by Steve Habrat
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead did not strictly send the United States alone into a frenzy over zombie horror. Italy had also taken notice and they drooled over the ultra-gory horror flicks to the point where they went to great lengths to emulate the master’s formula and success. While many of these zombie films made in Italy from 1979 through the mid 1980’s were extremely poor in the quality department, there are still a handful of them that are reputable. They even have a rare scare or three to be found among the senseless nudity, exploitation, extreme violence, and wantonness. The best Italian zombie movie is without question Lucio Fulci’s 1979 fire starter Zombie, which is one of the goriest movie I have ever seen next to 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, and Hell of the Living Dead. It’s also not the level of awfulness that is 1980’s Zombie Holocaust, which used leftover sets and footage from Fulci’s tropical island nightmare. Zombie is the true embodiment of a grind house picture, inspiring Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, which was loaded with nods to the original film. Shock rocker Rob Zombie also borrows the opening visuals of his concert from this film’s legendary trailer, which you can watch below this review. Many filmmakers have expressed affection for this film and remains one of the most talked about cult classics of all time. Not a great film, Zombie proves to be shockingly entertaining and influential.
Perhaps the most original of all Italian zombie flicks that were sent over from Italy with love, it was it’s own movie from beginning to end. Most of these other zombie films borrowed music from other zombie films (Hell of the Living Dead borrows music from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), actual scenes (Zombie Holocaust), and even smashing together the jungle cannibal flicks (Cannibal Holocaust) with zombie films, making for some strange exploitation concoctions. I love these films, the most unusual that I have seen is without question Burial Grounds, a film that is another cult icon, one that is not sold widely and still is a movie that must be obtained under the table. I found my copy in a record exchange, the guy who sold it to me oozing with delight that a fan of these types of gorehound horror films was in his shop and even showing me other exploitation films I should own like the controversial 1976 film Snuff, a film that many people still argue features real death caught on camera. He practically reached over the counter to hug me when I told him I owned the two-disc DVD set of Cannibal Holocaust. I meet some strange individuals seeking out films like this and I love it. But Zombie is the true freak show of the group because it’s actually good!
The plot of Zombie is basically irrelevant, there only to guide us through disgusting peepshows of zombie feeding sequences, death scenes, and piss-poor excuses for two of the handful of actresses in the film to get naked. The film begins with an abandoned yacht floating into the New York City harbor, on board a handful of zombies, which immediately attack the police officers sent aboard to explore the boat. It turns out that the boat belongs to a scientist currently residing in the Antilles. A journalist named Peter (Played by Ian McCulloch) and the scientist’s daughter Anne (Played by Tisa Farrow) team up with another couple, ethnologist Brian (Played by Al Cliver) and his all-to-egar-to-get-nude explorer girlfriend Susan (Played by Auretta Gay). Once they reach the tropical island, they discover that it has been overrun with the walking dead who are seeking the flesh of the living. The group tries to round up Anne’s father and escape with their lives before they meet their demise.
The plotline is one-dimensional and shamefully foreseeable, but it’s the effects execution that makes this film a true gross-out classic. The film was advertised as coming equipped with bar bags for audience members and while watching it; it’s easy to see why those with sensitive stomachs would be running for the bathroom. Zombie does have its fair share of tense moments, which makes it better than the average Italian zombie flick. The climatic siege on a church can run with the attacks on the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead. Even at its crudest moments, like the looping of one particular scene, it still manages to be inescapably claustrophobic. Another inspired scene is an underwater attack by a zombie that ends with a zombie battling a shark. The cinematography is incisive, the choreography smooth, the editing tight, the vivacious electronic score just right, and the scares pitch perfect. It truly is an essential horror movie moment. Perhaps Romero saw the scene and was inspired for later installments (Land of the Dead) in his Dead series. The shots of abandoned villages are also hair-raising, showing wobbly villages caught in windstorms and billowing dust, rotting zombies staggering through the dirt streets. It’s probably some of the most handsome shots in any exploitation horror film.
