Sunday, May 18, 2014
Depth of the Dead
I first saw NOTLD as a teenager when a local station in my hometown broadcast the newly "colorized" edition created by Hal Roach Studios. This was in the earliest days of colorization and if you've never seen any of those first efforts, they're a dreadful sight to behold. Amorphous blobs of sickly color randomly splashed about the screen like some old two-strip Technicolor process gone very wrong. I'm sure the colorized NOTLD looked just as bad as all the rest. I have to assume that, because I first saw the film via a broadcast on a UHF channel that aired it during some pretty bad weather and in such atmospheric conditions, it was virtually black-and-white. I recorded it too, which was fortunate because I fell terribly in love with it. The crummy reception immortalized on the tape became part of its charm and I sort of missed its quirks the first few times I saw a cleaner print. It was pretty much my favorite horror movie from the end of that first screening, the undisputed champion by a knock-out, and it remained so right up until, some time shortly after, I first saw DAWN OF THE DEAD on video. In my head, the two have been in contention for the title ever since.
In the abstract, it's maybe unusual that, while a teen, I'd pick those two as the best then so many years and so many, many more movies later, still judge them as sitting at the top of the heap. Nostalgia can prove a potent addiction to those who, with age, succumb to it but I've never let it dictate my tastes in movies. With me, if a flick in which I once delighted doesn't hold up, it just doesn't hold up. I may still find it charming but I ain't gonna' call it good. NIGHT and DAWN have stayed with me for so long because they really are as good as I initially took them to be. Better, even.
NOTLD launched what became a wave of superior horror pictures in the years that followed it. Mostly made up of indie features, this wave ran parallel with and sometimes intersected Hollywood's "decade under the influence," capturing the same cultural zeitgeist and transforming it into some of the finest work the genre has ever seen. Brutal, nasty, pitiless movies that broke every rule; intelligent horrors that were actually about something, something more than merely making viewers start and that, as a consequence, were disturbing then haunting for reasons far beyond the visceral surface scares they tried to inflict. The wave rolled for a little more than a decade before crashing on the dull, grey rocks of the slasher films in the early '80s.
Horror hasn't seen another age of its like but its legacy has lived on in various ways. The modern zombie picture introduced by NOTLD is one of them.
There were zombies in film and literature long before NOTLD, mindless creatures animated by magic and that served some living master. EC's great line of horror comics in the 1950s delighted in things like ghastly, putrefying corpses that returned to life to right some wrong done them while they yet lived. Richard Matheson's 1954 book "I Am Legend" introduced the idea of humanity being overrun by the victims of a plague that turns them into non-supernatural--and very zombie-like--vampires. Pieces of what came together in NOTLD have a varied lineage (and all of the ancestors I've just mentioned have been acknowledged as inspirations by the film's creators) but as a package, the rotting, self-propelled corpse that returns to life, consumes the flesh of the living, can only die via destruction of its brain and that overruns civilization belongs strictly to NOTLD.
Critics read much into the film and, indeed, there was much there to read. Its creators, George Romero, John Russo and co., have denied they'd set out to make any big social statements. NOTLD goes where it does because of the temperaments of those who created it and because of the times in which it was made (which it reflects). The basic concept was original and solid and in the execution it was well-written, well directed, well played--a great, dark, relentless pressure-cooker of a horror picture show about the world coming to an end.
The world didn't though, and eleven years later, Romero set out to continue the end with DAWN OF THE DEAD, a film that picked up NIGHT's theme of social breakdown, added a critique of consumer culture and created or significantly expanded upon a host of metaphorical uses of the living dead. It was larger in scale than its predecessor, longer and much gorier and whereas the first film had been more of an Expressionistic nightmare, DAWN was like a comic book brought to life, full of action and vivid colors and woven through with a wickedly black sense of humor. A great, great movie.
A noteworthy but little noted feature of these films is that, though the dead overrun the world and rip to pieces anyone who falls into their clutches, they never really kill anyone. They're just dumb creatures following some instinctual imperative. It's really the living who kill themselves and one another. The living are stupid and shortsighted and polarized and self-concerned and distrustful and, perhaps on a less negative note, too damned civilized to properly address the growing crisis, and these qualities, again and again, are what actually get them killed. The devil isn't in the walking corpses besieging from outside. It resides, instead, within us. And the reason it's all so horrifying is that, when one sees this, one recognizes it as true. The only way dumb, slow-moving ambulatory corpses could overrun the world in the first place is because we, who on the surface have every advantage, failed to come together to stop them. The dead, then, are, on one level, the ghosts of our own tragic--or damnable--shortcomings, rising to overwhelm and perpetually haunt us.
