1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director / Screenwriter: George A. Romero

By Roderick Heath

Since his debut feature film Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned him from an obscure Pittsburgh TV crewman into a cult cinema hero, George Romero had first tried to avoid becoming entirely associated with Horror films. But his follow-up, the satirical comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971), was barely noticed, so Romero made a string of stringently budgeted but jaggedly intelligent and carefully crafted Horror movies, with Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1976), in which he had tried to blend familiar genre ideas and motifs with his distinctive brand of melancholy realism. Still, whilst those movies had gained attention and continued to signal Romero was one of the most interesting and determinedly maverick talents on the wild 1970s movie scene, what everyone really wanted from him was another zombie movie. Romero had no great wish to revisit the territory of his signal hit, but gained a perverse source of inspiration one day in 1974 when a former college friend, Mark Mason, invited him to visit the Monroeville Mall, a large shopping complex just east of Pittsburg managed by Mason’s employers. As the two men joked about the labyrinthine place filled with blissful shoppers, a story hatched out in Romero’s mind. When the time came to make the film, he gained an unusual collaborator in the form of Italian Horror maestro Dario Argento, a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead and eager to help Romero produce a sequel.

Not that Dawn of the Dead was a sequel in the traditional sense. All of the major characters in Night of the Living Dead were dead by its end, and Romero’s reiteration of the same basic concept spurned any mention of the first film’s apparent rationalisation of the living dead phenomenon. Romero later emphasised that he considered all his “Dead” films variations on a theme rather than parts of the same story, at least until his directly connected final diptych, Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Nonetheless the first few minutes of Dawn of the Dead seem to take up almost to the moment where the precursor left off, with a zombie plague rapidly spreading and unleashing chaos. The opening scene of Dawn of the Dead, depicting the fraying nerves and collapsing sense of mission on the set of a television news program attempting desperately to keep up a necessary flow of information to the presumed audience, contains sidelong meta humour. Romero cast himself as a director who finds himself impotent in dealing with the tide of events, Romero’s ironic kiss-off to his days in television whilst also evincing his fascination with how deeply wound it was into the infrastructure of his nation by the mid-1970s, expected to provide something like narrative and enclosure to the vagaries of life.

Dawn of the Dead was an immediate and massive commercial hit that many Horror fans and critics also recognised as an instant genre classic. It soon finally vaulted Romero towards Hollywood, for better or worse. And yet Dawn of the Dead’s time might be said not to have really come until a good twenty years after it was made, whereupon it suddenly began to influence the Horror genre and a new generation of creators in good and bad ways, most immediately in inspiring a string of imitations and variations, and a proper remake from Zack Snyder in 2004. More pervasively, Romero’s template showed how to blend the base elements of Horror, with required levels of gore, suspense, angst, and more gore, with threads of satire and parable wound into the very skeleton of its storytelling so it couldn’t be written off as a pretension or affectation, an achievement that’s become ever since a grail of ambitious genre filmmaking. Where Night of the Living Dead had been, despite its implications in terms of racial and gender politics and socially ironic sideswipes, essentially a straightforward survivalist thriller, Dawn of the Dead on the other hand achieves a Swiftian sweep in its comprehensive assault on the modern way of life and its absurdist vision of human devolution.

The film’s first is of its troubled heroine Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross) huddled in the insulated corner of the TV studio’s control booth, sleeping. She wakes with a start from nightmare, although of course it might rather be said she wakes into the nightmare. Fran soon finds herself battling with the frantic producer over the crawl giving addresses for rescue shelters, because it’s plain the information is now dangerously out-of-date, but the producer insists on keeping them up because then the station, GON, isn’t providing anything useful enough to viewers to keep them watching. Meanwhile the news anchor Berman (David Early) argues fiercely with his guest (David Crawford), who tries to explain the terrible new facts of life, death, and undeath. Eventually the broadcast begins to collapse as personnel walk out or jeer the controllers, and Fran comments, “We’re blowing this ourselves.” She arranges to rendezvous with her boyfriend Steve Andrews (Ken Emgee), the station’s traffic reporter, as he has control of the station’s helicopter and wants to try flying to Canada. Departure is delayed as Steve insists on waiting for a friend, Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a member of a National Guard unit that’s currently engaged in a stand-off with a radical group holed up in a slum tenement building, as the radicals are resisting the Guard’s efforts to collect the dead.

Roger’s relative decency and seriousness are soon revealed as he manages to bail up the radical leader Martinez (John Amplas) and tries to get him to surrender, only for the man to insist on getting shot down, and then trying to stop one of his fellows who starts on a kill-crazy rampage through the tenement, blowing off the heads of people unlucky enough to live in the building. Here, Romero notably grazes a common anxiety in the 1970s, that outright urban warfare would break out in America’s ghettos, the “urban Vietnam” The Clash sang about in their single “This Is Radio Clash” released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, as well as finding an effective way of linking the waning Blaxploitation wave to Horror in the images of the literally repressed underclass. The National Guard ignore warnings about parts of the building that have been closed up to contain zombies in the building, and their crashing about releases the walking dead, who immediately and eagerly take great bloody bites out of anyone they get their hands on, as a zombified husband does to his wife when she embraces him amidst the panic of the invasion. Roger and a young Guardsman crash into an apartment where they find a corpse with its foot gnawed off, only for the corpse to start wriggling its way remorselessly after the young Guard, who shoots it and then himself in perfect horror at how the utterly absurd has suddenly become terrifyingly real.

Romero, who as usual with his early works edited the film himself – there’s a case to be made that his films were never as good again after he stopped – strikes a uniquely intense, frayed, off-kilter mood in the TV station scenes, the bristling, reactive hysteria, the ultimate confrontation with the fringe of genuine, proper social collapse beginning in its TV temple. This air of sweaty intensity intensifies to a maniacal extreme as he segues into the frenetic four-front battle between the nominal representatives of stability and order and their rogue members, the radicals, and the living dead. Roger is first glimpsed sarcastically anticipating his commander’s attempts to talk out the radicals, whilst his fellow Guardsman eagerly awaits the chance to blow away all the “lowlife” ethnics. Roger soon finds himself flung into the company of Peter (Ken Foree), a tall, stoic, intense black Guardsman who guns down the crazed racist comrade, and the two men strike up a quick friendship as they take a moment’s downtime from the carnage to have a smoke. An aged, one-legged black priest (Jese Del Gre) appears and comments with baleful simplicity to Roger and Peter, after alerting them to a cache of bodies being kept in the basement, that “you are stronger than us but soon I think they be stronger than you.” Descending to the basement, the two men find most of the dead there revived and mindlessly gnawing on pieces of other bodies in a nightmarish survey, and they begin shooting each zombie in the head, the only thing that seems to permanently put them down.

There’s thematic overlap here with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which itself took some licence from Night of the Living Dead. Romero finds emblematic perfection in his illustration of his ideas as the Guards bash at an improvised barricade only for dozens of discoloured hands belonging to what were denizens of this suppurating corner of the body politic suddenly thrusting into view, before breaking loose and overwhelming the lawmen. As characters Peter and Roger are strongly reminiscent of the heroes of The Crazies, who were also members of the National Guard whilst being very ordinary men fighting for survival, although their position is at least never as self-defeating as their precursors. One essence of humanity, Romero quickly suggests, is our tendency to treat the dead with respect because they still resemble what was alive, and this crashes headlong into the urgent and gruelling necessity of abandoning that feeling, to turn ruthless and unflinching violence on these caricatures of being. Even men as tough and trained as David and Roger find themselves jittery and almost overwhelmed by the zombies, although the creatures are neither terribly quick and are certainly not smart, but simply because they keep coming on with single-minded purpose when they smell warm, moist, living meat.

Romero had hit upon something original and shocking in Night of the Living Dead as he introduced the concept of zombies as cannibalistic rather than simply murderous. Here he took the concept a step further in the gleefully obscene sight of zombies taking bites out of former loved-ones and tearing out entrails from people still alive to watch. Roger and Peter extract themselves from the hellish trap of the tenement and dash to meet up with Fran and Steve, who have their own troubles when they try to fuel the helicopter only to encounter some cops engaged in looting. The cops debate taking the helicopter, but decide against it, and flee in a speedboat. Roger and Peter arrive and, after giving Peter curt introduction, they take off and start northwards. Just before taking off, they do a stock-take on people they’re leaving behind: “An ex-husband.” “An ex-wife.” “Some brothers.” As the chopper lifts off Romero lingers on a haunting shot of the lights going out in a skyscraper in the background: will the last person to leave civilisation please turn out the lights. Dawn of the Dead offers curt reiteration of the climax of the previous film as the fleeing quartet fly over National Guards and volunteer shooters roving the countryside having the time of their lives gunning for zombies, turning the end of the world into a kegger where nobody has the same scruples as the slum dwellers when it comes to shooting down the formerly respected dead.

Landing to take on fuel in the morning, the cobbled-together gang of mutually reliant survivors soon discover what they’re up against, both from zombies and each-other. Attacked by zombies including an undead child that tries to maul Peter and a zombie that tries to clamber over some boxes to get at Stephen as he fuels the chopper only to get the top of its head sliced off by the whirling blades, the team barely survive a relatively mundane task. The jittery, inexperienced gun-user Stephen almost shoots Peter in trying to save him, sparking Peter’s anger, pointing his own gun at Stephen: “Scary, isn’t it?” Shortly after taking off again, the foursome spot a large shopping mall in an area where the power is still on – Peter theorises it could be coming from a nuclear power station – and land upon the roof. Although the mall proves to be crawling with zombies, the survivors recognise a chance to stock up on supplies. “Some kind of instinct,” Stephen theorises when Fran wonders why the zombies are there, “Memory – of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Part of Dawn of the Dead’s then-unusual approach to the horror genre was its relentless pace and rolling set-piece structure, closer in many ways to the emerging blockbuster style than to traditional Horror cinema’s slow-burn of disquiet and tension and with bloody pyrotechnics rather than explosions. Romero, of course, was repeating strategies from Night of the Living Dead in quickly thrusting characters defined by their ordinariness into a siege situation that becomes a pressure-cooker of survivalism, and would again for the last of the classic trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), where the action would play out in a nuclear bunker. Dawn of the Dead’s first two-thirds depict the heroes escaping the city, finding the mall, and labouring first to raid it and then take it over and fortify it when they recognise it could be as good a bunker to wait out the crisis,  if that proves at all possible, as any other. The mall, like the besieged house in Night of the Living Dead, becomes the defining locale for the drama and an extension of its symbolic dimension. The house in the previous film encapsulated tensions between old and new America and city and country, as well as provided a crucible for the social tensions between the survivors within where different ideas of home and security came into fatal misalignment.

