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Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Lucky 13: Week Eleven: Zombies!

It says a lot about the popularity of this week's sub-genre, that this time out we've got more contributors than ever before. Zombies are arguably the dominant monster of modern horror, and certainly have been on a proverbial tear for much of the past decade especially. Today's horror fan is almost inevitably a hardcore zombie fan--we just can't seem to get enough of those mindless, flesh-eating, undead meatheads.

It always says a lot about the breadth and quality of the sub-genre, that with so many contributors this week, nevertheless not one of them selected the same movie. We've got a pretty impressive selection here, if I do say so myself, hope you enjoy...

B-Sol on Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Surprisingly to me as I look back, I haven't really said all that much about George Romero's Dawn of the Dead here in the Vault over the years, despite the fact that it is not only my personal favorite zombie movie, but my personal favorite horror movie, period. Maybe I've been intimidated by what a towering presence this movie is for me, how it affected me like no other horror film has before or since.

Romero certainly knocked it out of the park with Night of the Living Dead, but here he truly brings his bleak vision of America to full fruition, and gives us the absolute prototype of the modern zombie film. The waking nightmare he creates as the setting for this film is so convincing to me, so authentic, despite whatever you may say about dated makeup effects. When I watch this movie, I am transported wholly to a world in which the dead have risen and society is crumbling. The aura of doom hangs heavy, and even the humorous bits are tinged with rueful regret.

Zombies have terrified me more than any other movie monster, and this film is to blame. I am a purist when it comes to Romero zombies, and this whole idea of relentless, creeping corpses coming to eat your flesh, ignoring all boundaries of friendship and family, beyond all reason or escape, really struck a chord with me, and filled me with genuine dread. That's powerful film-making, and that's what modern zombie cinema is all about.

Flowers of Flesh and Blood's Keri O'Shea on Cemetery Man

One of my favourite zombie films --no, scrub that, one of my favourite films ever--Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) is a quirky little masterpiece, a film which takes the idea of the living dead in a sublime new direction. Francis Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) is the Buffalore Cemetery caretaker or, as one of his imminent inmates calls it, the ‘engineer’, but this is a cemetery with a difference. Sometimes the dead rise from their graves, and together with assistant Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro) Dellamorte must re-dispatch them. It’s a troubled, lonely existence, and both men are looking for an indeterminate something--maybe even love--beyond the cemetery walls. When a beautiful widow (Anna Falchi) arrives to mourn her husband, Dellamorte cannot resist her charms, and is soon drawn into a chain of events which leads him to reconsider love, life, the universe and everything…

I first saw the film at a Halloween showing and, apart from vaguely being aware that it was a zombie flick, I knew nothing about it. If I was expecting hordes of potentially politically-relevant flesheaters, instead I got a striking small-town setting, a taphophile’s dream of graves, burials and mourning, and of course vivid atmosphere in spades (pun intended). A charismatic performance by Everett really underpins this film, and he deadpans through an often bizarre array of scenes and dialogue with an inimitably brooding gravitas. The original choice for this role, Matt Dillon, simply could not have done it better. It adds a pleasing circularity to the project that Everett was the inspiration behind the Dylan Dog comics, which in turn inspired the screenplay: Dellamorte Dellamore is as inescapable for Everett as Buffalore is for Francis Dellamorte, it seems…

The cast all work nicely together, balancing pathos alongside slick dark comedy, with the beautiful Anna Falchi perhaps deserving a special mention for her performance as the unnamed ‘she’ of the film. Although she appears in three different incarnations, she is most memorable in her first, that of The Widow--changing from vulnerable mourner into an insatiable Returner, a zombie you wouldn’t mind being bitten by. But then, as the film progresses, the undead aren’t the problem in and of themselves. They become symbolic of the inescapability of Dellamorte’s life and his growing identity crisis. It would be pushing it to say that this film is a philosophical work, I know, but it definitely uses horror in order to feel around some unusually existentialist themes. Dellamorte holds forth on the problems of love, the meaning of life, and self-knowledge, so the film’s original title (translating as ‘of Death, of Love’) really holds some meaning here. Unique, hypnotic and cool, Dellamorte Dellamore has a special place in my heart.