On another, they're also, collectively, a representation of death itself. In the zombie apocalypse, the shuffling ghouls are slow and they're dumb but they're also everywhere and into everything, forever creeping up on you, inexhaustible, inexorable, inevitable. If you're quick and smart, you can get away from them, maybe for a long time, but as time goes by, you become a little less quick-witted, a little less fleet-footed and they're still there, still patiently trudging along after you. They may not get you now or next week but against death, you're in a no-win scenario--they will get you eventually. The excellent Ford brothers movie THE DEAD (2010) makes particularly good use of this element.
On still another level, "they're us," as Peter says of the dead in DAWN. Twisted reflections of people driven by degraded versions of the memories and instincts that guided them through life, a shadow of both what once was and of what they once were. In DAWN, they all want to go to that paradise of capitalist consumerism, the mall--exactly where the living characters want to be. In one scene, the pregnant Fran draws the attention of a zombie in a baseball uniform. Separated from her by plate glass, the creature doesn't try to get at her as all the rest have. He just sits and watches her, looking sad, making childlike noises and invoking images of safe, wholesome childhoods filled with little-league games; for the expectant mother, both a mournful reflection of the world that's been lost and a mark of the awful new non-kid-safe one that has been born. In the excellent pilot to the less-than-excellent WALKING DEAD tv series (2010), a man who didn't have the heart to kill his wife after she died and reanimated is haunted by her zombie, which, nightly, returns to his front door seeking readmittance. "Bub," the featured creature in Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), still experiences rudimentary emotions--he reacts with clear agony at finding his keeper murdered and even goes on to avenge the killing. When we first meet "Big Daddy," Romero's central zombie from LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), he's still hanging out at the gas station at which he worked in life, still coming out to pump gas whenever the lot bell rings. On the other side of this, the brilliant opening credit sequence of Edgar Wright's SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) shows people who, in going about their daily routines in mind-numbingly stupid service jobs, look exactly like zombies; by the end of the film, literal zombies are being used to do the same jobs.
This, the dead as an in-the-rotten-flesh commentary on us, is the element that makes zombies so wonderfully malleable. I've long maintained one can use them to tell just about any kind of story. Filmmakers have taken this ball and ran with it in a multitude of directions. DEAD SET uses zombies to comment on "reality television," DIARY OF THE DEAD to cover the impact of "new media" in the Information Age. Brian Yuzna's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III--a zombie version of Romeo & Juliet--gives us sympathetic zombies. A teen resurrects his girlfriend, killed in an auto accident, using a chemical at a military facility. She seems herself at first but her mental state begins to deteriorate beneath an overwhelming urge to kill and consume human brains. The military in the film launches a program aimed at turning the risen dead into bioweapons, experiments that, in light of the remnants of the creatures' humanity, seem Mengele-esque. Is the zombie lass in DEADGIRL (2008), discovered, captured and abused by sadistic teens, just dead flesh or a rape victim? The central protagonist of I, ZOMBIE (1998) is a fellow infected with zombie-ism and the film uses the condition to study his isolation and loneliness as his humanity progressively disintegrates. THE LIVING DEAD GIRL (1982), directed by French fantasist Jean Rollin, works from a theme of friendship strong enough to survive beyond the grave. Carl Lindbergh's SHADOWS OF THE DEAD (2004) offers a fellow infected with zombie-ism who then infects his girlfriend in a sort of parallel with AIDS. As the title suggests, Michele Soavi's excellent DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (1994) uses the rising dead as a vehicle to explore existential questions of life and love. And so on. There's no limit to these sorts of uses of the living dead.
The diabolically black humor that runs through DAWN is a descendant of a literary tradition that extends back beyond the Brothers Grimm but it comes to the film most directly from EC Comics. Through books like "Tales From the Crypt" and "Vault of Horror," Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and the rest of the EC gang spun out terrifically twisted, relentlessly irreverent and gloriously ghastly tales full of creepy critters, pungent puns, gory excess and the roughest possible justice to wrongdoers, a scare souffle sufficient to swiftly set to brisk heel its kid consumers at the mere appearance of a graveyard on their flank. Among those irrevocably damaged by these damned digests was none other than DAWN's director George Romero. Three years after DAWN, in fact, he teamed with fellow EC victim Stephen King to create CREEPSHOW, a direct homage to those bedeviling funny-books of their youth. Zombie films picked up a mean streak of EC-ism, from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) to the RE-ANIMATOR series to the EVIL DEAD films to FIDO (2005) to POULTRYGEIST (2006) and on into infinity (and EC and the species of horror it bred became a major influence on horror cinema in general).
