Night of the Living Dead (1968)


They're coming to get you, Barbara!

They’re coming to get you, Barbara!

(1968) Horror Action (Walter Reade Organization) Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Charles Craig, Bill Hinzman, George Kosana, Russell Streiner, Frank Doak, Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, A.C. McDonald, Samuel R. Solito, Mark Ricci, Lee Hartman, Jack Givens, Paula Richards, Vince Suvinski. Directed by George A. Romero

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Less is often more, particularly when it comes to excellent filmmaking. In fact, in the world of independent films, less is often all you get. For some classic films, that turns out to be serendipity of the most wonderful kind.

Barbara (O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Streiner) are at the cemetery one somewhat chilly spring day to visit their father’s grave on the anniversary of his death. Barbara is a bit discomfited and Johnny teases her that “they’re coming to get you Barbara” in a not-bad Boris Karloff impression. Then indeed, they are coming to get her as a reanimated corpse (Hinzman) attacks her. Johnny saves her but accidentally falls during the struggle, hits his head on a gravestone and is instantly killed.

Panicking, Barbara runs to an old farm house with a gas pump outside it. She is followed by dozens of the ghouls (the word “zombies” is never uttered during the film) and runs inside, only to find a woman’s mangled corpse. Once again panicking, she runs outside only to be stopped by Ben (Jones) who pulls up in his car which is running out of gas. He ushers her back inside and fights the walking dead off, barricading the doors and windows.

In the cellar they find Harry (Hardman) and Helen (Eastman) Cooper and their daughter Karen (Schon). They are hiding there after their car was overturned by a horde of the undead. Karen is gravely ill, having been bitten on the arm by one of them. Also in the cellar is teenage couple Tom (Wayne) and Judy (Ridley) who sought shelter after hearing an Emergency Broadcast urging people to get inside.

Immediately a struggle for power ensues between Ben and Harry. Harry wants everyone in the cellar but Ben knows it’s a deathtrap – there’s only one way in or out and once down there, they are committed to a last stand. The group hears reports of an infestation of the dead rising throughout the eastern half of the United States. Shelters have been set up throughout the state of Pennsylvania in the greater Pittsburgh area. Tom and Ben know their only chance is to get to one but Ben’s truck doesn’t have enough gas to make it. Meanwhile the dead outside have grown into a horde surrounding the farmhouse.

This is as DIY a movie as you are ever likely to find. Romero, who had begun his career shooting commercials and local TV programs including several vignettes for the popular children’s show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood knew little about making a feature film but went at it with the gusto of youth. Enlisting local actors and friends to play zombies, the movie has an unparalleled creep factor and was unlike any horror movie seen before and in some ways, since.

This was one of the first movies to show zombies eating people. The distinctive shuffling gait of the walking dead was first seen here. Many of the conventions of modern zombie movies were established by this one. While it is fairly tame by modern standards in terms of gore, in its time it was truly shocking.

Another shocking element was having an African-American as the heroic lead. That was rarely done in the movies outside of Sidney Poitier and never in a horror movie. Jones, an erudite scholar who studied at the Sorbonne and acted professionally in New York City, made for a good one – strong and iron-willed. When he slapped a hysterical Barbara across the face, audiences surely must have recoiled in amazement – a black man hitting a white woman? Positively indecent! Ironically enough, the movie was released a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, to give you a sense of the timeline involved.

Sure, by today’s standards the movie is pretty crude but the storytelling is not. In fact, the movie is even now pretty gripping, particularly if you haven’t seen it before (and if you haven’t, what kind of rock have you been hiding under?) and for those who have, it never fails to keep one on the edge of their seat.

The film famously fell into public domain nearly immediately upon release because the filmmakers naively didn’t know to put the copyright statement at the film’s conclusion, so Romero and his partners saw little profit from the movie which has generated tens and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, mainly for other people. A documentary on the film, Year of the Living Dead screened this past April at the Florida Film Festival and gives some insight into the making of the film and its impact on popular culture.

There is really no underestimating the role of this little movie from Pittsburgh has had on horror films and popular culture in general. In many ways, the modern independent film industry sprang from pioneers like Romero. Watching the movie now, we see that it is certainly a product of its times not just technologically speaking but also in terms of the movie itself; whether consciously or not, it examines racial tensions of its time and nuclear fears as well. It’s surprisingly well-written and if there are some areas where the script dates itself, it nonetheless remains a timeless classic. Anyone who loves horror movies needs to see this one and not just once – regular viewings are recommended and I’m not talking about the Rifftrax abomination that showed recently in theaters but the original. This is the ultimate zombie movie and should be treated with the reverence as such.

