Zombi (1978) (aka Dawn Of The Dead)

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I thought it might be fun to review this like I’d never heard of it, the director or the genre before – “well, this is an early entry from a Pittsburgh independent filmmaker called George Romero, in what’s come to be known as a ‘zombie’ movie” but I’m too lazy to keep it up all the way through. You don’t need me to tell you about “Dawn Of The Dead”, right? You’ve seen it? If you haven’t, then go away immediately and watch it. It’s as good as horror films have ever been, rich imagery, great performances, a plot with real depth to it; but if you’re a fan of the sort of films we cover here, then this should be part of your DNA. Books and books have been written about it, which puts it a little outside our wheelhouse, but of the million great things written about it, picking one at random, THIS is excellent.

 

Why I’m doing this relates to our recent coverage of the movies of Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, and it’s one of those stories that involves incoherent sequel numbering, a matter close to my heart. I’m guessing due to some contractual loophole, or weirdness in Italian copyright law, they started making sequels to this movie almost right away, only sequels with no returning cast or crew. Lucio Fulci, the legendary director of “The Beyond”, “House By The Cemetery” and “New York Ripper”, made part 2, also known in the UK as “Zombie Flesh Eaters” (all the sequels to that were part of the “Zombie Flesh Eaters” series in the UK).

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By part 3, all bets were off. Fulci made most of “Zombi 3”, but it was finished off by Mattei and Fragasso due to Fulci’s failing health; but the most amazing thing is the sheer number of different movies that were released as “Zombi 3” in various parts of the world. “Nightmare City”, “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie”, “Zombie Holocaust”, “Nights Of Terror / The Zombie Dead” and “The Hanging Woman” have all been subjected to it – “Nights Of Terror” is one of my favourite zombie movies ever, by the way – but they calmed down a bit by parts 4 and 5, neither of which bear any relation to the rest of the series or each other. Oh, and part 5 was made before part 4. Part 4 was also directed by Fragasso, but more on them when I get to reviewing them.

 

So, we’ll be looking forward to Mattei and Fragasso’s section of this franchise, and there’s every chance that part 2 will be decent, as Fulci made some horror classics too. But we’re here to talk about “Zombi”. Firstly is why it’s called that. Although I think we in the UK got Romero’s version, with a few cuts for the more extreme gore, the rest of Europe got a version edited by Dario Argento, with a soundtrack comprised mostly of songs from his band, Goblin. Argento part-financed the movie, and acted as script editor, on the proviso he could re-edit the movie for release in the rest of the world, and his version ended up 9 minutes shorter, at 118 minutes.

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If you’d like to read an extremely detailed breakdown of every difference in the versions (and talk of the “ultimate edition”, which has all the footage from all the different versions and stuff from an edit that Romero prepared hurriedly for the Cannes Film Festival) then please go HERE, but if you don’t, then I’ll give you the highlights. Most of Argento’s edits were to trim the odd second of fat from various scenes, and to remove some of the more overt comedy (the biker gang still have plenty of funny stuff to do, though). The guy who gets his head chopped off by the helicopter blades is absent from Argento’s version, perhaps because he never liked the effect, and a few conversations are removed.

 

What’s interesting, not so much the big stuff, which is a few light-hearted conversations, but the little things. There are hundreds of edits, a second here, a second there, and for a movie which was over 2 hours, I think – and this may be sacrilege to some people – Argento was right. His edit is fantastic, stripping fat from scenes and focusing it better; the original, and even the much longer version, are both masterpieces of cinema, but Argento’s version might just be the best of the lot.

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I think this depends on your attitude. I used to be “longer = better” when it came to director’s cuts of my favourite movies, but I was cured of this when the “Redux” version of “Apocalypse Now” was released. I remember the acres of press coverage, the delight from movie fans that we were finally going to see Coppola’s vision in full…and it ended up being unbearably dull. That plantation scene! Ye gods. So, since then, I’ve come to appreciate the work of a good editor, and there are very few films released today that wouldn’t benefit from being 20 minutes shorter. It’s still fun to see the extra stuff from your favourite films, but the number of deleted scenes that deserve to be put back in films is absolutely miniscule.

 

Well, that’s a brief chat about “Zombi”. Plot mockery and insulting cast and crew – the normal business of this site – will resume with “Zombi 2”.

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Rating: thumbs up (obviously)

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Night Of The Living Dead: Resurrection (2012)

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“Hey guys, why don’t we make a zombie movie? I’ve got a bunch of fake blood and a few digital cameras.”

“But we don’t have a script, or any actors, or any talent”.

*CUE UPROARIOUS LAUGHTER*

“We don’t need any of that! The original “Night Of The Living Dead” is in the public domain now! And horror fans are idiots, they’ll hoover up any old garbage with “living dead” in the title!”

