Birth of the Living Dead (2013)
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.
Ghoulish Guests: John LaRue’s Five Favorite Movie Monsters
If you watch enough horror, eventually you start to realize that a monster isn’t just a monster. The supernatural is always a conduit for something completely natural in the real world, something still terrifying but blown into monstrous proportions by screenwriters, directors, make up geniuses, and special effects mavens. When Steve asked me to put together a list of my five favorite monsters, he surely didn’t realize he’d be getting a list straight from Durkheim or Foucault. But there you have it. Here are my five favorite movie monsters, and their contextual sociological meaning.
5. George Romero’s Zombies
The zombie genre has been overrun with a lot of brain-dead films. But at their very best, zombies are a wonderful vehicle for social commentary. Of course, sometimes this can be used in outrageous and embarrassing ways (see: White Zombie, 1932, and its interpretation of tribal culture). For George Romero in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, zombies reached their apex of sociological meaning. Granted, it isn’t subtle but that’s not the point. Its lack of subtlety endows the film with gobs of humor as Romero mercilessly skewers 20th century America and its suburbanized mass-consumer culture. The timing was perfect, coming just as the baby boomer generation was departing the free-wheeling, rebellious hippie era and entering the United States of Reagan. With one brilliant decision- placing his film in a mall- Romero asks his generational cohorts, “What happened to you guys, man? You used to be cool.” Lousy yuppies.
The original Gojira (1954), and really all of the classic radioactive monsters cooked up by Toho Studios, are Sociology 101. In the post-World War II film world, Italy nurtured neo-realism to illustrate that, despite their involvement with Hitler, they too suffered on the homefront. The French fixated on the horrors of the war. However, in Japan, something else was brewing. Because of the atomic bomb, they took on real life horrors that no other civilization had ever witnessed. If ever a situation needed to be shrouded in metaphor before reaching the big screen, it was Japan in the post-World War II era. Enter Godzilla, a radioactive monster who arrives from the sea, then cuts a swath of destruction that includes several islands, the navy, and finally reaches the mainland. In other words, Godzilla was the US military, and the radioactive pollution is tied directly to it. Godzilla and the Monsters (which sounds like a band name created by Gary King) were a brilliant snapshot of exactly what terrified Japan in the 1950s.
3. Frankenstein’s Monster
What I find fascinating about the cinematic Frankenstein’s monster is that he has strong roots in at least two other places. The first and most obvious is Mary Shelley’s novel, which the film borrows from thematically quite a bit. The second is the classic Jewish golem. Both involve taking inanimate matter and re-animating it into new life. And in both instances, the new life wreaks havoc, most notably on the maker. The only major step from golem to Frankenstein’s monster is the involvement of science- in particular, the science of cutting open corpses and seeing how they tick in the 19th century- with just a dash of a God complex.
Both of those concepts were absolutely horrifying to people from the 19th century on into the early 20th century when James Whale brought the monster to life on the big screen. It resonated especially in America, a very devout Christian country whose moral sensibilities would rock to their very foundation at the notion of a mad scientist playing God. And tying medical science into the equation doubles down on fears of the era. While medical science had progressed reasonably well in the 18th and 19th centuries, it wasn’t until doctors started opening up bodies and using corpses that real progress was made. To the average schmoe on the street in the late 19th and early 20th century, this is a horrific concept- taking a loved one and ripping apart their entire earthly being for corporeal knowledge. “MEDICAL SCIENCE IS ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE! AND NOW IT’S GOING TO DESTROY US ALL!!!”
2. Japanese Ghosts
Ok, ok… a ghost isn’t a monster, per se. But it’s still a fun and scary enough concept to make someone go boom boom in their britches. The beauty of the Japanese ghost story is how deeply rooted it is in Japanese culture. Unlike Godzilla and the radioactive monsters, there was no natural disaster that created the folklore of Japanese ghosts. No, these supernatural beings are actually quite natural. They’re tied to the importance of family in Japan. Traditionally, Japanese families are protected by their deceased ancestors as part of a social bargain. The living family gives the deceased a proper burial, with proper funereal rites, and the deceased return to keep harm away from their living ancestors. If the dead aren’t given a proper burial, however, or if they die violently, all hell breaks loose.
As you can see, this process leaves a massive chasm open for ghosts in Japanese culture. They can be protectors, they can be harbingers of doom, and they can wreak havoc. And the entire theme is tied to something that every family deals with quite regularly. Everyone dies (not just in Japan, but everywhere, except for maybe Batman), and everyone must face the mortality of their family members at some point. It makes the whole concept enormously relatable. Since the Japanese have been perpetuating this mythos for centuries, they understand the entire ghost genre better than anyone. There’s a reason that 95% of the Japanese ghosts you’ve seen wear white and have jet black hair. It’s a practice that goes back centuries, and has continued on through classic Japanese ghost films like Kwaidan (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) and even on to modern films like Ju-On (2002).
