Exit Through The Looking Glass

A lot of people like to say they’re artists, but few actually walk the walk. When you meet a real one, you simply know right from the jump. When I met Sam on the set of Wedding Crashers back in 2005, I knew he’d be one to watch. Although our contact has been sporadic over the years, we always seem to pick up right where we left off and I was thrilled when he agreed to a guest post. 

Besides, who better to review Exit Through the Gift Shop then a bonafide painter, actor, renaissance man, film expert and actual ARTIST?

Enter Sam…

Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop, by Sam Hanchett

It’s really interesting how inspiring the film “Exit Through The Gift Shop” is and at the same time makes you want to have nothing to with art in any way. It reminds me of the idea that when everyone likes your stuff, that means it sucks. I don’t necessarily think that is true. But it begs the questions, What is art? What is good art? What is bad art? You almost have to take away everything you know about a piece or the artist to truly appreciate it. But what’s sort of ironic is that when a creator is all about the creation and not him or herself, we actually become even more fascinated with the individual than we would have if we had known all about their life. They become bigger than any personality by hiding, letting only their art speak for them. So is this more vain than maybe giving your name, talking about your life and where you grew up and your influences? Not necessarily. I think you have to balance it, like everything.
With Banksy it’s pretty black and white, he doesn’t want to go to jail so he has to keep himself under wraps, which is very impressive in this day and age. I’ve read that some critics think this entire film is fictional, and even if that is so, it doesn’t matter. I think what it does so incredibly well is show two distinct artistic processes in Thierry Guetta‘s endless obsession to film without an ending and Bansky’s obsession to constantly SAY SOMETHING and commentate on our society and world through his rogue creative methods. Banksy knows exactly what he’s doing, and Guetta has no clue, but he still DOES it, and I think that is important, because many people never try anything because they’re too scared to fail. Thierry didn’t care. Even if this character couldn’t make a film and was a Warholian nightmare smorgasbord of an artist, his footage made the story possible. Because of him (even if fictional) Banksy could tell the story of street art and it’s impact but also show us that it or the pursuit of some sort of creative high could make a monster of sorts and that is all made possible by us…and HIM! The same people who would praise Banksy, would praise Guetta’s work even though it was totally unoriginal (and he mostly didn’t even, literally create it) almost seemingly because Shepard Fairey and Banksy inferred that it was good by giving Thierry minor, pre-show support. So what is legit? What is good? I know what is good. I know I know this, but then again, maybe I don’t. Nobody knows anything, and maybe that’s what Banksy is highlighting in this film, even though he probably thinks he knows what’s good and what’s not, but things happen in life all the time that make us question what we “know” and he knows that too, and that’s why this movie exists.

  

This post was originally published on Sam’s blog here. Enjoy his paintings here.

German Expressionism and the Soviet Montage

Filmmakers today employ a virtual cornucopia of stylistic techniques and aesthetics when creating their works. However, before the general conventions were set the landscape lay wide open for early filmmakers to blaze the trail. The early pioneers such as Griffith, DeMille, and Chaplin were essentially staring at blank canvases with endless possibilities, yet several universal truths related to storytelling remained, which had to be satisfied.

Narrative structures required coherency, audiences had to be entertained, and emotions needed to be stirred. Good or bad, art evokes emotion, in all forms. So how were the emotions of early audiences stoked? The answer lies in who their audiences were as a people.

After Germany suffered a major defeat in World War I, German cinema began producing films, most prominently The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Warning Shadows, and Metropolis, which embodied the outward expressions of the collective torment shared by a battered nation. All four films, which have come to exemplify the surge of German expressionism in the early 1920s, shared extremely similar characteristics. They were stark, ominously dark films rooted in a nation’s fears and nightmares. The imagery of these films sought to disorient the viewer and create an atmosphere of dread. The low-key lighting, evil themes, and menacingly acute sets spoke to a war-torn nation.

