by Steve Habrat
These days, it’s nearly impossible to meet someone who isn’t familiar with zombies. The undead are everywhere, devouring pop culture like it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. They have invaded video games, the local Regal Cinemas, Barnes and Noble, and even television sets on Sunday nights. Even my ninety-two year-old grandmother knows what a zombie is! It seems that with each passing day, the rotting ghouls get more and more popular with new movies, books, and video games rolling off the assembly line. If you’ve ever been curious where these cannibalistic ghouls originated, then you should seek out the zippy new documentary Birth of the Living Dead. Tugging us back to 1967, director Rob Kuhns sits down with zombie godfather George A. Romero, who reflects back on the making of his horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. Boasting numerous interviews with film historians, professors, critics, and even a producer of AMC’s The Walking Dead, and filled with electrifying stock footage and animated behind-the-scenes flashbacks, Birth of the Living Dead is an enlightening look back at one of the most beloved horror films of all time.
Birth of the Living Dead tells the story of how aspiring filmmaker George A. Romero went from shooting beer commercials and small segments of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to making Night of the Living Dead, one of the most popular horror films of all time. Inspired by Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend and surrounded by supportive friends and family, Romero and his crew rented out an abandoned farmhouse and got to work creating a new monster that would become just as iconic as Frankenstein, Dracula, and the radioactive beasts of the Atomic Age. In the process, Romero would create a time capsule that captured the anger, confusion, and violence that gripped America in the late 1960s. As Romero reflects back on the making of Night of the Living Dead, a number of guests including independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden, The Walking Dead producer Gale Ann Hurd, Shock Value author Jason Zinoman, film critic Elvis Mitchell, film historian Mark Harris, and film professor Samuel D. Pollard dissect the film and explain why Night of the Living Dead is an essential piece of American independent filmmaking.
If you’re a massive fan of Night of the Living Dead—or George A. Romero—some of the information Birth of the Living Dead presents may not be exactly new or thrilling. There are discussions of the lack of a copyright on the film and the story of how Romero went from making commercials to horror films won’t have fan’s jaws on the floor. It’s stuff you would have heard about on the special features of the Dawn of the Dead DVD or read about in Joe Kane’s book Night of the Living Dead. However, hardcore fans can’t fully dismiss Birth of the Living Dead because the film dares to recreate what it was like behind-the scenes through quirky little animated segments provided by Gary Pullin. We get to see what it might have been like for softie star Duane Jones as he geared up for an especially violent scene here and Romero pouring over strips of film there. It’s pretty nifty, especially when iconic scenes from the film are given the comic book treatment complete with bright red splashes of blood. In addition to the charming cartoons, there is also plenty of jarring stock footage used during the critical analysis portion of the documentary. There are brutal images of the Vietnam War, racial violence, riots, and protests, all held up to images from Night of the Living Dead to effectively drive home the historical importance of Romero’s accomplishment.
What’s especially wonderful of Birth of the Living Dead is the interview with Romero, who seems as laid back as ever. He sits slumped on a couch, lighting up cigarettes, sipping a cup of coffee, and reminiscing about all of those who took a risk on this young college dropout. The camera is tight on Romero’s face, so close at times that you fear it might bump into his giant glasses and knock them off his face. On the Dawn of the Dead DVD, Romero would only mention Night of the Living Dead in passing, but here, he really digs deep. He reveals that he never truly had an agenda with the film, only that he just wanted to use the film to move on to bigger and better things. He wasn’t exactly keen on being labeled a horror director, but its something that he had grown comfortable with over the years. What’s especially interesting is seeing him shrug his shoulders over the lack of a copyright on the film. The glimmer of disappointment is apparent, but that discouragement is quickly masked with a warm smile that says he is just happy that the film has become as popular as it has. My personal favorite moment is when he reflects back on premiering the film at a local drive-in. He mentions grabbing some snacks and settling down to marvel at his achievement. It’s here that you realize why Kuhns has his camera so close—it was to capture the twinkling nostalgia in Romero’s eye.