1. The Wolf Man (and werewolves in general)
I could write for days about the genius of The Wolf Man (1941). The entire film was allegorical for the Nazi regime. It was written by Curt Siodmak, a Jew exiled from Germany during the rise of the Nazi state. Thematically, it’s all about the way that his seemingly normal German neighbors and friends turned on him almost overnight. They were completely normal when the sun was up. But on the full moon, they turned hideous, seeking to destroy whoever bore the “mark of the beast.” It just so happens that the “mark of the beast” in Siodmak’s film was a pentagram, purposely designed to look like the star of David that marked Jews in Germany during the era.
Digging deeper, it’s biblical. It’s about faulty genes. It’s about the sins of the father, and his father before that, and his father before that, being visited upon the sons. Go another level down and you’ve got the heart of why I love werewolf films in general. They’re metaphors for transformation, for finding the deep, dark, terrifying parts of our own souls that we didn’t even know existed. These aren’t just monsters. They’re humans, wrestling with the better angels of their nature and ultimately losing in appalling ways. In Wolf (1994), it’s the depths that he’ll go for survival and success. In Ginger Snaps (2000) and quite a few others, it’s the shocking journey through puberty into adulthood. It’s a delicious built-in character arc that makes the characters more enticing to us, the viewer… and ultimately reminds us that the scariest thing out there is the damage that we can cause all by ourselves.
Anti-Film School’s 15 Best Zombie Movies of All Time!
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!
Book Review: You and Me against the World
by Steve Habrat
I must confess that I have never written a book review before. Sure, I’ve raved about certain books to friends and rolled my eyes in disgust at others as I flipped past the last page, but I’ve never attempted to give an in-depth review of one. Books have always acted as my escapist entertainment because of my fascination with film. However, a few months ago, I was asked by Raymond Esposito, the gentleman behind You and Me against the World (and who also contributed a wonderful Halloween feature post to Anti-Film School), about possibly reviewing the first book in his Creepers Saga. Honored that he valued my opinion, I quickly agreed to give it a read and I dove right in to his vision of the zombie apocalypse. I must say, as a massive zombie fan, I truly enjoyed and was consistently impressed with this non-stop thrill ride. As I dove deeper and deeper in, it became clear that Mr. Esposito was staying true to the formula that really makes the great zombie stories work. He was placing extremely likable characters in front of his hordes of undead and then unleashing the most terrifying monster of all on his protagonists–fellow man.
On his last day as an oncologist, Dr. Russell Thorn is barely moved by the overwhelming number of individuals showing up in the ER for severe flu-like symptoms. Shortly into his shift, Dr. Thorn is called in to observe a patient that is spewing black bile and suffering from hypothermia despite the boiling Florida heat outside. It doesn’t take long for the patient to pass away, but to the horror of the hospital staff, the patient doesn’t remain dead. It wakes up with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. With the hospital descending into chaos, Dr. Thorn and two young nurses, Susan and Rosa, make an escape from the panic only to be greeted by more cannibalistic terror out in the Florida sun. With nowhere to go and the streets crawling with undead ghouls, the small group makes their way to Dr. Thorn’s home to wait the situation out. After a few days of observing from an upstairs window, Dr. Thorn realizes that the roaming ghouls don’t particularly like the chilly evenings and that they appear to be showing hints of intelligence. To make things worse, it appears as if the zombies know that Dr. Thorn and the two nurses are hiding inside the home. After a very close encounter with a horde of ghouls, the small group is saved by a heavily armed band of young warriors led by the reluctant Devin. Running out of options, Dr. Thorn agrees to join the group and they begin plotting a way to distance themselves from the swarming infected, but as the group will soon learn, there are things lurking out there in the chaos that are worse than the undead.
I was told that You and Me against the World was very cinematic, and I have to agree with this description, but I would also say that Mr. Esposito’s scope is about as epic as it can be, analyzing the zombie apocalypse from nearly every single destructive angle. I’d go so far to say that he comes dangerously close to matching what Max Brooks achieved in his globe-trotting zombie epic World War Z (hell, you could probably make the books into a double feature of sorts). There are nuclear meltdowns, war, bombings, car crashes, and more all chillingly tucked in amongst Esposito’s beefy character development. He envisions a world that is charred, scarred, and crawling with galloping cannibals his character’s dub “creepers,” who charge their prey while drooling black bile and burrowing underground when the sun goes down to stay warm. Yet Mr. Esposito isn’t content with his virus simply infecting humans. Oh no, things really take a creepy and fun turn when we are introduced to zombie kitties and in a giddy tribute to George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead.
In addition to all of the action that Mr. Esposito infuses into his zombie epic, he also presents a staggering number of protagonists for the reader to root for. It is a pretty big group and at first I feared that there may be one hero too many in You and Me against the World, but this is where Mr. Esposito truly shines. He gives each character their own mini introduction and then as the story progresses, allows us to see how each of these characters is connected to the other. While it is up to the reader to pick their favorite among the massive group, my two personal favorites were the baseball bat-wielding Austin and the deadly blue-eyed mute Goldie. And while Mr. Esposito makes all of his protagonists likable, he doesn’t forget to add a handful of vile baddies to the bunch. I don’t want to spoil too much of the fun, but his crazed cult leader is just so much fun to hate, especially when he is threatening to feed a group of terrified children to a ravenous “creeper.”