In the case of Warning Shadows, in particular, the actual shadows themselves become characters in the film. Director Arthur Robison skillfully spins the tale of a shadow puppeteer who spends an evening entertaining a wealthy baron and his guests. In the film, the shadow puppeteer terrifies his audience with visions of themselves committing unspeakable acts. Ultimately, once the show is finished, the baron and his guests retire for the evening, laughing off the amusing puppet show as a whimsical diversion. Soon the guests begin to depart; however, one admirer continues to pine over the baron’s wife confirming the puppeteer’s dark prophecy. Robison’s film ends on a discordant note leaving the audience with a sinister suspicion that not all is well. Films such as these externalized the agony of a nation.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, a new film making aesthetic was being introduced using editing techniques. While German expressionism relied heavily on psychological disorientation, the new soviet montage theory depended mainly on intellectual clarity. Sergei Eisenstein, one of the pioneers of the “intellectual montage”, moved audiences through the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images. For example, Eisenstein represents the beginning of a revolution through three quick shots of different lion statues in the process of awakening in his most prominent film, Battleship Potemkin. The film follows the story of a rogue battleship in the Czarist Russian navy, which mutinies and makes berth in the city of Odessa instigating the slaughter of its people. The people of pre-communist Russia identified with Eisenstein’s use of metaphors and depiction of Czarist repression.

Early on, Eisenstein became enamored by the works of D.W. Griffith. Griffith’s seminal Birth of a Nation showcased his ability to arouse audiences by intensifying on-screen action with short cuts and parallel editing. (Full disclosure: Birth of a Nation is a horribly racist film and should be avoided whenever possible.) Eisenstein recognized the value of these techniques, but pushed it a step further by developing sequences, which not only provided visual stimulation but important social messages within the subtext. In the case of Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein emboldens the smallest act of revolution, such as the smashing of a plate, by elongated the act through the use of creative editing. In addition, Eisenstein reveals the oppressive link between church and state by cutting between images of a priest’s cross and an officer’s sword, bearing distinct similarities. Battleship Potemkin’s pivotal scene, which depicts the people of Odessa fleeing down a long staircase in an attempt to escape the Cossack soldiers, has long been referenced and paid homage to by filmmakers even today. By presenting thought-provoking imagery, Eisenstein was able to focus an audience’s mindset and draw attention to the correlation of the images themselves.


Filmmakers have always sought to evoke emotions. Whether through set design, makeup or editing, audiences must be reached. Above all else, filmmakers must know their audiences’ hopes, fears, and dreams in order to quench their emotional needs.

Review: This is the End, 2013

First things first: This Is The End (TITE) was 2013’s funniest movie. Period. Taking a cue from the first Hangover, TTIE was a sleeper hit. If we were calculating simply by ‘laughs-per-minute’ or lpm, it’s at almost break-neck speed. The writing is so comically dense you can’t help but get sucked into the obviously crude ‘guy’ humor. A bit misogynistic? Well it is the story of six guys stuck in a house after the apocalypse. What did you think would happen? Masturbation, homoerotic sleeping situations, and dick jokes galore, but something about this film is different. The only non-Rihanna, non-Mindy Kaling cameo is Emma Watson who charges in as some super-human bad-ass with an axe, which I think was written in simply to offset all the phallic humor. Surprisingly though, even the crudest of the crudest jokes are somehow more charming when delivered by the actors playing themselves, which brings me to the next point…

Are films with actors playing themselves the new norm? Interesting concept, huh? But just like Hermoine showing up as a bad ass to offset the dick jokes, perhaps the idea of a bunch of actors (who, let’s face it- actually do play themselves a lot on-screen anyway) appear on-screen as a version of themselves kind of offset that reality? That statement was confusing. Let me break it down like this: When has Seth Rogen not ‘acted’ like Seth Rogen on-screen. Even his Mantis in Kung Fu Panda was unmistakably him. Mantis even has his trademark laugh, which they smartly lampoon in TITE as well. I guess none of these guys are ‘character actors’ really. (Honorable mention to James Franco, of course- See Spring Breakers.) Speaking of cartoon movies, it’s hard not envision Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon when you hear Jay Baruchel‘s voice. And we all know Titan (Jonah Hill) from Megamind, right? Cookie (Craig Robinson) from Shrek Forever After? Even Danny McBride pulled some small roles in Kung Fu Panda 2 and Despicable Me. (Cannot wait for Sausage Party!) The roundabout point I’m trying to make here is that these guys almost always just play a slightly altered version of themselves anyway and we all love it. Now they’re doing it on purpose and its everything you can imagine but better. It’s like comedic actor inception.

Unfortunately, the major studios who I’ve since learned were pretty apprehensive about letting the actors make fun of themselves in the first place will probably grab the idea now. But either way- Seth Rogen & writing partner Evan Goldberg have tapped into something really special with TITE.

 

Review: High Noon, 1952

Few films manage to get all the necessary ingredients for greatness. Getting the right director, cinematographer, scriptwriter, and editor is only the beginning. There are just too many variables. Additionally, producing great films which are inextricably tied to specific genres with set in stone conventions can be even more daunting. However, when everything falls into place and conventions get reinvented, some of the greatest films in history are made. Director Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952) remains a shining example of one of the “greats” even today.