But the shopping mall, by contrast, offers an illusion of embrace that quells and quashes all such tensions, its offer of consumer paradise a beckoning zone of nullification, and where Night of the Living Dead was happy to suggest its sociological and metaphorical aspects through self-evident aspects, Dawn of the Dead is more overt in presenting its ideas, turning its central situation into the lodestone of meaning. Romero melds quasi-Eisensteinian editing and sick screwball comedy as he cuts between the zombies, reeling in time with the corny muzak Peter and Roger incidentally start piping in as they turn on the mall’s power, and shopfront mannequins, interchangeable simulacra of a commercially glamorous ideal. Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Fran collaborate to at first merely trying to strategize a way of getting supplies out of a department store within the mall to their own makeshift hideout in the mall’s administrative and storage areas. Then, as the temptation of the place claims them, they establish boundaries, going through an elaborate process of fetching trucks parked nearby and parking them in front of the various entrances to the mall, trying to reclaim a toehold in a world rapidly losing any sense of place for the merely human. Then, they clear out the zombies within and establish themselves as rules over plastic paradise.

This reads like a smooth process on paper, but things go wrong. As they become less automatically distressed by the zombies and come to understand their physical abilities and lack thereof, Peter and Roger begin to enjoy defying, tricking, trapping, and “killing” them, and for a spell the mission of defying and expelling them from their reconquered little corner of the world becomes a lark. Stephen and Fran are reduced to watching out for them, Stephen from the chopper, Fran from the mall roof. The sense of fun is however coloured by macho hysteria, chiefly afflicting Roger, who becomes increasingly reckless in the course of the fortifying operation. He almost gets caught by zombies as he tries to hotwire one of the trucks, with Stephen, seeing his predicament, obliged to use the helicopter to alert Peter to his plight because the noise drowns everything out. Roger gains an apotheosis of enthralled disgust when Peter shoots one attacking him, spraying blood all over him. Roger’s desperate attempts to retain his sense of bravado finally proves his undoing as he gets bitten by the zombies, and the other three members of their little band are forced to watch helplessly as he wastes away, doomed inevitably to succumb to the mysterious force animating the dead. Romero might have been taking cues from the self-destructive behaviour of the would-be mighty hunter Quint in Jaws (1975), both films certainly sharing a critique of the action-man ethos in the face of blank and remorseless existential threat. Peter waits in a sullen vigil for Roger to die and revive before shooting him in the head.

Dawn of the Dead followed its precursor but also did more to lodge zombies as the coolest and most malleable of movie monsters, both victims of and perpetrators of hideously gruesome violence, both mauled in physical form and mauling. The punishment doled out to them throughout confronts the problem of killing things that are already dead, immune to physical force except for blows directly on the head, annihilating the last spasm of guiding intelligence. In some of his later films Romero would begin granting them something like the sympathy saved for a life form, however devolved and diseased. Here, their sense of threat and edge of comedy both stem from their single-minded and ravenous will matched to limited physical capacity for seeking it out, dangerous when taking humans by surprise or in large numbers, but, as Peter and Roger find, easy to fend off and outwit, giving them a slightly overinflated sense of their own viability. Fran is momentarily arrested by the disquieting sight of a zombie, recently a young man, settling down to watch her through protecting glass with some kind of bemused fascination. But the zombies just keep coming, constantly beating at the doors of the mall. The first time any kind of conceptual link between Romero’s living dead and the voodoo tradition of zombie is evinced when Peter muses on his grandfather, a former voodoo priest in Trinidad, and his prophetic comment, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

This totemic line, which is also the closest the movie comes to explaining the plague, gives the film a sense of connection with other works of its era in the Horror genre and beyond, with the disaster movies popular in the previous few years as well as the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Such films were preoccupied with a sense of decay and destruction befalling the modern world for all its Faustian bargains. Like its precursor, Dawn of the Dead draws on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and also this time its film adaptation The Omega Man (1971). Dawn of the Dead amplifies the mockery of lifestyle upkeep and consumerism in a post-apocalyptic environment in The Omega Man, as well as taking licence from its trendsetting blend of fantastical aspects and action fare: where The Omega Man’s hero holed up in an apartment he made a trove of retained civilisation, here the mall becomes the world in small for its heroes, even burying Roger in a small patch of earth in an arboretum in the mall’s heart. The difference in these variations on a concept is The Omega Man’s hero had made his own home into a strongpoint and repository, where here the protagonists lay claim to the bounty of goods, useful and not so much, but also the wealth of wasted space and conspicuousness that ultimately undoes them. Anticipating the possibility of other survivors penetrating the mall, they disguise the entrance to the office and maintenance sectors where they hole up and forge a kind of home for themselves.

Part of the specific power and weird beauty of Romero’s early films comes from their pungent sense of place enforced by the low budgets and local-to-Pennsylvania focus of his efforts. He recorded and found a sense of mystery and drama in zones of American life in the 1970s far from the usual focal points of mass media. He mapped landscapes from decaying ethnic suburbs and bourgeois housing tracts in Season of the Witch and Martin. Here he captures the blinking bewilderment of the shopping mall as a tacky-plush environ offering deliverance from the mundane and run-down, where everything is shiny and plentiful, landing like a great oblong UFO in the midst of the Pennsylvania hinterland, a world that’s entirely palpable and workaday, albeit suddenly devoid of people. The fringe atmosphere is enforced by the total lack of name actors. Stephen’s status as an extremely minor kind of celebrity – one of the thieving cops they encounter recognises him – and Fran’s behind-the-camera job give them a degree of familiarity and contact with the infrastructure behind media authority, and yet they’re more keenly aware than anyone how paltry a defence that becomes right away. Stephen, setting up a TV in their hideaway, manages to tune into an emergency broadcast show where a scientist, Dr Rausch (Richard France), and host (Howard Smith) keep on arguing in much the same way the pair at the beginning did, the scientist eventually reduced to murmuring “We must be logical…logical…logical” over and over whilst the sound of Peter’s coup-de-grace on Roger rings out with tragic finality.

Where in Night of the Living Dead the luckless Barbara became the avatar for the ordinary world completely shocked out of all function, Fran is a very different figure, cut from ‘70s feminist cloth: she is obliged to be the film’s most passive character in many respects and yet she’s also its flintiest and more frustrated. Revealed some time into the film to be pregnant, she presents what would be in another kind of movie a spur to gallant behaviour by the men, but here she has to fight her own depressive and recessive streak as well as her companions’ tendency to skirt her presence. Fran is almost caught and killed by a zombie that penetrates the hideout whilst the men are running around having a blast, an experience that shakes her profoundly but soon underpins her to demand inclusion and to be taught enough of the arts of survival the others have to stand a chance alone, a demand that’s also a prod to herself to keep functioning. She is nonetheless more saddled with the status of Madonna for a new world than anointed: what her pregnancy means, can mean, in such a moment remains entirely ambiguous throughout. States of sickly and inescapable physicality are contrasted as Fran vomits from morning sickness whilst Roger wanes and withers. Fran most closely resembles the detached and forlorn heroes of Romero’s previous three films, not stricken with a murderously dualistic nature like Martin but like him responding with a certain degree of realism to her lot.

Fran’s alternately loving and strained relationship with Stephen at first blossoms and then becomes disaffected as the couple get to live out a magazine lifestyle but constantly confront the void beyond it. Romero manages to annex Antonioni-esque anxiety and evocation of existential pain within the frame of a gaudy genre film. After Roger’s death the remaining trio form a momentarily stable community, the two lovers and their solicitous pal – notably, where Stephen cringes at Fran’s demand for inclusion, Peter coolly acknowledges it – who play within the mall. Stephen and Fran practice their shooting on store mannequins set up on the ice rink where Fran also sometimes cavorts alone, shattering the plastic visages with high-calibre rounds as if executing the old world even as they can’t escape it. But Fran also takes the chance to make herself over as a plush matinee idol, albeit one clutching a revolver with a mad glint in her eye. Peter plays chef and waiter entertaining the couple with a swanky dinner, a last hurrah for civilised dining and a romantic ideal. Peter excuses himself and goes to pop the cork on a champagne bottle over Roger’s grave. This marvellous vignette, one of the warmest and saddest in any Horror movie and indeed any movie, also marks the zenith for the trio’s deliverance from the nightmare without. But the zombies are still trying frantically if pointlessly to penetrate the doors, their flailing, mashing physiques matching the fulminating disquiet that quickly enough poisons the heroes in their remove.

The vision of the mall as microcosm of the modern consumer society works in part because of its obviousness: the film is free to engage or ignore it when it feels like it because it’s so omnipresent. Orgiastic violence before the J.C. Penney! The heroes are engaged and motivated when fighting for it, adrift and dejected once they have it. The basic notion likening the mesmerised victims of capitalism the zombies is obvious to the point of being, generically speaking, a truism today. In this regard Dawn of the Dead’s influence has become a bit trying in giving tacit permission for would-be Horror filmmakers to present visions that most definitely stand for this-that-or-the-other. That Romero’s vision doesn’t collapse as a moraine of pretence is due to his finesse in moving between tones and stances as well as piling on galvanising thrills. The frantic, overwhelmed feeling apparent in the film’s first act and the intrepid, sometimes borderline larkish middle third as the foursome take over the mall, unfold with a real-feeling sense of the characters and their mission, giving credence to their motives and choices. Romero puts a sense of process and detail front and centre, presenting them with challenges to overcome. Romero charts the way seemingly benign situations can become fights for life and vice versa, giving weight to everything from the amount of time it takes to close and lock some shopfront doors to the exploitation of a car set up on the mall floor for a lottery prize as a fun and zippy way of traversing the space within when it comes to the survival process.

