Valley and Daughter played by Meredyth Herold both give bold and fascinating performances. They are monsters of a different variety; a delightful mix of degenerate and class. You’ll be glad the film is black and white (it is a really great looking film also) as there is stuff on display here that you would not want to see in color.
Béatrice Dalle as LA FEMME in Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s 2007 film INSIDE.
A woman about to give birth is terrorized in her home by a mysterious psychotic woman.
…THE SELF-RIGHTEOUS MONSTER…
Béatrice Dalle is the mysterious psychotic woman. Her intentions are simple; to take by force the baby inside of her victims stomach. La Femme as she is noted in the credits, is just straight up nuts. She kills a lot of people and barely breaks a sweat over it. Sarah the woman due to give birth unsurprisingly receives some visitors and La Femme barely seems phased by it. Oh well, more people to kill. She doesn’t care who she kills and she doesn’t care how many. She doesn’t really even go to any trouble to be careful about the whole business. She is tough, relentless, brutal and extremely sober for a woman who is completely and utterly psychotic. Béatrice Dalle is a talented and appealing actress who is a fascination to watch. Dalle’s performance is easily one of the most driven and brutal portraits of a psycho I’ve seen in a film from the past 20 years. Watching a very pregnant woman being terrorized is nasty business but the audacity of showing the action from the fetus point of view wins it a whole lot of extra respect. This however is Dalle’s movies, she owns it like she owns that adorable little fetus in Sarah’s belly.
Nobuko Otowa as YONE and Kiwako Taichi as SHIGE in Kaneto Shindô’s 1968 film KURONEKO.
Yone and her daughter-in-law Shige are gang raped, murdered and their home set ablaze by a group of samurai. The women return from the dead as vengeful spirits whose sole purpose is to kill and drink the blood of every last samurai.
…THE VENGEANCE MONSTER…
Kuroneko takes place during wartime and its opening scene illustrates the brutality of the period. The way the samurai swarm the women’s home was like wild animals stalking their prey. Once inside they raid the home of food and then each one takes their turn raping the women. The horrific scene is a strong argument for the women’s revenge but negotiating with the spirit world comes with a high price. The women are the focus of every shot. Their light ethereal appearance made everything around them appear darker. Kuroneko’s dream-like visuals are enhanced by beautiful and subtle touches like Yone’s slow rhythmic dance and Shige’s cat-like attacks. Kiwako Taichi is bewitching as Shige. Bound by her pact, Shige is a seductive and vicious spirit but the woman she once was lingers inside. Nobuko Otowa is superb as Yone. Yone is a strong, serious spirit who methodically goes about her rituals. Her unusual eye makeup gave her an appropriately menacing appearance. Yone seems to have considerably less connection to who she was and is more the vicious for it. Revenge is rarely sweet. Kaneto Shindô directed another film focusing on a pair of women during wartime called Onibaba which I highly recommend you check out if you enjoy Kuroneko; the two are great companion pieces.
To check out more awesome stuff from GoreGirl, click here.
by Steve Habrat
With director Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s epic World War Z swarming the global box office, I thought it would be a good time to countdown the 15 best zombie movies of all time. Now, if there is one thing that I know in this world, it is zombies. I love ‘em. I cut my teeth on Night of the Living Dead when I was just a little sprout and I never looked back. I’ve dabbled in everything from the Italian splatterfests of the late 70s and 80s to all of Romero’s heady zombie romps. I’ve thrilled at the sprinting zombies and I’ve chuckled right along with the new string of “zom-coms.” Hell, I even religiously watch The Walking Dead when it is on AMC. So, without further ado, I give you my picks for the top 15 zombie movies of all time. I do hope you’re craving some brrrraaaaaaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnssss!
15.) Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Director Jorge Grau’s surreal 1974 chiller doesn’t feature the undead in thick hordes like many of the films on this list. No, this film was made when the zombie subgenre was still suffering from some growing pains. However, it is still a massively chilling, impeccably acted, and brutal zombie movie made in the wake of the collapse of the counterculture. With an alien score that would have been perfect for any 50s science fiction flick and spine tingling wheezes creeping over the soundtrack, this go-green atomic freak out is an absolutely must for zombie fanatics and horror freaks, especially the final blood-soaked twenty minutes.
14.) Grindhouse-Planet Terror (2007)
In early 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino unleashed this passion project into an America that frankly didn’t get what the duo was trying to do. Well, America, you missed out. This scratchy double feature kicks off with a gooey bang in the form of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a pus-filled tribute to zombie godfather George A. Romero and Italian goremaster Lucio Fulci. Brimming with tongue-in-cheek violence, melting penises, machine gun legs, and kerosene action, Planet Terror is a self-aware charmer that is guaranteed to churn your tummy. Keep an eye out for an extended cameo from Tom Savini, who did the make-up effects in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.