High Noon follows small town marshal Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, who receives news on the day of his retirement, which also happens to be his wedding day, that one of the criminals he put behind bars is on his way to town in order to seek revenge. Notorious murderer Frank Miller is scheduled to arrive on the noon train while his old gang waits for him at the depot. The townsfolk urge Kane to leave town, which he does at first but then decides to stay and fight. He scrambles to find help, but the townsfolk he so diligently protected for years turn their backs to him. Filmed approximately in “real-time”, the movie shook the foundations of the traditional western. Graced with a handful of the era’s finest actors, the film broke conventions and became an analogy for the political climate at the time.

While Gary Cooper and a virtually unknown (at the time) actress Grace Kelly filmed scenes on an arid California back lot; the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) grilled the film’s screenwriter/producer Carl Foreman. Foreman would later be blacklisted for suspected “Un-American” activities and spend his formative years in a self-imposed exile in England writing under a nom de plume. Many consider the McCarthyism of the early fifties an “evil” time in Hollywood history. Although Foreman’s script was loosely based on a pulp western novel, the events of the film came to symbolize the “Red Scare” witch hunts which put many in Hollywood on a blacklist as a communist and subsequently out of a job. John Wayne himself called the film “Un-American” while others praised its non-conventional themes and liberal ideas. (But MDC already gave us the scoop on Mr. Wayne years ago, right.)

Austrian director Fred Zinneman made several critical creative decisions, which greatly shaped the look of the film. First and foremost, he shot in black and white which was a serious deviation from other westerns at the time. Zinneman also disregarded the conventions of the typical western by refusing to showcase the beauty of the “wild west” with expansive landscape shots. He wanted to achieve a starkness which would express Will Kane’s emotional distress as well as a grim realistic look. He was also very careful to frame each shot specifically to heighten tension. Most notably, a static shot of sprawling train tracks from where the audience knows- the evil will soon be coming from. Zinneman continually returns to this visual in order to heighten the suspense. One of the most memorable shots of the film is a wide crane shot which peels back to reveal the desolate ghost-town where Kane’s stands alone.

High Noon earned four academy awards including achievement in editing for Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad. Although the length of the film is approximately equal to the on-screen action, there is hardly a dull moment. Williams and Gerstad skillfully build tension with the careful combination of various shots. As anxiety of the villain’s arrival begins to grow shots of the various hanging wall clocks and other timepieces zoom in closer while their pendulums seem to appear overwhelming and menacing. It’s an effective visual story-telling method, heightening Kane’s, as well as the audience’s unease. Furthermore, the impeccable timing of each shot speaks to the editors’ gift for storytelling.

Gary Cooper, regarded as one of America’s finest actors, won two Oscars in his entire career; High Noon earned him one. At first glance, however, the age difference between Cooper and Grace Kelly (nearly thirty years) can be a tad distracting. But Cooper’s, as well as Kelly’s, performances quickly quell disbelief. Zinneman and his producer Stanley Kramer controlled the casting, handpicking actors based on particular characteristics. Lon Chaney Jr., Thomas Mitchell, and Lloyd Bridges all deliver brilliant performances. Cooper steals the show however, exhibiting just the right combination of masculinity and weakness. One scene in particular stands out when Kane considers saddling up his horse and leaving town. Few western films at the time depicted their “heroes” behaving in such a vulnerable way. Additionally, Katy Jurado stands out, in an unheard of role at the time, as an independent and powerful Mexican woman calling the shots in an otherwise white protestant town.

In another irreverent move, the film flaunted a sparse score by Dimitri Tiomkin featuring the song, “Do Not Forsake Me: The Ballad of High Noon”. Penned by Ned Washington and sung by country crooner Tex Ritter (American television actor Jon Ritter’s father) the song essentially narrated the film. Going so far as to name each character and their role, the song won both Tiomkin and Washington Oscars for “Best Music, Original Song” while Tiomkin would also receive an additional Oscar for “Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.”

Time itself plays probably the most important role in High Noon. Frank Miller’s inevitable arrival is constantly foreshadowed. Clocks loom threateningly in the background, while the audience cannot help but keep track themselves. Kane is painfully aware of every passing moment as he is repeatedly denied support by his fellow citizens. Foreman’s script persistently draws attention to Kane’s struggle against time.