Indeed, Dawn of the Dead is as much farce and adventure movie as gory fright-fest, with Romero allowing an edge of outlandish hyperbole even in horrific moments, from that astonishing zombie beheading to the sight of a zombie Hare Krishna stalking Fran, a dash of satire not that far from Airplane! (1980) in the wry depiction of 1970s subcultures and general weirdness. The zombies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people, from bulbous to gnarled and barely hanging together. The scenes of our heroes merrily plundering the shops and turning the mall space into a private playground are reminiscent in their way of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at play in the department store in Modern Times (1936). When the characters raid a gun shop to put together an arsenal and wipe out the zombies inside the mall, Romero’s carbolic sense of humour and skill for editing highlight the fetishism for the shiny, deadly weapons and the claimed mantle of empowered heroism – Peter claims twin revolvers to hang from his belt and eyes zombies through a rifle scope with pleasure – through his rhythmic jump cuts. The gun shop’s paraphernalia, replete with stuffed animal heads and elephant tusks and African tribal music on the loudspeakers, promise a romp across the savannah on safari shooting whatever moves, oiling up racist macho fantasy. It’s a scene that’s only come to feel more and more relevant and biting in the intervening decades.

The film’s signature touch of sarcastic ruthlessness is the playful muzak theme that blasts from the mall’s loudspeakers, repeated over the end credits as a jolly soundtrack to perambulating zombies. The score, provided by Argento and his band Goblin, is one of the odder assets of the film, veering between straightforward suspense-mongering with propelling, atmospheric electronica, and a spoof-like take on B-movie music, particularly in the finale. Romero takes up where Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) left off in contemplating the apocalypse as a space where lunacy reigns with its own strange wit, mocking the forces mobilised to deal with the disaster as symptoms of the problem. Romero even dares take up Stanley Kubrick’s discarded pie fight intended for that film and incorporate it in the delirious climax, when a gang of bikers and lowlifes who seem to have formed a mobile pirate fleet attack and invade the mall. This gang ironically has achieved an equally viable way of surviving the zombie apocalypse through open embrace of mayhem and savagery that makes the zombies in their fashion look tame, careening down the wide spaces with their grunting motorcycles, loosing off rounds from Tommy guns and swinging down sledgehammers on the zombies. They’re attracted to the mall when they catch sight of the helicopter hovering over it, actually Stephen teaching Fran how to fly it.

The devolution of what we see of humanity apart from the core protagonists, from the redneck gun-nuts, who at least seem vaguely amenable to public service, to these neo-barbarians, is Romero’s sourest meditation. Dawn of the Dead is still alive in every respect but its ferocity is certainly rooted in its moment, its evocation of cavernous dread and contempt for the state of America in the post-Vietnam, post-counterculture moment, the mood of dissociation amidst the lingering hangovers of a frenetic cultural moment and the promised birth of Reaganism: nowhere else was Jimmy Carter’s diagnosed “malaise” illustrated with such brutish, vigorous force. As he did with Martin, Romero shows how smartly he was plugged into the boondock zeitgeist and understanding the emerging punk ethos in pop culture with its love of mayhem, force, and violence as cure-alls for a forced and phony culture. The biker-vandals storm the shiny temple of mammon and unleash pure anarchy. Amongst their number is Tom Savini, the Vietnam veteran turned actor and makeup artist who also first laid claim to becoming a Horror cinema legend by providing the film’s gore effects.

Savini’s gift for creating convincing atrocities with the help of some latex and offal helps Romero achieve wild catharsis in the climactic scenes as the biker invasion devolves into a three-way battle. Stephen shoots back at the raiders: Peter joins in reluctantly but soon finds satisfaction in driving off the attackers. The raiders enjoy unleashing carnage on the zombies, but when their pals flee several are left to be trapped and consumed alive by the dead, cueing gleefully gross visions of gouged entrails and torn limbs. It could be argued that it’s a wonder the raiders have survived so long being so stupid and reckless, but then again their approach to the apocalypse is perhaps as valid as any other going, getting high on their own violent prowess. Romero’s frenzied editing ratchets up the descent into utter hysteria in a sequence that stands a masterpiece of the demented. Perhaps Romero’s goofiest joke is also a black comedy piece-de-resistance, as one of the biker insists on trying out the compulsory mall blood pressure machine only to be attacked and eaten, leaving his arm still in the strap. Stephen is wounded by the wild bullets of the raiders and then bitten by zombies drawn by his blood, and finally he emerges from an elevator as a zombie, his remnant instinct this time leading other ghouls through the false front towards the hideaway. Peter guns him down, but the act feels like an embrace of ultimate nihilism.

Romero had originally planned the end the film with the suicides of Fran and Peter, but changed it whilst shooting. It’s not hard to see why, as such an ending would have been as glum as hell but lack the specific kick of Night of the Living Dead’s more ingeniously cruel and pointed ending. The one he chose instead sees Peter, resolving not to live anymore in comprehending what’s become of the world after shooting Stephen, encouraging Fran to leave in the helicopter whilst intending to remain behind and shoot himself before the zombies can get him. But Peter’s fighting instincts kick back in at the last second, forcing him to fight his way out and join Fran in flying away in the dawn light. An ambivalent ending for sure, sending the two off towards an unknowable fate that might meet them an hour or a decade hence. Goblin’s scoring as Peter resurges manages to be vaguely sarcastic in its sudden heroic vigour but also genuinely pleased the life impulse still means something. Moreover, it’s an ending that suits Romero’s theme as expressed throughout the movie, underlining the entire point of the experience in the mall. The act of fighting is life itself; everything else slow death. The departing duo leave behind the mall now filling with zombies inchoately pleased to be back in their natural habitat, wandering the aisles, shuffling gently to the jaunty muzak. Truly a fate worse than death. Despite intervening decades of imitation, Dawn of the Dead remains without likeness, one of the singular masterpieces of the genre.

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1930s, Horror/Eerie

White Zombie (1932)

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Director: Victor Halperin
Screenwriter: Garnett Weston

By Roderick Heath

Victor Halperin’s White Zombie holds status as one of the true oddities of classic Hollywood Horror cinema. The Chicago-born Halperin and his brother Edward, who often served as his producer, were entrepreneurial Hollywood players: Victor broke into moviemaking penning the screenplay of 1922’s The Danger Point, debuted as a director on Greater Than Marriage (1924), and served as writer, producer, and director on the Agnes Ayres vehicle When A Girl Loves (1924). Like many other Hollywood talents the Halperins had difficulty negotiating the transition to sound, but when the enormous popularity of Béla Lugosi’s star-making vehicle Dracula (1931) unleashed a craze for Horror films, the brothers mounted what was then a relative rarity, an independently produced film, filmed on a budget of $50,000, making canny used of Universal Studios’ infrastructure and staff and managing to land Lugosi for one week’s work a few hundred dollars. Today Halperin is best remembered by far for White Zombie. The film’s profitability and popularity gained Halperin a fresh studio contract with Paramount, although his two horror follow-ups, Supernatural (1933) and Revolt of the Zombies (1936), were interesting but sketchy disappointments, and the director himself reportedly disliked working in the genre despite his affinity with it. Later Halperin worked at the Poverty Row studio PRC, managing the occasional oddity like the Jack London adaptation Torture Ship (1938), before retiring from directing at 47: he would live for another 41 years.

White Zombie also owes some of its stature to being the first zombie movie, albeit one with few links to the subgenre as we recognise it today. The infamously hard-living journalist and travel writer William Seabrook had grabbed international attention with his report on Haitian voodoo practises in his 1929 book The Magic Island, popularising the word “zombie.” A play by Kenneth Webb took the word as its title and gave inspiration to Halperin, but legal tussles obliged Halperin to amend his own title. The film’s early vignettes, including Haitians burying bodies in the middle of the road to prevent them being resurrected, are drawn directly from Seabrook’s book. One famous episode recounted in the book was the story of a young bride who realises she’s attending a wedding party where all the guests are dead: Halperin references this with his own benighted wedding but inverts the situation so it’s the bride who joins the undead ranks. But White Zombie is really more a classical fairy tale, with its central villain, the notorious dark sorcerer “Murder” Legendre (Lugosi) offered as a figure akin to Koschei the Dread from Slavic myth or Atlantes from Orlando Furioso, a figure of vast and evil power ensconced in a fortress, snatching away the decorous maiden and suborning all to his will.

Like Karl Freund’s The Mummy from the same year, White Zombie’s minatory charge stems from the way it hovers stylistically in a grey zone between silent and sound cinema, between generic Horror cinema and something more primal and poetic. The film’s opening credits unfold over the burial in the road, the ritual singing of the funeral party offering a stark and throbbing rhythm on sound. Upon this scene intrudes a horse-drawn coach carrying the young about-to-be-marrieds Madeleine Short and Neil Parker (Madge Bellamy and John Harron). Neil and Madeleine have come to Haiti to be married after accepting the hospitality and patronage of Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), a local plantation owner they met on a cruise, with the promise of a job for Neil as Beaumont’s agent in New York. “A cheerful introduction for you to our West Indies,” Neil comments to Madeleine after rolling over the fresh grave. Halperin follows this immediate with the first and most notable example of his peculiar imagistic imagination, cutting to a shot of the carriage rolling along the lonely, shadowy country road with a pair of huge, glowing eyes appearing as a spectral presence tracking the vehicle’s passage, before revealing a tall figure standing by the road waiting for the carriage.

