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Birth of the Living Dead (2013)

Birth of the Living Dead #1

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.

Birth of the Living Dead #2

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.

Grade: A

Mondo cane (1962)

Mondo cane (1962)

by Steve Habrat

By far one of the most bizarre and disturbing grindhouse films you will ever see is Mondo cane (A Dog’s Life), an exploitative “shockumentary” that spans the globe and brings you some of the most bizarre rituals and customs from all walks of life. In spurts, Mondo cane is jaw dropping, funny, appalling, and mesmerizing in the way it constantly flips on the viewer. Made in 1962 by Gualtiero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara, and Franco Prosperi, Mondo cane sparked a whole subgenre of Mondo documentaries whose main purpose was to exploit death, sex, and taboos at all costs, sometimes even going so far as to stage what you are seeing. Mondo cane is also the film that inspired the infamous Faces of Death documentary, which claimed to feature real footage of people biting the dust (only bits and pieces of Faces of Death were real, the rest was staged.). Unlike most documentaries that strive to educate the viewer, Mondo cane is simply interested in making you squirm, all while a leering Narrator sarcastically explains and dissects what the viewer is looking at. One thing is certain; you won’t come away from Mondo cane a better person consumed by thought, just a little sickened and shaken up.

Mondo cane is comprised of several seemingly unrelated sequences of oddities from around the world. In this hour and forty-minute trip, the filmmakers invite you to spend time with a “cargo cult” at Port Moresby, New Guinea, take in the nuclear contamination on Bikini Atoll, sip a few drinks in a rowdy German beer hall, step into a death house in Singapore, witness a Hula Dance in Honolulu, stop by a Good Friday procession that finds the male participants beating their bare legs with broken glass in Italy, and watch the beheadings of bulls in Nepal. Some of the sights are comical and some are guaranteed to stick with you the rest of your life, but it is truly a journey unlike any other.

As Mondo cane flows along, it becomes increasingly clear what the filmmakers are trying to convey to the viewer. The world can be a sick, depraved, brutal, unforgiving, and downright confounding place to live. The viewer is invited by the Narrator (Stefano Sibaldi) to look down upon the sights you are seeing (at times, literally look down), almost with repugnance and amusement as Riz Ortolani and Nino Oliviero’s dreamy score hums in the background. Even though we never see the Narrator, you can just visualize him sitting atop a swanky tower, dressed in a tuxedo, and sipping a martini as he chuckles over manhunting in New Guinea and swallows back his lunch as pigs are mercilessly slaughter by a primitive tribe for a big feast. The filmmakers slyly edit the sequences of primitive tribes beating and killing animals with footage of a flashy American pet cemetery, where the camera lingers on the tears of a woman burying her four legged companion, and geese being force fed for foi gras in France. According to Jacopetti, Cavara, and Properi, we are the true brute savages built for their own queasy entertainment.

Mondo cane (1962)

As far as deep analysis goes, that is about all I can come up with for Mondo cane. It quickly becomes clear that the film is in love with irony (women go to a gym to loose weight in America while tribeswomen are force fed so they can marry the dictator of a tribe) and it gets even bigger kicks out of peering upon death and suffering. The exploration of the Death House in Singapore, a place where the homeless and elderly are left to live out their final hours, is every bit as disturbing as it sounds. Another shock comes when Gurkha soldiers behead bulls with one swipe of a machete, all while the camera pans down to capture the flowing gore at their feet. You will also cover your eyes as the religious men in Italy beat their legs to a bloody pulp for the Good Friday procession. Perhaps worst of all is seeing a man be gored nearly to death by a bull in Portugal, the camera just staying on the scene long enough to see a few people run out and clear the body from the street. The filmmakers have the good sense to not linger too long on the human death but they sure do make up for it with how much animal cruelty they show to the viewer. Dogs are killed and boiled, pigs are beaten with large clubs, sharks have sea urchins shoved down their throats, and snakes have their skin ripped off. It is almost a relief (but honestly no less humane) when we get to Italy and we see chicks being dyed pastel colors for Easter.

There certainly is a playful side to Mondo cane but even these scenes have a vaguely mean-spirited and perverse echo to them. The scenes in the German beer hall are comical but also pathetic as people stumble home, urinate in the street, vomit, and get into nasty fistfights. Another lighter moment comes when we arrive in Sydney, Australia, for a Life Saver Girls competition, where beautiful swimsuit clad women “save” male swimmers, drag them to the beach, and give them CPR, all while the camera pans down to the male’s crotch. You get the impression that some of the perversion comes from the deeply troubled Jacopetti, who was more than familiar with perverted scandals at the time, even landing in a Hong Kong jail for three months after he was caught with two underage Chinese prostitutes, ages 10 and 11. While this sinister perversion is merely hinted at in Mondo cane, it would come to a head in future installments of the Mondo series. If you can believe it, Riz Orolani and Nino Oliviero’s theme song for the film, “Home,” managed to earn an Academy Award nomination. Overall, Mondo cane was immensely popular when it came out and it certainly caused quite a stir when it hit theaters. Looking at it today, the film lacks profundity, which severely wounds it, but it still manages to pack a punch and, in true grindhouse fashion, will make you feel a bit sleazy while watching it. This is an essential film for exploitation fans and a pass for anyone else.