In the end, it is the complacency of the townspeople which nearly kills Kane. Many of the men in the town are painted as cowards, refusing to stand up and fight against a tyrant who plagued the town for years. His wife, a virulently pacifist Quaker, ultimately comes to his aid actually shooting a man in cold blood. However, not a single soul appears on the streets until the fighting stops. Kane, bloodied and beaten watches as the townspeople he vowed to protect fill the street to see the bodies of the dead. He stoically drops his badge in the dirt before riding off into the sunset with his bride. Many believe the thematic elements of the film were a direct commentary on HUAC and McCarthyism in general.

High Noon is more than just a film. It is a statement. Again- it is rare to find a film which contains all the necessary elements of greatness. Through a thought provoking creative script, top-notch transparent editing, a creative director, stellar cast, and non-conventional themes, High Noon ranks in as one of America’s finest westerns if not its greatest. It represents the cultural mirror that we all must face. It challenges our morals and forces us to make a decision, if at least only in our minds. Stand up for your principles or run and hide. What would you do?

Review: Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, 1971

When watching a film like Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Assss Song, it’s hard not to focus on all the things that are wrong with the film. First you must get over the fact that it is an extremely low-budget film. You have to get over the bad cinematography, the poor rhythm and editing, the weak audio and dialogue, and the terrible acting, structure, etc. (I’d better not list all the bad points.) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is, however, a story underneath all that garbage which I believe deserves merit.
If I were to imagine, with my non-existent knowledge on the subject, what the early seventies were like, I don’t think I could come up with two black role models to rub together. I could be wrong but it would seem almost as if Melvin Van Peebles was trying to invent a role model for the black community. The special features of the DVD include a very revealing interview where Van Peebles says of the film, “I believed I was helping my people. I thought: What would be the best way to make “the man” eat shit.” I personally have a great deal of respect for filmmakers and I admire anyone who can put all that time and effort into a single project for so long, and even more so into something purely out of spite. Now that takes perseverance! But I must say, although filmmaking is by no means easy, Van Peebles makes it look extremely hard.
I do, however, think Van Peebles had a good story on his hands.
Fugitive stories are always intriguing. Will they get away or not? How will they get away? Perhaps if Van Peebles were a better director he may have been able to solicit better performances from his actors. The film is actually a quite startling commentary on “White America,” especially since events such as these are still prevalent today. Also to his credit, he is fearless in the use of abstract techniques such as split screens and negatives. However, the story gets severely weighted down by the films shortcomings.
The most notable shortcoming would have to be the fact that Sweet just so happens to be a sex machine. Sex is an important part of Sweet’s repertoire. He screws himself into trouble, he screws himself out of handcuffs, and then he screws himself out of trouble. Although Van Peebles dedicates the film to those “screwed” by the man and actually credits the entire black community as the film’s stars, he definitely leaves the women of the community alienated and on the sideline. That is, until they’re needed to lie on their back or for the ever-present and over-used “tit-shot.”
Racism is a very deep topic and deserves miles of film. I just don’t think Melvin Van Peebles should be the one to shoot it. The fact of the matter is there was a market for films made by and for black audience in the 1970s. Melvin Van Peebles recognized this fact and produced something specifically for that audience. MGM, at the time, saw its success and quickly started putting out movies like Shaft, thus kick starting the blaxploitation genre. Warner Brothers would release Superfly shortly thereafter. Just another instance of independent film setting the standard for large studios that have absolutely no idea what the people want.
Check out the trailer here.

On the Zombie Film Genre, Part 4

Romero and the Modern Zombie

In 1968, an independent film landed on movie screens across the nation, which would forever change not only the face of the zombie cinema, but would also modernize the entire horror genre. It would be futile to continue any further without a thorough discussion of George A. Romero’s films. His “zombie trilogy”, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (which coincidentally became a “quadrilogy” with Land of the Dead), defined the modern zombie narrative. Yet Night did much more than that, configuring the architecture for a new breed of horror films. In and of itself, the film’s own subversive nature alone has generated an enormous amount of cinematic criticism. Its release, coinciding with some of the bloodiest fighting in Vietnam, namely the Tet Offensive, and major political and social instability appeared retroactively to be direct commentary. Even more poignant, the film’s hero, a black man named Ben, is ultimately shot and killed by a posse of vigilantes the same year Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Bleak, grainy and shockingly violent, the film seemed to draw distinct parallels between its horrors and current events. Whether or not Romero purposely set out to create a subversive horror film is still up for discussion. Nevertheless, this framework would become the building blocks for the next generation of zombie cinema and begin what many film critics would consider the beginning of the “golden age” of American horror. Night, Dawn, and Day chronicle three different groups’ survivors as they attempt to stay alive in a world seemingly overrun by zombies.