For zombie fanatics, You and Me against the World is a must for your bookshelf. Make sure you place it between your Walking Dead comics and your copy of the Zombie Survival Guide. It features numerous nods to Romero’s original Dead trilogy (Night, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead) as well several little tips of the hat to Richard Matheson and his classic vampire tale I Am Legend. Overall, Mr. Esposito dreams up a tense, gory, and fresh spin on the zombie genre while barely stopping to take a breath. He puts the reader through the ringer with white-knuckle suspense and leaves us all wanting to see what comes next in the massive and wildly creative trilogy.
If you wish to purchase a copy of Raymond Esposito’s You and Me against the World, click here. If you wish to read Mr. Esposito’s Halloween guest piece, click here.
The Crazies (1973)
by Steve Habrat
After George Romero left his mark on American cinema with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, he made a handful of films that were largely overlooked until he returned to the zombie genre in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead. These films, made from 1971 to 1976 included There’s Always Vanilla, Hungry Wives, The Crazies, and Martin. Perhaps the best two in this string are 1976’s Martin and his 1973 film The Crazies, which like Night of the Living Dead, held up a cracked mirror up to the Vietnam War. In The Crazies, Romero didn’t go to great lengths to mask the fact that he was blatantly criticizing the unpopular war, even including characters that openly discuss fighting in the Vietnam War. While The Crazies certainly boasts Romero’s trademark brainy subtext, the film becomes one of his shoddier pieces, one that, like much of his other work, is extremely low budget and feels like gorilla style filmmaking. It’s the ideas and images that keep The Crazies in the horror game and the trademark gore is what has recruited its cult following.
The Crazies takes us to Evans City, Pennsylvania; where a mysterious biological weapon named Trixie has accidentally made its way into the town’s drinking water and is turning the good citizens of the peaceful town into wild-eyed “crazies.” After a series of shocking murders, U.S. troops descend upon the town and begin executing a quarantine of Evans City. As the citizens are rounded up without explanation, violence erupts and many of the citizens end up dead or irreversibly insane. Firefighter David (Played by W.G. McMillan), his pregnant nurse girlfriend Judy (Played by Lane Caroll), and David’s best friend and firefighter Russell Clank (Played by Harold Wayne Jones) begin trying to find a way out of the plague-ridden town. Along the way, they hook up with a terrified father Artie (Played by Richard Liberty) and his teenage daughter Kathie (Played by Lynn Lowry), but as their journey continues, certain members of the group begin to think they may be infected with Trixie and putting the rest of the group in danger.
The Crazies is ripe with images that could have been pulled from stock footage of the Vietnam War. In addition to our two heroes who served in the war (David was supposedly Green Beret and Clank was an infantryman), the opening moments of the film are frenzied flashes of an invasion, soldiers bursting into homes, rounding up civilians, encountering resistance from terrified citizens who only wish to know why they are being forced from their homes. In the opening moments, The Crazies gets by on the gossip spilling from the mouths of the actors in front of the screen, trading stories on mysterious truckloads of soldiers spilling into the town while Romero’s shaky camera hovers in all the confusion. His rapid fire editing is certainly in tact in these opening moments, giving The Crazies an almost documentary-like feel to it, like someone quickly spliced together these apocalyptic images for the evening news. The lack of a big budget also allows The Crazies to feel more authentic, much like the limited green that kept Night of the Living Dead grounded in reality. This imagery really comes to a head when a priest bursts from a church that has been overrun by the soldiers, none of them listening to his pleas for peace. He rushes into the streets with a can of gasoline, splashes it all over his body and then sets himself ablaze while horrified onlookers shriek and soldiers rush to put him out of his misery. It is scenes like this that elevate The Crazies from simple B-movie carnage to grave reflection, leaving it lingering in your head the next day.
The Crazies also uses the idea of peaceful people suddenly erupting into violence to really give us a few sleepless nights. A father destroys the inside of his home while his two terrified children watch, one child finding their mother murdered in her bed while the father douses the downstairs in gasoline and then drops a lighter into the gas. Countless wild-eyed citizens arm themselves with double barrel shotguns, pitchforks, and knitting needles to kill them a few gas-masked soldiers who refuse to spill any updates on their situation, some soldiers not even fully understanding why they are taking over this seemingly harmless small town. There are very few images more harrowing than a grinning granny walking up to a soldier and stabbing him in the throat with a knitting needle. There are also the scarring images of children witnessing their parents murdered by the trigger-happy soldiers, who fail to find any alternative to calmly talking down the citizens trying to defend themselves. Romero expertly blurs the infected with those who are on the defensive, causing the viewer to be unsure who is really sick and who is protecting themselves, further adding to the unruly terror.