From Midnight With Love's The Mike on Night of the Living Dead (1968)

There's not much to be said about Night of the Living Dead that hasn't already been spoken. But when it came time to choose a favorite zombie film, I couldn't find myself considering anything other than it or its sequel, Dawn of the Dead. That's a choice I've waffled on many times, but today I'm sold on Night of the Living Dead as my final answer.

Night of the Living Dead is more than a movie, it's an institution. It's literally the most accessible horror film of the past 50 years--thanks to its slip into the public domain--and it's become something of a “starter” film for anyone who wants to experience what horror movies are all about. As horror was peaking in pop culture during the 1970s, it was Night of the Living Dead that became the syndicated TV hit that every late night horror host was showing to impressionable youth. When home video, and later DVD, became popular, any distributor that could find it released their own copy of the film. At least 40 different versions of the film exist between these two types of home media today, and the first Blu-Ray versions of the film are rolling out as we speak.

But to me, this is more than just one of those films that should be lauded because of how beloved it has become. One could also argue that Night of the Living Dead was a turning point for the horror genre, as it was one of the first films to turn everyday people--in this case dead people--into monsters, and then bring these monsters into modern America. And, without ever using the “zed word”, George Romero's approach to creating horror set the stage for an entire sub-genre and a new movement in independent horror film-making.

I could ramble about the significance, in culture and to the film community, of Night of the Living Dead all night long. And when I account for the film's effect on the viewer--in this case, a guy that's still creeped out by the uncertainty the characters face and the impending sense of doom that haunts the film--and the fact that the black-and-white film just feels like what I'd look for from any late night horror viewing, there's no topping Romero's first triumph in my book.

Big Daddy Horror Review's Brandon Sites on Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is one of those films that I can revisit over and over and over again, and then one more time for good measure. While most people wouldn't think of this as an outright zombie film due to its blending of several genre elements, the finale does involve a zombie ripping through the torso of a recently shot victim in order to massacre the senior class on prom night.

The film has an ability to cleverly recycle staples from genre classics into one cohesive, seamless whole. It borrows elements from George A. Romero's zombie films and from Carrie, contains a dream sequence that recalls A Nightmare on Elm Street with a dash of German Impressionism set in a high school cafeteria and features a kooky take on possession themes, all set against the backdrop of a teen comedy/horror film.

As if that wasn't enough, you have genre regular Michael Ironside in the cast, and some inventive--not to mention mean-spirited--death sequences. One victim informs her best friend that she is pregnant, only to be hanged to death by the film's title villain, who makes it appear as a suicide. There is also a sequence in which another victim is smashed to death by her high school gym lockers, and yet another involving death by computer. To top it all off, it also boasts some well-timed one liners and some memorable dialogue. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is a film that I never get tired of despite repeat viewings. It also ranks in my top 10 horror films of the '80s.

Vault dweller Angela Howeth on The Return of the Living Dead

I had to go back to my own childhood on this one. Of course I completely love and adore the originals such as Night of the Living Dead, and the not-so-original such as Zombi 2, but honestly I had to go here. I remember going to a sleep over when I was in the 4th grade and watching this movie for the first time. While my girlfriends where all busy talking about boys, and New Kids on the Block, I was completely enamored with this movie. I thought to myself, “Oh this is completely utterly disgustingly perfect.” It had everything--punk rock, a dysfunctional and irresponsible government, and of course terrifying gruesome zombies.

I think the cross between the movie soundtrack and the actual sound of the zombies was creepy enough. Am I the only one who thought some of the zombies sounded like pigs being slaughtered as they were being reborn from their graves? For me sound has a ton to do with it, and these zombies where not meek at all. Not only did they do their normal zombie moan from hell, but they also spoke of the pain of WANTING AND NEEDING BRAINS!!!! This ties directly to that scene in the morgue with the half woman tied down on the gurney. This scene terrified me; it was human in the sense of something that needed substance in order to feel good to live. But yet she wasn’t living, she was dead, and still she yearned so greatly for our soft spongy brains--with no legs, no skin, no organs left besides half her spinal column, her eyes and her brain. It is stuff that nightmares are truly made of.