The huge eyes become smaller and zero in on the figure’s head, telling the viewer this figure is an uncanny, threatening, very interested presence with supernatural power. The driver (Clarence Muse) halts to ask the figure for directions, and we gain our first proper glimpse of Lugosi as Legendre, a Satanic figure with blazing, mesmeric eyes, widow’s peak sharp as a scalpel, flaring eyebrows and inward-crooking beard forks. Legendre approaches the carriage and clasps Madeleine’s trailing white silk scarf even as he holds her and Neil rapt with his powerful gaze. Against the night horizon, upon a slope above the road, a procession of slowly moving, disquieting figures, men the coach driver recognises instinctively: “Zombies!” The driver whips up the horses and charges away, leaving Legendre with the scarf in hand, much to his satisfaction. When the carriage finally arrives at the Beaumont house, a place of lush splendour and genteel pretence, Madeleine and Neil listen to the driver’s credulous explanation that the people they saw were the living dead, and the driver points to the line of figures moving down a slope silhouetted against the sky in fear, declaring these to be the zombies.

A mysterious man approaching through the shadowy garden of the Beaumont estate proves to be Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary and theologian who’s been invited by Beaumont to officiate at the couple’s wedding and a hearty, reassuring figure. He dispels the eerie atmosphere, but only to a degree, as even he admits that Haiti is a place filled with such mysteries that would “turn your hair grey.” Bruner becomes uncomfortable as he listens to Neil and Madeleine’s explanation of why they’re here and what Beaumont has promised them, noting that Beaumont never struck him as such an altruistic romantic. Halperin illustrates how right Bruner is, as Beaumont (Robert Frazer) is seen instructing his manservant Silver (Brandon Hurst), asking if he’s heard anything from “that gentleman” and quickly enough revealing that his actual motivation for inviting the young couple is because he’s in love with Madeleine and wants to find some way to cleave them apart. Even as he greets the couple warmly and declares himself ready to help them along, Beaumont is planning to head out and visit Legendre, a dark sorcerer and voodoo master, who promises he can render Madeleine Beaumont’s passive and obedient slave.

Beaumont’s visit to the sugar mill Legendre owns is one of the more delicately strange and important sequences in Horror cinema. Legendre’s zombie slaves toil in shuffling, dead-eyed ranks to feed cane into a huge grinding machine, itself driven by zombies turning the gears, machinery still working obliviously as one of the zombies trips and falls into the feed chute to be chewed up along with the cane. Halperin betrays unique awareness of how sound cinema could operate in the genre here, allowing the unnerving creak and grind of the machinery and the unnatural silence of the zombies to forge the uncanny atmosphere as well as draw out the fascinating thematic undercurrents of what we’re seeing. Later, he uses the ambient croaks of frogs and insects, and the bloodcurdling shriek of a vulture to equally odd and unnerving effect. Seeds for the ominous sound design of David Lynch in this, conjuring oneiric and psychological dimensions beyond what visuals can gain on their own. Indeed, White Zombie, described by Phil Hardy as “one of the underground classics of horror,” feels like a root leading as much to Lynch, Kenneth Anger, and other icons of underground and experimental cinema and surrealist music videos, as it does to George Romero’s Dead movies and his manifold imitators.

White Zombie certainly birthed a subgenre followed by zombie movies with highly varying levels of ethnographic validity and dramatic tension, like Roy William Neill’s Black Moon (1934), Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Edward L. Cahn’s Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), and on to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979) and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987). But the film’s more vital influence feels more rarefied, writing cheques more exalted filmmakers like Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, and Lynch would cash. Something about White Zombie seems to sit outside the normal boundaries of the liminal. Some of this air of the alien is due to the archaic, shoestring production, like the wheezing, tinny classical music on the soundtrack: the glaze of oldness as an aesthetic unto itself has a taunting appeal, the awareness of the limitations of past technology operating in its own way as a force of black magic itself, sustaining the ghostly presence of people long dead. But it also connects to the otherworldly charge of Halperin’s carefully composed visuals, which by contrast to the primitive sound still retain vibrant lustre. The early shot of the huge, spectral eyes that shrink and find their place in Legendre’s head is a marvellous jolt of visual invention, whilst the column of gnarled and mindless zombies tracking Legendre around the dark Universal backlot standing in for Haiti are a memorable, eerie sight, bolstering the idea of the land beyond the wrought iron boundaries of the plantation as ruled over by primal and unnatural forces which know no easy quieting, where the dead walk and the irrational still rules.

Legendre’s sugar mill offers a wealth of hallucinatory space around the dark grinding machines and hobbling black bodies. The stout but carefully crafted gates that separate Legendre’s managerial space evoke the pretences of Old World civility erected as a barrier to separate from the ruler from the ruled, whilst also allowing Halperin to work through his recurring fascination with images captured spying through barriers and loopholes. Beaumont’s visit to Legendre sees the self-deluding and desperate planter begging Legendre to facilitate his desire to make Madeleine fall in love with him – “If she were to disappear for a month!” – but Legendre tells him with detached thoughtfulness that she is too deeply in love with Neil and implies his only option for obtaining her is to make her into a zombie. Legendre hands him a vial of the powder he uses for the zombie-making ritual and tells him a pinprick will suffice on some object, but Beaumont initially announces his refusal to take this option. Legendre hovers outside Beaumont’s house whilst the wedding proceeds within, Beaumont making desperate entreaty to Madeleine to her love-struck disinterest.

This finally provokes Beaumont to a desperate, fateful gesture that directly engages a folkloric feel as he hands Madeleine a rose impregnated with the zombifying powder. This causes her to pitch over and collapse, apparently dead, at the wedding banquet. The visuals in this sequence are particularly memorable in the sharp alternations of romantic and sepulchral imagery. The impending wedding amidst the splendour of Beaumont’s mansion with its gilt fixtures and candelabra and flowers has some of the teeming lushness of Josef von Sternberg. Legendre without exists in a hoary netherworld as he presents the equally folkloric figure of death intruding upon a wedding, standing before an ornate gateway as the master of life and death, the dark antithesis to the settled, ordered pretence and ritual sustained within the house. Legendre, watched over the harshly shrieking vulture that seems to be his familiar, clutches Madeleine’s white scarf as he takes a candle from a carriage lamp and carves it into a voodoo doll so he can work his influence over the hapless bride.

Another seminal 1932 Horror film White Zombie bears a striking similarity to is Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, a resemblance particularly keen when comparing Dreyer’s tour of a mysterious abode where the shadows of dancers play on walls with Halperin’s take on the same idea, finding a way of acknowledging the world beyond the primal drama consuming the protagonist without dispelling the mood of oneiric isolation. Neil is glimpsed in a tavern drinking away his sorrow after Madeleine’s burial, the revelry around him casting shadows on the wall, amidst which he sees Madeleine’s spectral, pleading visage. Neil, close to madness with grief and drink, stumbles up the path to the cemetery to visit Madeleine’s mausoleum, only for Halperin to fade out as his scream echoes from within in finding Madeleine’s body gone. The fairy tale qualities of the film, focusing on objects like the cursed rose given at the wedding and the climactic images of the possessed princess in the dark tower under the sorcerer’s spell, connect with a nascent surrealist sensibility. Neil’s desperate liebestod comes touched with a morbidly hysterical, almost necrophiliac edge as he goes to join Madeleine in the grave, intercut with the sight of Legendre and Beaumont supervising as the zombies remove Maadeleine’s coffin from its place and open, revealing her doll-like form, nominally dead now the perfect, passive feminine love object. Years later Buñuel would approximate aspects of Halperin’s vision in Abismos de Pasion (1953), whilst Halperin’s insidious feel for animal life infesting his conjured world is also Buñuel-like.

Halperin and his screenwriter Garnett Weston deliberately tried to lessen the reliance on dialogue, to make the production easier and expecting beforehand that on a stringent budget they weren’t likely to land particularly good actors. It’s commonly noted that the two romantic leads, Bellamy and Harron, are insipid, and Frazer, with his shock of dark hair and sensual lips, has a Byronic quality that’s good for his part even as he often walks the edges of the overripe. All the more space for Lugosi to dominate. Lugosi’s star wattage was at its zenith when he made White Zombie, which makes it all the more interesting that he was willing to appear in a low-budget independent film, particularly after he had so recently turned down the role of the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), in doing so handing over an opportunity to the man about to be his great, even eclipsing rival as a horror star, Boris Karloff. The attraction of the role is obvious, however, offering Lugosi, Dracula notwithstanding, his greatest genre role. Legendre is a perfectly iconic villain with his unmistakeable appearance and costume, a figure of dread and sepulchral stature supllying an intelligent brand of evil, relishing the power he wields with an edge of vengeful purpose.

Weston’s dialogue registers on a more subtly sinister key than Lugosi’s better-known Dracula lines, allowing Lugosi to turn his much-mimicked but still unique intonations to drawing out an undercurrent of sardonic and self-satisfied menace, most pointedly in his comment to Beaumont as the planter slips ever deeply under his power after once snubbing him, gripping the sorcerer’s hand in a bleakly useless appeal to his humanity: “You refused to shake hands with me once, I remember…Well, well. We understand each-other better – now.” Legendre watches Beaumont succumbing with a quiet, almost indulgent sense of entertainment whilst he whittles another candle down to a voodoo doll of the planter. White Zombie exploits the image that had been built around Lugosi even well before he started playing Dracula on stage, as a man imbued with preternatural stature and mesmeric eyes often highlighted with pencil spotlights. In Dracula this was part of his role as the ultimate dark seducer-destroyer, a bringer of sexual evil, whereas Legendre is in that regard a more ambiguous creature.

