RetView #30 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Title: Night of the Living Dead

Year of Release: 1968

Director: George A. Romero

Length: 96 mins

Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner, Kyra Schon

night of the living dead

Few films have had anything like the same impact on the horror genre as Night of the Living Dead. It was the brainchild of New Yorker George A. Romero who, until then, been involved mainly in producing short films and TV commercials. In his late-twenties, he and a group of friends (many of whom appear in the film) decided to form a company called Image Ten Productions, Night of the Living Dead being one of their first projects.

According to Romero, the story was inspired by the post-apocalyptic Richard Matheson novel I am Legend, about vampire-like creatures roaming the earth after a plague, and was designed to capitalize on the film industry’s ‘thirst for the bizarre.’ Produced on a shoestring, the film had an original budget of just $6000, raised by the ten members of the newly-formed production company, before additional funding was found to stretch the budget to $114,000. It became an instant drive-in hit, and soon recouped over 250 times its budget. However, Romero himself saw little of this, thanks to his lack of industry knowledge regarding distribution deals.

The plot follows a brother and sister, Barbra (O’Dea) and Johnny (Streiner), who travel to Pennsylvania to visit their father’s grave. In the cemetery, they are attacked by a ghoulish stranger. He makes short work of poor Johnny, and chases Barbra on foot. The understandably shaken woman makes her way to a nearby remote farmhouse where she is attacked again (not her day) before being rescued by Ben (Jones) who fights off the assailants and takes Barbra inside the farmhouse. The pragmatic Ben then sets about boarding up the doors and windows, while Barbra has a not-so-quiet meltdown in the corner. They then discover a family hiding out in the cellar and are joined by a teenaged couple who turn up seeking refuge after hearing an emergency call about a series of brutal murders, and the cast is complete.

But not for long.

As you’ve probably guessed, the zombie hordes spend the rest of the movie trying to break into the farmhouse and picking off the small gaggle of survivors one-by-one. Obviously, that’s a drastic oversimplification, but you get the drift. As things develop, the horror gradually, and terrifyingly, shifts from those on the outside trying to get in, to those already inside, not least the daughter, Karen (Schon) who has been bitten by a ghoul (Romero’s original name for what we now know as zombies) and spends most of the film in a catatonic state. Until the end, and if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie before, you can probably guess what happens then. This is the mechanism that poses many of the questions which make the final third of the film so effective. To what lengths would you go to save a loved one? Where would you draw the line? And what do you do when you realize that innocence and beauty mask a ruthless monster? And you’re stuck with it? As Jones says in one of the most memorable lines of the film, “It must be tough for a kid when her old man is this stupid. Now go and be boss down there [in the cellar]. I’m boss up here.”

Add to the mix a satisfyingly gory, ruinous climax and a twist ending and you have a piece of cinematic history. That said, I imagine modern audiences, raised on the sequels and rip-off’s, might be a touch disappointed with what they find here. This is the archetypal indie movie; raw, gritty, and about as far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood as it’s possible to get. That, for me, is part of its strength. It might seem predictable now, but only because you’ve seen the best parts replicated so many times in other places from likes of Shock Waves and Train to Busan to the Walking Dead. Imagine seeing this back in 1968, when the Vietnam War was still raging and the American political landscape was still struggling to come to terms with the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The latter, forever associated with the civil rights movement, makes the casting of Duane Jones as Ben even more interesting. At that time, it was highly unusual to see a black male lead dominating a cast of white folk. While some saw the choice as controversial, Romero distanced himself from any controversy by maintaining that Jones ‘simply gave the best audition.’ Jones’ performance is certainly remarkable, and it’s a surprise to me that he didn’t go on to greater things. That could be because he was also a director and teacher, and maybe that was where his true passions lay. Tragically, he died from a cardiac arrest on July 22nd 1988 at the age of just 51. It is also worth noting that Night of the Living Dead was released at the height of the Space Race between America and the Soviet Union which was still very high in the public consciousness, and various allusions are made to Venus probes and radiation as being possible causes of the zombie apocalypse.