The Crazies does suffer from some shoddy craftsmanship at points but one can assume that is because of Romero’s limited budget. Yet having seen Romero with a big studio budget (Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead) and comparing it with his much more resourceful work, I have to say I prefer the contained Romero. There is plenty of gore in The Crazies, a trademark of Mr. Romero and there are plenty of disturbing moments to solidify The Crazies as a horror movie legend. The presence of a few familiar B-movie faces (Richard Liberty and Lynn Lowry, who together get one of the most unspeakable sequences of the film) also makes The Crazies worth your while. The rest of the cast does a fine job, especially Jones as Clank, who may or may not be sick with Trixie. The appearance of Richard France as the cure-seeking Dr. Watts is also a fun addition, playing almost the same role he would eventually play in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The Crazies works on multiple levels of horror, from the documentary-esque footage on the streets of Evans City to the good citizens turning mad all the way to the scenes with several major government officials discussing dropping an atomic bomb on the town, all of which are classic Romero touches. Even though it is not as consistent as Romero’s other horror offerings, The Crazies ultimately settles like a brick in the bottom of your stomach, cynical and suggesting that our own unwillingness to work together will be our ultimate downfall.
The Crazies is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Crazies (2010)
by Steve Habrat
When it comes to horror remakes, I tend to be less forgiving than I usually am with my reviews of classic horror films or more recent original work within the genre. To me, the never-ending string of remakes and face lifts that have been given to horror classics in the past several years just reflect the sorry state of Hollywood and reveal their appalling lack of creativity. But since Hollywood continues to force them on us, I guess we have to separate the good from the very, very bad. In early 2010, we saw the Breck Eisner directed remake of George Romero’s 1973 cult horror film The Crazies. The Crazies ended up being one of the better remakes that I have seen, ranking next to 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead as one of the best ones out there. The Crazies actually works because there is some minor involvement from Romero, who helped pen the screenplay and served as executive producer of the film. With Romero’s involvement, The Crazies plays with the idea of the people we know and love suddenly becoming homicidal maniacs and the savagery that lies in the ones who are supposed to be protecting us.
The Crazies takes us to the small farming town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, where a government engineered biological weapon code named Trixie is accidentally unleashed in the town’s drinking water. Soon, David (Played by Timothy Olyphant), the local Sheriff, and his wife Judy (Played by Radha Mitchell), the Ogden Marsh doctor, begin noticing strange behavior in the town residents. After an encounter at a high school baseball game and several other bizarre murders, David, Judy, and David’s dependable deputy Russell Clank (Played by Joe Anderson) find the town under quarantine and gas-masked soldiers separating the sick from the healthy. When Judy, who also happens to be pregnant, is separated from David, he breaks away from the soldiers and ventures back into town to find Judy and save her. With Russell at his side, they have to continuously avoid the trigger-happy soldiers patrolling the town and the roaming “crazies” who will tear anyone apart who get in their way. As they look for a way out of the war-zone town, the government’s horrifying plans to contain Trixie are revealed.
Director Eisner approaches The Crazies in a surprisingly conservative manner. Sure, it has its fair share of stomach churning gore for the horror gurus who thrive on the red stuff but it is incredibly muted for a horror film and especially for material from Romero. Even though it is conservative in approach, the film is fairy intelligent behind all the apocalyptic hoopla. The material is very weary of the government and what they are willing to reveal to their own civilians. The army refuses to tell the terrified citizens of Ogden Marsh what exactly is happening to their friends and family and even worse, if the army detects any sign of infection while processing the civilians at a makeshift quarantine camp, they panic and rip the individual away from their confused family. The images are reminiscent of those we have seen from the Holocaust and they still haven’t lost their lingering power. The film also touches on the idea of those that we think we know suddenly becoming homicidal maniacs who will maim in the blink of an eye. A scene in which a husband locks his wife and young son in a closet and then lights the house on fire will send chills down your spine.
The Crazies has a talented lead in Timothy Olyphant’s David, who is determined to protect his pregnant wife any way he can. His role doesn’t demand too much of him, playing the cookie cutter Sheriff who is just searching for answers and trying to protect the town citizens but Olyphant does his best to add some emotional depth. I did like the way Eisner had his character react when he was forced to take the life of one of the roaming “crazies.” Instead of reacting with indifference, his initial response after the shot if fired from his gun is, “Oh, my God!” The first time he is forced to shoot one, he races to the crumpled body, stricken with shock and grief over taking the life of someone who was close to him and he thought he knew. Olyphant also has some great chemistry with Mitchell as his soft-spoken wife Judy, the pair getting a handful of great one-liners. Together, they provide us with some tender moments of affection and even some sly black humor. Joe Anderson also gets to have some fun as the deputy who may or may not be loosing his mind. He ends up getting the best line of the film, “Welcome to Ogden Marsh! The friendliest place on earth!”