As far as the rest of the interviewees go, they are all extremely passionate, as these are people who have been lifelong fans of the film and have analyzed it from every angle. They gush, ooze, and beam praise as they explain the film’s importance and what they personally took away from the film. Those who don’t worship at the altar of Romero would be surprised to learn that the film wasn’t initially met with praise from film critics. Initially, Night of the Living Dead was dumped in grindhouses and waved off by American critics as just another B-horror movie, but European film critics saw the film differently, encouraging those who had already reviewed the film to give it a closer analysis. It’s also very fun to hear stories from moviegoers who remember seeing the film when it was first released and being scared out of their minds by it. The gritty realism, the graphic gore, and the bleak ending shook up many moviegoers and sent horror-loving children away in tears. There is also a misty-eyed tribute to Bill Hinzman, the original “graveyard zombie” who has become one of the most adored zombies from Romero’s Dead series. Overall, if you’ve ever seen Night of the Living Dead and taken it at face value, you owe it to yourself to check out Birth of the Living Dead. It’s a captivating look at a tense time in America, and it acts as a glowing love letter to a tiny little midnight movie that created arguably the most popular horror subgenre.
by Steve Habrat
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.
by Steve Habrat
During the heyday of slasher horror flicks, when Freddy, Jason, and Michael roamed movie theaters slashing the throats of helpless, horny teens everywhere, the 1981 gem The Prowler was overlooked and lost in the sea of exploitation imitators. It is a shame because The Prowler is far scarier and better than any given Freddy or Jason romp. Sure, its premise of a crazed WWII veteran who received a “Dear John” letter during a tour of duty and then goes on a killing spree when he returns home is the stuff exploitation films dream of, but it is actually an invigorating direction with a killer introduction and some seriously wicked gore effects by FX wizard Tom Savini. If you consider yourself a fan of the horror genre in anyway, you need to get your claws on The Prowler. You are in for a real treat.
The Prowler begins with a vintage newsreel that shows soldiers returning home aboard a boat called the Queen Mary. A voiceover declares that while the homecoming is a happy event, some of the soldiers returned depressed and heartbroken from receiving a “Dear John” letter from their beloveds on American shores. The film then bounces to the 1945 graduation dance in Avalon Bay where Rosemary (Played by Joy Glaccum), who recently sent her boyfriend a “Dear John” letter, arrives with her new boyfriend Roy (Played by Timothy Wahrer). The two slip away to a secluded gazebo where they begin necking. Suddenly, the power is cut in the gazebo and the lovers find themselves brutally slain by a killer in unnerving combat gear. The film speeds ahead 35 years and finds Avalon Bay setting up for the same graduation dance. Despite the fear that the murderer may return, Sheriff George Fraser (Played by Farley Granger) departs on a fishing trip and leaves his steadfast deputy Mark London (Played by Christopher Goutman) in charge. As the dance gets underway, the combat clad murderer descends on the dance and begins racking up a body count. With the help of his crush Pam (Played by Vicky Dawson), Mark desperately tries to figure out who this prowler is before any more innocent victims meet their demise.
Director Joseph Zito makes a mature and atmospheric hack-and-slash romp that isn’t as concerned with how many naked girls he can squeeze into his runtime. Sure, there is the gratuitous nude scene but he practices infinite amounts of self-control, focusing more on delivering a proficiently made whodunit complete with a nod to the Psycho shower sequence. Yes, The Prowler holds the conservative mentality of all eighties slasher movies that, yes, if you have sex, plan on having sex, or fool around in any way, you will find yourself gutted by a pitchfork wielding nut job. But maybe it was the expert acting (the young cast is surprisingly strong for a film that seems to have been made on a shoestring budget), a creepy killer, and shifts into extremely gruesome violence that keep The Prowler afloat.
