A Hard Day’s Night of the Living Dead

Many of the video mash-ups you find on YouTube are astonishing in their complete and utter ineptitude. They’re usually full of editing glitches, spelling errors and poorly synched sound. In fact, they’re so godawful that you begin to wonder how the people responsible possessed the technical proficiency to even get them online. That’s why it’s so nice, and always surprising, to find something as funny and professional as the clip below. It’s been on YouTube for almost four years now, seamlessly blending groovy sixties beats with zombie carnage from Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead Remake. It’s foot-tapping, zombie burning fun!

Name That Zombie!

Many fans know that Night of the Living Dead was originally titled Night of the Flesh Eaters. The name was changed at the last minute, at the behest of the distributor, and the rushed adjustment had unfortunate consequences. Since the new title frames lacked a copyright notice, the movie passed into the public domain immediately—and the filmmakers lost out on a lot of money. But what if the movie had retained its original title? For one thing, the title frames would probably have looked something like this:

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Also, as long as we’re in this alternate reality, it’s fun to speculate on possible names for the sequels. Would Romero have followed a similar tack to what actually happened, giving us Dawn of the Flesh Eaters, Day of the Flesh Eaters, Land of the Flash Eaters, Diary of the Flesh Eaters and Survival of the Flesh Eaters? Unlikely. I think he would have taken a more varied approach. After all, “Flesh Eaters” has a slightly goofy ring to it, despite the bald-faced, cannibalistic meaning. Imagine George Zucco or Bela Lugosi, circa 1950, surrounded by cardboard sets and cheesy flesh eaters. Easy, right? “Living Dead,” on the other hand, is like a snatch of grim poetry. The word combination is impossible, intriguing, and wrong in the best kind of way. The complete title, Night of the Living Dead, has rhythm and balance, almost like a line from a haiku. It rolls right off the tongue, while that first title is jerky and more difficult to enunciate.

Seems like Night of the Living Dead got its title because that’s how it was meant to be. With any other moniker, despite the unmistakable quality of the movie itself, it might have sunk without a trace, and the Zombie Godfather of Pittsburgh would have gone back to making commercials and industrial shorts. Sometimes, bad luck is good luck in disguise.

Zombies of German Expressionism

In 1968, America was a land of great unrest. Vietnam had turned out to be anything but a cakewalk, race relations were still strained, prominent public figures were assassinated, and the disgruntled younger generation had begun to take far fewer baths than before. In this climate of tension and fear (and smelly young people), Pittsburgh native George A. Romero decided to lighten the mood with a cheerful ray of sunshine called Night of the Living Dead—my favorite horror movie ever. Roger Ebert tells of the first time he saw it, at a Saturday matinee attended mostly by children. As events unfolded, his fellow theater patrons were stunned into quiet shock, scared shitless and traumatized for life. No wonder—as I posited yesterday, this was a new kind of horror, Psycho being the only close precedent. Here was the kind of horror you felt. Imagine the sight that greeted the parents when they returned from their shopping rounds!

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Out of the darkness, the dead appear.

General consensus seems to be that Night of the Living Dead, released six months after the Tet Offensive, is an allegory for the Vietnam War. I’ve often heard that the zombies in the field suggest demoralized US soldiers staggering through rice paddies—strangers in a strange land. But if that’s the case, what do the living people symbolize? You could just as easily claim that the zombies are Viet Cong, while the survivors represent embattled Americans thrust into a situation they’re painfully unprepared to handle. And if politics aren’t your thing, Night is open to other interpretations. After all, this is sophisticated, modern horror. In Laughing Screaming, author William Paul dwells on the movie’s family-related horrors. Jamie Russell, meanwhile, in his first-rate zombie guide Book of the Dead, writes that Night is about “the horror of the body.” Hey, it’s all good!

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Ben doesn't like what he sees.

Now, what about the style? As it happens, Night of the Living Dead is an exercise in subtle, skillful filmmaking. The craftsmanship is obscured by more visceral thrills, and it’s no surprise when critics see Night as crude and reminiscent of cinéma-vérité. Romero himself can be quite self-deprecating about the technical side of the production. But there’s genuine craft on display here, and an affectionate attention to the history of horror movies. In particular, there’s a distinct influence from the German expressionists of the silent era. Dark, angular set design, which mirrored the tormented interior lives of the characters, was a stylistic hallmark of silent German cinema; shadows and intentionally overwrought acting contributed to the feeling of an off-kilter dream world. In addition, the themes most often revolved around death, insanity and sin. And all of these elements, in one way or another, are clearly mirrored in Romero’s debut effort.