Although each film dealt with the cinematic limitations of the decade, the basic structure was established; the dead rise from the grave and humanity switches into survival mode forced into siege warfare against an army of flesh-eating ghouls. His films explored the paradox between the dangers which humankind faces versus the danger humankind becomes to itself once faced with danger.

Romero ingeniously never explains the zombies’ origins. No voodoo priests or mad scientists are conjured, just a recurring motif of unexplained occurrences, tangled news reports, and hearsay. Of course, implications ranging from religious to the scientific are abundant, yet
Romero leaves it up to the audience’s interpretation. In Night, some fragmented television footage implies the “disturbances” may have been the result of radiation while in Dawn, as Ken Foree’s character Peter explains, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

Even in Day, scientific reasoning is introduced regarding the evolutionary progression of the zombies themselves; yet again, their origins were never made clear. Just as a copyright error on the original print of Night would thrust the film into public domain, the zombie holocaust concept would be adapted and re-configured by a multitude of filmmakers for years to come. In 1979, an unofficial Italian sequel of Dawn, shamelessly named Zombi 2, emerged from Italian horror director Lucio Fulci, capitalizing on the success and popularity of the Dead series by attempting to pick up where Dawn left off. (Especially since Dawn was known as just Zombi in Italy.) Of course, the Italian filmmakers never featured any of the original cast, but the work is extremely derivative. Although many found the violence tremendously shocking, if not extremely gratuitous, Zombi 2 would spawn a multitude of similar films as well as an equally visceral sequel, Zombi 3. Fulci’s Cannibal Apocalypse and The Beyond as well as Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City would all become important films in the Italian zombie film canon.

However, the European zombie film was by no means an Italian invention. The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) appeared on European screen long before Fulci decided to exploit zombie cinema. The film tracks a young couple trying to survive a wave of the living dead incited by a huge dose of radiation from an experimental agricultural machine. Although the film directly borrows from Romero’s original narrative, it differs in that it attempts to explain the root cause of the undead. Nevertheless, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie as well as Zombi 2 still both lifted most of its material from Night of the Living Dead. Meanwhile, back in the states, a minor feud began to brew between two of the genre’s major contributors. John Russo, co-writer of Night of the Living Dead, and George Romero, disagreed regarding the direction of the films sequels. Ultimately the franchise branched out in two directions: Romero would produce the more seriously toned Dawn of the Dead, while Russo’s would sell the rights to his novel, eventually leading to the screenplay for Return of the Living Dead, which guided the genre into a more horror-comedy hybrid. However, the success of the film ended up spawning a deluge of low-budget horror-comedy sequels of the same name. The films Russo would become responsible for seriously deviated from Night’s original narrative. In particular, its zombies, essentially, could not be destroyed. The normal headshot or conventional head trauma usually associated with killing zombies became useless. Additionally, their constant groan for human brains would effectively associate the American zombie genre with “camp” humor.

Admittedly, the zombie genre was never actually considered actual “dramatic” horror in the vein of such horror masters such as Hitchcock. (Especially in the hands of the Italians.) And  the films that appeared on the horizon in the early nineties and even into the
new millennium, were not looking much better. New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s Braindead (Dead Alive in the US) threw all the typical zombie conventions out the window creating one of the most campy, exploitive film to date featuring a young man caring for his “zombie” mother by keeping her sedated in the basement. While in America, the low-budget B-movie The Dead Hate the Living, surfaced as yet another campy take on the genre. Even in Japan, several zombie films surfaced. Wild Zero, a “rock-n’-roll” zombie film set against a transgender love story and Stacy which depicts a world where teenage girls mysteriously die and reanimate as flesh-eating zombies, are just a couple of the curious additions to the genre. Undoubtedly, none of these films helped diminish the stigma associated with zombie movies.

Then in 2002, the genre received a much needed jolt from the UK with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Boyle’s zombies, although not technically Romero-like zombies, became much more terrifying and relevant to today’s audiences and decidedly not campy. Strangely the film is extremely reminiscent of Romero’s work although it deviates greatly from the baseline narrative in that the zombies themselves are neither sluggish nor technically deceased, while their origin is spelled out and explained from the beginning.

However, the major ingredients such as the conflict between survivors and the elements of siege warfare remain intact. Using Romero’s original model of zombie holocaust, several more films came into view. The video game based Resident Evil and a modernized remake of Dawn of the Dead both re-invigorated audiences further breaking down the genre’s campy image. The successful re-emergence of the zombie movie even led to an homage/parody from the UK entitled Shaun of the Dead, which paid tribute to Romero and other zombie films within the subtext. The  success even prompted Romero himself to direct three more zombie films: Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead.

