Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Goodbye, Uncle George

I didn’t expect George Romero to die this past weekend. In fact, he’d just announced a new movie, Road of the Dead, another zombie movie in a long line of zombie movies, a sub-genre he’d contemporized. At least the first two of his zombie movies – Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead – are classics, with many horror fans adding Romero’s third zombie flick, Day of the Dead, to that list, and with three more coming later in his career. In between Night and Dawn, he made my favourite of all his films – Martin, an updating of the vampire mythos that brings both the supernatural and the psychosexual into play. My take on Martin is that it’s a movie about being forced into becoming what someone assumes you are. In hindsight, I think this is something that happened to Romero as a filmmaker.

When Road was announced, I joked with someone on Facebook about the fact that Romero was making yet another zombie movie, and that perhaps it should be called Dead Bored. It wasn't that I thought Road would be bad, it was that I felt zombie movies were the only kind of movie for which he could get financing. In a sense, Romero’s later zombie films, enjoyable as they are, felt like he was “keeping his oar in” in terms of his need to keep making movies until he was able to make a different kind of film, horror or otherwise.   

By all reports, Romero was a filmmaker who wasn’t interested in the business side of filmmaking, disliked it even. What he was interested in was making movies. It was just this sort of attitude that brought Night of the Living Dead into being in 1968, a movie filled with metaphors, even if they maybe came from Romero’s subconscious. Low budget, and created by a group of enthusiastic newcomers who just wanted to make a movie, Night became a phenomena, and regardless of what was planned or unplanned thematically, their movie most definitely reflected the zeitgeist of the times.

In the outpouring of public grief and appreciation within the horror community following Romero’s death, one thought that has been expressed over and over again is the fact that Romero pretty much influenced anyone who has tried to make a low budget movie since 1968. I believe this sentiment to be true. The spirit that brought Night of the Living Dead into existence seems to propel filmmakers across the globe, and in that sense, Romero will be with us for a long time to come. I like to think that Romero’s 1981 film Knightriders is the most autobiographical of all his work, and that it reflects just this spirit of a small band of renegades against a modern world rapidly losing its soul.

Romero seemed a big, loveable teddy bear, and this is born out by those who knew him. I don’t know whether or not he was aware of this, but he was loved in the horror community. It was impossible not to think of him as our favourite uncle. Through his movies, he gave us so much. Through his honest appreciation of his fans, he became in a sense, one of us.

The fact of Romero’s death was a shock. The fact that it was the result of lung cancer was not; Romero was a longtime heavy smoker. His death, however, is a reminder of his most famous metaphor in a filmography filled with great metaphors. Romero gave us the slow, shambling zombie. The ones who gathered en masse and attacked. They didn’t run, unlike their new millennium counterparts. They were simply relentless. That is what made them truly frightening. It was their inevitability, like death itself. Romero’s zombies may be slow, but sooner or later they WILL get you. This past weekend, the inevitable caught up with one of my favourite filmmakers.

Goodbye, Uncle George. You will be missed. I hope the zombies are treating their king well.

Filmography as Director:
Night of the Living Dead
There’s Always Vanilla
Season of the Witch
The Crazies
Dawn of the Dead
Day of the Dead
Monkey Shines
Two Evil Eyes (with Dario Argento)
The Dark Half
Land of the Dead
Diary of the Dead
Survival of the Dead

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Frightmare

Dir: Pete Walker. Starring: Deborah Fairfax, Sheila Keith, Rupert Davies, Kim Butcher & Paul Greenwood. 1974

Outside of the House of Hammer, director Pete Walker (along with frequent collaborator / screenwriter David McGillivary) created some of the most interesting British horror films of the 1970's - House of Whipcord, House of Mortal Sin and Frightmare, among others. Much of their best work, intentionally or unintentionally, attacked institutions if all sorts, with Frightmare, which takes an uncharitable look at the family, being my favourite. 

To explain the plot of Frightmare in any depth is to damage a first-time viewing. Suffice it to say that Deborah Fairfax plays Jackie, a young woman who goes to outrageous lengths to keep her troubled family functioning as best she can. Sheila Keith, a terrific screen presence who appeared in many of Walker's films, is outstanding here as Dorothy Yates, the matriarch of the family. 

What Frightmare has to say about family, particularly in its last scene, may not be cheery, but it does reflect a grotesquely heightened version of what for far too many is reality. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Les Diaboliques

Les Diaboliques
Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot. Starring: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse & Charles Vanel. 1955  

Based on the novel She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, also writers of the source novel for Hitchcock's classic Vertigo (1958), Les Diaboliques feels very adult for its time, especially due to the nature of the central relationships at its core. In Les Diaboliques, two women, one the owner of a private boys school who is married to an abusive spouse, the other a teacher who carries on a very public affair with him, conspire to murder the abuser. Once they do, only a third of the way into the film, the real plot begins. Contemporary audiences may see the ending coming, but the way the story is told is compelling, suspenseful, and set the blueprint for many horror and suspense films to follow in its wake. Clouzot, a master of suspense in his own right, had already proven himself with Le Corbeau (1943) and the essential Wages of Fear (1954).   

Thursday, 23 June 2016

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead
Dir: George A. Romero. Starring Gaylen Ross, Ken Foree, David Emge & Scott H. Reiniger. 1978

George A. Romero returned to the familiar shambling grounds of his groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead (1968) with a more openly satirical, day-glo splatter fest. The hype when Dawn of the Dead was released was astounding. A full-page ad in Rolling Stone magazine promised: “There is no explicit sex in this picture. However, there are scenes of violence which may be considered shocking.” And at the time, boy, were they! Unfortunately, the under-age me saw the cut Canadian version at my local theatre. Images in the first issue of Fangoria, however, let me know what I was missing. Seen uncut, Tom Savini’s effects give guts to the film’s plot, which, by now, is the stuff of legend: Zombie plague survivors take sanctuary in an abandoned shopping mall where the dead return out of mindless habit. Obviously, Romero was giving us the last word in consumerism, but he had even more on his politically-oriented mind. Romero frequently anchors his films with strong female and African-American characters, as evidenced in this, the ultimate zombie flick.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Burn, Witch, Burn!

Burn, Witch, Burn!
Dir: Sidney Hayers. Starring Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair & Margaret Johnston. 1962

Adapted from Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, by Leiber, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, Burn, Witch, Burn! is an outstanding and contemporary look at witchcraft. Blair is the practitioner, and Wyngarde is the husband who tries to convince her that it’s all superstitious nonsense. However, it’s Wyngarde whose perceptions end up altered.

Smart, entertaining and suspenseful, Burn, Witch, Burn! deserves more recognition, and is, in many ways, a precursor to Rosemary’s Baby. Here, however, the heroine’s husband refuses to believe in her power until he’s shown otherwise. In fact, the film hints at the notion that women in general posses a necessary power that men, through our blindness, refuse to acknowledge.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Black Christmas

Black Christmas
Dir: Bob Clark. Starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Lynne Griffin, Art Hindle, Marian Waldman and Andrea Martin. 1974

The original “the calls are coming from inside the house” flick. Sorority sisters are stalked in their home by a madman in the attic. Simple and effective, but it's that simplicity supported by a potent setting, atmosphere, score, cinematography, direction and acting that make this proto-slasher a standout. The characters, too, are another key to the film's success. They, and their problems, are memorable, believable and relatable. It also doesn't hurt that, for my money, Black Christmas features the eeriest obscene phone calls in any film I've seen, er... heard. Finally, and significantly, Black Christmas successfully exploits and subverts all the elements of a Canadian Christmas to its best advantage – the snow, the cold, the lights, the carols, the quiet and the Yuletide loneliness.

Friday, 20 May 2016

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: The Birds

The Birds
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright. 1963

How do you follow up a groundbreaking hit like Psycho? With more innovation, in the case of Alfred Hitchcock.

The Birds is a cunning movie with many layers. Hitchcock sets it up like a romantic comedy, and then turns it into the horror film that it truly is. The film's structure is iconic, having influenced George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and countless others, no explanation is given for the attacks which echo the disharmony amongst the film's human characters, children are targeted, the ending is ambiguous, it's a technically challenging film, and there's no music; instead the screeching of birds gives us the soundtrack here. 

Like all Hitchcock films, The Birds is intensely visual, pure cinema. The suspense is outstanding, of course, but it's the characters that drive this movie, and the audience is asked to fill in the gaps between characters that are only hinted at in glances and actions. 

Suzanne Pleshette's Annie Hayworth is unforgettable, one of the most tragic characters in all of Hitchcock's films, and a sort of sister to Janet Leigh's Marion Crane in Psycho, unlucky in love rather then merely disappointed.