And so we are blessed with “Night Of The Living Dead: Resurrection”, a remake / reimagining of George Romero’s original zombie classic. I used “blessed” in the loosest possible sense, of course. We start off outside a Welsh corner shop, where a group of people clearly in their 20s have to ask a passing adult if he’ll go into the shop and buy them some beer. Blah blah blah zombies, so they all scatter to the four winds as who we think is the film’s real hero tries to help them out. He’s Ben, and he’s driving to find Barbara, despite society rapidly collapsing around him.

There’s a rather nice touch here, which led me to believe this might not be a massive waste of my time. He calls and says “I’m coming to get you, Barbara” which is a reference to an early line in the 1968 film, and as he throws the phone down, we can see his contact photo is an early publicity still for it too. He’s also black, which is probably a callback to the original’s groundbreaking casting (or maybe it isn’t and I’m just oversensitive?). So, nice subtle touches, so far so good.

Then he spends three minutes of the film trying to steal some petrol from a car with some dead people in it. The film, not exactly speedy up to this point, grinds to a halt and it never really bothers starting up again. To get to the root of it, I’m going to have to spoiler it slightly, but nothing past the first 30 minutes. So, Ben is seen driving down deserted roads, and finds a farmhouse. He takes his petrol cannister…and the family inside the house shoot him. So long, Ben! Now, it might reasonably be said at this point “why the balls did we just spend all that time watching Ben do nothing if you were only going to kill him off?” but we’re all wasting our time here.

Feel the excitement!

Feel the excitement!

So, we get the same old familar zombie movie beats, but with Welsh accents and the occasional “twist” to keep you guessing. There are some half-decent ideas in it, but buried under rotten acting and a budget of around zero.

If you were thinking of watching this, almost certainly due to the title, don’t bother. Please. It’s not good, or especially bad, it’s just really really boring. By the end, I was desperate for the credits because it meant I could get on with organising my sock drawer. It’s really that “nothing” a film, and it seems these filmmakers have form with doing “sequels” to “Silent Night, Bloody Night” and “House on the Edge of the Park”. Shame on them, really. It’s nothing to do with actually making sequels to beloved old horror classics, but using titles that have apparently fallen into the public domain in order to rip off people who aren’t paying attention.

It’s all so thoroughly depressing and pointless. I’ve been watching my sleeping dog for the past few minutes, and doing that was more entertaining than this. Avoid avoid avoid.

Rating: thumbs down

Youtube Film Club: Monkey Shines (1988)

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Directed by: George A. Romero

There have been several thought provoking films that look at the struggles of somebody living with a disability. From touching coming of age films like ‘Inside I’m Dancing’, to Daniel Day Lewis’ Academy Award winning portrayal of Christy Brown in ‘My Left Foot’. There’s even been quirky films like ‘The Sessions’ where a poet who is disabled from the neck down hires a sex surrogate. Well, ‘Monkey Shines’ has a quadriplegic sex scene; it also features a demented monkey.

Allan is a promising collegiate athlete; we’re treated to an opening scene which shows him stretching his hammy’s in the buff. He has the perfect eighties body, with Patrick Bateman-esque abs and Carl Lewis’ thighs. Allan (played by Jason Beghe) straps on a rucksack full of bricks and heads out jogging. An excitable dog leaps into his path and he swerves, taking a step out into the road where he gets side-swiped by a vehicle. Allan’s whole life changes as he is confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down.

The first quarter of the film plays like a TV drama. Allan struggles to accept the cruel hand he has been dealt, and thinking he has nothing to live for he tries to suffocate himself. His failed suicide attempt and increasingly wild facial hair are of great concern to his Mother and scientist buddy Geoff. Thinking outside the box, the unreliable, alcoholic scientist calls upon Melanie, a fellow pioneering scientist who trains monkeys in order that they can help disabled people. Geoff donates one of the monkeys from his lab named Ella to Melanie.
Melanie trains Ella to help Allan, and the cute little chimp soon forms a bond with him, an intimate bond which ends in them somehow becoming telepathically linked. There is an explanation for this, something to do with Geoff injecting brain cells into Ella when she at the lab. The monkey goes from domesticated to demonic and begins destroying the lives of those closest to Allan. This multi-talented chimp wields a cut throat razor and commits arson.

Destined to be a cult classic ‘Monkey Shines’ is a bizarre story that belongs in ‘The Twilight Zone’, it is completely unlike your typical George Romero film, with plodding melodrama amongst moments of genuinely gripping terror. Jason Beghe’s performance is wildly erratic, veering from sincerity to sheer lunacy. Allan is a moody son of a gun and his anger extends to putting on ‘that voice’. It’s of some credit to Beghe’s acting skills that he is able to make a budgie attack seem terrifying.

