Writers: John Russo, Rudy Ricci, Russell Streiner, Dan O’Bannon
Cast: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley, Miguel Nunez, Allan Trautman
Plot: At the Uneeda Medical Supply company, manager Frank (James Karen) shows around trainee Freddy (Thom Matthews), and asks him if he’s ever seen Night of the Living Dead. Showing off, Frank tells Freddy the film was based on reality. A strange chemical called Trioxin animated corpses in Pittsburgh, but the truth was suppressed… and the bodies are being stored right there in barrels of the chemical. Frank shows the barrels to Freddy, but accidentally causes a leak of the gas, dousing both men and reanimating the dead bodies – even the parts of dead bodies – kept in storage at Uneeda. Freddy’s friends – a group of punk teenagers who look like the 80s threw up leather and piercings all over them – decide to kill time in a nearby cemetery while waiting to pick him up from work. As they proceed to party in the graveyard, Frank and Freddy wake up from their encounter with the Trioxin gas feeling sick. One of the barrels has broken open and is empty, and Frank assumes the body melted. They soon find the rest of the corpses (human and otherwise) throughout the warehouse animated and hungry.
Back in the graveyard one of the teens, Trash (Linnea Quigley) begins to fantasize about the more horrific ways to die, leading to one of the most bizarre and gratuitous striptease sequences in horror movie history. Frank and Freddy summon their boss, Burt (Clu Gulagar), about the cadaver screaming and banging on the walls of cold storage. Remembering Night of the Living Dead, Burt tries to kill the cadaver by driving an axe into its brain, then cutting off its head, but it doesn’t kill the monster. They reach a horrible revelation: the movies lied to them. Burt decides to bring the cadavers to his pal Ernie (Don Calfa) at the crematorium, hoping to destroy them that way. It works, but the smoke that spills out of the oven seeds the clouds above, and it begins to rain on the graveyard. The water filters down through the soil, into the coffins, and the dead begin to claw their way to the surface.
Frank and Freddy are getting sicker and sicker, and Ernie calls an ambulance. Meanwhile Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), has made it to Uneeda, where she finds the place seemingly deserted. As she searches for Freddy, she encounters the zombie that escaped from the first barrel, a slender figure that has become known as Tarman (Allan Trautman). The rest of the teens arrive just in time to save her, but Tarman gets his first snack of brains in the process. The paramedics arrive to treat Freddy and Frank, but are unable to find a pulse or blood pressure in either one of them, and their bodies are room temperature. The teens are attacked in the cemetery, and three of them (Tina included) make it to the mortuary, while two more get back to Uneeda. As the paramedics return to their ambulance, they hear screams and try to call for back-up, only to be attacked and devoured by the swarming dead. The survivors in the mortuary board up the place to hold out the zombies, and Freddy begins experiencing pain as his body goes into rigor mortis. One of the zombies manages to make it into the mortuary and Ernie straps it down, questioning it. It tells the survivors they want to eat brains because it relieves the pain of being dead. Burt locks Freddy and Frank in the mortuary chapel with Tina, who insists on staying with Freddy. Burt, Ernie, and Spider (Miguel Nunez) begin to seek an escape, while in the chapel, Freddy attacks Tina, hungry for brains. Spider and Burt make a run for the police car, fighting the zombies on the way. They drive the car to the door to collect Tina and Ernie, can’t get through the mob and drive away for help, but a swarm of zombies traps them at the Uneeda warehouse. Not wanting to become like the rest of the zombies, Frank turns on the crematorium, says a prayer for forgiveness, and climbs into the oven. Burt calls the army hotline on the Trioxin barrel and reports what has happened, and the army activates its contingency plan. Ernie and Tina hide from Freddy while the survivors at Uneeda protect themselves from Tarman, and just as everyone makes a final stand, the army drops a bomb on the whole damn city of Louisville, Kentucky, wiping it – and the zombies – off the map. But as the zombies burn, the smoke rises… and the rain starts to fall.