Despite its being heavily criticized upon its release for allegedly being exploitative and excessively gory, Night of the Living Dead quickly garnered critical acclaim and became a much-loved horror classic, birthing many of the familiar horror tropes we still see today. Its success led to five sequels between 1978 and 2000, all directed by Romero (along with two remakes and scores of imitations) and it was eventually selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, as a film deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Trivia Corner:

In the scene where the zombies are eating bodies in the burned-out truck, they were actually eating roasted ham covered in chocolate sauce, which was used as a substitute for blood. This was obviously only possible because the film was shot in black and white. Elsewhere, entrails used in the film were donated by one of the actors who owned a chain of butcher shops.

 

 


The Bookshelf 2019

As is now customary, below is a complete list of all the books I read, from cover to cover (or from 0 to 100%, as is increasingly the case) last year. I gave up on more than a few, which I won’t bother to name. Life’s too short to read a shitty book.

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked in the first half of the year, but in my defence a couple of entries in this list are absolute monsters. I actually started the longest, Sleeping Beauties, weighing in at 702 pages, about eighteen months ago. I kept drifting in and out of it. All things considered, let’s just say that it was far too long and meandering. A good editor could cut at least 30% off the word count and not lose anything from the plot. I had high hopes for the Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware, but I rolled my eyes so much reading it that by the end it was like a physical affliction. Amy Cross hit another couple of home runs, but probably the best book I read last year was Lost at Sea by British journalist Jon Ronson. A selection of essays and investigative reports, it’s not my usual thing but I found it both insightful and refreshing.

8c738255-4b2d-45af-a524-b39e3b4f17bf_1.37f283f9b5306a0a1d2fb7680d17bb59

I’ve been making a conscious effort to read more widely, which is why I gave some new writers a shot. At least, writers new to me. And I fell back in love with the short story and read a bunch of anthologies, the pick of which being Body Horror: Trigger Warning. And I’m not just saying that because one of my stories is in it. Ultimately, however, I returned to Dean Koontz after a long break. I actually forgot how good the guy is. At first, anyway. But then a dog and a demented serial killer turned up like they do in all his books and I had to suffer yet more preachy, religious overtones. Sigh.

 

Signal Failure by David Wailing (2016)

Private Number/claws by Derek Muk (2018)

Stranded by Renee Miller (2018)

The Lighthouse by Amy Cross (2015)

The Last Days of by Jack Sparks Jason Arnopp (2017)

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (2017)

Filthy Beast: Diary of an English Teacher in China by White Buffalo (2018)

Bad News by Amy Cross (2019)

Body Horror: Trigger Warning by Various Authors (2019)

Living After Midnight: Hard & Heavy Stories by Various Authors (2010)

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King (2017)

The Nowhere Men – The Unknown Story of Football’s True Talent Spotters by Michael Calvin (2014)

Room 9 & Other Stories by Amy Cross (2018)

Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson (2012)

The Neighbour by Dean Koontz (2014)

Take the Corvus: Short Stories & Essays by Luke Kondor (2018)

Strange Weather: Four Short Novels by Joe Hill (2017)

The Corona Book of Ghost Stories by Various Authors (2019)

The Taking by Dean Koontz (2007)

Zombie Punks Fuck Off by Various Authors (2018)

You can check out last year’s bookshelf HERE.

 

 


2019 in Review

It’s that time of year again…

Another one ‘in the books,’ so to speak. And time for another quick review.

2019 kicked off in a high gear for me. In January I finally finished the final edits of my novella Tethered and started punting it around carefully selected publishers, and placed drabbles in 100-Word Horrors volumes 2 and 3, to follow-up my appearance in the first volume.

Saunders for the hattrick.

I also finished compiling X: Omnibus, a collection of all three of my short story collections to date, plus some other odds and ends. I’d already commissioned a cover from the sublime Greg Chapman, but even though most of the stories have been published before in various places, many of them still needed a bit of spit and polish. That process complete, I then had to format both the paperback and ebook versions and set about the task of marketing the sucker. I try to do a couple of guest posts at horror blogs and sites around every release. I find it beneficial, as well as fun. Most notably, this time around I popped up on Kendall Reviews discussing why I write horror.