Romero has channelled Hitchcock, showing the different levels of terror that face a man who is physically helpless; you can see an obvious nod towards ‘Rear Window’ as Allan is imprisoned in his own home, at the mercy of a mad monkey. There are other movie tropes, the well-worn horror of a science experiment gone wrong, and the spectre of jealousy, on par to Glenn Close’s bunny boiler rage as Ella strangles a budgie and takes out Allan’s loved ones in the hope that man and chimpette can live happily ever after. The ending is outrageous on so many levels, from Ella’s eventual demise, to a nightmare sequence akin to the dinner chest bursting dinner scene from ‘Alien’.

– RJW
6/10

Monkey Shines on IMDB
Buy Monkey Shines – An Experiment In Fear [DVD]

Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up: Thoughts on Romero’s Masterpiece

This is not a review. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is in my opinion a perfect ten, the second best horror film of all time (You’re welcome to guess what film I consider to be the best). It is worth saying that this piece will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film already then I would advise you read no further until you do.

The first half an hour of the film still contains the most realistic reactions to a zombie apocalypse; Ben’s matter of fact instinct for survival juxtaposing with Barbra suffering from a nervous breakdown and ending up in state of shock. It is also testament to the acting abilities of Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea. Jones came to the project as an intensely serious stage actor, and provided Romero with a lot of input as to how he would like to portray Ben, and it shows. He is in control, methodical and keeps his head whilst everyone else is losing theirs.

The portrayal of Barbra has been criticized by several writers because she appears ‘hopeless’, but she simply shows the understandable reaction of fear. Barbra scares easily, and this is picked up by her brother Johnny as he fools around in the cemetery. Though I don’t think she is strictly speaking a weak woman. In most modern day Zombie films a group of disparate individuals come together and go around for a while like the ‘Scooby Gang’. In ‘Night of the Living Dead’ each survivor reacts differently to the situation. Harry Cooper is arguably more ‘hopeless’, he is a weak man, in the sense that all he wants to do is hide in the cellar until the problem goes away. His long suffering wife is irritated by his behaviour, and his cowardice jeopardizes everybody.

The film’s opening scene, where Johnny and his sister Barbra arrive at the cemetery to leave some flowers on their Father’s grave is rather campy in comparison to the frantic battle for survival that hapens in the farm house, and doesn’t really compare to the later claustrophobic horror. For some reason I believe that the person that attacks the siblings in the cemetery isn’t actually a zombie, but a local weirdo, and I think that it is later when he is turned into a zombie, as is Johnny. It’s just the way he moves in comparison to the undead horde that surround the house later in the movie that makes me believe that he isn’t dead… at least not yet. I have no idea whether or not I’m alone in this view.

The placement of the dead body at the top of the stairs in the run down farm house is also a strange move from Romero, given that the corpse doesn’t become zombified. I guess it exists for shock factor, a moment that startles the audience. For the rest of the movie after its discovery you’re waiting for the corpse to trundle down the stairs, but it never happens. Did Romero do this deliberately?

The introduction of the characters hiding in the cellar of the farmhouse, the Cooper family and the clean-cut couple Tom and Judy accelerate the film, creating the necessary combustion that leads to the survivors eventual downfall. However one wonders what might have happened if Romero had instead left the house abandoned, leaving only Barbra and Ben. There are great moments of tension in Barbra and Ben’s interactions, underlined by the point when Ben loses patience with Barbra, and literally tries to slap some sense into her. Showing an African American man striking a white woman was especially controversial in a time when America was so racially divided.

There isn’t really an end of the world feeling to the film, which gives the impression that Romero did probably have sequels in mind. The Sheriff’s posse seems to take care of the local zombies with seemingly little difficulty, although the true scale of the zombie problem is illustrated by the panic stricken nationwide media reports.

Ending as the film does, what are to read into Ben’s tragic death? Our hero, who survives and battles against the odds only to get shot by a skilled marksman from a long range, ending on such a blunt note is yet another piece of wider social commentary from Romero, in that violence doesn’t discriminate, and often in the truly clichéd sense, only the good die young.

In 1968 cinema goers were ill-prepared for an orgy of violence and cannibalism, the sight of zombies chomping on the burnt flesh of Tom and Judy at the time must have made several stomachs turn. It says a lot about our exposure to cinematic brutality that nowadays such a scene appears rather tame, and you can almost see that the blood used throughout the movie was made out from chocolate syrup. What shocked me most in the movie was Karen Cooper murdering her Mother, stabbing her repeatedly with a trowel. I couldn’t get my head around this at first, thinking that the zombified child wouldn’t have been able to kill in such a violent way, but Romero’s ‘ghouls’ were resourceful, earlier in the film you see zombies outside the house picking up blunt objects and hitting the house, trying to smash their way in, it is therefore quite possible that a child zombie, who had recently turned undead, could use a weapon to murder.

– RJW

George A. Romero on IMDB
Buy Night Of The Living Dead [DVD]