Another favorite scene in the movie is the one in which Linnea Quigley's Trash character gets mauled by the zombies. Imagine yourself being naked in nuclear rain; and getting caught in a mosh pit of zombies; yeah, no good. That and she kind of resembles Ronald McDonald's step-sister. This movie just holds a happy place in my childhood, as odd as it sounds, I will never get the picture out of my head of the zombie popping out of the grave: “Do you want to party!” Return of the Living Dead is one of those movies that I can watch and keep finding more stuff to laugh or be terrified about.

Cinema Suicide's Bryan White on Day of the Dead (1985)

My love affair with zombies started out a lot like everyone else's, I suspect. It was a double feature sleep over with Evil Dead 2 and Dawn of the Dead that kicked the whole thing off. Dawn of the Dead gave license to my imagination to run wild in a world overrun with the dead where the only responsibility was survival, which in a world of abundant shopping mall resources, guns and ammo included, looked like an awful lot of fun, even when the bikers raid the place. This was a fantasy dreamed up when I was a kid. I'm an adult now and the rational adult mind tends to over think things, so the fantasy is a lot less fun these days because I have the context of maturity to compare the horror of the apocalypse to. Naturally, the care-free fantasy of Dawn of the Dead became something much more pessimistic and opened the door for Day of the Dead to make its way into my consciousness and take the number one spot for favorite zombie movie.

It's a well explored notion that Romero's classic zombie movies reflect the era of their production so it's no surprise that Day of the Dead is one giant metaphor for America in the '80s. That's not exactly why I like it, though. Day of the Dead was the culmination of Romero's efforts. The original script, which is available for reading online, is a much bigger movie that Romero has since incorporated into other movies, but what we got still comes off like the culmination of all of Romero's previous efforts. Day's scope, though actually very small, feels huge!

The whole thing takes place in this cavernous missile base with a large cast of cackling evil military guys and the scientists that they're supposed to protect. Heading it up is Joe Pilato as the maniacal Captain Rhodes, constantly sporting a sheen of nervous sweat, ranting and raving, pointing his gun at anyone who questions his authority. He has some of the best lines and gives the best deliveries of any Romero zombie survivor. On the other end is Richard Liberty as the insane Dr. Logan, conditioning his zombie, Bub (Logan and Bub are references to Wolverine of the X-Men) and dissecting captive zombies down to their component pieces. It's a colorful cast of wild, shouting characters working with one of Romero's slowest, yet most frantic zombie scripts. Sure, there's a lot of talking--the usual point of criticism leveled at this flick--but they're great streaks of Rhodes' wild freak-outs!

Characters aside, Day was the ultimate experiment in special effects for the time. They're completely disgusting. Tom Savini's express makeup for large groups was coupled with the high detail and realism of Greg Nicotero's techniques to create some of the nastiest zombies ever put on film. To this day, it remains unchallenged, even by further explorations of zombies by Romero himself.

Day may not be a taut thriller with constant action, but for my money, it's the most sophisticated of all of Romero's movies, with the best special effects, most colorful characters and most morbid, oppressive tone that expertly communicates the hopelessness of possibly being the last living humans on Earth. I revisit this one far more than any other in the canon.

Cannibal Hollywood's Stonecypher on Colin

I’ve always found answering the question ‘what’s your favourite zombie film?’ both difficult and easy. Difficult, in that I’ve not actually seen that many zombie films, in comparison to your average horror fan, anyway; and easy, in that I’ve got fewer films to pick from! Zombies are not my favourite sub-genre, and yet, they’re everywhere. They seem to be the horror film-maker’s choice for getting a point across, particularly when it comes to making a comment on the homogeneity of society. My choice of film, then, stands out, in that it has nothing at all to do with the homogeneity of society, and everything to do with the individual.

My favourite zombie film is Colin. The film is famous for being made on a shoe-string budget of roughly £45 ($70), and yet it’s reached world-wide audiences and critical acclaim. Directed by Marc Price, the film follows the titular zombie, from his brief moments before being bitten, to his slow, arduous transformation into one of the mass of living dead shuffling through London’s streets. Coming at the tail-end of a rash of fast zombies (if they’re zombies at all!), Colin is a wonderful breath of fresh air, a film which, for all of its impressively realised gore and action, is an emotional, human journey.