The Crazies doesn’t attempt to break any new ground and instead retreats to familiar territory to scare us. It applies the same old jump scares and despite my dislike for this technique, a few actually end up working. The premise of a small town gone to Hell has been done countless times before and Eisner really does nothing to build upon it. There are a number of chilling scenes; the standout is the group trying to hide from an army helicopter that wishes to wipe them off the face of the earth. They hide in an abandoned car wash that just so happens to be the hiding place of a handful of snarling “crazies.” The scene ends in a shockingly sadistic death that will not settle well in the pit of your stomach. The Crazies doesn’t shy away from B-movie premise and it is aware that the idea is a bit outlandish. Eisner does manage to pepper in a little fun in all the solemnity (both a certain nursery scene and a run-in in the town morgue come to mind) and the fact that the film doesn’t go on longer than it needs to is a major plus. Eisner wastes absolutely no time getting to the action that we came here for and I applaud him for it. Also, for fans of the Romero original, keep an eye out for a seriously awesome cameo from original cast member Lynn Lowry. Scaled back for mainstream audiences (there is no father raping his daughter in this remake), The Crazies is a bare bones horror remake that thankfully doesn’t ask us to switch off our brains to have a spooky good time. You’ll be happy you gave this remake a chance.
The Crazies is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
by Steve Habrat
Zombies go green and embrace the counterculture in the 1974 Spanish/Italian zombie movie Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. With a score that sounds like it should have been in a 50’s science fiction film and a slew of red eyed zombies that predate the ones that showed up in 28 Days Later, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is heavy on the atmospherics and light on zombie hoards. Throughout the course of it’s runtime, we only end up seeing a handful of cannibals that are risen from their eternal sleep by an experimental machine from the Department of Agriculture that supposedly gets rid of destructive insects. Made a few years before Romero unleashed his epic Dawn of the Dead, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie was made when the zombie horror genre was still discovering itself and embraced a smaller scope. Night of the Living Dead had sparked interest and fear of the zombie genre but it wasn’t aware of the terror in large numbers of ghouls. Instead, director Jorge Grau rips a page out of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead playbook and plays up the setting, landscape, our radiation fears, and the proceeds to mold them into a message that warns that if we continue to disrupt and pollute Mother Nature, she will begin fighting back.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie follows antique shop owner George (Played by Ray Lovelock) as he takes a trip from the bustling city of Manchester to the Lake District so he can meet up with some friends to work on a new house. He stops off at a gas station and while he buys a drink, a young woman named Edna (Played by Cristina Galbó) backs her Mini Cooper into his motorcycle and badly damages it. George talks Edna into giving him a ride to meet up with his friends but Edna insists that she needs to get to South Gate and meet up with her drug addicted sister first, then he can take her car and go to meet his friends. The two soon need to stop for directions at a local farm where the Department of Agriculture is experimenting with a machine that rids the soil of destructive insects by causing them to kill each other. Soon, George and Edna have a strange encounter with a red-eyed maniac who tries to attack Edna. The same man shows up at the home of Edna’s sister Katie (Played by Jeannine Mestre) and her photographer husband Martin (Played by José Lifante). The strange man kills Martin and sends George, Edna, and Katie into hysterics over what they witness. A local Inspector (Played by Arthur Kennedy) refuses to believe George and Edna and he is convinced that they are just murderous hippies, even as the zombie numbers are growing across the countryside.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie has fun toying with the fear of the counterculture in the wake of the Manson Family murders, as throughout the film, the conservative Inspector consistently accuses George and Edna of being hippie devil worshippers and any murder that he stumbles across is deemed a demonic slaying. Yet director Grau plays the rest of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie straight, making it’s message of protecting the environment stone faced. There is also the atomic age paranoia in the film, a touch that would have felt familiar in a science fiction film from the 1950’s. Grau, who I’m guessing was a part of the counterculture movement and was eager to defend it in the wake of the Manson Family, sends a plea for us to preserve Mother Nature. Grau doesn’t miss an opportunity to exploit the idyllic and serene beauty of nature, allowing the greens to pop out of the grainy camerawork. He is silently pointing out the beauty we are tarnishing.
For a zombie film, Grau knows that what made Night of the Living Dead so memorable was the unblinking feeding sequences. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie has plenty of the red stuff to go around and a few entrails as a slimy side. It grosses us out when appropriate, but the film also gives us the creeps through the sound effects of the zombies themselves. Whenever a ghoul is near, the film slow builds a pounding drum and a thick wheezing can be heard. It’s music usage and sound effects that are impossible to put into words, but is extremely effective for maximum fear. It gives the film an otherworldly vibe that crosses into the supernatural. The ghouls will pop up, terrorize a character, and then suddenly disappear, making them sometimes seem like ghostly apparitions. Grau further drives this approach by never really showing the zombies wandering the countryside in large numbers. They suddenly stumble into frame, rip someone apart, and fade away.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie does suffer from a few growing pains as the cannibalistic zombie genre was still in its infancy. Grau proves that zombies could be used for more than Cold War fears, even if there is a Cold War panic looming over it with the atomic echoes ricocheting about. The film is slowly paced, something I always acknowledge in my reviews for the people who want the action to begin immediately. This film was slightly before the explosion of action packed and gore drenched zombie films that were made in the wake of Dawn of the Dead. It’s also much more intelligent than the Dawn of the Dead copycats. Surprisingly surreal and nightmarish, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie benefits from strong acting and arresting suspense, but while the pacing is patient, sometimes it is lopsided. Grau’s film has been severely overlooked over the years and he deserves recognition for his early, brainy contribution to the subgenre. In the end, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is well worth your time, especially for the diehard horror community. I’ll leave you with this: Good lucking getting those unnerving wheezes out of your head after you have exposed yourself to this environmentalist nightmare.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is now available on Blu-ray under the title The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.