Truly, the zombie genre is currently experiencing a bit of a renaissance. The modern day zombie has come a long way. From voodoo to viruses, the zombie genre continues to evolve and mutate over the decades, but audience’s fascination with the concept fails to wane. It is difficult to articulate one’s love of a particular genre, especially one that is always discussed “tongue-in-cheek”. Yet with a decent understanding of the genre’s past and future, it is difficult not to recognize the zombie film as not only a viable source for the exploration of the human nature and survival instincts, but also a convincing source of entertainment.

 

On the Zombie Film Genre, Part 3

Zombie films in the 50s and mid-60s

With the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the independent film, the Zombie film genre underwent some major renovations. Many of the so-called zombie films produced within this period never included even a single distinctive ghoul. Films such as Zombies of the Stratosphere and The Astro-Zombies, although feature “zombie” in the title, fail to produce a single one. True, many of the faux zombie films of the fifties and sixties may have presented “zombie-like” creatures such as those in Teenage Zombies and Ed Wood’s B-classics Plan Nine from Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls, but none of these films featured any “real” zombies, voodoo or otherwise. However, the playing field lay wide open for the independent filmmaker to evolve the next breed of zombie.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. One film deserving honorable mention, which many zombie buffs fail to recognize, is Italian director Ubaldo Ragona’s The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price. One of several adaptations of the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, (with the most recent offering released as a Will Smith vehicle), follows the life of Dr. Robert Morgan, a research scientist in Los Angeles and sole survivor of a global plague. Morgan begins his personal mission to find and destroy the strange creatures that besiege him at night after his wife, child and best friend are all taken by the strange bacterium. Clearly, the film refers to the creatures as being much more like vampires and not zombies. Although they only attack Morgan’s home at night and they have severe aversions to crucifixes, mirrors and garlic, one would be hard-pressed to distinguish much physical difference between Romero’s zombie’s and those in Ragona’s film. In a scene from the film, lumbering about outside Morgan’s home, the creatures appear so zombie-like; one might mistake the film for Night of the Living Dead. The film highlights Dr. Morgan’s maddeningly solitary quest for survival. Played wonderfully by Price, Morgan spends his days hunting down and killing “vampires”, collecting supplies, and preparing for the nightly siege. Eventually he discovers that the infected have began their own new society and only he stands in their way, as long as he continually kills as many of them as he can find during the daylight hours. Even though the film’s premise is indeed intriguing, it still features the nightly siege warfare, which has been so representative of current zombie films. Several elements of The Last Man on Earth became precursor to what was to come just a few years later in Night of the Living Dead.

Nevertheless, a large gap remained between the modern zombie and the early voodoo zombies most prevalent in the early half of the century as a sparse amount of films endeavored to flesh out the idea.

On the Zombie Film Genre, Part 2

Zombie Films in the 30s & 40s

Although many consider Victor Halperin’s horror classic White Zombie to be the first “zombie film” ever, it all depends on one’s definition of what a zombie actually is. If one were to consider the classical “living dead” definition then all reanimated humans would fall into this category yet few would consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster a “zombie”. Likewise, The Mummy was never considered a zombie classic.

Contemporary author and zombie maven Max Brooks (coincidentally the son of director Mel Brooks) provides an exact definition in his book The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead: “An animated corpse that feeds on human flesh.” Although Brooks dispels any myth that zombies are the work of Voodoo at all citing the fictional communicable toxin “Solanum” as the culprit.

By 1941 the typical cinematic zombie was already firmly cemented into the American film lexicon. Manton Moreland, the African-American actor usually employed as a racial stereotype sums up what makes up an archetypal zombie in King of the Zombies: “Dead folks whats too lazy to lay down.” Although the blatantly racist humor is hard to look beyond, all the elements of a typical zombie film were present: a tropical island, an evil doctor, and, of course, voodoo zombies. However, any combination of these variables would suffice. Any foreign lands (preferably in a jungle) were easily interchangeable with the “tropical island” standard while zombies were summoned from any number of mysticism. Few of the early zombie films varied from this prototype.