Thoughts: This movie has perhaps the strangest pedigree of any film on this list. George Romero – writer and director of Night of the Living Dead – got into a disagreement with co-producer John Russo about the direction of the franchise. Russo walked away with the right to use the “Living Dead” name for his own franchise, and this was the result: a world where Night of the Living Dead was a movie, but was based on its own reality. It’s a weird premise, to be sure, and I was at first reluctant to include this movie in my little horror movie project, mainly because I think it may be more deserving of a place in the eventual horror/comedy project I intend to present in the future. But I decided use it for two reasons: first, like Night of the Living Dead, this movie helped influence the way zombies are portrayed in popular culture even today, and second, I’m not really convinced that all of the comedy in this movie was intentional.
The zombies (with the exception of Tarman) are all kind of silly, particularly the first, fresh cadaver, where the actor seemed to just be stripped, shaved, and painted yellow. And a lot of the violence seems to be played for laughs. Trash’s legendary tombstone striptease isn’t really scary or sexy, just weird. On the other hand, the parts that probably were intentionally funny (such as the hungry zombie calling for “more paramedics” on the ambulance scanner) are legitimately funny. Even the 80s-style montage (in this one the characters are barricading themselves in the mortuary instead of training to win the big ski tournament) is funny enough, juxtaposed against a goofy rock ballad about the Living Dead.
The characters in this movie really are jokes, especially the teenagers. They’re all caricatures, and the way one of them (I don’t even remember the characters’ name, making it impossible to look up the actor, that’s how generic they are) gives a speech about how his leather and chains is a “way of life” and not a costume is groan-inducing, and the way they resist calling the cops (because they’ll “kick our ass”) even as one of their buddies is having his brain eaten takes them from the realm of stereotype to the land of the remarkably stupid. It’s really no loss when any of them gets turned into a zombie hors d’oeuvre. As for naming the two old chums “Burt” and “Ernie”… really, O’Bannon? Sesame Street was pushing 20 years old at the time you wrote this script, you can’t tell me that wasn’t intentional.
There seems to have been an ill-fated attempt at poignancy with “Trash,” who proclaims early in the film that she believes the worst way to die would be to be eaten to death by old men, but seeing as how she says that immediately before she begins taking off her clothes for no apparent reason, it’s doubtful most audience members remember that bit. Frank’s suicide is a little more satisfying from an audience standpoint – it’s the one point in the movie where someone shows anything like a little human regret – and the moment where he dies is a good capper to what little of a character arc there is.
The zombies in this movie are different from Romero zombies in many ways. First off, they’re more intelligent, with the ability to speak and reason (although later Romero films did start to show zombies exhibiting a few higher-order skills). Second, they can’t be killed by a simple bullet to the brain, and in fact, dismemberment does no good as each individual chunk of the zombie continues to move of its own accord. Finally, and most importantly to popular culture, this is the movie that gave us zombies obsessed with braaaaaaaains. A Romero zombie (and those of most of his imitators) is perfectly happy with any chunk of living flesh, and it’s these zombies that we still see in most movies and TV shows. If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, you’re watching a Romero zombie. But whenever you see a zombie that wants specifically to chomp on a brain, you can thank John Russo and Dan O’Bannon.
From the perspective of a horror movie fan, there’s nothing in this movie as scary or visually cool as Tarman. The first zombie, one whose flesh has mostly melted into slime from years of Trioxin storage, is a grotesque, slimy creature that could give anybody nightmares. Allan Trautman, who played the character, is rather underappreciated in the strata of horror icons. His slim frame and marvelous physical performance created the best monster from this movie, and one of the most memorable single zombies of all time. While the other zombies aren’t nearly as recognizable or as entertaining, there are a couple of cool scenes. The moment where the rainwater filters down through the ground into the coffins and the dead claw their way out to the surface, for example, looks really great, and the zombie Ernie interrogates is a nice piece of puppeteering, even if the movement of its mouth doesn’t remotely match the words she’s saying.
The end of the movie is almost as literal a deus ex machina as one could hope for. There’s a short bit earlier where someone from the army shows a bit of concern about the barrels (which have been missing for sixteen years thanks to some sort of paperwork screw-up), but it seems tacked on to justify a conclusion that otherwise would come totally from out of the blue. While I give the filmmakers credit for going for the nuclear option (pun intended), it makes everything else in the movie feel somewhat hollow.