The Dead (2011)
by Steve Habrat
How I was unaware a zombie film like The Dead snuck out without me knowing about it baffles me. The zombie horror genre has been overshadowed by the recent rise of teen vampires and “found footage” ghost flicks, the only life being found in AMC’s top-notch The Walking Dead. Basically, if you are a fan of George Romero’s original zombie trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead) and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (or basically any Italian ziti zombie film), then you need to rush out right now and pick up The Dead. You are going to be blown away by this thing. Certainly not a perfect movie but featuring an unmatched beauty, The Dead is for those who long for the days of the shuffling ghouls, not the sprinting, shrieking zombies that were made popular by 28 Days Later. For a fan of this kind of stuff, it was a blast to sit back and spot all the references and nods to Romero and Fulci all while directors Jonathan and Howard J. Ford carve out their own zombie classic. In all honesty, I haven’t been this excited about a zombie flick since 28 Days Later.
The Dead picks up in Africa, where the dead have risen from their graves and started feeding on the living. Everyman Lt. Brian Murphy (Played by Rob Freeman) is on the last plane out of Africa and just shortly after getting airborne, the plane plunges from the sky. Washing up on zombie-infested shores, Brian begins making his way through the beautiful landscape that has been desecrated with death, eager to find a way back to his family in America. He soon meets up with Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Played by Prince David Oseia), who is on a quest to find his son after his village is overrun by the creeping ghouls, and together they set out to protect and aid each other in their quest.
The Dead is simple and straight to the point, picking up in all the chaos that is tearing Africa apart. There is no lead in, explanation to be found, or an abundance of characters that we need to get to know. We just have Brian and Daniel, both men who have to set aside differences to band together and protect each other. There is not much said between the two men and when they do speak, it’s mostly because they have to. They reveal bits and pieces about their lives, enough for us to really pull for them when they get corned by a group of shuffling zombies. There has been much to do over the slow moving cannibals but the Ford brothers understand that if you always have at least two zombies in the frame, you’re implying that there isn’t much hope for refuge and salvation. These zombies are fairly basic, a little dirt smudged on their faces, a few wounds, dead eyes, and torn clothes. It adds a chilling layer of realism to The Dead. They make us think back to the original terrors that pounded their way into the farmhouse in 1968. They reminded me of the ghouls who forced their way into the Monroeville Mall in 1978. They were eerily similar to the cannibals who shuffled around the tropical island in 1979.
It may retain a traditional style, but The Dead also packs plenty of smarts to compliment the old fashioned approach. The film presents multiple moral situations that would be gut wrenching to face. The worst one we see is an injured African woman trying to flee a group of zombies who are closing in on her. She calls for help to Brian, who is reluctant to assist her, but his reluctance is tried even further when the woman hands him an infant whose cries attract the zombies. The woman forces Brian to take the child, and then forces him to put his gun to her head and begs him to shoot her. It’s scenes like this that makes The Dead such a force to be reckon with. It also mirrors our unwillingness to help those in need, those who are poverty stricken. It was never easy to watch Brian and Daniel put the ghouls down, especially in a place where disease and conflict are consistently present. Surely controversial and upsetting to some who watch it, The Dead understands that there has to be more than just gore to get under our skin, something that Romero certainly understands.
The Dead doesn’t reinvent the wheel and I didn’t really expect it to. That credit falls on the shoulders of Danny Boyle and 28 Days Later. There are a few moments where continuity issues are glaring and a few editing choices that may make you scratch your head. One scene in particular reeks of a tight budget, which seemed to force the Ford brothers to sacrifice clarity. At times, the acting from Rob Freeman is a bit hammy and a little too macho for a man in his situation. Prince David Oseia out acts Freeman in almost every scene and his character is infinitely more interesting. In a way, I sort of liked Freeman’s old-fashioned macho hero because he reminded me of Peter or Rodger in Dawn of the Dead. The Dead never lets up on the viewer; constantly keeping your stomach twisted in knots and you’ll find yourself keeping an eye out for the two heroes. With Romero grasping at rotten entrails and hitting rock bottom with Survival of the Dead, it’s reassuring–and terrifying–to know that there is a stripped down, straightforward, and smart zombie flick out there to satisfy the zombie fans.