In the first quarter of the year I had a couple of ‘quiet horror’ stories accepted into anthologies. Specifically, Down the Road appeared in a two-volume anthology on Smoking Pen Press entitled Vampires, Zombies & Ghosts, and Where a Town Once Stood was included in the Corona Book of Horror Stories. Obviously, I couldn’t stay ‘quiet’ for long and indulged my wild side in Trigger Warning: Body Horror from Madness Heart Press which included my surrealist skit Revenge of the Toothfish. Tiny Little Vampires was in a similar vein, and that was published by Tell Tale Press and elsewhere, The Bell showed up in Dark Moments.

With seven (count ’em!) new short stories being published, 2019 was probably my most successful ever calendar year in fiction. I also wrote seven or eight more shorts of various lengths and made a start on a new novel about a P.I. (Paranormal Investigator) and his cat I’ve been planning for a long time. For the most part, my fiction has taken a slightly surreal turn. There have been disembodied fingers poking through plugholes, giant cockroaches, and assassins with supernatural abilities. Still, most of the time, I’ve been living in China and writing non-fiction under a pseudonym. There are a lot of good reasons why I use a pseudonym when I write about my adventures and misadventures in the Middle Kingdom, which I won’t go into here. Let’s just say what happens in China is often best left in China, and written about by some other dude with a fake name. But it’s no big secret. If you want to know who this guy is, PM me and I’ll probably tell you, as long as you’re not the thought police.

*Nervous grin.*

I’m quite excited about this coming year. My RetView series of blog posts where I re-visit classic horror movies is picking up more readers and going from strength to strength, the latest installment of my X series of short fiction (imaginatively entitled X4. I like to keep things simple) is set to drop soon, and I’ve already had a couple of stories accepted into anthologies penciled in for 2020 releases. Hopefully, I’ll also have some new material which I’ve been working on for a while out in the second half of the year, so watch this space!

Thanks for reading.

2018 in Review.


RetView #29 – Turistas (2006)

Title: Turista (Paradise Lost)

Year of Release: 2006

Director: John Stockwell

Length: 95 minutes (uncut)

Starring: Josh Duhamel, Melissa George, Olivia Wilde, Desmond Askew, Max Brown

Turistas

A lot of horror movies play on mankind’s basic fear of the unknown. Some do it with more flair and panache than others, and manage to tick another box by catering to the kind of inherent xenophobia seemingly prevalent in the vast majority of cinema goers. Foreigners bad! Anything can happen over there! Ain’t you done heard the stories? This is why such classics as Severance, Hostel, Train to Busan and any number of Japanese offeringsJapanese offerings end up being so revered by western audiences. Not only do they exploit our dove-tailing fears of foreigners and the unknown, but they also provide a welcome splash of the weird and exotic, the colourful and vibrant. If we’re lucky. In any case, we can console ourselves with the fact that you won’t find any of that stuff over ‘ere, mate. This effectively creates a welcome sense of distance and separation between you and your horror. It makes the whole thing not only more believable but more enjoyable, because it’s never going to happen to you. Is it?

Turistas (Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian for ‘Tourist,’ in case you couldn’t work it out) follows the adventures of a group of hip young American backpackers trekking through Brazil. As soon as the premise is established, you know bad shit is soon going to befall them. The only question is, what kind of bad shit are we talking about? It all becomes a bit more clear a few minutes in when their coach crashes and they hook up with a couple of wise-cracking English blokes (Askew and Brown) and an Australian girl (George). Together, the newly-expanded group of wayward thrill-seekers find a beach bar and proceed to get wasted. They mix with the locals and much cavorting and hilarity ensues, until they all wake up the next morning and find they’re drinks were spiked and they’ve all been robbed (bloody foreigners!). With no phones, no money, and very little hope, they start walking. They soon find themselves in a tiny village, but incur the wrath of the locals when they chase down a kid they see sporting one of their baseball hats. An ally called Kiko, who may or may not be on the level, takes pity on them and whisks them away to a safe house deep in the jungle. Whether he has their best interests at heart or not is rendered immaterial when he dives into a river and bangs his head, knocking himself unconscious. The turistas carry him to the ‘safe house,’ which is deserted, but not for long, as pretty soon some crackhead hoodlums arrive by helicopter. Chief among them is a power-mad physician who proceeds to drug the unfortunate travellers (again), strap them to beds or lock them in cages, and extract their organs one-by-one to sell on the black market. The trip of a lifetime to Brazil then turns into a horrifying battle for survival.