While Return of the Living Dead is by no means the only movie to use the “we swear it’s a true story” gag, it’s by far the least convincing. And although there’s fun to be had in watching the movie, it’s horror movie fun at its cheesiest. It’s hard to imagine this film being sincerely frightening to any adult, but there’s still room for enjoyment in watching it. Just don’t go into it looking for a scare.
Stephen King makes one more appearance tomorrow, with one of his most down-to-earth tales of horror… and, I admit, one of my personal favorites: Misery.
Writer: George Romero, John Russo
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon
Plot: Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are visiting their mother’s grave outside of Pittsburgh when they are attacked by a lumbering dead man. Johnny is killed and Barbara flees, surrounded by a flock of the dead who have somehow regained animation and seem to hunger for other human beings. Barbara finally finds herself in a near-catatonic state, trapped in a house, barely escaping the swarming dead. When Ben (Duane Jones) arrives, fleeing the ghouls, Barbara has been shocked into muteness. To their surprise, they find more survivors – a family and a young couple have been hiding in the cellar of the house the entire time. Ben gets into an argument with Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) about whether it’s safer to try to fight in the house or to hole up in the cellar, and eventually the Cooper family bolts itself downstairs while the young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) stay up top with Ben and Barbara.
Downstairs, Cooper and his wife (Marilyn Eastman) repeat Cooper’s argument with Ben, this time with their ill and unconscious daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) lying between them. Ben and Tom decide on a plan to help them all make for a rescue station, but they will have to brave the undead outside to get to a shed with gas pumps. Tom and Judy die in the attempt and Ben is almost killed when Cooper is afraid to open the door and let him in.
Back inside, Cooper reveals his daughter’s illness came about when she was bit by one of the creatures, while on TV a mob of armed men discuss their efforts to kill the ghouls… a shot to the head is the surefire way to do it. Cooper takes advantage of the situation to go for Ben’s gun, but Ben wrestles it away and shoots Cooper in the side. The invading zombies grab Mrs. Cooper, and her husband staggers back down into the cellar, where his daughter has died, reanimated, and kills her father. Barbara snaps out of her shock and saves Mrs. Cooper, but she too rushes downstairs where her daughter is waiting, and hungry. Barbara is grabbed and pulled into the swarm of zombies by her own dead brother, Johnny, leaving Ben alone to fight off the rest of the horde. Karen emerges from the cellar, but he escapes through the cellar door, kills the re-animated Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, and holes himself up for the night. When morning comes, the zombies have gone and Ben exits the house. A group of roving hunters has shot them all, freeing our hero… until one of them mistakes Ben for another zombie, casually puts a bullet in his head, and throws his body into the funeral pyre with all the rest.
Thoughts: This is one of those films that flat-out defines a genre. George Romero didn’t invent the concept of the zombie, and in fact the word “zombie” is never actually used during the movie, but Night of the Living Dead has shaped the way that we envision this particular menace from beyond the grave ever since. Prior to 1968, cinematic zombies were either of the Haitian voodoo variety (people who had their will stripped from them, forced to do the bidding of a living master) or the occasional alien-controlled mindless husk. It was Romero that took the Haitian concept of the body brought back to life to the extreme of having his heroes battle actual, lumbering corpses, and it was Romero that first gave zombies their hunger for human flesh. (Flesh, mind, you, not brains. That comes later.)
Once again, we see how effective black and white is for these horror films. The scenes – particularly at night – stand in sharp contrast. The characters live in a world of white, while the darkness seems intent to close in on them, and ultimately consume them. The colorized versions – even the particularly good colorized version from 2004 – loses so much of the atmosphere as to make it totally ineffective. The scenes where they zombies gobble up what’s left of Tom and Judy – even thick, ropy intestines – are by far more gruesome than anything else we’ve seen so far in this little horror project. The bar was raised as to how graphic on-screen violence could get, and although Romero certainly had to fight detractors, once that particular Pandora’s Box was opened there was no going back. Even the credits sequence is disturbing – a series of still photographs showing the hunters using hooks to drag Ben’s body to the bonfire where the zombies are being destroyed for good.