The Dead is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Day of the Dead (2008)
by Steve Habrat
George Romero has publicly complained about Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of his 1978 zombie epic Dawn of the Dead, griping that the filmmakers never really asked for his permission. I wonder if he has seen Steve Miner’s 2008 remake of Day of the Dead, which knocks off Snyder’s Dawn almost every chance it gets while featuring an embarrassing script and zero traces of social commentary, which is what Romero is known for. As brain dead as one of its roaring zombies, Day of the Dead makes a few nods to the original 1985 Romero film, mostly in the character’s names, but the one positive is that it doesn’t attempt to regurgitate the original’s plot frame by frame. Miner basically makes the film look like a heavy metal music video with sets that look like leftovers from the first Resident Evil, flashy cut scenes, shaky camera work, and an all too brief run time. Making matters worse, Miner fills the film with a handful of crappy C-list actors who can’t find work in A-list films and he almost successfully turns the career of Ving Rhames into a rotten joke.
When a strange flu-like virus hits a small Colorado town, the army rushes in to quarantine those who are sick. The quarantine is lead by Captain Rhodes (Played by Ving Rhames, who showed up in Snyder’s Dawn remake), Corporal Sarah Bowman (Played by Mena Suvari), Private Bud Crain (Played by Stark Sands), and Private Salazar (Played by Nick Cannon). Soon, the infection begins taking a drastic turn as those who are infected begin seizing up and bloody wounds start showing up on their faces. After the strange frozen state, the infected begin waking up and turning into acrobatic zombies who can crawl on ceilings, walls, and sprint around like marathon runners. Soon, Rhodes, Sarah, Bud, and Salazar have to locate Sarah’s brother Trevor (Played by Michael Welch) and his girlfriend Nina (Played by AnnaLynne McCord), and uncover what is causing the citizens to turn into flesh hungry cannibals.
Day of the Dead has so many poorly conceived moments; you have to wonder if anyone was paying attention while making it. Screenwriter Jeffery Reddick borrows the aspect that the zombies are much more aware from Romero’s original, but the film applies it in the worst ways imaginable. The zombies posses the ability to leap around at blinding speed, crawl up walls, and leap from floor to ceiling in the blink of an eye. Yet in one scene, Trevor and Nina are fleeing an overrun hospital and find themselves pursued by a hoard of zombies. Trevor and Nina begin pushing wheelchairs, gurneys, and various medical equipment into the middle of the hall to stall their attackers and the zombies keep tripping and falling over it. You would think that zombies that are capable of crawling around like Spider-Man could figure out a way around some debris pushed into their way. Apparently, no one stopped to ponder this flub. Many other questions arise, like why the zombies skin begins to instantly rot away, why the zombies are super zombies, and why are those so aware? Furthermore, why are only some super zombies and others are not?
Day of the Dead also makes the blunder of shedding light on what caused the zombie outbreak and not leaving it a mystery. Part of the fun of the Romero originals is the not knowing where the virus came from. Day of the Dead concludes with some half-assed explanations that are more preposterous than practical. As was pointed out recently by film critic Jason Zinoman in his book Shock Value, the scariest movies lack a clear explanation of the horror that is occurring. Since Reddick and Miner are doing a remake of a Romero film, you would have thought one or the other would have said, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t add the explanation!” At times, the characters discuss an airborne virus and that some people have a natural immunity to it. I suspect that Miner and Reddick watched Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror a few times before they began making this film, as there are more than a handful of striking similarities.
If the film itself isn’t bad enough, Miner’s cast makes things even more excruciating. The lowest point of the film is the inclusion of Nick Cannon, who tries to play a tough guy bully but is the furthest thing from any of those things. He walks around dual wielding 9mms and erupting with rancid one-liners that leave you hoping that his character bites the dust early on. Spoiler Alert: he doesn’t. Suvari’s Sarah is one note and dry, putting no distinctive spin on the tough-as-nails heroine commando. Michael Welch and AnnaLynne McCord as Trevor and Nina are just stereotypical hornball teenagers, Nina only included to add some sex appeal to the film. They are also apparently very skilled at using automatic weapons, something the town’s gun shop is heavily stocked with. There is also the addition of radio D.J. Paul (Played by Ian McNeice), who is an overweight stoner with no purpose in the film whatsoever. Only Rhames and Sands, as Captain Rhodes and Bud, are the high points, giving minor depth to their pale outlines of characters. As hard as they try, they couldn’t save this shitshow.
While watching Day of the Dead 2008, it’s clear as, well, day why the film was straight to DVD. At a skimpy eighty some minutes, the film is simultaneously too long and too short. The film can’t muster up any anticipation or tension. Things just start happening and you just won’t care at all. It fails to produce any scares and Miner can’t even seem to get the jump scare moments right. The effects reek of a limited budget and the make-up on the ghouls doesn’t even compare to what Tom Savini did in 1985. So determined to ride the wave of the zombie craze that was stirred up by 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead ’04, and Shaun of the Dead, Day of the Dead is the lame poser of the group not to mention poorly timed with its release. For someone who is a diehard fan of this stuff like myself, heed my advice and just watch the Romero original instead of exposing yourself to this garbage. Day of the Dead ’08 should have only seen the light of day as it was being discarded into the garbage dump.