It’s signalled that Legendre is driven on by resentment and a cruel sense of poetic justice, as he points out the members of his favoured zombie cabal, consisting of people who tried to control or sit in judgment on him, including his former mentor in sorcery, a minister of the government, and the state executioner “who might have executed me!” Beaumont immediately and unthinkingly gets on Legendre’s wrong side when he neglects to accept the sorcerer’s proffered hand at their first meeting. Legendre’s delight in controlling people has the inevitable dimension of claiming the virginal young beauty as he zombifies Madeleine but also gains a homoerotic edge as he does the same to Beaumont, taunting him in his bleakly transforming state with the dread knowledge, “You are the first man to know what is happening,” and regretting that Beaumont can no longer speak to describe the experience. The sight of Beaumont, twisting up, slowly losing control of his limbs and faculties as a malignant force takes him over, speaks eloquently nonetheless of a state that actually seems to live up to the old cliché of a fate worse than death.

Where the vampire becomes in death a wielder of mysterious power and therefore has long served as a metaphor for potency ranging from the political to the erotic, the zombie is the opposite, driven on purely by either the will of a master or the remnant of a life instinct. Zombie movies have long since become detached from the zombie figure’s roots in the black magic esoterica attached to voodoo religious tradition. That’s largely for understandable reasons: dealing with voodoo obliges storytellers to anchor their stories in a specific cultural and historical dimension, often with an edge of racist assumption even despite the best intentions of the filmmakers. But the figure of the mindlessly shuffling walking dead nonetheless retains a potency that can be applied to a variety of paradigms. Despite its pointed metaphors and mindful aspects White Zombie doesn’t entirely avoid such discomfort, sporting one actor in blackface playing ancient witch doctor Pierre (Dan Crimmins), who Bruner visits to learn more about Legendre, whilst Muse’s performances manages to imbue his part with an edge of baleful awareness and solicitous purpose even as it also treads the edges of bug-eyed, timorous stereotype.

The very title of White Zombie invokes games of racial coding – a white zombie is something else again from a black zombie, apparently. But Halperin’s film also predicts the later detachment of concept from root in the scene at Legendre’s mill, the zombie immediately and plainly rendered a vessel of potent metaphorical malleability. Legendre is also a classical figure of devolved European culture, with his great gothic castle grafted onto a new world shore like some cancerous offshoot. The vision of Legendre’s sugar mill zeroes in on the ghostly echo of slavery sustained in zombie folklore with Legendre as a Baron Samedi figure, whilst also linking it to a more general, mordant portrayal of exploitative labour that must have echoed with excruciating clarity for a Depression-era audience: “They work faithfully,” Legendre tells Beaumont as he encourages the planter to take them up for his own workforce, “They are not worried about long hours.” The perfect state of capitalist endeavour.

It’s also tempting to view Legendre as an analogue for the rising tide of totalitarianism in Europe, a prototypical fascist dictator suborning people to his will, as well as embodying the dark side of western colonialism and exploitation. The zombie cadre that follows Legendre consists of defeated and enslaved enemies from the ranks of the local law and politics, as well as rivals and his former mentor in magic “whose secrets I tortured out of him,” rivals in power suborned in a fashion comparable to fascist takeover of the mechanisms of civic democracy, although at the same time he also exhibits a mischievously subversive attitude towards state power. In this regard he also rather strongly resembles the type of gangster-outlaw hero so popular in films around the same time, subverting the machinery of justice and morality to service his own will. His enthralled servants wear the symbols of defeated creeds – one has an iron cross slung around his neck, whilst his former mentor still wears a robe inscribed with cabalistic signs. Halperin would reiterate this shade of political commentary, however clumsily, in Revolt of the Zombies, where the story revolves around trying to bury the potential zombie threat stemming out of a misbegotten attempt to use them as soldiers during World War I.

The theme of domination also resonates on a more interpersonal level. White Zombie offers a dark lampoon the concept of the trophy wife, the beauty suborned to plutocratic ego as both Legendre and Beaumont in their way attempt to impose their will on Madeleine. Beaumont’s desperate passion shades into a sense of entitled prerogative that drives him, despite his scruples, to impose on his beloved a most terrible fate, only to then cringe in remorse as he beholds her, a dead-eyed, blank-minded automaton playing piano in Legendre’s castle, a prettified object. Beaumont is remorseful as he perceives the ultimate logic of his choices, only to quickly pay the price. For Legendre, such perfect annihilation of personality and agency seems on the other hand the most relished edge of his power, steadily consuming every being that comes into range, happy to force the mindless Madeleine to slay Neil when he comes to rescue her, and having his zombie cadre carry the screaming Silver out to the castle battlements and drop him into the whirlpool churning below.

After finding Madeleine’s body missing, Neil visits Bruner, who speaks sceptically about the supernatural even as he readies for a contest of magic, showing Neil statutes in Haitian law against poisoning in a form that reproduces the appearance of zombiehood. Bruner has no pretences to being a sorcerer but explains in his position as a preacher he’s picked up lore from all sorts of sources. Bruner and Neil set out across country and approach the territory where Legendre dominates, a veritable fiefdom of death where he rules unchallenged, and camp on the wave-tossed beach beneath Legendre’s citadel, Neil stricken with fever. Legendre’s keep, based around a central set redressed from Dracula, is a marvellously incongruous outpost of gothic architecture and outsized aristocratic pretence, a space entrapping Legendre’s dark fantasies and egotisms as well as his human pets, with an interior replete with odd and inchoate dimensions, including a flooded dungeon and a whirlpool below for easy disposal of unwanted guests. Halperin returns to liebestod imagery as he splits his frame between the mindless Madeleine hovering on a high balcony in the keep whilst Neil, visionary in his feverish state, senses her presence and the bond of their love achieves its own, delirious spiritual force, and the young husband begins a stumbling journey towards the castle.

White Zombie occasionally signals the relative freedom of the pre-code independent filmmakers as Halperin offers glimpses of Madeleine before her nuptials in her underwear, and gore, as when Neil shoots a zombie only behold the bloodless hole it leaves in its chest, tame of course by later standards but provocative enough for the time, particularly the latter touch, at a time when Lugosi’s Dracula wasn’t even shown biting anyone or being staked. Moreover such touches simply feed rather than disrupt the weird atmosphere, marking out the corporeal stakes of the magical drama. Halperin’s unusual, oblique, reality-destabilising grammar approach is maintained even as the film nears its ending. Legendre mesmerically directs Madeleine to stab the collapsed Neil after he manages to penetrate the house, stirring the white-clad captive from her bed and drawing her through the cavernous twists of the castle for the deed, filming her through a loophole in a balustrade in a frame charged with a sense of onerous constriction. As she moves to stab Neil, a hand reaches into the frame and grips her wrist, staying the killing blow, the unseen figure’s black cape also visible.

This helps identify that it’s actually Bruner who stops her blow, having followed Neil into the house and dressed in the cape in literally assuming the mantle of opposing white magician, but Halperin transforms the gesture into something rather more abstract, almost like the hand of fate, or the author, intervening to break the chains of Legendre’s control. As the zombies shuffle in to aid their master in the final battle, Halperin shows their ragged, stalky shadows cast on a wall, incarnations of the darkness scuttling out of its burrow to meet the white of Madeleine’s nightgown and Neil’s suit. As Madeleine takes up Legendre’s dagger the sorcerer’s command from the table where he was talking at Beaumont, the latter attempts in his last throes of transformation to prevent her, with no success. The climax comes as sudden, hysterical blur of action as Neil finds himself surrounded by the zombies, Bruner offering an amusingly curt answer to Legendre’s vast necromantic power by sneaking up behind him and knocking him out with a blow to the head, before ordering the zombies to leap over the battlements into the surging surf.

The recovering Legendre smashes a vial of his zombifying powder on the masonry when Bruner and Neil try to charge him, and holds them at bay with his will, only for Beaumont, advancing with the last of his human strength and purpose, to ambush and grab the sorcerer, and drive them both over the precipice to their deaths, whereupon Madeleine returns to life. The film’s simple yet rich narrative closes a tragic circle as Beaumont undoes the evil he set in motion and even provides a proof that his passion was as authentic for Madeleine as Neil’s, as he uses his last breath to save her and the man she loves as well as avenging himself. Halperin signs off with a leave-‘em-laughing touch of Bruner interrupting the couple’s reuniting kiss to ask for a light for his pipe, but it actually comes as a welcome release from the atmosphere Halperin has sustained despite all limitations for the previous seventy minutes, that suffocating netherworld where the dead walk and romance has poisoned thorns under the pretty petals.

Standard
1960s, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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Director/Co-screenwriter: George A. Romero

By Roderick Heath

It began when a short filmmaker and production aide working for host Fred ‘Mr’ Rogers’ Pittsburgh-based children’s TV show decided to make a horror movie. 27-year-old George A. Romero and his friends, bored with making anodyne entertainment and looking to make a splash, pooled resources financial and technical and formed a production company called Image Ten. The company set out to film a script Romero had written with pal John A. Russo, drawing on a short story Romero had penned, strongly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1958 novella I Am Legend. With a budget trickling in from several sources that eventually added up to just over $100,000 dollars, the film shoot was largely restricted to weekends over a seven month period when cast and crew were free, out in the Pennsylvania hinterland. The best audition for the lead role the filmmakers saw was that of former academic turned performer Duane Jones, making the film one of the few of its kind to that date with an African-American leading man. Members of the crew and production staff doubled as cast. Rogers supported Romero’s efforts but wouldn’t let him use an actor from his show star in the project, which seemed destined to exemplify the phrase “cheap and nasty.” Romero and his team, shooting on cheap 16mm black and white stock, fashioned their artisanal epic until they had a real film in the can, but then had a hard time selling it to a distributor because of the visceral gore and bleak ending. Even the estimable schlock palace AIP wouldn’t touch it. Their work, first entitled Night of the Flesh Eaters, was finally taken on by a low-rent New York company, the Walter Reade Organization, and premiered in 1968. Reviewers like Roger Ebert and moviegoers promptly freaked out, as the film was being shown without a censor classification, so children were being admitted to a film that features cannibalism and murder. The distributor had also retitled it Night of the Living Dead whilst forgetting to update the copyright, meaning that the movie slipped into the public domain almost immediately.