13.) Shock Waves (1977)
Way before Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies took the world by storm, this little-known but unnervingly creepy tale about a troop of goggle-clad SS ghouls patrolling an abandoned island snuck into theaters and then was largely forgotten. Fueled by a ghostly atmosphere and flooded with horror icons (Peter Cushing! John Carradine! Brooke Adams!), this sun drenched chiller doesn’t feature the same old flesh-hungry ghouls ripping victims limb from limb. Nope, these guys march out of the water, sneak up on their victims, and then violently drown ‘em. Trust me, they are VERY cool. With a score guaranteed to give you goosebumps and an immensely satisfying last act, this is a low budget B-movie gem that deserves to be showered in attention. Track it down and show your friends!
12.) 28 Weeks Later (2007)
It seemed like an impossible task to try to do a sequel to Danny Boyle’s terrifying 2003 game changer 28 Days Later, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from giving it a try. Surprisingly, 28 Weeks Later, which was produced by Boyle and directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, is an intimidating follow-up that goes bigger and louder than the previous film. Clearly crafted for a summer audience, 28 Weeks Later is an effects heavy blockbuster that finds much of London being reduced to ashes, but the acting is top notch, the smarts are in place, and the zombie…sorry, INFECTED mayhem will leave you breathless and shaking for days.
11.) Day of the Dead (1985)
The third installment in George A. Romero’s zombie series was a bomb when it was first released and unfairly dismissed by many critics including Roger Ebert. You should know that the shockingly dark and cynical Day of the Dead has many tricks up its sleeve. Perhaps the angriest zombie movie ever made, Day of the Dead is the work of a man who has completely lost his faith in humanity and our ability to work together. Did I mention that it also features an intelligent zombie? Yeah, wait until you meet Bub. While much of the zombie carnage is saved for the shadowy climax, Day of the Dead is still a film that spits fire. I’d even go so far to say that it is one of the most important films of the Regan Era.
10.) Return of the Living Dead (1985)
This punk rock “zom-com” from writer/director Dan O’Bannon passes itself off as an unofficial follow-up to Romero’s 1968 treasure Night of the Living Dead. The characters all openly acknowledge the events of that film, but they do it all in neon Mohawks while snarling rock n’ roll blares in the background. With plenty of gonzo action and a swarm of ghouls that howl for more “braaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnssss,” Return of the Living Dead is like a living, breathing cartoon. If that doesn’t convince you to attend this ghoul shindig, wait until you catch a glimpse of the tar zombie, one of the most visually striking zombies ever filmed. Rock on!
9.) The Dead (2011)
The newest film on this list is actually one of the most impressive throwbacks of recent memory. The Dead is basically a road movie smashed together with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and a forgotten spaghetti western. It could also be the most beautiful zombie film on this list (aside from Dellamorte Dellamore). Taking place on the parched African landscape, The Dead will send shivers as its zombies slowly shuffle along in the background of nearly every single shot, making you wonder if our two silent protagonists will ever make it out of this situation alive. While the last act dips, The Dead never lets up on the intensity. Just watch for a scene where an injured mother hands her infant child off to Rob Freeman’s Lt. Murphy as zombies close in around her. Pleasant dreams!
8.) Re-Animator (1985)
It seems that 1985 was the year of the zombie. We were treated to gems like Return of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, and Stuart Gordon’s cheeky horror-comedy Re-Animator. A bit more restrained that some of the films on this list (but not by much), Re-Animator is a big glowing tribute to science fiction and horror films of years passed. It has a little something for everyone, all wrapped up in a big Sam Raimi-esque wink. Did I mention that it can also creep you out big time? Featuring a must-see performance from Jeffrey Combs and a zombie doctor carrying his own head, Re-Animator is a science-lab romp that will have you shrieking one second and giggling the next.
7.) Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Zack Snyder’s speedy remake of George A. Romero’s masterpiece was probably the most expensive zombie movie of all time until World War Z came crashing into theaters. It was also much better than it had any right to be. While it will never trump the heady original, Snyder makes an energetic gorefest that will make horror fans giddy with delight. The film has a stellar opening sequence that is followed by grainy news reports of a world going to Hell, all while Johnny Cash strums his guitar over bloody credits. From that point, Snyder lobs one gory gag after another at the audience, the most fun being a game of spot a zombie that looks like a celebrity and then turns its head into hamburger meat. Oh, and if the film didn’t have enough blood and guts already, wait until you see the chainsaw accident near the end of the film. It’s a doozy.