Day of the Dead 2008 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Deep Red (1975)
by Steve Habrat
Italian giallo filmmaker Dario Argento is most known for his collaboration with zombie godfather George Romero on 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and for his eccentric 1977 supernatural horror film Suspiria. While Suspiria may be his most popular work, perhaps his best film is Deep Red, a pulpy and off the wall serial killer thriller that packs somersaulting camera work, gallons of bright red blood, and a scene involving a puppet that would make Saw’s Jigsaw wet his britches. Now, you’re probably wondering what the term “giallo” means. Giallo, which is Italian for yellow, was the nickname for any suspense thriller, crime, or mystery tale that tended to be a bit pulpy. This term could refer to any thriller from any country but in Italy, it really took off and the film critic turned filmmaker Dario Argento was one of its frontrunners. The Italian giallos tended to be operatic, extremely gory, loaded with stylish camerawork, and huge amounts of gratuitous sex and nudity. The term refers to pulp novels that began in 1929 and featured distinctive yellow covers.
Deep Red begins with the murder of pretty German psychic medium named Helga Ulmann (Played by Macha Meril) just hours after she picks up the thoughts of a serial killer. Simultaneously, an English pianist named Marcus Daly (Played by David Hemmings) is chatting with his drunken friend Carlo (Played by Gabriele Lavia) outside the apartment where the murder is taking place. Suddenly, Helga’s body smashes through a window and in all the excitement, Marcus dashes up to the apartment to help Helga out. Once inside the apartment, he begins to realize that something is different about the crime scene. Teaming up with a peppy and self-assured photojournalist named Gianna Brezzi (Played by Daria Nicolodi), Marcus begins investigating the murders and attempting to solve what was different about he crime scene. As the investigation continues, the body count begins to rise and Marcus finds himself the target of the mysterious killer with a fetish for dolls and a spine-chilling children’s song.
Unshakably disturbing and unique, Deep Red is Argento at his absolute finest. Everything from Argento’s camera work, to the performance from David Hemmings, to Goblin’s funky score mesh to create something that still stands out today. It’s a special film that seems like something Alfred Hitchcock would have made while he was under the influence of a psychedelic drug. Deep Red also enjoys getting us in on the action and allowing us to play detective along side Marcus. Argento, however gives us one clue that he doesn’t give to Marcus: an eyeball with caked on eyeliner. Because of this tease, I found myself focusing on the eyes of every single character that wore eyeliner from there on out. But Argento is just toying with us and getting amusement out of our detective work. Every time I spotted the thick eyeliner, I would convince myself that I had figured out the identity of the shadowy menace and when the killer is finally revealed, it was the last person I expected it to be. This clue also gives Deep Red a white-knuckle unpredictability. The killer could be anyone and strike at any moment. It generates a colossal amount of dread throughout the course of its runtime. Argento, you clever cat!
Deep Red’s style doesn’t end with its standout score or Argento’s sumptuous touches. He molds the film into a full-blown opera that brings the chandelier down on the viewer. His camera sophisticatedly dances with the death on screen, making us fidget due to his restlessness. When Argento does remain motionless, he springs a creepy doll on us that sent me about three inches off the couch I was sitting on. Argento doesn’t skimp on filling his tracking shots with opulent colors, flamboyant backdrops, echoes of discreet sexuality, and soft melodrama. The finished product is distinctly European with images that belong in a gaudy gold frame.
David Hemming as the protagonist every-man Marcus is another victory for Deep Red. He certainly is the furthest thing from a masculine protagonist! At times, when we really pay close attention to his reactions to the horror playing out around him, he conveys the scared-for-life terror that an average person would in the situations he finds himself in. He was just a man going about his business when his world came crashing in on him (symbolically and literally). At one moment, the killer stalks him in his own apartment and his trepidation makes your arm hair stiffen. He leaps like a flailing madman at his door to slam it shut. Sure that is what most people would do in a situation like that, but his frozen anticipation is what really plays with us. Did he just hear that creak? Is he really hearing that faint music? Is someone really out there in the hallway? It is moments like this that Deep Red flirts with the supernatural. Ghost stories are whispered, superstitions are discussed, and the killers prolonged stalking of their victims are imperceptibly ghost-like in nature.
Deep Red becomes a classic case of style over substance, but this is not to say that the substance isn’t well done. While the plot is bursting with the spirit of Hitchcock and you will find yourself immersed in the whodunit, its Argento’s approach that overshadows the story. The style sticks in your head long after it has ended. But Argento also seems hellbent on playing with the conventions of a masculine hero, one who is bumbling and imperfect trying to operate in a world that is controlled by strong women (get a load of the arm wrestling scene). Baroque, chic, and glamorous, Deep Red is an undisputed classic among horror films from the heyday of the genre. It stands out because it lacks a gritty approach, which was how most directors were approaching the genre at this time. But Deep Red is polished and squeaky clean, then rolled in a whole bunch of glitter and handed a meat cleaver.
Deep Red is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.