Romero and Russo have an interesting structure. With most horror films, you’ll start with a large group of characters, then whittle it down one or two at a time as people are picked off by the monsters. In this case we start with a “sole survivor” in Barbara, then add to the group one or two at a time. Once we reach full strength, with the Cooper family and the teenagers joining Ben and Barbara, the whittling can begin again.
Much of the film has become legendary. The amount of gore depicted on-screen – both in the death scenes and just in images of bodies lying around – was far beyond what one expected from a movie in 1968. Little things – Johnny’s “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…” have lapsed into the public consciousness. If you say that with the right intonation (“They’re coming to get you, Baaaaaaar-ber-aaaaah…”) people who haven’t even seen the film will recognize the line. That idea of a small group of survivors in a boarded-up house, trying to hold off the horde… here’s where it comes from.
Even the way zombies move in this film are what we base every zombie walk on today… slow, shambling, and relentless. This movie is the reasons purists like my girlfriend refuse to accept films like the 2005 Dawn of the Dead remake as a true zombie film – because “Zombies don’t run!” And there’s some truth in the basic idea here. As easy as it would be to escape or kill a single zombie for any able-bodied adult, what makes zombies truly terrifying is the way they just keep coming, the way they march on through any injury short of the destruction of the brain itself, and the way they can start to swarm upon you. The “zombie apocalypse” idea is here, but it’s in its infancy. This is a small film, focusing on a small group of survivors, but we get a radio news commentary that informs us that the phenomenon is happening across the eastern part of the United States, and growing more widespread. Later filmmakers and authors (including Romero himself) would run with this idea and make our zombies just one of the ways the world ends… not with a bang or a whimper, but with a low moan and a gnashing of teeth.
One of the things that many zombie movies – certainly the best ones – have taken from this film is the way there’s no attempt to explain the supernatural. The dead are rising, and there’s a little lip service paid to it in the form of a short newscast reporting on “radioactive contamination,” but there’s certainly no sort of definitive explanation for why the dead have chosen this particular moment to rise. In truth, the “why” doesn’t really matter – there are monsters, they want to eat you and turn you into one of them, so who cares why they’re doing it? Just run! Zombies (thanks largely to this movie) have become such an all-pervasive aspect of culture that there’s really no reason to muck about with explaining it. Just get straight down to your plot, your characters, and if necessary, your social commentary.
Speaking of which, Romero also gets credit for making the zombie film a commentary on society. Many of his films – and dozens of imitators – have tried to use zombies as allegory for everything from consumerism to the military-industrial complex to the war on terror, all citing Night of the Living Dead’s commentary on racism as their justification. And it’s easy to do – the character of Ben is smart, competent, but utterly helpless to save all of the white people around him who either die thanks to foolish mistakes or self-destruct out of fear or distrust. And then poor Ben, sole survivor, dies at the last second, shot down by a gun-toting white man who thinks Ben is just another zombie. Commentary, right? Except that, to hear Romero tell it, it was never intended. The role of Ben was never written specifically with a black actor in mind, it just so happened that Duane Jones was the best man for the role. The social commentary that people have salivated over for decades is largely a case of people projecting their own issues on to the film. Still, it’s a credit to the film that such projection is even possible, and so convincing when it happens.
Because of a ridiculous blunder on the part of the film’s original distributors – a failure to place a copyright notice on the print – the movie is in the public domain. So it’s really easy to find a copy of it on DVD. But there are very few really good prints of it out there. If you’re hunting out the DVD, do yourself a favor and try to get the “official” one, approved by Romero. And stay away from the “reimagined” 30th anniversary edition released by John Russo in 1999. The less said about that version, the better.
Tomorrow, it’s taken us until 1972, but we’re getting to some of the goriest films we’ve seen yet. Is blood really necessary for suspense? We’ll talk about it in our look at the original version of Last House on the Left.