6.) Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man (1994)
From the late 70s through the mid 1990s, Italy had severe zombie fever. In the wake of George A. Romero’s massively successful Dawn of the Dead, the Italians cranked out more knockoffs than you can shake a severed arm and leg at. Many of them were cheapie exploitation movies that lacked artistic vision, but right before the craze died off, director Michele Soavi released Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man, a gothic zombie fantasy that truly is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Surreal, sexy, and episodic, Dellamorte Dellamore borders on arthouse horror and has earned fans as high profile as Martin Scorsese. The last act of the film is a mess and it seems like Soavi wasn’t exactly sure how to bring the film to a close, but this is certainly a zombie movie that you have to see to believe.
5.) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
In 2004, American audiences were introduced to British funnyguys Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, and we were all the better for it. The first “romantic comedy with zombies,” Shaun of the Dead is a side-splittingly hilarious romp that can also be quite terrifying what it sets its mind to it. Loaded with nods to classic zombie movies (each time you watch it you will spot another tip of the hat), endlessly quotable jokes, and some eye-popping gross-out gags, Shaun of the Dead is a surprisingly sweet film with a core romance you can’t stop rooting for. Also, Romero has given it his approval, which automatically makes it a zombie classic.
4.) Zombie (1979)
Lucio Fulci’s 1979 grindhouse classic Zombie (aka Zombi 2) was the first Italian knockoff inspired by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It is also the best Italian zombie movie out there. Entitled Zombi 2 in Italy to trick audiences into thinking that the film was a sequel to Dawn, Zombie is a beast all its own. Without question the most violent and exploitative zombie film to emerge from the Italian zombie movement, Zombie is a tropical blast of excess that will have your jaw on the floor. Gasp as a zombie has an underwater battle with a shark (you read that correctly, in case you were wondering) and dry heave as a woman has her eye gouged out by a piece of splintered wood (shown in an extreme close up). And that is Fulci just getting warmed up! Approach this sucker with caution.
3.) 28 Days Later (2003)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is not technically a zombie movie. The red-eyed, blood-spewing maniacs that dash through the streets of devastated London are suffering from a virus known only as “RAGE.” Still, the ghouls are very zombie like as they sprint towards their victims like coked-out marathon runners. Gritty, grim, and absolutely terrifying, 28 Days Later is an impeccably acted and smartly directed apocalyptic thriller that astounds with each passing second. The climax has split viewers, but in my humble opinion, it is an unflinching glimpse of human beings at their absolute best and absolutely worst. This is an essential and influential modern-day classic.
2.) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
In 1968, George A. Romero crafted a film that would go on to lay the foundation for the zombie subgenre. Cramped, creaky, and infinitely creepy, Night of the Living Dead is a lo-fi horror classic that continues to sit securely on the short list of the most terrifying films ever made. Romero instantly throws the viewer into the chaos and flat-out refuses to give us any sort of explanation for why the dead-eyed cannibals outside are trying to pound their way into that boarded up farmhouse. All we know is that something is very wrong and the situation seems to be steadily getting worse. Brimming with Cold War anxiety and flashing images that would be right at home in a forgotten newsreel from the Vietnam War, Night of the Living Dead is a film that will stick with you the rest of your life. A true horror classic.
1.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Ten years after he shaped the subgenre, Romero returned to give audiences his ultimate apocalyptic vision. Often imitated but never duplicated, Dawn of the Dead is the king daddy of zombie movies. Set just a few short weeks after the events of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead begins with a flurry of blood and bullets ripping across your screen, assuring the viewer that once again, Romero is taking no prisoners. Once Romero decides to usher his four protagonists off to the Monroeville Mall, the satire kicks into high gear. Launching a full-scale attack on consumer culture, Romero dares to compare mall shoppers to his shuffling ghouls that wander the aisles of JC Penney. He also warns us that our inability to work together will be the death of us all. Featuring heavy character development, heart-pounding action sequences, and a devastating conclusion, Dawn of the Dead stands as a pulse-pounding masterpiece not only for Romero, but for the entire zombie subgenre.
So, do you agree? Disagree? Did I leave something off of the list? Feel free to leave me your picks! I’m dying to hear them!
by Steve Habrat
After Hammer’s success with Horror of Dracula, the British studio began whipping up multiple sequels that found Christopher Lee’s snarling Count Dracula rising from the grave in some way, shape, or form. One of the better sequels is 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, a snappy horror outing with plenty of blood dripping from Lee’s fangs and as much cleavage as you can handle. Hey, this is Hammer! With Hammer’s favored son Terence Fisher out of the director’s chair and director Freddie Francis taking control, there seems to be a reignited spark of enthusiasm throughout Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Lee seems just a little more devilish than usual and the bloodletting is a tad more extreme than some of the previous offerings (the film is hilariously rated G but don’t be fooled). Francis injects a captivating storyline and mixes it with attention grabbing melodrama and likeable characters, all which give the film a morbid charm, much like the monster we all fear. Francis takes things to the next level with a number of iconic images and a climax that more than delivers. It’s a gothic image so startling that you will never be able to chase it from your mind. The only thing missing here is Peter Cushing, who is sorely missed!