Part of that success belongs to Alistair Kirton, who plays Colin as both lost child and cornered animal to great effect. Some of the film’s most memorable scenes take place in complete silence, not in the abandoned streets of the city or in the middle of a zombie horde, but in the heart of the home--the bathroom, the kitchen, the bedroom. No £45 film is going to perfect, but with Colin, Marc Price has made a damn impressive try of it.

The film’s greatest success, for me, is that it’s a zombie film that made me care about its protagonist. I don’t often find myself all that bothered about what happens to characters in zombie films, but I do care for Colin. Marc Price successfully made a zombie film, with a zombie protagonist, which tells a simple, human story. Not very horrific, I know, but it certainly makes the film stand out from a very crowded sub-genre. Besides, that bit with the spine? Definitely gross.

From Beyond Depraved's Joe Monster on Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror

At times it seems like everything in the horror genre has become a cliché, a trope that has finally burned out all potential of ingenuity. No sub-genre seems to be filled with more mediocre drivel than that of the zombie. Particularly in recent years, we have seen the walking dead in just about every scenario that man (or monkeys) can conceive of. What’s a lover of the reanimated to do when half of the cinematic output concerning our beloved deadheads is as thrilling as roadkill? Allow me to direct your attention to the Italian splatterpiece Burial Ground, or as the subtitle more forebodingly calls it… The Nights of Terror.

Italy was by no means a stranger to the walking dead. With rejuvenated stiffs committing such foul acts as shoving splinters in pupils and attacking people as they performed top-hat dance routines, Italian filmmakers were squeezing the genre dry of every last putrefied drop. So what, you may ask, makes Burial Ground so different from the rest of the flesh-hungry pack? I believe my appreciation for this film might have stemmed from my complete surprise on its initial viewing, as I think it would with most. Up until the point I saw Andrea Bianchi’s mini-epic, I smugly thought that I had just about seen everything zombies had to offer. Little did I realize all the wonderful surprises that were in store for me, whether they were subtle contrasts or bits of in-your-face grandness.

The look of the zombies in Burial Ground was one of the very first elements to register with me. Never before, not even with Fulci’s conquistador throat-munchers, did I see zombies who were actually terrifying to look at. The majority of them here have deaths-head type visages, their skeletal teeth and empty sockets seeming to sneer at you as they greedily reach for your skin. They’re a true army of the dead, fully capable of wielding weapons (!) in order to get at the food they crave so madly. A particularly spectacular sequence occurs when one zombie, with Bullseye-like precision, throws a nail across a garden and pins a maid’s hand to the wall just as she’s going to close a window! His cohorts then use a deliciously symbolic scythe to painfully saw the screaming wench’s head off and then eagerly scuttle around as the cranium comes a-tumblin’ down! That scene alone was enough for me to realize that this one was not the typical zombie fare.

The entire movie is filled with a very real sense of dread. The psychotropic score constantly has you at unease as the dead stiffly stalk around the house of survivors. This is the type of feeling every zombie film should have, that of ultimate doom and utter defeat at the claws of the souls we thought we held dominion over. As silly as it may seem, as I watched the movie, eyes open wide inside the cozy den of my home, I almost felt as if this is what the Apocalypse would truly look like. The dead returned to consume the living, never stopping or ceasing their motions. Terrifying stuff. Add to that the oddly surreal bits that are sprinkled throughout the film and you have one unique viewing experience. Case in point: Peter Bark, a twenty something man who plays the part of a ten-year-old child. One of the most awkward-glances-all-around moments in film history occurs when Peter passionately begs his mother for a very personal type of night cap. You haven’t seen it all until you’ve seen that.

Burial Ground is likely to be passed over by most fans as another in a long, long line of zombie flicks to be released from Italy during the first living dead boom in cinema. But if you look closely enough and if you’re appetite is whetted enough for some different and grueling zombie action, you’ll find that this cloth does not just smell of death… it smells of awesomeness.