This is not a film you see for the acting. You see it for certain moments and for how detailed the make-up and gore is. A scene with reanimated Spanish conquistadors is truly grotesque. The ghouls have worms falling out of their eye sockets, crooked rotting teeth darting at jugulars and ripping skin from throats. The ghouls are covered from head to toe in dirt and filth, blood pouring from gaping wounds. The dispatching of one zombie ends with a cracked skull and jellied brains pouring from it’s broken head. Another scene finds the scientists gorgeous wife getting snatched by a zombie and having her eye gouged out by a giant piece of splintered wood. It has to rank as one of the most unforgettable death sequences ever caught on film. It’s appalling. But Zombie doesn’t stop there. Our group of protagonists force their way into the scientist’s house only to discover a handful of hungry ghouls picking at her shredded corpse, with enough flowing blood and gooey guts to satisfy a hundred Romero zombie films.
Zombie is an experience. That I can say confidently. It’s not all that intelligent and it opts for style every chance it gets. It inspired countless other amateur Italian directors to take a stab at the zombie film. It’s extraordinary ghouls were the blueprint for films like Burial Grounds. The most vivid of all the ziti zombie offerings, it’s flawed (the end scene is absolutely hilarious, proving the budget on this film was not a large sum of cash), but somehow it adds to its allure. It’s not for everyone and I heavily warn those who seek it out. It’s brutal and relentlessly violent. The poor performances and extreme overacting will soften the blow, making the film go down easier for those who have trouble with it. One of my personal favorites around Halloween and a nice break from the complex Romero films, Zombie remains a cult icon. It will have you watching from between the cracked fingers covering your eyes and you may not want to eat anything red for a while after watching it, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a blemished masterpiece. Grade: B+
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
by Steve Habrat
You almost never come across a list of the scariest films ever made that doesn’t contain George A. Romero’s 1968 claustrophobic skin-crawler Night of the Living Dead. To this very day, the film still manages to be a Halloween night tradition that sends it’s first-time viewers away unnerved and scarred for life. Much has been written on the horror classic and every critic that is armed with a laptop has analyzed it to death. There is not a frame of this classic film that hasn’t been combed over. Perhaps it was seeing this film for myself (along with the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead) that made me realize that there was quite a bit more going on in movies than meets the casual viewers eye. The film created quite a stir over its stanch, stationary scenes of gore and it’s is-this-really-happening? authenticity. To this day, it still is widely discussed and it is the Dr. Frankenstein to the Ziti Zombie films that started rising from their graves over in Italy (famed Italian film critic turned horror auteur Dario Argento reportedly loved this film). While there is some fun to be had at the Ziti Zombie buffet, they mostly descend into gory guilty pleasures which features dim characters, gratuitous nudity, and enough entrails to please the most bloodthirsty gore hound (I personally love the Ziti Zombie offerings, especially films like Burial Grounds, Zombie, and Hell of the Living Dead). Yet Night of the Living Dead’s violence is just understated enough and is more disquieting in black and white. This film’s use of black and white elevates it from minor to mighty. It shifts it from campy to coarse. It’s borderline too real for words. It resembles a newsreel that has been stored away in a dark, damp basement, away from the public’s eye. You feel as if we weren’t meant to see this film.
While I could just repeat what almost everyone knows about this film—how it evoked the images of Vietnam that ran across television nightly, the controversial casting of an African-American in the starring role, the Cold War comparisons, etc, I could instead explain to you why the film scares me. Why it grabbed me at an early age and never let me go. It scares me because it feels realistic, it’s in black and white, it’s claustrophobic, it never slows down, and it leaves more to the imagination than makes this viewer comfortable. This is quite an intricate film for the uninitiated. There’s the reason to see it because, yes, it is immensely entertaining and is quintessential for any horror fan. And yes, the gore is extreme and comes to a head in the form of a young girl eating her poor father’s arm off. I feel as though everyone who sees Night of the Living Dead is spooked by it for different reasons. It could play on the what-would-I-do-in-that-situation? or the planting of the idea that when the chips are down, the worst in people will come out.
The number one quality that has made Night of the Living Dead endear after all these years is it’s aesthetic. Due to the lack of a large price tag, the film, which boasts granular camera work, feels voyeuristic. The whole time, you feel as if you are a fly on the wall watching this group fight for their lives. Even the rag tag group the story follows feel like real individuals. You have levelheaded Ben (Played by Duane Jones, his head help high), the dazed Barbara (Played by Judith O’Dea), snappy Harry and fretful mother Helen Cooper (Played by Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), the Cooper’s daughter Karen (Played by the iconic Kyra Schon), and boyfriend and girlfriend Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). The lack of a prolific star within the film and the fact that the faces of these thespians look strikingly ordinary, add to Romero’s obtained authenticity and nightmarish vision. They look like people we could bump into on the street. Most empathetic is Barbara, who viciously looses her teasing brother Johnny (Played by Russell Streiner, who gets the film’s best line—“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”). Romero never allows her to grieve her loss. She instead has to fight for her life against a staggering zombie in a chilling graveyard sequence. Whenever she does get a moment to catch her breath, she is reduced to hysterics. It never once feels silly and its stone-faced tone always feels like what would really happen if a disaster of this magnitude ever occurred.