On its release, Turistas (re-named Paradise Lost in the UK, Ireland and France) was met with mixed reviews. Fangoria magazine claimed it was, “Better and scarier than Hostel,” while the New York Times dismissed it as, “Plain stupid.” Being filmed on location in Brazil means it is visually breathtaking, and there is some stunning underwater photography on show. Gore hounds will be happy with the surgery scenes in the unrated version, which leave little to the imagination and are definitely not for the squeamish. According to IMBD, these scenes were performed by an actual surgeon for authenticity. Most of the sequence was cut for the theatrical release, as was an earlier eye-gouging scene.

Turistas uk edition

Interestingly, Turistas was largely boycotted in Brazil because of the negative image it portrays of the country, and star Josh Duhamel, who later found a home in the Transformer films, was coerced into offering the Brazilian government and people a grovelling apology during a subsequent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Perhaps owing to the mixed reviews and the associated controversy, Turistas was only a modest box office success, bringing in a reported $14.7 million from a budget of $10 million. But don’t let the figures sway you, this is a cut above average.

Trivia Corner:

Desmond Askew (who plays Finn) first shot to fame as a naughty schoolboy in the promo video for Wham’s 1983 hit single Bad Boys. Sticking with the same theme, he later starred in legendary British school drama Grange Hill.


London Calling at 40

Not many bands have made such a lasting impression on the musical landscape as The Clash. Even looking at their career retrospectively, it’s difficult to summarize their impact, influence and enduring legacy. Within the space of five albums spread over eight years (six if you include Cut the Crap, which most people don’t), they went from snarling punk underdogs to the ‘most important band in the world.’ Everyone has a favourite Clash album, but when pushed into a corner, most people settle on their third, London Calling, released forty years ago this week.

Following their incendiary self-titled debut and the slightly more melodic Give ‘Em Enough Rope, London Calling tried to be all things to all people. By then they were beginning to stray from their punk roots and experiment with reggae, ska, dub, soul, rockabilly and even early rap elements. There has probably never been a more diverse album. With this much going on, London Calling was in perpetual danger of becoming an indulgent, unfocused mix-tape of an album, but nothing could be further from the truth. Somehow, it comes across as a strong, cohesive, well-balanced set. Though the musical styles jump from genre to genre, the constant threads running through it all are the band’s distinctive musicianship, and insightful, socially aware lyrics tackling topics like rising unemployment, terrorism, racial conflict, the nuclear threat and political reform.

The mere act of releasing an industry-screwing double album at that point in their career was a bold move (even if, at 65 minutes, by today’s standards it would comfortably be considered a single album). Refusing to be sucked into the PR machine, even at the height of their fame the band were fiercely dedicated to giving fans VFM (Value For Money) by offering gig tickets and merchandise at reasonable prices. This philosophy extended to London Calling, and even the later triple album Sandinista! both of which retailed for the price of a single album. This meant that The Clash were in debt to CBS for most of their career. Not that they gave much of a shit. Even the cover is iconic, capturing Paul Simonon in the act of smashing up his bass at the New York palladium in frustration at the comparatively restrained crowd.

R-1578896-1267743853.jpeg

The album kicks off with the title track, which was also the lead single giving them their seventh UK Top 40 hit back when that meant something. I always thought London Calling sounded kind of ominous, that spiky guitar and low, rumbling bass reminiscent of the seminal Dead Kennedy’s Holiday in Cambodia. Always fond of throwing spanners in works, the politicised, semi-apocalyptic rant effortlessly gives way to ‘Brand New Cadillac,’ a light and jangly rockabilly cover originally written and recorded by Vince Taylor who, ironically enough, was really called Brian and came from Middlesex.  The only complaint I have about London Calling is the sequencing, which sees the rest of ‘Side One’ pass in much the same jazzy vein. It isn’t until we get to ‘Side Two’ (I’m talking vinyl here, kids) that shit gets real. Spanish Bombs, about ETA’s activities and the Spanish civil war of the 1930’s is, despite the weighty source material, one of the finest pop songs ever written. Clampdown, written in response to growing political tension in the late 70’s and Lost in the Supermarket, about, er, getting lost in a supermarket, aren’t far behind. The first record in the set closes out with the reggae-infused Guns of Brixton, written and sung by Paul Simonon, who grew up in Brixton and captures the mood perfectly.