Grade: C+

Mondo cane is available on DVD.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)

by Corinne Rizzo

According to Conan O’ Brien, there are seven steps in mourning the loss of one’s own television show. The first step, according to O’ Brien, is denial. The seventh step is Cleveland.

This is the type of dark humor that surrounds Conan O’ Brien when the bright lights are dimmed and the freckle concealing foundation comes off during Can’t Stop. The film opens with a plethora of charts and graphs that chronicle O’ Brien through the steps which lead to his public dissent, losing out to Leno once again, leaving him without a show. And then a man who was once clean shaven with a proper pompadour appears fully bearded, freckles gleaming and slightly more real than he had ever appeared on television. Slightly more tired, slightly more dragged through the mud, slightly more human.  An underdog if there ever was one. A subculture super hero.

From the beginning O’ Brien describes his feelings toward the discontinuation of his show as anger filled, which sets a cumbersome tone that could potentially make a viewer uneasy. This guy that headed a late night revolution rooted in comic relief appears to have been brought to his knees, though the more somber moments throughout the film are balanced with random clips reminiscent of what fans of O’ Brien’s love about him: getting into costume, dancing an improvised jig or singing a song laden with parodied lyrics. O’Brien does an excellent job of balancing the severity of the situation he’s been left with and the undying passion for getting a response out of people.

Bound by contract to not appear on television for six months after a settlement he received from NBC, O’ Brien almost instantly began to develop ideas for a tour. Technically, the idea for the tour came before the ideas for the actual show itself. After building a team of support to get the show on the road, the film follows the team as tickets for the show sell out in hours leaving heaps of pressure on O’ Brien and the people he has to pay to get this show out of his system.

The entire process is approached in a very similar fashion to creating a sitcom or variety show. A team of writers agree on a set of ideas, they pitch the ideas to people who can produce the show, then scramble to come up with enough material to fill a live variety show. The film shows this scramble through tireless casting sessions and brainstorming sessions where it becomes evident that O’ Brien isn’t just trying to make the best out of a situation. Instead a savant is depicted, showing a constant, unrelenting attention to entertainment.

The time lapse from brainstorm to stage takes little to no time as the first show opens, sold out, in Eugene, Oregon. This is the first peek the viewer has to the Legally Prohibited to Appear on Television Tour and it is filled with lights and music and comedy skits and most importantly, with the full beard intact, a lean, well tailored suit.

As the first show comes to an end, O’ Brien, hunched over and unkempt slinks warily down the stage door steps, sits down and with exasperation comes to the conclusion that he might need to tone down the excitement. At forty eight years old, O Brien, leaping and bounding across the stage, gives it all he’s got, but it’s clear he is no rock star. He is hard working and grateful for his fans. With the close of the first show comes no excitement, no high fives of glory. The first run is a trial run in a writer’s mind and fifty three rewrites are just around the corner.

As the documentation continues fans of O’Brien make it on camera. Some say weird things, some can’t compose themselves enough to say anything that makes sense and some are famous. Among those that O’Brien pairs up with are Eddy Vedder (Pearl Jam), Jack White (White Stripes) and Andy Richter ( of early O’ Brien fame).

Richter’s role in the documentary is overtly defined as he seems to appear during pinnacle moments in which O’ Brien really seems to struggle. When O’ Brien is tired or frustrated or disappointed or feeling too close to feeling sorry for himself, Richter seems to be the only cure to O’ Brien’s brief reality checks, which almost stop him from performing altogether.

O’ Brien hits the stage night after night responding to the audience as if their applause makes it all worth while and one can’t help but wonder why one man would put out so much energy, night after night. But the more the story unfolds the easier it is to see that O’ Brien, as he says, is like Tinkerbell. The more you applaud, the more he responds. And that exact sentiment carries through the entire documentary.

During down time between shows or during small post show interviews or even just sitting at home with his wife, the viewer sees O’ Brien in his everyday life and he is just as witty and on point off camera as he is on television. A scene where he mockingly scolds a writer for interrupting him saying “When Mozart is playing his 9th, you don’t jump in his lap and play chopsticks,” or when he becomes distracted by his wife in the kitchen behind him continually creaks open the door of the dishwasher,he hollers “Are you goin’ to grease that thing?”  It’s obvious feels at home in front of the camera and understands every inflection and expression can be used to reach his audience and O’ Brien doesn’t take it for granted once.

He even captivates the people who work with him. His assistant Sona clearly adores him and every writing session involves someone crying from laughter. But it’s just his natural inclination to take advantage of every opportunity he gets to make his audience laugh that produces an emotional connection with this late night icon. Toward the end of the film Conan expresses that the live show that he has produced was “themost satisfying thing” he had ever done in show business, but he also confides that he couldn’t possibly do it forever. Which is about where the documentary leaves off.

The red operating light on a camera flickers and the bright lights are full on. A gun metal grey, fitted suit strolls out onto a hardwood stage and stops where he is marked to stop in order to deliver his monologue.Director Rodman Flender (Party of Five, Ugly Betty) successfully connects us with a man we’ve all dozed off watching and shows us that while nice guys might finish last, obsessive and compulsive entertainers will always finish first in show. Grade: B