Night of the Living Dead feels like a film you would find locked inside a chest in the basement of a sinister log cabin in the woods. The black and white helps conceal the cheap make-up effects and makes the gore seem all the more gruesome. Near the beginning of the film, Barbara stumbles upon a ripped-to-shreds corpse that looks a bit slapdash. It makes the zombie make-up more disturbing (Is that decay or a fresh wound?) and terror inducing. It also adds to the setting and the use of the darkness. Some shots of the film would make the German Expressionists crazy with envy. A shot at the end of the film is shrouded in shadows and turns an already ominous shot of Karen munching on her zombified father’s arm all the more horrific and otherworldly as Karen’s white dress contrasts with the black shadows (the power has been knocked out) around her. Her pale white face smeared with blood, she lunges out of the darkness, as Ben, also hidden in the shadows with a shotgun (his world has been consumed by darkness), readies himself to dispatch the ghoul. It makes our blood turn to ice. It also sends shivers when Karen dispatches her mother, shown only to us in shadows (In cinema heaven, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the director of Vampyr, was beaming when this scene played for the first time) on the basement wall that is also being spraying with her blood. It’s effervescent, redolent (old fashioned horror meets the bloody new school of the genre), and unforgettable.
The film also acts as a merciless adrenaline rush as it speeds by you. You barely have time to catch your breath in between the zombie attacks. They smash through windows and grab at Ben and Barbara, the lunge across the lawn, smash car lights, and pull their victims into their countless hungry hoards. What makes this agonizing and frightening is the fact that there is nowhere for anyone to go. Do we stay on the first floor or retreat to the cellar and barricade the door? The battle stews the entire film and I won’t reveal what is decided upon in the last blood soaked act, but it’s a doozy. Once the zombies get wise to the fact that there are survivors in that seemingly abandoned farmhouse, the action is cranked up full blast by Romero. The rush of action and the claustrophobia act hand and hand. You almost feel yourself losing your mind along with the panic-stricken Barbara. You may feel distressed when a fistfight between the survivors breaks out. You will feel your stomach drop when Ben gets locked outside the house and a group of growling ghouls closes in on him. The film is emotionally draining from its cramped setting and aggressive action sequences. It’s borderline paralyzing.
Night of the Living Dead is a film that also instills fear in us through its lack of a clear, rational explanation for the events at hand. We, as a society, always need an answer. Whenever there is a catastrophic event, our first question is “Why?” We need to drive home some form of ease because the unknown is something that we simply cannot grasp. The film generates real panic because the survivors trapped in the farmhouse have no clear elucidation for why the dead are returning to life. Even the revelation of the cannibalistic tendencies of these monsters comes at the survivors and the viewer as a curveball thrown by the devil himself. It’s just too much to bear. Barbara is already a character that is reduced to blubbering hysterics and shock and Cooper is already defensive and on the prowl for a fight. The idea of not knowing brings out the worst in people, even when they should be sticking together and attempting to device a plan to stay alive. Romero suggests that the unknown will ultimately be our collapse, another dour touch to a film that is already grim enough by the story alone.
Night of the Living Dead has shuffled on through the years, lived through multiple remakes and a senseless color version that looks like it was filled in with pastel crayons. No other film has ever or will ever be as long lasting as the original. No one will ever capture the trepidation that runs rampant through the film, the pessimistic tone, or the resentment that flows from it. No one can clock in a performance like Duane Jones did way back when. The despondency, the growing frustration, and the ultimate defeat will live on in the cinema history books from now until eternity. No film has ever and will ever be as era defining as Night of the Living Dead is. It truly is one of a kind and influential beyond words. A classic horror film that will continue to be passed down, all we can do is thank Romero for it. This is the granddaddy of zombie films and should be revered as one of the scariest films ever made. Grade: A+