Zito also stages a well-rehearsed chase sequence to finish off the film, a climax that gives way to two major twists, one including the shocking reveal of the combat clad prowler. Gore guru Savini also lets loose and fills the screen with splashes of blood from sawed off shotgun blasts, bayonets to the throat, a pitchfork sealing two embraced lovers in each other’s arms for good, and an exploding head. I guess blowing one head up in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead didn’t quench that thirst. And how about that killer? A faceless killer who rivals Michael in the boogeyman department when he has his mask on! In a way, it is a disappointment when we do discover who the killer is because it removes some of the fear that this could be anyone causing the chaos. In the recent horror film book Shock Value, critic and author Jason Zinoman argues that once events are explained and there is a meaning given to the horror on the screen, the film looses its fear factor. In a slight defense of The Prowler’s reveal, once you process it, it is actually quite chilling that this person could be the one responsible for it. Either way, the reveal is a blessing and a curse.
The Prowler does have some moments where it takes a big bite of cheese. A scene right before the big reveal has to be one of the most gauche and uncomfortable scenes to watch. Zito must have been having an off day when he shot and edited the scene together. The scene features two characters staring at each other with smiles on their faces. They must have forgotten that there is a person who has just been blown away by a sawed off shotgun lying right next to them. I know that I would either be in hysterics or sick to my stomach from the grizzly scene. There is also an agonizingly slow scene where the killer flings his pitchfork around a room in search of Pam. Either the killer is enjoying dragging his work out or Zito was desperate to drag the runtime of the film out.
The good outweighs the bad in The Prowler and the result is a creepy exercise in boogeyman slash. It may be no deeper than the pool one victim meets their demise in and the beginning may be depressing, but The Prowler is high art compared to some of the installments in the Freddy and Jason franchises of that came out around the same time. If one were to watch it in the dark by themselves, this would make for a pretty good freak-out. I wish the film would get a bit more recognition than it does, as Zito has made more of a rewarding mystery than a teen fright movie. At the time, the film must have been a godsend of an option to Friday the 13th Part II or My Bloody Valentine, two slasher films that were doing their best to ruin the subgenre that same year. Love it or hate it, The Prowler puts a unique spin on a genre where the knives have long since rusted over. Pray that Hollywood never discovers it and remakes it.
The Prowler is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Around Halloween, if one was unsure what horror film or films to make the hairs on their arm stand at attention, you can find many in the John Carpenter department. In 1978, Carpenter crafted the classic serial killer flick with Halloween, which spawned several god-awful imitations and limp sequels. In 1980, he spooked us with his campfire ghost tale The Fog, a favorite of mine come Halloween with its disfigured ghost zombies and its ominous atmosphere. In 1982, he delivered The Thing, a heart pounding science fiction horror film that features some truly hideous make-up and puppet effects that have yet to be topped. They fill us to the brink with pure fear and it has one of the most memorable heroes aside from Ripley in Alien: MacReady. Carpenter heavily relies on atmosphere in his horror films, making the environment just as much of a character as Laurie Strode, Stevie Wayne, and MacReady. Whether it’s the stillness of Haddonfield, the looming evil in the small town of Antonio Bay, or the howling winds and whipping snow in Antarctica, these films could scare you without their otherworldly monsters lurking in the shadows. The Thing makes the best use of environment, making the bone freezing chill in the air just as deadly as the enigmatic alien copying it’s prey and becoming almost indistinguishable copies of the paranoid researchers who are slowly turning on each other.
I still believe that Halloween is Carpenter’s masterpiece, the ultimate slasher flick and also one of his most thought provoking films. The Thing, however, is an exercise in how to scare the living hell out of an innocent viewer. From the start, this film is disorienting, gloomy, and isolated, lacking even the slightest bit of hope that help could swoop in at any given moment and save the group of scientists. The way the film springs it’s infected antagonists on the viewer makes every frame an unpredictable nightmare and cloaks us in mistrust. But what really puts The Thing in another world completely is the jaw dropping make-up and puppets that leap out at us and make our skin crawl off the bone and hide under the couch we sit on to watch it. There is some disturbing imagery in this film, steeped more in gore than Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter has a way with monsters and I wish he would grace the silver screen again with another horror film. We need another reason to be afraid of the dark.