Set after the events of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, a year has passed since Dracula’s (Played by Christopher Lee) death but the local villagers are still jumpy and whisper about vampirism. They are convinced that Dracula still watches them from his castle high in the mountains and that he still emerges at night to drink the blood of the living. Monsignor Ernst Mueller (Played by Rupert Davies) decides to perform an exorcism on Dracula’s castle to prove to the villagers that the evil is gone for good. The monsignor takes a local priest (Played by Ewan Hooper) with him up to Dracula’s castle but what he doesn’t know is that the priest is grappling with his faith. During the exorcism, the priest takes a nasty fall and cuts his head. The blood trickles down the rocks and finds its way through a crack in the ice. The blood flows into Dracula’s mouth and the evil one is revived from his chilly slumber. Unable to enter his castle due to a giant crucifix on the door, Dracula sets out to find the monsignor and make him pay for what he has done. He targets the priest and the monsignor’s beautiful niece, Maria (Played by Veronica Carlson), and her atheist boyfriend, Paul (Played by Barry Anderson).
Despite being a whole bunch of fun, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave does have one major gaffe near the end of the film. The scene finds atheist Paul attempting to drive a stake through old Drac’s heart but he refuses to pray so the attempt is useless and Dracula survives. It was news to this viewer that when one drives a stake through Dracula’s heart, you have to say a prayer or the vampire will survive. It may be goofy and completely out of place but the sequence does have tons of gore so that makes up for it. Other than this one flub, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave can be wonderfully funny, romantic, and terrifying. The opening sequence that finds a bloody dead body stuffed in the church’s bell tower is one to have you on the edge of your seat. The exorcism scene is also one that will give you chills as the winds pick up outside the gothic castle. Whenever Dracula’s presence is felt, Francis applies a filter that yellows the edge of the screen, an odd touch at first but as the film goes on, you may find yourself actually enjoying the effect as it suggests evil closing in around anyone who is near Dracula. And then there is the love story, a soft, melodramatic affair that will have the viewer rooting for young love.
Then we have the top-notch performances from Lee and the rest of the cast. Much like Horror of Dracula, we don’t see too much of Lee’s Dracula but when he does decide he is going to show up, he will have you trembling in your boots. When he sets his sights on a young gal he wishes to bite, his eyes turn that familiar shade of red and his lips curl in to a demonic sneer that spells death. When he approaches the crucifix that hangs from his castle doors, he commands one of his vampire slaves to get it out of his sight. The way he delivers the dialogue will send a chill, as he says it with heaping amounts of hate in his voice. Anderson is great as the honest and true Paul, who resists the seduction of a voluptuous bar maid named Xena (Played by Barbara Ewing). He just seems like such a good guy that you can’t help but root for him in his battle against Dracula. Carlson is easy on the eyes as Maria, a warm and innocent girl who sneaks out of her room at night and tip toes over the rooftops to check in on Paul. Then there is Davies as the stern monsignor who detests the fact that Paul is an atheist. Rounding out the cast is Hooper as the priest at odds with his faith. He is one of the first to fall under Dracula’s spell and he certainly is a sympathetic character. He can also seriously creep us out as he utters only snippets of dialogue and refuses to look anyone in the face.
The whole conflicted faith aspect of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is certainly an interesting touch to a Dracula film. It seems fitting but sometimes it seems slightly neglected as a plot point. However slack this plot point may be, Francis guides it smoothly into one hell of a finish that features a gothic image that has to be the king daddy of nightmarish visions. It’s epic, gruesome, terrifying, and strangely beautiful all at once as it rests against an overcast sky. There are a few moments where Dracula Has Risen from the Grave can be a bit cheesy, especially when a sped up Dracula zooms along in his carriage (I’ll wait while you chuckle). As the Dracula films began to slowly fall apart, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is a commanding Hammer vampire film that doesn’t hesitate to entertain us and then get right in our face so that we can smell the blood on its breath. And we can’t leave out Hammer’s famous gothic atmosphere, which is once running rampant right through the action. It certainly has a number of small flaws and one weird moment in the middle but Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is still a vampire film you will want to scare the living daylights out of you again and again. You may even crack a smile at a few points.
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is available on DVD.