WHY RENT THIS: A classic that essentially re-defined the zombie film. Startlingly poignant and intelligent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Crude by modern standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Violence, disturbing images, adult themes and some brief nudity. Even 45 years on this is still not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As was common with black and white films, Bosco chocolate syrup was used as blood.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Because the movie fell into the public domain, there are myriad home video versions out there, mostly made from inferior prints and with few or no extras so for our purposes we’ll concentrate on the higher end home video releases. The 1999 Special Collector’s Edition has a comedic short Night of the Living Bread as well as examples of Romero’s early commercial and TV work for Image Ten. The 2002 Millennium Edition however remains to date the standard – in addition to what was mentioned, there are liner notes from Stephen King, clips from lost Romero films The Derlick and There’s Always Vanilla, the original treatment and script for the film, an audio interview with the late Duane Jones and scrapbook photos from cast and crew members. To my knowledge, no credible Blu-Ray version exists of the film to date but hopefully as we approach the 50th anniversary of the film someone will make an effort to do it justice.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Transporter

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Year of the Living Dead


The secret to creating an iconic horror film is not found in a cartoon.

The secret to creating an iconic horror film is not found in a cartoon.

(2012) Documentary (Self-Released) George A. Romero, Larry Fessenden, Gale Anne Hurd, Elvis Mitchell, Sam Pollard, Mark Harris, Jason Zinoman, Chris Schultz. Directed by Rob Kuhns   

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

There is no doubt that circa 2012, zombies are the new cool. The success of the comic turned basic cable TV hit The Walking Dead has contributed mightily to that but there is nobody with any sort of historical perspective at all who won’t admit that without Night at the Living Dead, zombies would be relegated to a kind of horror film B-movie ghetto.

Romero was a young college dropout in Pittsburgh back in 1968 when he decided to make a movie on his own. He, like many other Pittsburgh-based filmmakers, worked on the children’s television program Mister Rogers Neighborhood (one of Romero’s vignettes, Mr. Roger Gets a Tonsillectomy is shown and I kid you not, it is one of the most terrifying things you will ever see) as well as local advertisements.

The movie was largely shot on a wing and a prayer with investors and local TV personalities appearing as actors, zombies and occasionally as technicians. It was shot on the fly and with an almost non-existent budget. It got little or no positive press mainly because it broke so many taboos – an African-American hero whose race is never commented upon in the film, children murdering and eating their parents, zombies chowing down on living, screaming victims.

Largely over time, the movie has grown from cult status into a cultural touchstone. Within the context of its time when race riots were running rampant, the counterculture was protesting the war in Vietnam with increasingly violent repression from the government in reprisal and a general distrust of the American dream of their parents by an entire generation of young people, Night of the Living Dead was almost inevitable – if Romero hadn’t made it, someone else might well have made something like it. It’s unlikely however that anyone else would have blown off Hollywood movie conventions as easily as Romero did; while he essentially claims he didn’t know any better, I honestly believe that his innovations were done deliberately.

This documentary examines the film and it’s time, largely through interviews of critics, writers, academics and filmmakers (including Hurd, producer of The Walking Dead). There are also some nifty illustrated/animated sequences drawn by Gary Pullin that give the audience an insight into the production itself.

Because of the focus on a single film, Kuhns is able to drill down and really examine the movie’s historical, political and cinematic influence and the implications it has had on modern society and movies, not to mention it’s continuing influence on American culture. Romero is a delightful interview whose engaging personality is such that you wouldn’t mind watching two hours of talking head interviews with the man. Between the Romero interview and the illustrations as well as extensive footage from the movie itself and some archival footage of events of the day, the documentary is anything but dry. While those who don’t like the original movie might find this dull, if they are into history and social studies at all they will still find this fascinating. While the focus is definitely on Night of the Living Dead, you don’t have to be an obsessive fanboy to appreciate Year of the Living Dead. If you are, however, you may just want to demand your local art house get a copy of the movie so that you can spend your nights wrapped up in this well-made and thoughtful analysis of one of the great movies of all time.

REASONS TO GO: Romero is an engaging storyteller. Filmmakers really drill down and don’t just get backstage anecdotes but place the movie within the context of its time.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who aren’t fans of Night of the Living Dead will find this dull.

FAMILY VALUES:  A few disturbing horror images and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The interviews for the film were conducted between 2006-2011.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has made a few appearances on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Room 237

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: First Comes Love and more coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Florida Film Festival 2013


Florida Film Festival 2013

The Florida Film Festival will be returning from April 5 through April 14. As in years past, Cinema365 is proud to cover our local film festival and this year will be bigger and better than any year before, with 173 features and short films taking up screen time. Voted one of the 50 best film festivals in the world, it’s different than the industry shmoozefests that are Sundance, Tribeca and TIFF. Those are places where filmmakers go to make a deal. FFF is where they go to mingle with the audience. There is an intimate feel that is missing from some film festivals where there is so much going on that you’re exhausted from day one. There is a more leisurely pace here but even so by the 14th you may well be reaching your limit.

The guest of honor this year is legendary Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren who will be honored with a screening of her classic film The Birds. She’ll be on hand to answer qustions, some of which hopefully will be about her new film Free Samples which will also be playing at the festival. These events always sell out so you won’t want to wait too long before getting your ticket. Also attending the festival will be renowned stuntwoman/actress Zoe Bell who will be on hand for a screening of Deathproof, the Quentin Tarantino-directed half of Grindhouse.  She’s done some of the most amazing stunts of the past decade so you won’t want to miss that either. Finally for those of a more romantic bent, the Festival will have Sunday brunch on the 14th with a screening of one of my all-time favorites The Princess Bride with star Cary Elwes in attendence. This promises to be an unforgettable event and, like the other celebrity appearances, is likely to sell out early.