White Zombie set the standard for the genre for years to come. The zombies were, indeed, reanimated corpses by way of Haitian voodoo with Bela Lugosi at the reins. Simply put, Halperin’s zombies are slaves, reanimated and forced to work in a sugar mill. However, zombies in the film were not necessary always the recently deceased. In fact, it would appear anyone under Lugosi’s “spell” became a zombie slave, as portrayed by the film’s “white” zombie herself, Madge Bellamy. “Only a pinpoint” of zombie powder, as Lugosi explains, is enough to turn anyone into a hypnotized servant. Death it would appear was not a prerequisite. Canadian anthropologist and author Wade Davis’ exploration into Haitian voodoo practices and botany supports the theory that such a neurotoxin does in fact exist rendering
a person in a hallucinogenic state, easily manipulated. The zombies themselves are harmless until commanded to do evil. Lugosi’s standout performance as the creepy zombie puppeteer sets the standard for all future mad scientists and evil priests to come. Halperin favored Lugosi’s performance so much he used stock footage of his eyes (commanding zombies) in his later films. The conventions as prescribed by White Zombie would remain in effect for decades.

Four years later, another Halperin film popped up on silver screens across the US: Revolt of the Zombies. This time the action, if such a verb is even adequate, takes place in Cambodia. Conversely, the zombies are the creation of an ancient Cambodian secret by which humans are hypnotized into becoming slaves for an evil scientist. However, the parallels between Revolt and White Zombie are unmistakable. Additionally, the ever-present underlying love story, as with most Halperin films, is again the backdrop for the horror. Yet in a striking turn of events, the “zombies” (which are really only hypnotized people and clearly not dead) revolt against their “master” once he voluntarily lifts the spell. Although the film deviates slightly from the ideas proposed by White Zombie, the film’s basic elements remain. Humans employed by a mad scientist or evil priest by way of ancient (foreign) mysticisms.

It would seem the idea began to stale by the early 1940s when several “Zombie” films appeared in theaters: King of the Zombies, I Walked with a Zombie, and Zombies on Broadway. King of the Zombies as mentioned before, featuring Manton Moreland of the Charlie Chan series fame as the eye-rolling comedic relief, was never considered anything more than a throw away “horror-comedy.” King of the Zombies was, however, a clear representation of zombie film convention. Its reflexivity of the genre stereo-typified all aspects of what a zombie film had come to be. The role of the evil zombie puppeteer was reportedly even reserved for Lugosi yet was eventually cast by German character actor Henry Victor. Strangely, King of the Zombies was the only zombie film ever nominated for an Academy Award. (Even stranger, the film was nominated for “Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture”.)

The Val Lewton produced I Walked with a Zombie appeared as a strange exception featuring a reluctant nurse sent to the Caribbean to care for a plantation owner’s zombie wife. RKO Pictures supplied Lewton with the title of the film but with no story and he, with several other screenwriters, promptly began to adapt the Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre to film. (With voodoo zombies, of course.) Lewton admitted to grudgingly working within the framework supplied but had not intended to make a zombie film. If RKO had never wanted to cash in on the success of horror films in the early 1940s, it is hard to say if Lewton’s classic would have never been made in the first place. Yet critics today still applaud its look and feel. At its time, the film was quite successful for RKO.

Two years later RKO released Zombies on Broadway, effectively marking the end of the voodoo zombie genre. Essentially, Zombies on Broadway was to zombie films what Blazing Saddles did for the Western genre in the seventies. The film follows two club promoters who travel to the Caribbean to acquire a zombie for their grand opening. It exploited and parodied every aspect of the zombie genre since White Zombie. The cast itself poached from other successful zombie films, including I Walked with a Zombie and Bela Lugosi himself. Zombies on Broadway elevated the true parody of the zombie films as “horror-comedy” to a level even King of the Zombies had not considered just four years earlier. Although almost every genre goes through such a cycle of birth, convention, and parody, even Universal’s monsters were humbled by the “Abbot and Costello Meets…” series; yet no genre is more susceptible or irreverent than zombie films.

Although the classic voodoo zombie film has gone the wayside, there have been several notable nods. Italian director Lucio Fulci’s  work, which will be discussed more in-depth later, plucks almost directly with his cult classic Zombi 2 (1979) (or Zombie in the US) featuring zombies, although ambiguously voodoo related yet still relying heavily on the “unexplained” Night of the Living Dead theories, on a tropical island being “treated” by a mad scientist-like doctor. Moreover, The Dead One also features “voodoo” zombies, but the genre has long since been laid to rest.

 

On the Zombie Film Genre, Part 1

Today’s zombie genre mania notwithstanding, most discussions regarding ‘zombie cinema’ are usually tongue-in-cheek. Few people regard zombie films as anything but sub-genre B-movies, which only appeal to a small group of moviegoers.For the most part, it is a valid stereotype.

If one were to trace the trajectory of the zombie horror sub-genre, zombie films have ranged from horror to comedy to downright pornography. Nevertheless, this fascinating sub-genre is more than just the gore, cannibalism, and severed limbs. The real message behind these films reveal the reality of what human beings are capable of when faced with the problem of survival. Zombies, the undead, ghouls, somnambulists or any of the other names the “monsters” of these films go by, end up as background to the real drama transpiring within the confines of the survivor’s “safe-house” or “normal world”. The real horror begins when ordinary humans must survive from themselves. Ever since White Zombie, when Bela Lugosi commanded the first cinematic zombies to kill, the origins and motivations of the zombies have changed dramatically from decade to decade. However, no matter what the situation, these films are usually about the “human” monster in us all.

As for the zombies themselves, they are essentially us: Death personified, in a walking collective, eating and assimilating everything
in their path. True, the modern-day zombie has been through many changes over the years. With 2007’s 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), the modern-day zombie has been revamped and injected with a huge shot of adrenaline. They run, claw, howl, and even reason like humans making Lugosi’s zombies look embarrassingly tame. Even Romero’s sluggish blue-faced zombies, who terrified audiences in the late sixties and seventies, could never match up to the undead ghouls of today.

Strangely enough, a clear pattern surfaces when discussing the state of our cinematic zombies. Audiences saw the emergence of the  “Voodoo” zombie in the 30s and 40s, as an evil tool of either a mad scientist or evil shaman during a period of Depression and World War. For a brief stint, the “Atomic Zombie” appeared in the fifties during the Cold War when children trained to “duck-and-cover” in preparation for a nuclear attack. Romero’s zombies took the screen in the sixties providing audiences with one of the most gory films to date starring a black leading man during major Civil Rights upheavals in America as well as a bloody conflict in Vietnam. In today’s world with the threat of pandemic viruses, zombies such as those infected with “rage” in 28 Weeks Later prey on the living.

However, attempting to attach the political undercurrents of the day with each zombie film from 1932 to today, is a slippery slope, traveled far too many times. I have read the works that map the sub-genre’s course to political underpinnings and frankly I’m bored with it. I would prefer to discuss the Zombie film genre without striking out on a tangent, proposing Romero had a political agenda or that the incarnation of the “Voodoo” zombie revealed the deep-seated racism prevalent in American society. Are those points valid and worthy of discussion? Absolutely, but no further than this paragraph.

What piques my interest lies in the idea of interpretation and the individual characters’ struggle for survival from the zombies and themselves. A key idea routinely expressed throughout the majority of the modern zombie narrative lies in the idea of masculine aggression or as Barry Grant eloquently articulates it:

“Threatened with violence and dissolution, masculine power
oppressively asserts itself in attempts to impose order through
authorial control rather than group cooperation.”

The Dread of Difference

The struggle between Ben and Harry in Night of the Living Dead, the motorcycle gang raid on the survivor’s shopping mall oasis in Dawn of the Dead, and the oppressive influence of the phallic military-industrial complex in Day of the Dead all clearly convey this message. Of course, Romero himself did not author this concept alone, yet his films and the films that followed continually highlight this point.

An enormous amount of work appeared on this topic from all over the globe. The strange and exciting contributions to the genre
from Japan, alone are worthy of volumes, yet a sparse amount of literature is dedicated to it. Films such as Wild Zero and Stacy: Attack of the School Girl Zombies were both films which unapologetically borrowed from and promoted the concepts set forth by Romero. Even Italian cinema, known for hijacking American cinematic concepts for profit also ran with the idea producing some of the most violent and irreverent work to date.

Essentially, zombie films are about survival. They are about the ugly reality that surfaces when humanity is forced into survival mode. The zombies themselves add another layer upon the baseline narrative as the metaphorical representation of death. Truly, it is these concepts that fascinate me about the genre. And with more zombie films being produced more now than ever, some directly paying homage (Dawn of the Dead) and some even being written and directed by Romero himself (see Diary of the Dead), the genre’s lifespan has proven it’s just as indestructible as the ghouls it embodies.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the recent acceleration of the genre by a certain television show. Being a zombie film buff from way back in the day, I read those comic books long before the show. (Yes, I realize that sounds hipster-ish and I don’t care.) Besides extreme deviation from the comic, I think it’s a great show. What’s more- I’m interested in how it’s going to play out from a plot perspective. Will the audience eventually grow weary with the story of human survival? Only time will tell.