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Posts Tagged ‘zombies (classic)’

I expect there is not much of a family resemblance between myself and any of my great-grandparents, none of whom I could honestly tell you very much about. So it probably shouldn’t be very surprising that the archetypal modern zombie film, exponents of which have been lurching all over the pop-cultural landscape on a regular basis for nearly two decades now, should have very little in common with the first films to cover this same kind of material. The watershed moment in the history of zombie cinema came when George Romero saw Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies in 1966 or 1967 and pondered what would happen if the undead workforce in that film got out of control. (The result was, of course, Night of the Living Dead.) Prior to this point, zombie films were mostly steeped in the lore of the culture that created the legend – namely, that of the Caribbean and the voodoo religion practised by the plantation workers there.

The award for first ever zombie film is usually given to White Zombie, from 1932, which seems to have a mixed critical reputation, and was followed by a sequel, Revolt of the Zombies, which seems to be unanimously agreed to be awful. Still in the same milieu, but enjoying rather more acclaim, is Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, made in 1943 and another product of RKO’s horror film unit under the leadership of Val Lewton.

It almost goes without saying that this American movie, made in 1943, seems completely oblivious of the war gripping most of the world at the time it was made. Frances Dee plays Betsy Connell,  a nurse who as the film opens is resident in a chilly-looking Canada. However, a change is on the cards as she is hired to go and live on the remote Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. One of the plantation owners there, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), needs a nurse to care for his wife, who has been struck down by a strange affliction that has left her unable to speak and with no will of her own. Betsy is initially quite impressed by the beauty of her surroundings, but Paul is quick to disabuse her of any romantic thoughts she may be having – ‘There’s no beauty here, only death and decay… everything good dies here!’ he declares, which hardly constitutes making the new hire feel comfortable.

Betsy rapidly realises that there are tensions between Holland and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), and possibly even between the men and their mother (Edith Barrett): Rand has a drink problem, for one thing, which Holland seems disinclined to do anything about. Clues to the reasons for this come when Frances overhears a local calypso singer (credited as ‘Sir Lancelot’) singing a scurrilous ditty about Holland’s wife having an affair with Rand. You would not have thought the calypso to be a musical style which particularly leant itself to the delivery of ominous exposition, but the effect here is striking, particularly when Lancelot bears gravely down on Dee, strumming and calypsoing all the while.

Things get a bit melodramatic as Betsy decides that, for no comprehensible reason whatsoever, she has fallen in love with Holland, and selflessly resolves to see if his wife can be cured (the wife is played by Christine Gordon, by the way, who gets no dialogue and just has to waft eerily about the place in a white dress). When modern medical science fails, Betsy looks further afield, having become somewhat fascinated by the local tales of voodoo and the ceaseless drumming that drifts through the island night…

As mentioned, this is about as unlike a modern zombie movie as you can get, stylistically at least: the film was apparently inspired by a factual magazine article written by one Inez Wallace (the mind does boggle somewhat). However, the initial script was heavily rewritten, not least by Val Lewton himself, and one of the changes was to base the story on (of all things) the plot of Jane Eyre. There you go: the role of the Bronte sisters in the evolution of modern horror laid bare (to say nothing of the fact that this film is a great deal better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so eat your heart out, Jane Austen).

To be honest, the similarities between I Walked with a Zombie and Jane Eyre don’t extend much beyond the basic premise of the story – Betsy is obviously Jane, Holland is Rochester, and the mad woman in the attic is replaced by one of the living dead – but this remains a classy, thoughtful movie. The real strength is in the atmosphere of the piece, which is powerful and well-maintained throughout. There are many effective sequences, not the least of them the one in which Betsy leads Holland’s wife through the night to a voodoo gathering, encountering the disquieting figure of a man who may be an actual zombie along the way.

This is only the second product of Lewton’s tenure at the RKO horror unit (after Cat People) but already you can make out some themes developing: both films are essentially melodramas, built around an interesting female protagonist, and both couple rich atmospheres to a finely-judged sense of ambiguity. There is little in the way of explicit horror, no cack-handed make-up, and it always feels as if the possibility that there is no supernatural element to the events of the film remains on the table, so much is implied or left suggestive.

Is Mrs Holland indeed a genuine zombie, or simply the victim of an infection which has affected her nervous system? If she is one of the walking dead, how did she get that way? The questions slowly accumulate and while the film certainly seems to have its own ideas about what is happening, it doesn’t attempt to impose them on the viewer, except perhaps at the very end. The defining characteristic of the horror genre is surely nothing to do with setting, style or subject matter, but the effect the film has on the viewer, and the success of I Walked with a Zombie comes not from its characterisation or plotting, but the disquieting atmosphere the film generates and sustains. This probably counts as a very atypical zombie film by any modern standard, but it is still an impressive movie.

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It falls to very few people to single-handedly create a new subgenre, and fewer still to come up with one which goes on to dominate the media landscape for over a decade. And yet this was the main achievement of George A Romero, the writer and director who passed away last week. Romero was a film-maker who dabbled in the studio system, amongst other things working on North by Northwest as a teenager (along with the great Martin Landau, also recently departed), but he is best known for the films he made working independently. While his filmography does contain oddities like the 1981 movie Knightriders (essentially a drama about the death of the hippy dream), Romero is – of course – best known as a director of horror movies.