Back to my sequencing complaint, and it has to be said Wrong ‘em Boyo (a cover of an old Rulers tune from the sixties) is completely a bizarre choice to start ‘Side Three.’ Switching that with Clampdown would have made much more sense, in almost every way. Happily, things get back on track pretty soon with a pair of underrated classics Death or Glory (later covered by Social Distortion) and the lyric-heavy Koka Kola, a cynical take on advertising and corporate shenanigans. The next few tracks are noticeably more restrained, featuring doo-wap and jazz influences and even some (apparent) improv, the pick of which being The Card Cheat. In later interviews, Strummer said he wrote the song after reading a lot of Sylvia Plath, which perhaps explains why the lyrics are so dark and mournful.

The Four Horsemen is a bit more direct and punk-sounding, and could easily have landed on the previous album. The same can be said of I’m not Down, a supposedly semi-autobiographical Mick Jones composition outlining his struggles with depression. If you have to tell yourself you’re not down, you probably are. The last track, Train in Vain, is another interesting one. It was a late addition to the album, having originally been intended as a free flexi-disc giveaway with the music bible NME, but when the deal fell through the band decided it was just too good to shelve. And they were right. It’s like the final piece of the jigsaw, coming right after Revolution Rock, ensuring the album ends on an uplifting note.

London Calling is very much a London album. Just like the city it is complex, wide-ranging and diverse, fiercely proud, defiant and filled with hope and optimism. It is rooted in the past, but has its eyes fixed firmly on the future comprising of a million different, sometimes competing elements, all of which come together to form something unique. It is worth noting that most of the tracks on London Calling were recorded in just one or two takes at Wessex Sound Studios by producer Guy Stevens, a notorious hell raiser who would be dead in less than two years at the age of 38. Ironically, the cause of death was an overdose of prescription drugs he was taking to combat alcohol dependency. He has consistently been credited as a key factor in London Calling’s quality and popularity, which as seen it become widely acknowledged as one of the best albums ever made.  Joe Strummer copped a lot of flak for being born middle class, but there was nothing contrived about his music, least of all London Calling. Listening to the album now, four decades later, it’s like going on a journey. Everything came together at the right time – the song writing, the energy, the creativity, the ambition and a relentless desire to make their mark. Something they certainly achieved.

 


Tiny Little Vampires & the Tell Tale Press

I hate mosquitoes. I mean, I really hate them. I hate them so much I wrote a weird little gross-out pseudo-rant about a guy in a hotel room being tormented by the little fuckers so much it drives him nuts.

Why mosquitoes?

Because with most creatures, even the gross or dangerous ones, you can usually find one redeeming quality. But not mosquitoes. Everything about them is vile and repulsive. They really are tiny little vampires. With wings. The problem is, as much as I hate them, they just love me and can’t stay away. They aren’t much of a problem in the UK. It’s not warm enough for them. But the moment I step off that chilly little island I get bitten to shit.

A few years ago I did a load of research about mosquitoes, either for my own amusement or for a non-fiction article I never wrote (I forget which) and ended up incorporating a lot of it into a story called Tiny Little Vampires. A flash version (less than 1000 words) of this story previously appeared in my collection X2, but the only reason it reached that state was because I cut it down on the advice of a prospective publisher who then decided they didn’t want it anyway.

Sigh.

Truth be told, I was never entirely happy with either the original or the flash version. I knew the story had potential, and thought it could be much better than it was. So sometime last year I stripped it down and built it again from the ground up, so to speak. Then, after a few edits and some polishing, I started submitting it again.

And here we are.

You can now find it on Tell Tale Press.