Set in the secluded Arctic, a group of American researchers witness a bizarre event when a Norwegian helicopter shows up on the premises tracking a fleeing dog. The helicopter has a sniper on board firing at the dog, desperately trying to kill it. After a freak accident, the helicopter crashes in the American outpost, leaving one American wounded by a stray bullet. Pilot R.J. MacReady (Played by the ultimate cinematic badass Kurt Russell) and Dr. Blair (Played by Wilford Brimley) venture out to find the Norwegian research camp, only to find the camp in ruin and all the foreign researchers dead. The evidence at the foreign camp hints at the discovery of extraterrestrial life, a deadly organism that copies it’s prey and imitates them. After returning to the American outpost with a charred alien body, paranoia grips the group with the researchers turning on each other. After a string of horrifying discoveries and the alien showing it’s repugnant face, the group finds themselves trying to protect themselves from the alien and each other.
Isolation is key in any great horror film, a touch that shakes the viewer up and fries the nerves. There is no hope in this story and things will end badly. THAT is what scares most people. Look at Night of the Living Dead, a film that boasts a remote setting and the threat that no one will help the desperate survivors locked in that iconic farmhouse. I’d compare The Thing to Night of the Living Dead in that regard, along with its jumpy Cold War paranoia. Furthermore, the uninfected men are just as dangerous as the ones who are being mimicked. The isolation, however, is what really makes this film a keeper. Carpenter really gets under our skin by driving the point home that these men are alone. Every time they venture out into the cold and snow, there is an unsettling dread that washes over us. And what if one gets trapped outside? The conditions outside are just as deadly as the ones lurking in the hallways and rec rooms. Carpenter hits us with two monsters, a natural one and an alien one. As their numbers slowly trickle down, you may start to consider getting up and hitting the pause button just to have a moment to calm yourself down.
There are two other reasons The Thing is a horror masterwork even though it was a bomb upon its initial release. Kurt Russell’s MacReady is a classic movie hero and the monster effects that are downright staggering. You can always count on Russell to be an ultimate hardass in any movie that announces his presence. The man is Snake Plissken! Yet I like MacReady for his resourcefulness and his bursts of sarcasm. He will always be standing proud in my mind, armed with dynamite and a flamethrower, looking the roaring beast in the face and after the roaring ends and the growls begin, dryly yelling “Yeah?! Well fuck you too!” and sending a lit stick of dynamite right at the alien. His reassured buoyancy in himself that he is not infected is also positively noted by this movie fan and this lets him sit securely on the great protagonists list. His antagonist is also beyond belief, a true beast from Hell that looks like Satan himself created it. Making awful howling noises and gurgling growls, severed heads sprout legs and walk off, stomachs open up and rip off arms, heads split open and turn into fang riddled jaws, and dogs grow tentacles and morph into towering juggernauts. Some of it really has to be seen to get a good mental image. It’s that rare film where the more you see; the more it leaves you looking like a heap of shivering jelly. It keeps topping itself, only finding competition with that other legendary extraterrestrial horror in Alien.
A nice break from the ghoulies, ghosts, classic movie monsters, zombies, vampires, and slashers, The Thing is a good Halloween freak out. It’s twisting halls forebodingly lit, it’s monsters constantly up to the challenge to leap out and genuinely scare the life out of you, and with a final showdown that only Carpenter himself could pull off, there is a reason this film has evolved into a massive fan favorite in the horror genre. More horror than actual science fiction, The Thing is perfect for Halloween simply because, much like the Halloween season, it’s dependent on the atmosphere. Lacking a clear explanation about the beast (Jason Zinoman would be proud!) and shrouded in mystery, The Thing is a modern classic in monster horror, coming from the studio that knows monsters—Universal Studios. The Thing is a flawless achievement featuring one of the greatest one-liners in movie history. Grade: A