Day of the Woman's BJ-C on Shaun of the Dead

Shaun may be a little irresponsible, a slacker, and own some embarrassing vinyl albums... but who would think of a cricket bat to defend yourself in the zombie apocalypse? The rest of his crew took typical items like golf clubs, axes, shovels, baseball bats, you know... phallic objects. It may be an English thing, but the cricket bat is probably the coolest undead destroying instrument since the boomstick.

Think of it this way, Shaun is like every Average Joe you meet on the street. He's just like you! It's always a nice thought that you don't need to be this rough and tumble guy to survive. All you need is some passion and a good weapon. The reason Shaun of the Dead is such an appealing film to all audiences, is because the zombie outbreak closely resembles what the outbreak would most likely really be like. In a world of chaos and rotting corpses, Shaun and his friends decide to stick it out and survive while still maintaining their personalities. All too often in zombie films, people lose who they really are once the outbreak begins. It's about survival yes, but it's also about not losing who you are.

The true heart of the entire film is centered on Shaun. Shaun is a great zombie killer because he's not only thinking about himself. It's very easy to become selfish in a time of crisis and only care about keeping yourself alive. While this is a nice plan for an individual, its a disastrous plan for those who actually have a heart. Shaun had been completely neglecting those who care the most about him, but when put in the situation where he's almost expected and allowed to be selfish... he's not. He works to keep not just himself afloat, but his mother, ex-girlfriend, her flatmates, his best friend, and for a while even his hated step-father. He risked his life traveling from his house to his mother's house, and then even climbed up a building to save his ex-girlfriend and her flatmates. That's the true act of a hero if you're asking me.

So basically, he's not some uber badass who knows exactly what to do, he's just someone who's probably grown up watching the uber badasses who know exactly what to do. He's thrust into this situation, and while he's hesitant at first, he almost comes to terms with it and realizes what needs to be done to try and survive. So off he goes to secure his loved ones and hold down in the safest place he can think of. It may not all work out, but he at least does something instead of sit and panic. Shaun of the Dead is a perfect of example of how middle America would handle the zombie crisis.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now head over to Brutal as Hell to see what Marc Patterson and his crew have come up with. And if you're interested in taking part in the last two installments, just give Marc or myself a holler.

Week 1: Grindhouse & Exploitation
Week 2: Creature Features & Monster Movies
Week 3: Demons, Witches & The Devil
Week 4: Gore!
Week 5: Horror Comedies
Week 6: Vampires
Week 7: Psychological Horror
Week 8: Werewolves
Week 9: Serial Killers
Week 10: Ghosts, Haunted Houses and Psychic Phenomena

Join us next week for the second-to-last edition of The Lucky 13, wherein we get all brainy and stuff, with science-fiction horror!


Pax Romano said...

B-Sol, Dawn of the Dead is indeed a classic, and a brilliant satire of America circa 1978. Every time I re-watch it, I am floored by Romero's brilliance.

Other than that, Dawn... and Night... have caused me more nightmares than any other horror film ever made.

brett g @ oh-the-horror.com said...

Love to see Burial Ground getting some love! One of the best cheese-fests of all-time.

"But I'm your friend!"

Good stuff.

B-Sol said...

Pax, I feel your pain on the zombie nightmares, they plagued me for years, I'm not ashamed to admit!

And Brett, I've actually never seen Burial Ground! This really gave me something to look forward to.

Jenny Krueger said...

I agree Dawn of the dead is amazing, it is seriously the best zombie movie (I think) The late 60's to 80's are the best time for zombie movies. The poster for Return of the living dead is so rad, I can't take my eyes off of it.

Missy Y. said...

I stand shocked at the lack of Fulci. However, Burial Ground is magical in all its nipple-eating glory.

B-Sol said...

Jenny, Dawn will always be the ultimate zombie movie for me. I don't even have to think about it.

And Missy, I know what you mean, this reminds me of when Shaun of the Dead went unselected during Comedy week, and The Exorcist got no love during Devil week. If it's any consolation, Zombi 2 would be my second choice :-)

Angela Howeth said...

The only reason why I didn't write about Zombi 2; was because I had thought for sure someone else would of picked it! Oh well there is always next time :)

I had just watched Day of the Dead, but still was urged to do Return of the Living Dead. It's just one of those movies from the 80's that I love!

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