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Barbara is about to get a nasty surprise.

Early on, main character Barbara (Judith O’Dea) must flee the country cemetery where a zombie has attacked her brother Johnny (Russ Streiner). After an awkward run down a country road, she seeks refuge in a seemingly deserted farmhouse—the interiors and lighting of the place are straight out of silent German cinema. And the ghouls themselves move like distant cousins of Cesare, the somnambulist in Robert Wiene’s 1919 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Actually, even the living characters move like him in the beginning. Just watch as Barbara and Ben (Duane Jones) warily explore the house, pressed against the walls while shadows dance across their faces. From Book of the Dead: “Romero and his producers Carl Hardman and Russell Streiner (who both appear in front of the camera playing Cooper and Johnny respectively) had originally wanted to make a non-horror art-house movie.” Well, guess what? They didn’t completely ditch the art-house sensibility … they just disguised it a bit with walking corpses, head bashing and people getting eaten. You can have your bloody cake and gobble it down too!

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Ben goes upstairs for a closer look.

Oh, and Happy Halloween!

Children of the Crappy Dead

George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead has quite the legacy. To my mind, when it arrived in 1968, it ushered in the modern horror movie (along with Rosemary’s Baby, released the same year). Gone were the cobwebbed castles, terrorized villagers and occasionally hokey monsters of yore. This was contemporary horror which took place in familiar surroundings, perpetrated by monsters that looked like ordinary folks. An entirely new tone was introduced to the genre, and it persists to this day. So far, Romero has himself written and directed four loosely related sequels to his seminal classic. And the fifth one, Survival of the Dead, is imminent. Both Land of the Dead and (especially) Diary of the Dead marked a dip in quality, but they’re still enjoyable, thought-provoking and miles ahead of the zombified competition. To wit, Children of the Living Dead from 2001 …

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Tom Savini takes aim ... at the filmmakers?

Never seen it? Perhaps even never heard of it? Well, there’s no reason to feel uninformed, even if you’re a horror fan. Children of the Living Dead is obscure for a reason! Above all else, it’s poorly written. The story, which deals with some kind of zombie king and his group of undead minions who attack a small Pennsylvania town, is nonsensical beyond belief. There are arbitrary jumps in time, people do completely illogical things, and the dialogue is often appallingly bad. Any viewer looking for even the barest shred of cohesion, would be better off doing a jigsaw puzzle in the dark. This turkey is also poorly shot, poorly acted, poorly edited, poorly everything! I have to stress that Romero had nothing whatsoever to do with this mess, but it does have a number of “fortuitous” ties to him nonetheless.

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Abbott Hayes, the head zombie. He mostly just stands around and laughs.

For starters, Children of the Living Dead was produced by John Russo, Romero’s co-writer back in ‘68. Bill Hinzman, the very first zombie to come shambling through the cemetery in Night, was the director of photography. Marty Schiff, who plays Sheriff Randolph and actually does a good job, has appeared in three Romero movies—Dawn of the Dead, Knightriders and Creepshow. And he’s even working with Romero again, after well over two decades, as a producer on the forthcoming Deadtime Stories anthologies. Sam Nicotero, who is memorable and genuinely funny as a skuzzy hotel manager, is the uncle of special effects master Greg Nicotero—the latter has worked with Romero a number of times, of course. Speaking of special effects masters, long-time Romero associate Tom Savini plays a gung-ho survivalist type who dies after 15 minutes. He also did double duty as stunt coordinator. His performance isn’t great, but that might be due to the awful looping. I could go on, but you get the picture.

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Marty Schiff and Savini stroll through a cemetery so cheap even Ed Wood, Jr. in his "glory" days would have sniffed at it.

There’s a fascinating backstory to why Children of the Living Dead ended up being such a shambles. Instead of my recycling it here, I suggest you stop by the highly informative Homepage of the Dead. Go to Bits & Pieces, and scroll down to the article “An e-mail from Tor Ramsey – Director of Children of the Living Dead.” There you’ll find a damning review of the movie from Travis Stoff … and the director’s reply. As he tells his bleakly entertaining tale, Ramsey comes across as witty, smart and honest. Read the whole thing, you won’t regret it. By the end, you’ll feel pretty sorry for the guy—and clearly discern that this project was doomed from the outset.

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Terminated zombies ... or poor souls who watched this movie?

Note: I’ve barely scratched the surface of the sheer inept lunacy that is Children of the Living Dead. Something tells me I’ll be blogging about it again in the near future. You have been warned …

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