Why are people still talking about this forlorn labour a half-century later?

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To be sure, Night of the Living Dead is no perfect artefact. But it’s the blend of cinematic intelligence and homespun crudity enforced by the circumstances of its production that made it instantly galvanising: the result vibrates with pitiless gall and insolent power, a statement from the fringe that hits right at the axis. Night of the Living Dead exemplified several new trends already in motion when it was released. The old Hollywood was splintering and a void had opened, where there were huge sums of money to be made from an audience TV and mainstream cinema couldn’t touch. The likes of no-budget goreteur Herschell Gordon Lewis had already proven the potential punch of low-budget horror movies made by filmmakers not just outside of the studio cinema system but also labouring away in what seemed to be backwaters of American cultural life. The low budget of Night of the Living Dead gave it a quality that money would have spoilt, a sense of closeness to genuine experience and a brusque countercultural authority. That latter quality was given a steroidal boost by the cruelly sarcastic finale, so similar to the one that would follow a year later in another legendary low-budget film, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider. Romero’s thumb was feeling for the pulse of the zeitgeist, trying to say something about the psychic life of America in the late 1960s. Riots and protests were everywhere, institutions were rocked, the fabric of modern Western life tested in all quarters. Somehow, Night of the Living Dead records that landscape for us now more effectively than just about any other product of the age, even though it never tries to be overtly political, for it hit upon a near-endlessly malleable metaphorical framework to explore what’s happened to the modern body politic.

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Surely that’s part of the reason why today Night of the Living Dead has conquered the world. A vast swathe of the entertainment industry today owes Romero and his ragged band royalties and suitable celebration. The explosion of zombie-themed entertainment that’s cropped up in the past decade or so, from the comic book and TV series The Walking Dead to films like World War Z (2013), only offer slight variations on Romero and Russo’s basic concept and Romero’s subsequent variations on it, in his follow-ups Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Then again, what Romero owed Matheson and Alfred Hitchcock and the sci-fi monster flicks of the 1950s is not so negligible either. Romero had worked on the set of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) but it’s The Birds (1963) that Night of the Living Dead picks apart and stitches back together, a tale of besiegement by savage beasts featuring a blonde heroine who goes largely catatonic after peering grim fate in the eye. But where Hitchcock leaves off is where Romero starts, a point made obvious in the fate of initial, apparent protagonist, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), whose blindsiding experience of world-cracking terror and loss comes scant minutes into the film and leaves her ruined and near-mute for most of the next hour and a quarter. Hitchcock’s film used his inexplicable outbreak of hostility for a lesson that he not busy being born is busy dying, whereas Romero sees a point where everyone might just be dying. Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as the next way station on a trail blazed by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in creating the modern horror film, both in their approach to intimate violence as the new barometer of horrific effect and also in the way they look at the landscape, literal and figurative, we have lived in since the post-World War 2 settlement.

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The film’s opening scene also incorporates a commentary on horror film history, as Barbra and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) arrive in a cemetery out in rural spaces, on their ritual yearly visit performed on behalf of their incapacitated mother to their father’s grave. Johnny employs an impression of a Boris Karloff-like creep to scare Barbra. Like the same year’s Targets, which actually employed Karloff for the same end, Romero here zeroes in on the way the argot of classical horror represented by the venerable English star had become campy and passé, but still possessed an unsettling quality needing a new context to find effect: Johnny’s jokey evocation of horror immediately sets the scene for the real thing. But it’s daytime, in the quiet expanses of the Pennsylvania countryside – surely nothing bad can happen here. The mood is one of tolerance and tested nerves and banal frustration. The string tethering the siblings to this show of familial loyalty is perilously thin, and Johnny keeps testing it, claiming to barely remember his father. He cynically notes that they might as well have bought the same memorial wreath for the grave a few dozen times – mourning is another tacky industry. The toey, distracted tone of this opening suggests disquiet and discomfort already roiling under the surface – Johnny’s irritable distaste for the business he’s been forced to perform is all but tangible as he clearly wants to leave behind his past, with his affectations of hipster playboy, whilst the nervy, already suggestively fragile Barbra can’t escape it and perhaps doesn’t want to. They’re chicks who have clawed their way out of the shell of the classic nuclear family variably well. Johnny can still send Barbra spiralling back into childhood with his sardonic mockery. But the shambling figure Johnny takes for a roaming wino and nominates as one of the looming monsters (“They’re coming to get you, Bar-bra!”) proves to actually be a brute, attacking Barbra and stirring a show of actual brotherly feeling from Johnny, who immediately pays the price as he gets his head bashed in against a gravestone. Barbra flees back to the car but doesn’t have any keys, so tries to escape the ravening stranger by freewheeling down a slope. This gives her enough space to flee on foot towards a nearby house.

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The qualities of Night of the Living Dead that distinguished it from the pack are made instantly apparent in this opening movement. The deceptively calm and tepid atmosphere, loaned a sombre unease by the black and white photography, gives way to a sudden ferocity that’s still remarkable, conveyed by the actors and Romero’s intense camerawork and editing. Most low-budget and independent horror films before this were laborious in their use of the camera; now suddenly the limitations of the form became an asset, in the free and kinetic deployment of the camera matched to the urgency of the action in a manner that’s never exactly documentary-like – Romero’s framings and use of canted angles are far too careful for that – but has something like the same immediacy. The mean jolts of irony that underpin the narrative as a whole first are first felt here. It’s in the switchback from sardonic calm to survival scramble, in the actualisation of Barbra’s unease in the graveyard, in Johnny’s swift demise springing to defend the sister he was teasing seconds before, joining the father he can’t remember as a corpse in a cemetery in Nowheresville. Barbra’s flight from the pursuing zombie takes her to a refuge that proves a trap, the contradiction that defines the rest of the narrative. She finds the farmhouse apparently empty, with only a gruesomely mutilated corpse lying on the stairs for company. The phone is out. The solitude is terrible. She runs for the door only to be pinioned by the glare of headlights: a pick-up truck pulls up and its driver, Ben (Jones), leaps out to urge her back into the house. Ben has just barely survived his own encounter with more of the mysteriously animated corpses lurching around the countryside, and with the fuel in the truck he appropriated nearly exhausted, sees no choice but to make a stand in the farmhouse.

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Ben’s appearance, suddenly thrusting his face into frame, at first an apparent threat swooping out of the dark to grab Barbra, is a brief but notable rupture in the otherwise crisp visual textures: the nominal hero arrives in a blur, a shock to Barbra’s already fried sensory organs. Like one of the film’s spiritual descendants, Alien (1979), the apparently random choice of lead performer loaned potent subtext that isn’t acknowledged in the script or surface drama, but still inflects what we see. Barbra’s shrinking, quaking behaviour as Ben enlists her in his survival efforts could be the fear of someone out of her depth and thrust into an intense situation with a total stranger, and also that of a prim suburban white girl who’s never been so close to a black man in her life. Ben’s got-his-shit-together coolness under pressure seems to contrast Barbra’s rapidly fraying nerves – her rapid spiral into almost disembodied hysteria as she makes account of what happened to her contrasts Ben’s curious, bewildered but cooler narrative, and his implorations “I think you should just stay calm,” voiced as he goes about his business. But this is in part a miscue, as Ben’s experience replays Barbra’s at greater length. Soon, after Ben battles and kills several of the ghouls and begins makeshift barricades, they’re joined by more survivors, revealed to have been hiding in the basement: middle-aged, balding Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and the younger couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). A fault-line quickly splits these would-be survivors as they’re faced with weathering this storm, as Harry advocates holing up in the basement where they only have a single door to worry about, whilst Ben wants to continue barricading the house, to have open ground to fight in or flee to. Tom mediates between the two men’s heated exchanges, whilst Ben declares himself in charge of anyone who wants to remain upstairs with him.

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It goes almost without saying that most of the nascent power and specific inspiration of Night of the Living Dead lies in the way it constantly looks past the zombie horde, whose appetites are basic and instinctual and whose threat is close to abstract, to consider the living instead. But the zombies deserve appreciation. Romero didn’t think of them as zombies, a name with roots lie in specific religious traditions, black magic, and spell-casting, as beings under the will of manipulators or influenced by curses. Romero’s zombies are described here as mutations, animated by a mysterious radiation cloud released when an experimental deep-space probe rocket was destroyed before it could land on Earth, an idea that connects Night of the Living Dead less with precursors in zombie cinema like Victor Helperin’s White Zombie (1932) or John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies (1966) than with sci-fi like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and atomic monster flicks in the Godzilla (1954) tradition, as well as strong similarities to Terence Fisher’s cheap but creepy The Earth Dies Screaming (1964). The idea of making the living dead cannibalistic killers was drawn from the source myth behind the word ghoul. But zombie is such a cool word. Romero would drop this explanation in later instalments, in part because it was unnecessary. The zombies are the ultimate Other, a tabula rasa of terror, possessing no motive, no will, no identity, beyond what natural drive dictates, gruesome shells of being that both defy and embody death. This helps explain their easy popularity today. Moreover, the basic narrative of Night of the Living Dead has many echoes not just from earlier sci-fi and horror films but also Westerns and colonialist adventure stories with the zombies subbing for Indians or tribal Africans laying siege to a microcosmic collective, but allowing those narratives to be sustained without socio-political and racial specifics, which can then be suggested at will. Romero’s undead lurch around dazedly, seeking out any form of sustenance with the appetite of the damned, advancing not with great speed or force but relentless intent, and turning on like ravening animals when they have what they want in their sights.

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By contrast, the humans want above all to survive their ordeal. The will to survival, a trait usually granted respect in the types of narrative Night of the Living Dead takes inspiration from and depicted as informing noble efforts to band together and act selflessly, here is probed at with a ruthless sense of the way character and outlook affect the way we approach situations, finding the opposite tendency. When alone, Ben’s activity seems entirely sensible, as he boards up the house’s doors and windows, seeks out weaponry, and prepares for siege, but the emergence of others in the house instead of relieving tension only provokes a concurrent conflict. The clash between Ben and Harry doesn’t just polarise the movie but still feels like the basic archetype of modern communal quandary, interpretable on several levels – black fight versus white flight, communal action versus self-interest, internationalism versus isolationism, on and on. The microcosmic conceit sees Ben and Harry taking on their separate kingdoms, barking orders and warnings at each-other, with Tom trying to mediate for an outcome. The women are by and large relegated to staying out of the way (in his interesting if comparatively saggy remake in 1990, Tom Savini revised this element smartly so that Barbra, instead of going catatonic, turns into a killing machine, detaching from humanity in a different way) or settling for commentary, as Marilyn acerbically cuts her husband down to size (“That’s important isn’t it – to be right.”) in miniature Albee scenes, paving the way for Romero’s more overt and pointed engagement with feminist themes on Season of the Witch (1971) and the later Dead movies.

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Ben has the gun, retrieved from a cupboard in the house; Harry’s overwhelming need becomes to gain possession of this symbol of male power over his antagonist, who is in turn determined not to be reduced to passively waiting to see if the monsters break in on him or not. But none of these people are absolutely right or wrong, or entirely competent. Harry’s clammy, truculent yet actually timorous demeanour is based in part in concern for his family, particularly his daughter, who’s wasting away from an injury, whilst Ben has no-one he must be personally responsible for. He’s the kind of guy you want in the trenches with you, but his instinct to get away from the house and make for a rescue station pushes him to advocate a risky and eventually catastrophic venture. This sense of human frailty is another aspect of Night of the Living Dead’s adroitness, perhaps indeed its greatest aspect. Romero refuses to stroke our egos and present the usual avatars of our best imagined selves, but provides instead figures desperately improvising, spiralling into panic or thrusting themselves into risks for the sake of action in the belief it must be preferable to inaction. Barbra’s instincts work beautifully in fighting for her life but then collapse once necessity wanes and she’s left to ponder just what happened, and in a similar way Ben’s own attempt to rationally solve his problem proves self-destructive. Ben’s attempt to lead an escape from the house, with Tom’s help and Judy’s fearful imposition, by obtaining petrol for the truck from a locked pump near the house devolves into a comedy of errors and then hideous tragedy. Nothing quite goes right, and the end result is the truck exploding in flames, killing Tom and Judy, and Ben, running back to the house, finds himself locked out by Harry. Harry does eventually let him in, only to get a beating from Ben. Another jagged irony is thrown up, that the ultimate as Harry’s belief the basement is the safest place is proven correct.

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Part of the mystique of Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s early films in general lies in their pungent sense of time and place, their genuineness in evoking the lives of suburbanites and the citizens of out-of-the-way places – the lives of quiet desperation in There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Season of the Witch, the decimated small town of The Crazies (1973), and the blasted urban drear of Martin (1977), films that locate a zone somewhere between genre film and neorealism. Romero’s unknown, sometimes amateur casts and location shooting informed this authenticity that often also shades into awkwardness in acting. But his characters are deftly sketched, arriving as people who seem to have walked right into the films from life. Nobody in Night of the Living Dead is particularly special – that’s why their fate is compelling, the sense this is happening to anyone and everyone. The film’s novelty as horror lay not just in the graphic depictions of cannibalism that comes as the zombies feast on the nicely cooked remains of Tom and Judy, but in its extension of a note sounded in Psycho. Horror is now based in the utterly humdrum modern world, welling out of septic psyches, the effluence of scientific-industrial progress, and decaying bodies, clinging like a faint, indefinable, yet certainly noxious aroma to things formerly thought of as clean and upstanding and mundane, from noble old houses to quaint churchyards and open country spaces, as well infesting the good old family unit.

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Night of the Living Dead is preoccupied with both the bonds that tie people together and also the forces that hold them at odds and foil best intentions. In its way, then, it’s a profoundly neighbourly film – perhaps Romero hadn’t come so far from Mr Rogers perhaps after all. You can imagine the dull potpourri-scented parlours at home and the bus rides Barbra takes back in the city, something Jonny has declared independence from with his flashy sports car. And what’s he doing on the weekend? Ferrying his sister out to place a plastic memorial wreath on his father’s grave on the behest of a senescent elder. Ben tries to create a safe zone and invites everyone to share it even as he and Harry take “my way or the highway” attitudes. The film’s survivalist theme plugs into a system of anxiety that had begun buzzing in the early nuclear age and was starting to go into overdrive in the context of the late ‘60s: Harry is the archetypal white suburban father anxiously shepherding his family into a bunker and hoping to get hold of a weapon in case he needs to hold off social collapse. In this regard Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as an extension of Ray Milland’s little-known but intriguing attempt to portray post-atomic war straits engulfing a normal family, Panic in the Year Zero (1962), and looking forward to a generation of films like Damnation Alley (1977) and Mad Max (1979), obsessed with the post-apocalyptic landscape. Romero also drew on the lone film work of another director from well beyond the pale, Herk Harvey, who like Romero had roots in making pedagogic shorts and helmed the shoestring classic Carnival of Souls (1962). Quite apart from Harvey’s example as a low-budget filmmaker for Romero, his ashen-faced, black-eyed ghouls stalked locations that evoked corners of the American landscape left vacant and decaying in changing times grasped the same mood of blasted alienation and parochial anxiety.

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Romero’s background in regional television and his interest in the way communal infrastructure is both erected to handle calamity and is disturbingly vulnerable to it is constantly evinced throughout the film. The characters in the house urgently try to tune into radio and TV to glean understanding of the situation and find what they should do: Romero understands the modern world as a zone of networks people rely on scarcely without thinking. Night of the Living Dead evokes the eerie, paranoid sensation of tuning into some emergency broadcast station in the middle of the night, beaming out test pattern in boding readiness for the moment when it might be needed. It’s chiefly access to communication devices that entices Harry and his fellows out of the basement for any length of time. The news anchors trying to fill people in on apparently incoherent and unbelievable events contextualise the impossible in familiar terms: the zombie revolution will be televised. Ben and the others make their ill-fated venture out of the house partly in hope of heading to one of the rescue stations advertised on the TV. Tellingly, at the outset of Dawn of the Dead, Romero depicts behind the scenes at a TV station with an argument about beaming out details about rescue stations that might have been overwhelmed by ghouls already. Romero’s follow-ups became increasingly apocalyptic in tenor, each one less a sequel in the usual sense than a revision that ups the scale of the problem each time, reflecting the metastasizing nature of Romero’s concerns. As it’s made clear here, the best method of handling the zombies is quickly established and the roaming National Guard and militias out in the countryside are having no particular problem cleaning up the fiends. This suggestion of possible containment of the problem makes this sharper as a drama of personal endurance on one level and perhaps more sardonic too as it throws more emphasis onto the failings of the heroes rather than the inevitability of their predicament, even if it robs the tale of the biblical scale touched on in Romero’s later takes.

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The word “taboo” is often employed when discussing Night of the Living Dead, and for good reason, as it’s a work dedicated to demolishing them on both the dramatic and thematic levels. In a film driven by its contemplation of the tenuousness of human relations, Romero resolves this motif by locating dark, nihilistic revelry in the worst possible permutation of those relations with the cold, unremitting aim of an Enlightenment satirist like Swift, De Sade, or Voltaire, sharing with their ilk an unfettered readiness to unravel just about any presumption of Western civilisation from Homer on. With the bonus of gleefully trashing just about every nicety of genre storytelling and the presumptions of commercial storytelling. So, the handsome, innocent young couple are roasted alive and then eaten. The two alpha males, far from learning to work together and respect each-other, devolve into primal battle for control of a weapon, resulting in Ben shooting Harry like a commander in the field executing a mutinous officer. Marilyn and Barbra all die at the hands of loved-ones, as Barbra is snatched by the revived and zombified Johnny and fed to the horde of ghouls he’s joined, whilst dying Harry becomes dinner for his daughter who has succumbed to the malady too, before she stabs her horrified mother to death with a trowel. One of Romero’s finer gifts as a filmmaker was his ability to shoot physical action in a manner that invests it with a voluble sense of physical immediacy (at least in his early films – his more recent work is ordinary in this regard), and this is particularly vital in the film’s climactic scenes as the defence of the house swiftly and brutally collapses when the ghoul horde becomes large enough to bash through the barricades – death comes at the protagonists from every direction. Barbra finally snaps out of her daze right at the moment of crisis and leaps into action with surprising energy, to no avail.

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Most pungently and infamously, Ben, suddenly alone and faced with a seemingly unstoppable tide of the marauders, is forced to take refuge in the basement with two half-eaten bodies that revive, forcing him to shoot them, and await the dawn. At long last daylight creeps in, the militia arrive gunning down ghouls all about, and Ben ventures out of his hiding place to cautiously investigate his rescuers – only to get a bullet in the forehead in the presumption he’s just another zombie. Ben’s body is dragged out with hooks to join the ghouls on the bonfire under the opening credits. Jones would go on to star in Bill Gunn’s black cultural riposte, Ganja & Hess (1973). This chilling, utterly deadpan final act exacerbates the film’s political dimensions of course, but also plays in part as a MAD Magazine-like lampoon extending Romero’s attack on narrative clichés. The cavalry has arrived to rescue our hero from siege by the savages, but just a little too late, and he’s just another moving target for a mob of trigger-happy hicks. In a year that had seen Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy gunned down by reactionaries, in which racial and countercultural action constantly nudged the edges of overt insurrection and in which the potential looming spectre of a whole race of angry Harrys emerging from their basements now armed and eager to blast anything dissenting and threatening, Ben’s death didn’t just feel ironic, or tragic, but inevitable. I particularly like the leader of the militia’s jaunty cockaded hat, a touch that gives him a spiritual link to the burgomasters leading mobs in Universal horror films, and with the suspicious undercurrent of lynch mob justice in those films suddenly brought out into the open. But what seems most chilling about watching Night of the Living Dead today is the revelation just how deep Romero’s insight into his culture went, to the point where it manages to feel more intense and relevant with each passing year.

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1960s, Horror/Eerie

Plague of the Zombies (1966) / The Reptile (1966)

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Director: John Gilling

By Roderick Heath

Shot back-to-back on location in Cornwall by John Gilling, a stalwart British writer and director, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies are two of the most sober, solid, and intelligent of Hammer Studios’ 1960s output. The two films were shot back-to-back and intended to run as a double bill. They were never screened that way, but it feels right to look at them together, for they share common locations, themes, and a crucial cast member—the vivid young actress Jacqueline Pearce. Pearce would later gain a cult following playing a villianous dominatrix in Terry Nation’s late ‘70s scifi show Blake’s 7, but her brief window of mid ’60s prominence suggested someone headed for bigger things, a potential rival for Glenda Jackson and Diana Rigg as an intense brunette with acting clout.

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Set in the last third of the 19th century and striking a common note of colonial evils returning to bite the British backside, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies display the radical bent of Hammer close to the end of the studio’s golden age when it could do little wrong at the box office. Exploring in The Reptile problems of nascent feminism and waning patriarchal authority and presenting in Plague of the Zombies an explicit allegory for social exploitation, and, of course, all wrapped in the cosiest folds of Hammer’s traditional, uniquely solid approach to the fantastic and the gothic, Hammer had its fingers directly on the pop culture pulse. The shift in location to Cornwall also offered a different milieu and mood to the overused precincts of forest so many Hammer films used to suggest the stygian wilds of th studio’s usual Mittel Europa.

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Plague, written by Peter Bryan, sees an eminent professor of medicine, Sir James Forbes (André Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) travel to the Cornish countryside on receiving a letter from one of Sir John’s brightest former pupils, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams), begging for aid and advice. A mysterious malady has been claiming lives in the small village where he’s set up practice with his wife, Sylvia’s school friend Alice (Pearce). Upon arrival, Sylvia is harassed by a group of fox-hunting aristocratic barbarians led by Denver (Alex Davion) when she directs them away from their prey. As they ride into the village pursuing her, they casually knock over a coffin containing the body of the latest victim of the undefined disease, infuriating his brother, Tom Martinus (Marcus Hammond), who takes out his feelings on the visitors and on Tompson, who’s utterly at a loss. Worse still, the fraying, desperate Alice is being assaulted by nightmares and physical manifestations of supernatural influence, perpetrated by masked voodoo practitioners in a subterranean vault.

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During the night, Alice wanders off, causing Sylvia to pursue her, whilst Sir James and Tompson dig up Martinus’ brother, only find the body missing from the coffin. Sylvia is ridden down and assaulted by Denver and the hunters, dragged to a remote manor house, and threatened with gang rape before their host, the autocratic local squire, Clive Hamilton (Tom Carson), intervenes. Hamilton begs Sylvia’s forgiveness of his friends, but she walks out in a fury, only to glimpse, in the ruins of an old tin mine, a dead Alice being dumped by a man with the pallor of a walking corpse. Sir John soon begins to discern the dread truth: that the villagers are one by one being turned into zombies to work in Hamilton’s tin mine, and Hamilton now has his sights set on Sylvia as a prospective sacrifice to his dark, imported religion.

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Whilst the references to voodoo practice as being especially revolting and disgusting and Hamilton’s exotic squad of drum-beating black servants suggest the usual hoary racist take, Bryan’s script takes thorough care to pin the villainy squarely on Hamilton as a profiteer who has gone abroad and returned with a supernatural means of exploiting workers and ensuring their servility, thus offering commentary on abuse of immigrants and strikebreaking at the same time. Hamilton’s mob of uptown goons is a particularly gross caricature of a peculiarly English variety of well-bred bastardry, especially Davion’s Denver, who suggests the James Bond type of sadistic playboy stripped of any remnant nobility, drawing cards to see who’ll mount Sylvia first and encouraging his prey to “go to ground, little rabbit!”

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Hamilton, whilst initially seeming outraged by such behaviour, has even grosser motives when it comes to ensnaring the pretty women he encounters, carefully arranging the little tricks—getting them to cut themselves and taking samples of their blood to use in his rites—to put them under his spell, whilst stating of himself that, “I would like be to popular…but that would require me to conform, which I cannot do.” In opposition stands the always wonderful Morell, who had formerly played Watson in Terence Fisher’s giddy 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, as Sir James, a gruff, grumpy hero, and Clare as his intelligent, willful daughter. In their first scene together, Sir James grumbles that he regrets not drowning her at birth, lending an edge of eccentric conflict to their mutual reliance.

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Gilling realises the scenes of the voodoo rites within the depths of the mine with spilt blood, voodoo dolls, and furiously tattooing congregants, and Satanic-masked men stalking the dreary streets of rural Britain, with a near-surreal intensity. There’s a memorable graveyard scene in which Sir James and Tompson are forced to decapitate a newly undead Alice, and a fainted Tompson hallucinates the entire cemetery disgorging its denizens in a putrefying army. Plague of the Zombies was the first halfway serious zombie movie since the 1940s, and its mixture of social commentary and ghoulish threat might have given young George Romero an idea or two, and surely lent some juice to some European zombie movies with distinct visual echoes, like of Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) and Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979).

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The Reptile, written by Hammer bigwig Anthony Hinds under his usual pseudonym of John Elder, employs similar elements, especially the figure of a haughty, dictatorial master of a manor house, around whom mysterious deaths proliferate, except this time the man in question is Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman). He’s a stern, mysterious taskmaster who keeps his nervous, attractive daughter Anna (Pearce again) confined in their house as much as possible, whilst the attacks of a mysterious beast leave locals riddled with bite marks and flush with fatal poison. Former Grenadier Guardsman Harry Spalding (beloved Aussie character actor Ray Barrett in an early, uncharacteristically heroic, part) and his newlywed wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) move into the house left to Harry by his brother, one of those mysterious victims killed in bizarre circumstances in Franklyn’s house at the very beginning. Franklyn is desperate to get them out of the house again, but the Spaldings find a local friend in Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper) and are warned of the mystery by resident eccentric Mad Peter (John Laurie). When they encounter Anne, the Franklyns are fascinated by her brittle, intoxicating persona and alarmed by the doctor’s fierce repression of her.

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The punchline this time is that Franklyn, a scholar of all varieties of religious practise who had spent decades in the Orient, has incensed a Malayan snake cult whose practises he spied upon. They kidnapped Anna and had her possessed by a snake-demon. Under the insidious control of a cult priest posing as Franklyn’s servant (Marne Maitland), the demon occasionally takes Anna over and sooner or later destroys anyone who comes close to her. This makes for an interesting variation on the familiar paranoid theme of much Victorian gothic literature, in which icons stolen from other lands bring imperialist devils home to roost manifesting displays of corrosive supernatural influence. In this film, the theme is made more explicable and pointed, as the sibilant Malayan reiterates to Franklyn the arrogant crime for which he will be punished continually through his own daughter, who has taken on a sensual intensity forbidden to Victorian femininity.

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This abuts a second more acutely troubling metaphor, one of incestuous patriarchal panic and attraction to emerging female sexuality. In a brilliant scene, Franklyn has Anna, who, having lived with him in the East for many years maintains Indian customs and dress, play the sitar for the Spaldings. She travels into a deep, predatory trance while playing, she and her father staring at each other in fixation until the doctor erupts in disgust and smashes her instrument. Later he’s nauseated to discover she’s shed her skin, leaving it in her bed, a perfectly distilled image to represent the forbidden sexuality at the tale’s heart. A common thread in the two movies is the portrait of a prodigious widowed father with a precocious, takes-after-her-old-man daughter, except the mild abrasiveness of the Forbes duo conceals deep affection and trust, with the medical man’s daughter a pithy and worthy offspring, whilst the stern religious expert’s daughter has become a manifestation of all that must be repressed and disdained.

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Both films were shot by Arthur Grant, whose steady work offers some fluid tracking shots and cunning deep-focus frames. Apart from Pearce, the two movies also carried over in the cast the familiar supporting actor Michael Ripper, who, particularly in The Reptile, has the most sympathetic and substantial parts of his career. It’s a pity that Pearce has relatively little screen time in either film, though she works wonders in both, technically playing second fiddle to far blander female leads, of which the preferable is Clare, an inexperienced actress (and Buffalo Bill’s great-granddaughter) who is decent enough as a tomboy out of her depth. Both Carson and Willman, in their distinct roles, are memorable embodiments of unctuous villainy. Of the two movies, Plague is the most entertaining and propulsive, with its corny but lividly impressive imagery of the eerie mine and its underground workforce of rotting slave labour, rampaging and bursting into flames in the breathless finale when their dolls upstairs fall into a fire. But The Reptile is the most intriguing and effective in building a mood.

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Gilling’s direction isn’t as sinuous and atmospheric as the work of Hammer’s first and finest horror auteur, Terence Fisher, with slight narrative stumbles in nearing the conclusion of both films. But his work is nonetheless solid and as free from cheese as a Hammer film could possibly get. Plague, with the nightmare graveyard scene, is notable for sporting perhaps the first-ever example of a dream sequence offered purely for shock value, a touch that would be reproduced to less and less effect many times in the genre’s coming decades. Also particularly admirable is the force with which Gilling uses jagged cuts, for instance, at the start of Plague, where the exotic ferocity of the voodoo rite suddenly segues to the becalmed grounds of the Forbes’ house, illustrating a dramatic disparity in conflicting realities, or in The Reptile when a brief but powerful insert finds the Malayan mastermind singing and charming his reptilian slave as she writhes in perverse ecstasy in her bed. In such moments Gilling wields intelligent, disorientating power.

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