I love the better zombie movies and there are a lot of them. Still, there are, of late, some trends within zombie cinema for which I'm not, in the abstract, particularly enthusiastic. The most debated among fans is probably running zombies. Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER (which only technically wasn't a zombie picture) featured, as its apocalyptic avatars, hard-charging sprinters and this set off a vogue in galloping cadavers that continues to this day, most noisily in the most unfortunate WORLD WAR Z. Running zombies seem counter-intuitive--as SHAUN OF THE DEAD's Simon Pegg has noted, "death is a disability, not a superpower." More significantly though, supercharged zombies sacrifice much of the content I've just been outlining in favor of mere momentary visceral thrills. I dislike, for the same reason, the trend, in make-up effects for zombies of piling on the appliances and giving the creatures alien eyes. This can create ghoulish critters, to be sure--important for a horror production--but when overdone, it robs the creatures of their humanity. Buried beneath so much rubber, paint and stuffings, they may just as well be evil Lectoids from the 8th dimension or invaders from Mars. The zombies of DEAD SET are a triple whammy--they run, they're make-up-heavy and have animalistic eyes and they emit utterly inhuman screeches. They couldn't be any further removed from humans or apparitions of humans if they grew tails and coats of fur. Most horror filmmakers, of course, are just looking to create what they hope will be a scary monster to rage across the screen. Zombies of this particular make and model though are at best a pretty superficial kind of scary. Some fans can be quite dogmatic in their objections to such things, particularly running zombies. I'm certainly not. There's no rule-book for fictional creatures and I'm certainly never one to put movies in little boxes. If a movie with running zombies works, it works and those running zombies aren't worth a moment's fretting over. I do, however, think zombies, when handled in that way, lose a lot of what makes them special and gives them real power.
When they're treated properly, there's a lot of depth to the dead. As zombies have, in recent years, become an ubiquitous feature of pop culture, the "treated properly" part has unsurprisingly proven a pretty significant caveat. The number of productions has skyrocketed, but most zombie pictures, like most of any kind of picture, are terrible, made by people who neither have anything to say nor the talent to effectively say anything if they did. Still, over time, we fairly regularly get great work out of this particular subgenre and that will likely continue, even if--as I think likely--the number of productions soon drops off as a consequence of oversaturation. I think its potential is nearly limitless and I think talented people will continue to recognize this and to line up to try their hand at it and take it in new directions. Their visions of the dead will continue to rise, treating us to a smorgasbord of screaming, meaty treats. Maybe one day, there will even be one that comes along and settles my indecision between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD by eclipsing both.
 And George is one of the finest filmmakers the genre has ever produced. He's caught a lot of flack from segments of fandom for his last few films. That just means we don't deserve him. But I'm damn glad we have him.
 From a technical standpoint, colorization has come a long way, but it will never be anything other than a disgraceful vandalization of b&w movies.
 The period is given favorable coverage in the excellent documentary THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE.
 Or in it either. By the end of the film, it looks as though the zombie plague may be on the verge of being contained. Thankfully, it got out of hand again.
 A theme that, in the meantime, had also been the central focus of Romero's 1973 non-zombie flick THE CRAZIES.
 The impression of the zombie as apparition is tied to its being a creature that slowly drifts along through the world, offering only the occasional emotional moan to mark its passing. This is only one of the many wonderful tropes thrown aside by more recent productions featuring hard-charging sprinter zombies.
 At the same time, the zombies aren't constantly raging against one another and don't kill or plot against or screw over one another, which makes for quite a contrast with the living.
 Frank Darabont, THE WALKING DEAD's original showrunner, understood the potential power of this kind of metaphor and introduced it into the series. It had been virtually non-existent in the comic on which the show was based. The comic writer and co-creator Robert Kirkman has often signaled his disinterest in it and treats his creatures as just brainless monsters absent any trace of their former humanity. Unfortunately, Darabont was fired after the first season of the tv series, after which this angle was entirely dropped, and one need only read my interminable articles on this blog to see where the series went in his absence.
 "Bub," essayed by Sherman Howard, is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest movie monsters since Karloff's in FRANKENSTEIN. Like the other great elements in DAY OF THE DEAD, it's mostly lost beneath the embarrassingly poor acting of everyone else involved.
 Better known, in the U.S., as CEMETERY MAN.