He did a movie about a vampire, a movie about a coven of witches, and a movie about a homicidal assistance monkey, but George A Romero’s reputation really rests upon the movies he made about zombies. Other people had made zombie movies before Romero came along and unleashed Night of the Living Dead on the world in 1968, but it was he who conceived of the notion of the zombie apocalypse as we currently know it – inspired, apparently, by both I Am Legend and the Hammer horror film The Plague of the Zombies. Romero was fond of the zombopocalypse as it was both cost-effective (a boon to the cash-strapped independent film-maker) and offered great potential for social satire, but it has proven to be an almost endlessly flexible form in the hands of other creators. Since the release of 28 Days Later in 2002 (itself a mash-up of the classic Romero formula with John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids) the zombopocalypse has basically conquered the world, with endless riffs and variations on the basic idea of an unstoppable tide of walking corpses. Romero was able to finance his final three films, Land…, Diary…, and Survival of the Dead simply because his ideas finally seemed to have wide commercial appeal.

It is, however, his earlier movies that show Romero’s talent at its most effective and inspired. Night of the Living Dead may have invented the modern zombie movie, but it was the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead that elevated it to the realms of something truly special. This is one of those virtually perfect movies that shows you don’t need big bucks to create magic – you just need a helicopter, a pile of guns, a van full of zombie make-up, several tanker-trucks full of fake blood, and free access to a massive out-of-town shopping mall.

Dawn of the Dead opens with a character waking from a nightmare, and the audience being plunged into one. The recently dead have begun rising and attacking the living (the cause of this appears to be viral in nature), and society is beginning to disintegrate as the situation spins out of control. Everyone can see which way this is heading, and the issue of personal survival is becoming paramount. Two TV news employees, Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge), team up with a couple of cops, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), and together they flee the city of Philadelphia in the TV network’s helicopter.

Seeing the country descending into anarchy and with zombies seemingly everywhere, the quartet take refuge in a huge shopping mall (in reality the Monroeville Mall, in Pennsylvania). Although this is initially intended as only a rest stop, Peter realises the mall constitutes a huge stockpile of resources that could potentially help them survive for a very long time. All they have to do is secure the huge building against the encroaching undead swarms, kill the creatures already inside, and be prepared to defend it against the human marauders who are already appearing now civilisation is beginning to collapse…

George Romero was wont to lament that several of his earlier films were victims of what he called ‘undercapitalisation’ – i.e., a shortage of money – but this is not a criticism you could sensibly direct at Dawn of the Dead. For a film made for only about a million and a half dollars, this is a movie with a real scope and epic feeling to it, with some huge action set pieces sprinkled through it. There have been many films made about the end of the world and the collapse of society, but none of them depict the actual break-up of civilisation with the same sense of immediacy and realism as this one. The opening scenes set the tone – there is chaos at the TV station, no-one seems to know what’s happening, useless information is being broadcast just to keep the viewing figures up, while outside, rogue police are running out of control and the authorities are engaged in pitched battles with their own citizens. You instantly sense that we are sliding past the point of no return.

The director continues to orchestrate the movie with the same confidence as the story proper gets going – an ominous journey across zombie America, the introduction of the mall as the central location, the various escapades of the characters as they explore it. And then a deft change of mood – no sooner have they begun to take control of the place than the mood changes to a more sombre and brooding one, before picking up pace ahead of a typically ambiguous conclusion (the scripted ending had all the surviving characters commit suicide in various ways, but the one in the movie is surely better – still far from upbeat, but not without a tiny glimmering of hope for the future). Romero barely puts a foot wrong in his handling of character, pacing, and action – the only significant issue with the movie is some of the stock music cues which it employs. The electronic soundtrack itself (provided by Italian horror director Dario Argento and the group Goblin) is terrific, though.

What really makes the film exceptional is the way in which it effortlessly marries remarkable wit, intelligence, and black humour with a palpable delight in astoundingly graphic and gory violence. Romero serves notice early on with the notorious moment where a nameless character has his head literally blown off by a shotgun, and continues with a series of legendary gags involving helicopter rotor blades, screwdrivers, machetes, and lots and lots of entrails. At the same time the film is razor sharp in its commentary on what is really causing all the problems – the zombies are really a secondary menace, compared to the selfishness, distrust, and acquisitiveness displayed by virtually all the human characters – Peter and the others are very open about their willingness to lie and steal in order to get what they want, and the film is bookended by battles not between the living and the dead, but between human groups with differing agendas.

Most of the obituaries of George Romero identified him as one of the great satirists of modern cinema, and I think that would have gratified him. Certainly this is his most celebrated and effective comment on modern life, perhaps even more relevent now than it was in 1978. The zombies shuffling mindlessly round the mall are there because it ‘was an important place in their lives’. Some dim memory persists. The main characters are likewise unable to accept that in their new world, material possessions will be rather less valuable – ‘Let’s just get the stuff we need! I’ll get a television and a radio!’ cries Peter, drawing a reply of ‘Ooooh, lighter fluid! And chocolate!’ from Roger. It is the characters’ own acquisitiveness and greed that menaces them, as much as the walking dead outside. We are the zombies – that was Romero’s message in this film. In a very real sense, we are our own worst enemy. To call this the greatest zombie movie of all time is accurate, but still considerably understates the scale of George Romero’s achievement in it.

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