But a film festival is all about, well, films and as usual there are a plethora of exciting entries at this year’s festival. While I’m not going to preview them all here, I will give you some films that I think are worth looking out for. The opening night slot is always a big deal at any film festival and the FFF is no different. This year the honor goes to Twenty Feet from Stardom, an acclaimed documentary that drew raves at Sundance earlier this year. For those who love classic rock and roll, the film focuses on the backup singers who share the stage and recording studio with some of the biggest stars and on the biggest hits of all time. It’s an amazing get up and dance kind of movie that is bound to have opening nighters boogaloo-ing in the aisles. Opening night is another event that sells out early so you’ll want to order your ticets as soon as you can.

Unfinished Song stars Terrence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave in a film that reminds me a little bit of Young @ Heart, about a grumpy senior whose life is transformed by singing in a chorus. Lore takes place at the end of World War II in occupied Germany when a group of children whose parents were arrested as Nazis try to make their way across the country to their grandmother’s. Renoir is the story of the love triangle between the great Impressionist, his son and his model slash muse. It looks achingly beautiful. Mud stars Matthew McConaughey , Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard in a thriller about a couple of kids who befriend a man on the run from the law, who is haunted by the woman who may have inspired him to do wrong.

V/H/S 2 is the sequel to the hit indie horror anthology and should be packing them in at midnight showings. So too should Cockneys vs. Zombies, a East End-set zombie flick that looks to be a worthy successor to Shaun of the Dead with a wicked sense of humor that had preview audiences laughing til they screamed. Starbuck is a French-Canadian film about a man who is ready to be a father of his girlfriend’s child although she is none too certain about his paternal skills. Matters aren’t helped when it is discovered that as a repeated sperm donor back in the day he had wound up fathering over 500 children. I’m sure his tie collection will be legendary.

SOMM is a food documentary chronicling the difficult process of becoming certified as a master sommelier. In the music realm Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and AKA Doc Pomus look back at legendary figures in classic rock and roll while Bad Brains: A Band in DC looks at one of the most influential punk bands of all time.

The narrative competition films have some real promising entries this year, with The Forgotten Kingdom following a young man’s journey to reconnect with his family in Leostho, Putzel which is a different kind of romantic comedy (I know a lot of rom-coms claim that but this one really looks like the real deal), The History of Future Folk which has the daft premise of an alien invasion which goes awry when the aliens decide to become folksingers, All the Light in the Sky in the meantime follows an aging actress who is watching her indie career dwindle as younger actresses nab the roles that once went to her. Nancy, Please is a terrifying thriller about the roommate from Hell who goes to extreme lengths to reclaim the book she left behind and Be Good which observes new parents adopting to their changing roles.

The documentary competition is equally impressive with Year of the Living Dead which looks back on the lasting impact of George A. Romero’s legendary Night of the Living Dead while Magical Universe explores the bizaare world of artist Al Carbee’s Barbie-centric art. Shepard and Dark explores the unique and moving friendship (mostly expressed through correspondence) between actor/playwright Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark who was at one time married to the mother of Shepard’s wife. Informant traces the path of Brandon Darby from respected activist to FBI informant while Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story traces the career of revolutionary children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Films like 8 1/2, Sleeper, The Sting and Pulp Fiction will also be screened as well as a plethora of foreign films, short films, documentaries, narrative features, family films and animated shorts. Individual tickets will go on sale on March 17th (this Sunday) although you can still buy passes and packages of five, ten and twenty vouchers which can be redeemed for individual films right now. For more details on the festival, ticket purchase information and directions to the festival venues, click on the logo above which will take you right to the Festival website. That same logo will appear on all festival film reviews even after the festival is over.

It should be noted that nearly every year since I started attending this event my number one movie on the year-end countdown has played at the Festival. Some of the films that have played here have gone on to commercial success (The Blair Witch Project) or Oscar nominations (Winter’s Bone). While there are no guarantees, I can tell you that this is one of the best-curated festivals that I’m aware of and the overall quality of the films that play it are nothing short of spectacular.

Enzian president Henry Maldonado liked the Festival to a gathering of friends, not unlike a reunion and he’s right. The atmosphere at the Festival is like none other I’ve experienced. Part of that is due to the bucolic scenery at the Enzian itself (although the atmosphere at the neighboring Regal multiplex in Winter Park Village where many of the screenings take place is no less idyllic) but most of the credit goes to the staff, volunteers and the attendees themselves. This is the kind of thing that loses something in the translation but once experienced for yourself will hook you for life. Even if I were to move out of the Orlando area, I’d come back every year for the FFF. I hope I’ll see some of my Orlando-area readers at the Festival; those who can travel to come see it should make the effort to do so. This is no theme park but if you’re a movie buff, this is so much better.