RetView #28 – The Terror (1963)

Title: The Terror

Year of Release: 1963

Director: Roger Corman

Length: 82 mins

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff, Sandra Knight, Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze

the terror

The story goes that when production wrapped on The Raven, eager to capitalize on the burgeoning horror genre, director and producer Roger Corman (who achieved fame adapting the stories of Edgar Allan Poe for cinema) wanted to utilize some leftover sets before they were destroyed. Star Boris Karloff was still contracted for a further three days, so Corman struck a deal which amounted to a paying him a small sum of money along with a deferred payment of $15,000 should the new project go on to make more than $150,000. He then enlisted the help of a young Jack Nicholson, who had also just finished working on The Raven and was busy climbing the rungs of the Hollywood ladder, commissioned Leo Gordon to write a very basic script, and a movie was born.

The Terror was filmed on such a shoe-string budget and incorporated such a liberal attitude that Corman often looked to enroll ‘guest’ directors while he was doing other things. Francis Ford Coppola lent his hand to some scenes, and a 26-year old Jack Nicholson virtually directed himself. He plays Andre Duvalier, a French soldier who, in 1806, becomes lost in the Confederation of the Rhine (an amalgamation of client states belonging to the First French Empire created after the Battle of Austerlitz). On the brink of exhaustion, he is saved by a beautiful maiden by the name of Helene (Knight) who shows him where he can find fresh drinking water. Duvalier then has a fight with a bird and almost drowns in the sea. When he comes around, he finds himself in a cabin in the forest being tended to by a weird old lady who might very well be a witch. Helene isn’t there, but the feisty bird he rumbled with earlier is, which is probably all the guy needed. Thoroughly freaked, he sneaks out in the dead of night and heads off into the forest where he meets up with Helene again. This time, in a roundabout way, she leads him to a creepy old castle where he runs into Baron Von Leppe (Karloff) and his henchman, Stefan (Miller). Seeing her portrait on the wall, Duvalier asks about the girl, only to be told the portrait isn’t anyone called Helene at all, but his wife, Ilsa, who he had murdered some years previously when he caught her cheating with a yokel. Even that doesn’t phase Duvalier who loudly proclaims, “With all due respect Baron, for a ghost she’s a very active young woman!” That night, he looks out of the window to see Helene/Ilsa walking in the grounds, and goes out to find her. By this time, I couldn’t help wondering if there was anything a French soldier wouldn’t do to get his end away. He flat-out refuses to leave the castle, and sets about trying to solve the mystery, which only deepens when a disembodied voice leads him to the crypt. Nothing good ever happens in crypts in films. Or in real life, I imagine. Don’t go in the crypt. Does he go in the crypt? I think you know the answer to that. He can’t fucking wait to get in that crypt.

Though much-maligned, and often completely overlooked, for me the Terror stands out for many reasons. Firstly, the ingenuity and sheer resourcefulness of Corman, who pulled out every stop to get the thing done. He saw an opportunity and followed it through, and deserves bucket loads of credit for that. It was a very DIY punk thing to do. Apparently, he never did pay Karloff that promised $15,000, because, he claims, the movie never made the stipulated $150,000. Despite the weak script, much of which was probably written on the hoof or at least partially improvised, the dovetailing performances of Karloff and Nicholson, two screen legends, are remarkable. Finally, the gothic setting is absolutely gorgeous. That castle is straight out of a dream, or a nightmare, the numerous neglected rooms full of dusty trinkets and secret passages act as fitting visual metaphors for the Baron’s moral decay and worsening mental state.

Since someone forgot to include a copyright notice in the credits, today, the original version of the film is in the public domain. To navigate this problem, in the early 1990’s, Corman enlisted Dick Miller to reprise his role and shoot new scenes to frame the action from the original movie, which is then presented in flashback. This extended the running time to 91 minutes. To make matters even more confusing, depending on where it was released, the Terror was alternatively known as The Haunting, The Castle of Terror, and Lady of the Shadows. Given the options, The Terror is probably the most uninspired title they could have gone with. If this film was an object, it would be one of those weird little dusty ornaments you find in an elderly relatives house after they die. Totally worthless in a practical sense, but never-the-less curious, bizarre and not without charm.

Trivia Corner:

The uniform worn by Jack Nicholson was previously worn by Marlon Brando when he played Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1954 epic Desiree.


%d bloggers like this: