Friday, July 28, 2017


1961, Second Run (UK), 1.37:1, BD-ABC, 85m (163m of supplements)

To watch a Karel Zeman film is to feel that all other filmmakers are impeded, that they were short-changed on the day the Angels distributed the tools of filmmaking. Pick a random Zeman film and you will see his mastery of black-and-white and color; live-action and animation; collage and sculpture; sobriety and humor; science and imagination. His creativity is like a fountain; it never stops flowing, never stops its own endless reinvention. A simple shot of a rose in the moonlight is enough to bring us to our knees.

Zeman, a Czech filmmaker who lived from 1910 to 1989 and made films from 1946 to 1980 (his first feature, CESTA DO PRAVEKU / JOURNEY TO THE BEGINNING OF TIME, in 1955), belongs in the ranks of animators who became directors: Georges Méliès, Ladislas Starewicz, George Pal, Frank Tashlin, and even Mario Bava - but he is particularly well-placed among Pal and Starewicz, and a third filmmaker who never graduated to stage direction: Lotte Reiniger (best-known for her animated cut-out feature THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED, 1926). As a child, Zeman fell in love with the stories of Jules Verne and the illustrations of Gustave Doré and became a confirmed fantasist. His aforementioned debut begins realistically, with live action, but then almost imperceptibly melds into fantasy as a group of boys on a nature trip find themselves face-to-face with creatures that never existed in their own time. His second feature, VYNÁLEZ ZKÁZY / A DEADLY INVENTION (1958; released in English territories as THE FABULOUS ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE), was a far more radical and delightful creation, a melding of different Verne scenarios into an original story, told in a conglomeration of live-action, trick shots, and animation that brought Verne's original book illustrations uncannily to life. After more than half a century, it remains the most commercially successful Czech film of all time - and the primary reason why there now exists a Karel Zeman Museum in Prague. This same museum has made it their mission to see Zeman's groundbreaking work better known and more fully appreciated; some years ago, they began releasing DVDs of his work, with VYNÁLEZ ZKÁZY released as a solo (and English-friendly) Blu-ray disc, while Zeman's first three films have also been released by them as a single-disc Blu-ray. Now the British label Second Run, which has long specialized in Eastern European cinema and previously released Zeman's BLÁZNOVA KRONICA / A JESTER'S TALE on DVD, has entered the picture with a glorious 4K restoration of what is arguably the filmmaker's greatest film, one that is tempting to interpret as a testamental work thought it perversely arrived well before the midpoint of his career: BARON PRÁŠIL / THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1961).

The tall tales collected in THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN - based on the public exaggerations of a nobleman so named, written and published by Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785 - were well-plundered by other filmmakers from Méliès to Josef von Baky by the time Zeman got around to filming them, so he took a unique approach. He saw Munchausen not as a figure to mock or ridicule, but to revere; he saw him as the avatar of all imagination and human invention, invention that would someday take us to the Moon. His film opens by taking us from our species' lowly origins beyond what was then the summit of our achievements, to the footprints of man on the Moon - footage now astonishing for how exactly it visualizes our documentation of scientific miracles now well in our past. There, the first lunar lander - identified only as Moonman or Tony (Rudolf Jelinek) - is surprised to be welcomed by the three protagonists of Verne's FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, by Cyrano de Bergerac, and Baron Munchausen himself (Miloš Kopeckÿ). These fantastical figures, romantics all, offer the Moonman the temptations of silver lunar wine and what appears to be a broom-riding space siren (and another, more beholden to science, held aloft by two balloons), but find him too pragmatic and earthly to believe in them. Therefore, they determine that it is on Earth where this adventurer truly belongs. The Baron escorts him back him personally aboard a great ship carried through space by a team of winged horses. Landing in Turkey, the Baron meets with the Sultan (THE CREMATOR's Rudolf Hrušinskÿ) for assistance, and in his great palace they discover that the beautiful - and remarkably passive - Princess Bianca (Jana Brejchová) is being held prisoner. (The almost three-dimensional shot entering the palace is probably one of my 10 favorite shots in all of cinema.) Both men are instantly enamored, but it is the Baron - for whom no feat is impossible - who asserts that she must be rescued and a kidnapping in the only manly means of doing so.
The balance of the film finds the three principal characters besting one outrageous jam by even more outrageous means, including being swallowed by a gigantic sea monster. But the actual drama of the piece is the urbane Baron's bafflement over the fact that the Princess prefers the unimaginative Tony to him as a suitor, in which one recognizes a philosophical contest between cold scientific logic and brave-hearted imaginative abandon. (The film also allows for a third reality, "the language of high democracy," which is spoken to and by rulers and politicians as so much meaningless blowing and slurring into a harmonica.) Without revealing too much, suffice to say that the pragmatist finds his way to dreaming through love and dreams up something that the good Baron can use to help them live happily ever after. The Baron, meanwhile, learns that romance may belong to the moon and the stars, but love itself is by nature an earthly thing.

I am tempted to say that no film has ever benefited quite so much from 4K restoration as this one. The Czech Blu-rays were lovely, but this disc is razor-sharp with sometimes astonishing illusions of depth. The purity of the colors is awe-inducing, and I suspect that if the film was not so wittily grounded in humor, the work as a whole might be alienating in the sheer aggression and accumulation of its beauty. There are instances when the live-action components of individual shots look a trifle soft, but this has to do with how the shots were filmed and processed and layered. Second Run and the Zeman Museum have asserted the film's Czech nationality by presenting the film only with a Czech language track. In the 1990s, around the time Terry Gilliam (inspired in large part by this film) made his own ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, Image Entertainment released the Zeman picture on LaserDisc as THE ORIGINAL ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN with an English-dubbed soundtrack, so completists may want to acquire this as well.

Second Run's optionally subtitled Blu-ray disc runs welcomely riot with nearly three hours of supplementary extras, the most important being Tomáš Hodan's 2015 documentary FILM ADVENTURER KAREL ZEMAN (102m), which includes interviews with the likes of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton and many who knew Zeman personally. It is remarkable for the sheer plentitude of its behind the scenes footage - as one witness observes, Zeman had no fear of visitors peering into his techniques because there was nothing to steal but the intangibles of vision and hard work. It is a superb introduction to the subject, and exactly what you will want to see after the intoxicant of the main feature. It also documents a group of contemporary film students working together to recreate on film one of MUNCHAUSEN's most memorable illusions. Additionally, there are various essential documentary briefs ported over from the Zeman Museum releases, a nearly-half-hour spoken and illustrated essay by Michael Brooke about the real and fictional Munchausen and much about this film in particular (including a marvelous appreciation of Zdenēk Liška's endlessly inventive score), a trailer and a 16-page booklet featuring an informative and contextualizing essay by Graham Williamson.

Perhaps it goes without saying in light of all I've just said, but this is one of the most important HD releases of 2017 and warmly recommended. The region-free disc can be obtained directly from Second Run or from retailers such as

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.             

Thursday, July 27, 2017


Chi sei? / "Who Goes There?"
1974, Code Red, 1.85:1, BD-A, 108m

I had the unforgettable good fortune to see Ovidio Assonitis' BEYOND THE DOOR in its first release, in a multiplex that was also showing (unbelievably) FLESH GORDON, MANDINGO and LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT. (As Lou Reed sang, those were different times.) While I had a sneaking suspicion of what was probably coming, the lights went down on an audience whose like I had never seen before in attendance at run-of-the-mill horror pictures; they were clearly anticipating another experience on the level of William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST, not quite realizing that such things come only once in a lifetime. Seven minutes later, and I am probably being generous in my estimation of the time, the walk-outs began.

I couldn't call BEYOND THE DOOR a "guilty pleasure" because I don't really feel any guilt for my film-related pleasures, but it is a film I've come to treasure for how riotously wrong it is, on so many counts - but, as time has gone on, I've also acquired a deeper appreciation for what, against all odds, is good about it. The story, in brief, is about a record producer whose wife, formerly involved with a man named Dmitri, begins acting strangely as a result of a pact that Dmitri has made with the Devil - while poised mid-fall through a suicidal car dive off a coastal cliff. She becomes both pregnant and possessed and Dmitri is offered a chance at escape from his pending ever-lasting torment if he can abort the child. To make matters still more preposterous, the woman - Jessica Barrett (Juliet Mills) - has already given birth to two children, Gail (Barbara Fiorini) and Ken (David Colin, Jr.), who are as much like Hellspawn as you'd care to imagine. They're both potty-mouthed poster children for OCD, with Gail a compulsive reader and collector of LOVE STORY paperbacks (hence her vocabulary) and Ken forever suckling at cans of Campbell's Green Pea soup. The kids are, in some ways, the best reason to see it, and their dialogue - attributed to no less than eight screenwriters on the IMDb - is enough to make you doubt your own sanity. (Like this from Gail, when her little brother wakes up crying: "Ken. What's the matter? You're gonna blow my mind. Man, if you don't quit crying, you're gonna have a real bad trip.") They also pass, in the context of this film, as acceptable - possibly because the family pediatrician and friend, Dr. George Staton (Nino Segurini), looks like Chevy Chase doing a vintage SNL skit.
Produced for $350,000 and shot on location in San Francisco with interiors filmed at De Paolis Studios in Rome, BEYOND THE DOOR actually contains some good material. Much like Elke Sommer in THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, Juliet Mills commits to giving the best performance possible as the possessed Jessica, and her portrayal is potent and occasionally extremely eerie. She is assisted by some uncredited effects work by Wally Gentleman (2001, THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, ONE FROM THE HEART) and Donn Davison (who shot inserts for the ASYLUM OF THE INSANE variant of David Friedman's SHE-FREAK) that, all these years later, still beg to viewer to pause and deconstruct them. Richard Johnson, formerly of THE HAUNTING and THE WITCH IN LOVE and barrelling toward the Lucio Fulci end of his career, also brings great authority to the part of Dmitri. And then we have Gabriele Lavia as Jessica's husband Robert Barrett (which happens to be the name of one of the film's screenwriters - R. Barrett), who is introduced in a recording studio, producing a new reggae track by a mostly black band, bobbing his head wildly out of time, and then cutting them off in the midst of a respectable take, complaining that "it's got about as much balls as a castrrated jellyfish." You know you're in good hands with that line, but I don't remember hearing it in the theater. The English dubbing, by the way, includes Mills and Johnson's own voices, with Ted Rusoff voicing Gabriele Lavia and his wife Carolyn de Fonseca voicing Carla Mancini, who plays the creepily Alida Valli-like woman on the boat.

This new dual-layered Blu-ray from Code Red - available from Diabolik DVD - is not quite the BEYOND THE DOOR we remember from its theatrical playdates. Carrying the title THE DEVIL WITHIN HER (which was already taken by an AIP release starring Joan Collins, the US retitling of a British picture called I DON'T WANT TO BE BORN!), this is the original English export version which contains approximately 10 minutes of footage that was cut from the picture by Edward L. Montoro's company Film Ventures International. Not only does the additional footage include some of Mills' and Johnson's best work in this picture, but there is some additional humor (like the opening recording studio sequence) and an overall more languid pace that makes sense of some of the spaced-out tone of the piece. Best of all, by going back to the original cut, this release avails itself of a razor-sharp, richly colorful picture quality that was never on view in US theaters, where the film looked fuzzy and grainy with watery colors in its multiplex incarnation.

While this Code Red disc would need that alternate theatrical cut to qualify as definitive, this is an impressive presentation nevertheless. The HD master is identified as brand new and there are quite a few extras, including VW's Nathaniel Thompson interviewing Ovidio Assonitis in the first commentary, and VW's Darren Gross moderating a third audio track with Juliet Mills and Scott Spiegel. There is also a "BEYOND THE DOOR: 35 Years Later" featurette that interviews Assonitis, Mills, Johnson and script contributor Alex Rebar (who remembers Johnson rewriting his dialogue), and a separate interview with Gabriele Lavia. The packaging features reversible cover art, allowing a choice of original art or the original Film Ventures campaign. 

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


"The Night of the Open Coffins"
Drácula contra Frankenstein / Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein / The Screaming Dead
1971, Colosseo-Film (Germany), 2.35:1, 82m (BD-A)

Though there has never been any particular shortage of it, Jess Franco's DRÁCULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN has always been a much sought-after title by his collectors. It had a badly-pan&scanned VHS release here in the States from Wizard Video back in the 1980s, under the title THE SCREAMING DEAD, after which it surfaced with modest letterboxing and a different title sequence in Japan, a version subsequently marketed here through Bill Knight's mail-order company Midnight Video. There have been subsequent DVD releases, both here and abroad, but they have always been marred by something - usually an inaccurate aspect ratio. This new German Blu-ray release, region-free, is the first ever to present the film in its authentic 2.35:1 format, but it's still not all that we hoped for. The nudity promised by a swatch of German lobby cards, for instance, does not materialize on this disc, which strongly suggests we may never see the alternate "adult" version that exists for so many other Franco titles.

The film is one of those dashed-off-on-a-napkin Franco plots: When Dracula's reign of terror is finally foiled, Dr. Frankenstein arrives in Transylvania (in a limousine driven by a misshapen chauffeur - though the film, up to that time, has the look of a period piece) and reactivates the vampire with his laboratory equipment, enslaving him to do his bidding. Drunk with success, Frankenstein unleashes his "New Gods" on the village - causing Amira, a gypsy sorceress (Geneviève Deloir, the future Mrs. Ivan Reitman, giving the film's best performance), to invoke the return of the Wolf Man on the night of the full moon.

DRÁCULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN is generally regarded as part of a trilogy; it was directly followed by DAUGHTER OF DRACULA (which began as a remake of Franco's earlier THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, but was talked into incorporating unused and new footage of Howard Vernon as Count Dracula, making it an implicit prequel explaining the origin of the Count's coffin companion, played by Britt Nichols) and then THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN (a wild romp inspired by the erotic horror comics coming out of France at the time). Franco often spoke in interviews of his dislike for most Hammer films, stating his preference for Universal horror and, even more so, the expressionism of silent horror pictures. True to his word, this film can be viewed as a rough sketch of what filmmakers raised on the stage productions of Max Reinhardt might have made of Universal's three great terror titans.

It's an unabashed Monster Rally, a HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or a VAN HELSING of its time, and Franco delves into the challenges of such a picture armed with little more than his love for such things and the promise to deliver one. Despite these shortcomings, they conspire to create a kind of hyper-reality in which all chronologies, geographies, even characters from different movies get shuffled together. It is a movie to be enjoyed simply on the level of sustained mayhem and delirium. In this version of the film (which is lacking a brief onscreen text by that revered authority on supernatural topics "David Khune" and some narrated diary scribblings by Frankenstein), there is literally no spoken dialogue for the first 18 minutes; the cinematography (credited to José Climent) has a quality so baroque as to appear gnostic; the soundtrack plays needle drops with a barnstorming Bruno Nicolai score, much as Godard used Georges Delerue's few cues in CONTEMPT; and the make-up is comparable to what you might see in a high school play.

Watching the film again, it occurred to me that the wily Franco may have also been using this film for the more covert purpose of lampooning the kind of old-fashioned Spanish horror being put forth by his colleague Paul Naschy. The werewolf (played by someone identified only as Brandy) is particularly poor, his appearances signaled with an ancient wolf howl sound effect heard in many a Naschy picture. Furthermore, the film's Spanish title is a flagrant steal of the export title for a Naschy picture best known in English as ASSIGNMENT: TERROR (1968, which has had VHS release here as DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN), itself an all-star monster rally. But Franco never made films that work only on a single level, so poking fun at his rival would not have been his only goal with this. Indeed, DRÁCULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN embodies a conflation of so many commercial and experimental approaches to cinema that it feels radical in its construction, even in its raucous primitivism and disregard for continuity, despite the material's overall familiarity.

One hopes that the more adult version of this film that was apparently shot will surface at some later date. Till then, this Colosseo presentation is the best we have. It is sourced from an Italian print - screen title: I MAESTRI BLACK HORROR: DRACULA CONTRO FRANKENSTEIN; the aspect ratio is correct, but claims Cinemascope instead of its actual four-perf Techniscope format, which may be somewhat to blame for the image's overall softness. The image generally lacks the sharpness we associate with digital releases and particularly with digital restorations. The soundtrack is offered in German, Spanish and Italian (the wretched SCREAMING DEAD English track is not in evidence), while subtitles are included in German and English. The extras include a nice 10m featurette documenting a July 2001 visit by Franco and Lina Romay to a retrospective at the Film Museum in Munich, Germany (where he makes a heartwarming reference to "a critic, a nice guy in the States" who once said that "you cannot see one of my films until you have seen them all." There is also an artwork gallery, a restoration demonstration (which shows the elimination of a lot of green speckling), and German-language liner notes by Gerald Kuklinski.

Most easily obtained Stateside from Diabolik DVD or

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

AFTER THE FOX reviewed

Peter Sellers as film director Federico Fabrizi in AFTER THE FOX.

Caccia alla volpe
1966, Kino Lorber, 2.35:1, 103m (BD Region A)

I suppose I could blame the fox hunting sequence in 1965's CASINO ROYALE for this, but I put off the great pleasure of making this film's acquaintance for decades because it looked from a distance like yet another out-of-control farce, with aging stars having much more fun than I would, running like geese around Europe to more woozily gallivanting Burt Bacharach cues. Mamma mia, was I wrong. This might be one of the best and funniest movies about the misadventure of making movies around, but it has the added bonus of specifically lampooning Italian film production - just as a new set of laws were falling into place that would bring an end to US/Italian studio collaborations almost overnight.

Neil Simon's first original screenplay posits Peter Sellers in the role of Aldo Vanucci, a.k.a. The Fox, a Fantômas-like master criminal (and master of disguise) serving an interminable prison sentence, who suddenly and brilliantly escapes from his cell when he learns from his visiting gang the not-quite-accurate but inflammatory news that his younger sister (a brunette Britt Ekland) is now walking the streets as a prostitute. After much disguised misadventure (allowing Sellers plentiful opportunity to parade his many faces), he discovers that his delectable sibling is only playing a prostitute in her first movie role. When Vanucci sees the complete deference paid to filmmakers by the general public, and particularly by the police, he realizes that he has been going about the criminal life entirely wrong. Hearing that billions in gold bricks are being transported from Cairo to a small village in rural Italy, he realizes at once how to mastermind the biggest heist of The Fox's career: by posing as an intellectual film director.

Enter "Federico Fabrizi," who uses his self-professed ability to "have ideas" to BS his way through any barrier, including the protective agent (Martin Balsam) of aging Hollywood star Tony Powell (Victor Mature in a somewhat meta role that paves the way to his appearance in HEAD, two years later). Seeing  Fabrizi as a rescue from an early retirement, he eagerly accepts the opportunity to work opposite that new Italian sensation (Vanucci's sister) - the hilariously named "Gina Romantica" - and finds himself being asked to do things like run around without apparent objective because, after all, are we not all running around, never knowing what we are doing? And he loves it! Loves it! Mature's largely untapped gift for comedy, and his robust willingness to parody himself, are only two of the film's many points of appeal.

The great de Sica directing the great faux Fabrizi.

Director Vittorio de Sica seems to have had the rare ability to rein in Sellers' frequent excesses to just the right measure to make him charming, elegant, and devastatingly funny. (They would work together only once more, in the following year's portmanteau film WOMAN TIMES SEVEN.) De Sica also appears as himself in a scene that one imagines could have inspired Francis Coppola's appearance in APOCALYPSE NOW) and a superb supporting cast that includes Paolo Stoppa, Lydia Brazzi, and the infallible Akim Tamiroff - in a fez, no less.

Kino's presentation is bright and colorful, conveying a welcome nostalgic sense of what it was like to see these big continental romps on their opening engagements. Aside from the main theme song (by The Hollies and Bacharach), which is far from the best thing either of them did, I find Bacharach's score even more inventive than his celebrated work for CASINO ROYALE, though very much in the same vein. There is no subtitle option. Extras are limited to an original trailer, viewable with Trailers From Hell commentary by screenwriter Larry Karaszewski (a big fan of the movie) and trailers for other Peter Sellers titles available from Kino.     

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 24, 2017


Marianne Koch in dire threat of asphyxiation in SPOTLIGHT ON A MURDERER.

Pleins feux sur l'assassin
1961, Arrow Academy, 1:37:1, 92m (BD/DVD 2 disc set)

Georges Franju's rarely screened follow-up to EYES WITHOUT A FACE reunites him with the ace rewriters of that film, the screenwriting team of Boileau-Narcejac (Pierre and Thomas, respectively), notorious for LES DIABOLIQUES and the novel upon which VERTIGO was based. Here they spice-up the shopworn "Last Will and Testament" premise with an absentee corpse who leaves an especially diabolical will, requiring his abhorrent relatives - the hopeful inheritors of a castle and all its wealth - to live there and maintain its upkeep for five years. This costly sentence goads these n'er-do-wells into setting up the castle as a modern day theater hosting a "sound and light" performance (a kind of externalized radio, telling a story spatially using only projected light and sound effects) at the castle, depicting a legendary murder that took place there in the 15th century, a performance that now becomes the setting for a new series of murders as someone narrows the playing field to beef-up their cut of the inheritance.

It sounds like it couldn't miss, and what's here is attractive and entertaining, but it's also pulled-off with a mildness one doesn't associate with Franju - evidently the fault of interfering, censorious producers. There is some masterful content nevertheless, particularly the initial "sound and light" show (which must have felt wonderful in a darkened theater) and a climactic moment involving a shattered mirror. As Chris Fujiwara notes in an insightful booklet essay, Mario Bava's A BAY OF BLOOD (1971) covers similar ground far more flamboyantly; this film (with a tremendous cast that includes Pierre Brasseur, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Pascale Audret, Dany Saval and Marianne Koch) needed more theatrical panache. I would also go so far as to say that the aspect of modernizing the castle to awaken its ghosts also had more than a little influence on Bava's BARON BLOOD (1972). One does pine for Édith Scob in the Pascale Audret role (as Franju himself did, subsequently), but her absence here made her return all the more welcome in JUDEX (1963).

A typically handsome Arrow presentation, this is a relatively quiet but important release because it finds the company venturing beyond the director's primary titles into the more shadowy passages of his concise but valuable filmography. Your support of this release can only serve to encourage the release of more like it - and we very much need THÉRÈSE DESQUEYROUX, THOMAS THE IMPOSTER and, perhaps most of all, the complete teleseries of L'HOMME SANS VISAGE.

SPOTLIGHT ON A MURDER is short on supplements but does include a marvelous one: a 27m set visit from French television (containing interviews with all the principals, and a priceless moment when we see Franju's humble response to a heartfelt compliment from the interviewer, who speaks for us all). The booklet is especially useful, including the Fujiwara essay, Raymond Durgnat's assessment of the film from his FRANJU book, and an archival CINEMA 61 interview with Boileau-Narcejac and their director, who at the time was looking forward to making FANTOMAS and offers some details about the approach he would have taken. Enjoyable as the Andre Hunebelle films with Jean Marais and Louis de Funés may be, we were robbed.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

RIP George A. Romero (1940-2017)

Romero on the set of DAY OF THE DEAD, 1985.
Today, the life of writer-director George A. (for Andrew) Romero was claimed by his own most abiding subject - death - at the age of 77. The cause was lung cancer, reminding me that, even on the set of TWO EVIL EYES, almost 30 years ago, he could be seen playing with a yo-yo in an effort to wean himself away from cigarettes, that tempting companion of so many artists who sit alone in rooms, turning their insides out for our entertainment - and if they just work a little harder, perhaps our illumination.

Filming Judith O'Dea in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Romero changed everything in the horror genre. He first arrived on the scene in 1968, arguably the most revolutionary year in living memory, with what could be considered the first horror film worthy of the adjective "confrontational." Like all the best horror films, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started small and spread across the country, and then around the world, like an urban legend; and unlike most films of its kind at that time, it appeared to have been deliberately constructed to mean what it was saying (which was about zombies, then a very underused form of monster) and what it was not saying (about our country, about race, about Vietnam, about the gulf between the media and the man on the street). But it was more than the beginning of a politicized horror cinema; its success became the starting pistol for the independent film movement in general. It was not an overnight thing, and it certainly didn't benefit Romero himself in any ready or significant way. I remember that NIGHT was still gaining speed within the horror community even as he was making other kinds of horror film like THE CRAZIES and MARTIN. Thanks to some enthusiastic reviews and its happy coincidence with the rise of the Midnight Movie phenomenon, MARTIN (1978; one of the few films to treat vampirism as a psychosexual kink, as in Simon Raven's novel DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET and Theodore Sturgeon's SOME OF YOUR BLOOD) received the widest release Romero had enjoyed since NIGHT, and it was around the time that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started showing up on television that DAWN OF THE DEAD was announced. DAWN (1978) changed everything too - paving the way for blockbuster horror sequels and the unrated horror years. Without DAWN OF THE DEAD and Tom Savini's colorful splatter effects, Italian horror got a new lease on life extending it by more than a further decade. Unfortunately, Mario Bava died before he could benefit but - thanks to Romero and DAWN - Lucio Fulci continued working for the rest of his life.

John Amplas in MARTIN.
For a golden few years, there in the first half of the decade when home video boosted his celebrity, Romero seemed to be having his cake and eating it too. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) in particular, made well in advance of "Ren-fests" becoming a thing, showed that Romero could deliver a disarming, moving, multi-tiered story outside the horror genre; it's a film that speaks beautifully to its disenfranchised, post-Woodstock generation while also celebrating the creative, mobile lifestyle that Romero worked to pursue. It's a film that he looked back on, with MARTIN, as his best. He might have made more films in its vein, but the success of DAWN - unprecedented for an unrated film, and thus embodying a defiance of one of the most fundamental rules of commercial filmmaking - required that he specialize in horror, and preferably zombies. He contained multitudes, but he wanted to work, so - after joining forces with Stephen King for the hoot that is CREEPSHOW (1982) - he set about giving the fans what they wanted with DAY OF THE DEAD. He wrote it under the influence of Stephen King's THE STAND, as a vast apocalyptic saga that he intended to be his untoppable, final word on the subject. The anticipation for the project in the fan press was well into the red, but - for reasons that defy common sense - he couldn't find the funding to realize his vision, partly because his vision included working in the filmmaking community he was developing in Pittsburgh and having total creative control. After a lengthy stand-off, he finally bowed to trimming some of its muscle and pulling some of its teeth to get DAY made in 1985. It's a fine film, but at the time of its release, it disappointed expectations - not least of all because, by this point in time, you could not cast a glance anywhere in horror without seeing work that Romero had inspired, that was somehow more Romero than actual work coming from the mercurial Romero himself.

Romero with Stephen King - top o' the world, Ma!
In horror movie terms, that's two careers right there, and Romero would resurface in time with a third. In between, he spent years trying to write THE MUMMY for Universal (it never happened, but he would die with ads for THE MUMMY with Tom Cruise mocking his efforts), only to give up and make other significant films - MONKEY SHINES (1988, another Romero "best") and THE DARK HALF (1993, an underrated King adaptation) that were derided by critics and fans alike for not adding to his lore about the living dead. Seven years between THE DARK HALF and BRUISER (2000); five years between BRUISER and the commencement of Romero's second Dead trilogy, LAND OF THE DEAD (2005, featuring Dennis Hopper, no less); eight years between his last film, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009), and his dying day. Eight years when AMC's THE WALKING DEAD was the biggest thing on television and drawing huge queues of fans to autograph shows.

To hell with the yo-yo.
On a personal note, I knew George only very slightly. We never met. I interviewed him for HEAVY METAL magazine in 1980 as part of an essay I was writing about a core group of filmmakers - including Cronenberg, Carpenter and Dante - whom I was putting forth as the fathers of a "New Mythology." I came to George armed with questions about why he included the shot of Vladimir Nabokov in DAWN OF THE DEAD, and he disarmed me by saying, "I'm just a fan. It seemed like a good idea to just have it in there." It was my first encounter with a director whose textures were not entirely conscious. He actually apologized to me, explaining "I'm not so much of a film fan as someone who just digs movies." And I thought our talk would really start getting somewhere when I asked him if he had named his vampire hero Martin because, in the bird world, a martin is a swallow. He just laughed. (In my defense, that approach somehow worked with Cronenberg.) In a post-script to the above, when I was learning how to write screenplays and had no idea what in hell to do with them once they were done, I took heed of something I'd heard Francis Coppola saying on television and made use of any acquaintance I had to get my work read. I tracked George Romero down to a phone number in Florida. I could tell from the tension in his voice that it was the last thing he needed - he worked from his own scripts, after all - but he invited me to send it along. I did so, but I never followed up. I understood that his welcoming something from me was already more than I had any right to expect. He was a good man. 

When someone of Romero's stature leaves us, there is a strong desire on the part of the eulogist to be reverent and appreciative and encompassing, but Romero's down-to-earth eloquence as a creator in this field - the field of our nightmares - is virtually irreplaceable. Not because comparable voices aren't out there, but because those voices are not being courted by Hollywood or even regional filmmakers, who tend to produce anything exploitative that their friends can churn out for the DTV market. So for anyone who actually gives a damn and isn't just collecting a buck, George Romero's death feels a lot like our own, and a little righteous anger - a little railing against the dimming of the fucking day - seems in order. We don't have him now, and we didn't have him for a lot of the time he was here among us - with unfilmed scripts in his outstretched hands. Face it, friends: we didn't deserve him. We deserve what we've got, and if you don't know what I mean by that, well, look around. You can't say he didn't warn us.

But then again, what is immortality? Everywhere we look in horror today, there's Romero. His name may not be on it, but it is what it is - and it's what he was.

"Stay scared."
(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Review: THE HAPPY ENDING (1969)

John Forsythe and Jean Simmons in Richard Brooks' THE HAPPY ENDING.

I'd never heard of the film before, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the pedigree of THE HAPPY ENDING (1969) to watch: Jean Simmons, written and directed by Richard Brooks (her second husband, made directly after his astonishing IN COLD BLOOD), photographed by Conrad Hall (following his work on IN COLD BLOOD and COOL HAND LUKE), music by Michel Legrand (which at times apes Quincy Jones' jazz cues for ICB though it also yielded the MOR hit "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?"), Shirley Jones (amazing and sexy - she had won an Oscar for her work in Brooks' ELMER GANTRY), John Forsythe (again ICB), Teresa Wright, Robert (Bobby) Darin, Dick Shawn, Lloyd Bridges, Tina Louise. 

It's packaged as the story of a violent divorce (anniversary cake in the trash), but it's more the story of a happily married woman's crises of identity and middle age - how she needs to break out of her routine to look forward to new beginnings rather than continue drinking away the years separating her from old age and death. While there is some cheesiness about its greeting card depictions of middle-class contentment and the need to escape it, the film's audacious, time-shifting construction shows that PERFORMANCE was hardly an isolated case even in 1969; even by today's standards, this stands out as an admirable piece of writing and construction, well worth seeing by those who don't mind movies that end not with answers but (rather like Ken Russell's WOMEN IN LOVE, made the same year) with a pointed question. It also opens with some of the most ravishing color photography of New York City that you'll ever see, and is generally a demonstration reel for Conrad Hall's evolving genius.

There is a handsome Blu-ray disc available from Twilight Time, with excellent liner notes by Julie Kirgo that offer helpful background information and perspective on this unfairly overlooked production.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

RIP Elsa Martinelli, Queen of Continental Op

If you don't know what I mean by "Continental Op," it's time to learn - which you can do by reading my article on this genre of films in VIDEO WATCHDOG 168, which is still available in print from our back issue department, as well as digitally.  

To see and hear Elsa performing her song "Bandit," click here.