Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Those Creepy Dead Folks

For Halloween, I put some thought into what I should write about. What about horror is so important to me that it deserves the top spot on the calender. The answer was actually pretty simple; Zombies! I love zombies, zombie movies, zombie books, zombie comics, songs about zombies, the game Zombies!, all of it. Zombies make everything more fun, and they've been the most consistently enjoyable monster in all sorts of horrible movies. Zombies have great inherent terror. No matter how fun or funny the movie, you can't mask how terrifying the thought of a horde of dead loved ones slowly chasing you down and trying to eat you is. That's where Shaun of the Dead got it so right, the movie never shied away from the fear aspect of it, making the comedy that much more convincing.

George Romero gets all the credit for creating the zombie genre way back with Night of the Living Dead, and while he didn't quite create zombies, he certainly stylised them in a way that is still widely used today. Zombies may run, they may even have minimal vocal abilities, but in the end they're just variations on the type of zombie created. When I first saw Night of the Living dead, I enjoyed it, but felt that maybe it would have been better had I seen it when it was first released. I felt that it was a bit slow and unsophisticated for our times. I was an idiot. As I've gone back to it over the years it's genius was slowly made evident to me, and I now realize just how great a feat George Romero pulled.

I don't mean this to infer anything about the behind the scenes struggles, although it is impressive just what he was able to get away with, I mean that the movie itself is an impressive and compact work. Right from the beginning the movie wastes no time(a trait many zombie films share), throwing you into it unexpectedly fast. Most horror movies have a time of lengthy buildup, with creepy foreshadowing as we get to know the characters and try and guess who will live. Not so with zombie movies, for the most part. Right from the opening scene the action starts with a surprise death that gives us no time to wonder about who will live through the movie, introducing all the characters as the horror unfolds. It took me awhile to realize what Romero was doing here, how he wastes no moment of film progressing the story, and yet none of the characters ever explain the plot to the audience. Every scene without dialogue, where the characters are doing things like boarding up windows and doors, has a voice over from a radio announcement or TV news story, filling the audience in on whats going on out in the real world without pausing the film's action. The movie is tight and fast moving despite basically setting all the action in a small, claustrophobic setting that never changes throughout the film.

A lot of talk goes into the end of the movie, and the famous image of Ben, a black man, fighting off the groping hands of the all-white zombies. George Romero says this was never a political statement, that Duane Jones was chosen only for his acting ability not the color of his skin. And while I can't imagine that the thought never once crossed his mind during production on the film, I'm inclined to believe it was only a happy accident that dovetailed nicely with one of the underlying themes of the movie. It may be at it's most subtle here, but this movie definitely showcases Romero's left leaning political views without once becoming preachy, or shoving it's ideology down your throat.

The same might not be able to be said about his sequel, Dawn of the Dead, but this film was never once meant to be subtle. Humorous, dramatic, with more action and a much larger scale than the first movie ever imagined, this is the movie that will haunt Romero to his grave. No matter what he does, it will most likely be compared(probably unfairly) to this masterpiece. Where 'Night...' started abruptly, this movie throws you right into the maelstrom. It may take multiple viewings to pick up on all the information thrown at you as the camera cuts between a frenzied newscast trying to keep people informed about the rising zombies(despite the decade between the movies, this one may as well take place concurrently with Night) and a swat team raiding a tenement building whose occupants aren't quite ready for marshal law.

The movie slows down significantly after this scene, taking it's time getting to that famous mall where the majority of the movie is set. Again the main thrust of this movie is a small group of survivors holed up against a growing zombie horde. The difference here is that the survivors aren't hoping for rescue, but are in fact escaping civilization as the zombies begin to outnumber the living. All zombie movies have the not-so-subtle implication that the zombies are us, that people as a whole are mindless and ever-hungry consumers, but this movie twists it in a way. While the movie is always fun and over the top and comic-book in style, the subtext is incredibly bleak. In this film the zombies aren't the threat, the humans are. In fact our group of survivors carve out a nice little life for themselves, and even get to work repopulating their shopping mall sanctuary. The zombie threat is eventually banished from their lives, and all they have to fear is boredom as they create the ultimate in luxury living. It isn't until a passing group of human scavengers notices the mall that their paradise is lost. In this movie the zombies may be the ever present threat, but it's humanity that opened the doors for them, making it all too easy for the zombie to replace the living human.

Despite this bleak message, the movie is, as I mentioned, pretty fun. The pinnacle of zombie apocalypse wish fulfillment. We all secretly want an apocalypse, or at least some major event that thins the herd a bit, but in a way where the people we love or respect are left alive. Zombies give us the best possibility, in that as long as we keep our wits about us it really isn't that hard to avoid or destroy the immediate threat to our lives. Plus, who doesn't want to occasionally pop a cap in that mouth breather who, say, talks through a movie on his cellphone. As you can see, zombies offer the best of all possible ends to our way of life.

That isn't necessarily the message of Romero's next, and for awhile considered his last, zombie film, Day of the Dead. For awhile I only saw Day of the Dead as a disappointing case of 'what if?' What if Romero had been able to film this movie as he originally scripted it? What if budget were no problem and all those action set-pieces were up there on film? I no longer think that would be a very good idea. Some directors do their best work with limitations in place, and I think George Romero is one of those directors. My enjoyment of his films, with the exception of Dawn of the Dead, generally seems to go down the higher his budget goes.

Day of the Dead has the weakest story of the series, and a cast of thoroughly unlikable characters played by mostly mediocre actors. After a characteristically strong opening scene, featuring a horde of zombies shuffling through a decimated Florida city, the movie moves to a series of claustrophobic bunkers where a dwindling group of survivors work for the military to find a possible cure. The movie never picks up after that opening until the climax, and the bulk of the movie is watching unlikable, unwashed people yell and bicker amongst themselves. Without much story to hang the movie on, Romero throws out the cleverness of his exposition from the previous films and merely has the characters explain whats going on in the world around them. Also, the mistake of too much information is made here, as Romero attempts to explain why and how the zombies have begun roaming the Earth. Explanations are rarely interesting to me, not because I like mystery(although I do), but because the reasons for events are rarely good enough. Such is the case here, and he demystifies and humanizes the zombies a bit too much. Aside from a few scary scenes in a zombie corral, makeup and gore effects from Tom Savini that remain peerless to this day, and Bub, the movie falls flat.

In the 80s, Night of the Living Dead co-creator John Russo, who had fallen out with George Romero, decided to make his own sequels. Luckily for us film goers, first time director Dan O'Bannon got involved. O'Bannon, who had written Alien and other sci-fi/horror films, decided, wisely, that Romero had already done an excellent job with sequels, and really didn't want to step on his toes. And so we got this wild mix of comedy, gore and action that is both a sequel to, and a loving parody of George Romero's films, as well as a good standalone movie. The movie is funny throughout, but also scary as hell at times. The teeming hordes of zombies running(and wanting to eat brains, this time) after our heroes is every bit as scary as anything in the original movies, and the two characters who slowly become zombies, although used for comedic effect, are quite disturbing. Part 2 was majorly disappointing, being mainly a remake of part 1 with diminishing returns, but part 3 was actually pretty good. And is it wrong of me to say that the zombie girl gets progressively hotter the more zombified she becomes? Probably. But true. Just look at her!

Night of the Living Dead spawned, as you can see, a bunch of sequels and COUNTLESS imitations, some good, some bad, but many profitable. Night made a lot of people a lot of money, but unfortunately George Romero was not one of them. In an attempt to at last make money off this series, he enlisted Tom Savini to direct a remake of the original Night in 1990. It's an impressive film debut from Mr. Savini(who previously had directed Tales from the Darkside episodes), keeping most of the beats from the original, although the movie is missing most of the political undertones that Romero usually litters his films with. Mainly it's a showcase for Savini's always impressive effects, but beyond that it's a pretty tight and suspenseful horror film. More forgettable than the original, but in no way a bad movie. Unfortunately Romero's timing was off. A decade later and he may have actually made a fair amount of money on this deal, but as it was the zombie fad had died out.

Check back with me tomorrow as I continue about zombies for awhile and go over some notable, non-Romero related films.

1 comment:

karena said...

The one with the chick is one of my favs.I totally agree about the hottness level rising.K