Greetings friends, and happy fall! I’m not entirely sure how it happened but it seems I blinked somewhere around August and all of a sudden it was October and people were talking Halloween costumes. Remember when we were kids and by the time October hit it felt like you’d been in school FOREVER and you’d already made two new best friends who you were already planning a theme costume with? But I digress….
For a number of years now I’ve toyed with the idea of watching a horror movie a day for the month of October and writing about it. Problem is, I tend to a) be super lazy, and b) watch horror movies in massive chunks, like 4 or 5 in a row, thus leaving me with little time to write about them. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I tend to be a little verbose. But this year, I am determined. Determined I say! And so welcome, friends and neighbours, to Day One of “Halloween Horror Overload!” Every day, I will be watching one (sometimes two because I had an absurdly difficult time narrowing down titles) horror/spooky/Halloween-y film and sharing my thoughts on here. They will not be in any particular order, at least not in terms of their significance to me. I have tried to group them weekly by a theme – zombies, slasher, ghosts and demons, otherworldly and supernatural creatures, etc. You will notice in the coming days that some obvious choices didn’t seem to make the cut. There is a disturbing lack of vampire flicks on my list – I love vampires, but cuts had to be made; Jason Vorhees will not be making an appearance – I’ve just never really cared for that franchise, try as I might; and despite it being one of my all-time favourite films, I’m sorry but Jaws is a summer movie, not a Halloween one. And I stand by that. Please don’t take this list as some definitive list of horror flicks you should watch each Halloween because it really, really isn’t. This is a list of some, some of my favourite films to watch this time of year. They almost all have some sort of personal significance to me and I sincerely doubt they’ll mean the same to you. But if this does lead to you checking any of these Halloween-y wonders out then my job here is done. Or something.
I haven’t fully landed on the format yet, but I’m thinking a brief introduction to the film, its significance to me, and then a recap of sorts, very stream of conscious. Today is sort of like the big experiment so let’s see how it goes, shall we? Here we go! Welcome to Week One: ZOMBIES!
Of course I’d do zombies my first week. Of COURSE I would. I love zombies. To a creepy, almost disturbing degree. When trying to narrow down my choices for this month I started by just listing all the “horror” movies in my collection. The ratio of zombie movies to any other type of movie is just staggering. I own a lot of them, and not even a lot of good ones, if I’m honest. Yes, I do love me the undead and what better way to start this week then with the grandaddy of them all, Night Of The Living Dead.
Truth be told, this film was not my introduction to zombie cinema. If I recall correctly, the first movie I ever saw with zombies in it was My Boyfriend’s Back, this really, REALLY awful teen comedy from the 90s that, if you ever see it anywhere, buy it for me PLEASE, I will love you forever. After that, I remember seeing the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead at a girlfriend’s sleepover when I was 13. All I remember about it is the ending, and that Tony Todd (aka The Candyman) is in it. I didn’t see the original version of NOTLD until I was in high school, when myself and two of my best friends rented it from Rogers Video (RIP) to watch in my basement. The disc was scratched and so we never saw the ending. It took me until second year University to see the film in all its glory in one of my film courses, and that is a fact that fills me with shame. But no matter. I may have been late to jump on the Romero love train, but I was more than willing to climb aboard and catch up. And now? It might be my favourite in the Romero oeuvre. It is the general consensus that Dawn of the Dead is the best of the films, but for my money, there’s just no beating that first Night. Maybe it’s the whole “low budget independent flick” feel to it. Maybe it’s the heartbreaking tale of how the copyright on the film was never properly maintained and the movie is now in the public domain, with no money getting to Romero. Or maybe it’s just that in my mind it’s the superior film. Either way, it’s one of my constants when it comes to Halloween viewing.
If you’ve never seen the film, here’s the gist: a group of people take refuge in a farmhouse when the dead start walking the earth. I could get more specific, but that’s all you really need to know. Let’s watch, shall we? Oh, and I would think that this goes without saying but just FYI: SPOILERS AHEAD!
So we start with a car driving down a long winding road and we are introduced to Barbara and her brother Johnny. They’re going to put flowers on their father’s grave at their mother’s request. Johnny thinks it’s a lot of unnecessary effort. Barbara thinks he’s a complainer, but she didn’t have to drive and isn’t even putting the wreath on the gravesite so really she should just shut up. I have issues with Barbara, as will become apparent as we continue. Also, I’m just going to say it: Johnny is kind of a babe. I’ve always thought so. Maybe it’s the glasses, I don’t know.
Anyway, as they place the wreath, Johnny begins teasing Barbara about when they’d come here as children and he used to scare her all the time. We get the immortal line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” as he teasingly chases her around the graveyard and we see a lumbering man getting closer and closer. Johnny intimates that he’s coming for her and runs. Barbara calls him a child and goes to apologize to the lumbering man wandering the graveyard when all of a sudden, he attacks!
Ok, so Johnny kind of breaks my heart a little. Because these two are basically like my brother and me. He teases her, picks on her, “They’re coming to get you Barbara!”, etc. But when shit gets real, he comes to her rescue. And because she’s a bit of a useless whiner (I KNOW, it’s the 60s, what do I expect…) he gets his head smoked off a rock for his troubles. RIP Johnny Dreamboat! I guess what I’m trying to say is, I hate Barbara and if my brother and I were ever attacked by zombies we would tag team those bitches.
So instead of rushing to her brother’s aid, Barbara flees like a rabbit and tries to escape in the car. Oops, Johnny had the keys! Maybe don’t ditch your brother next time? Zombie man chases her (faster than you might expect, considering the popular belief that zombies are slow-moving and shuffling. I mean, he’s not running like a Zack Snyder zombie, but he’s not just shuffling after Barbara either,) and uses a rock to bust her car window open. It’s all very dramatic and scary. Barbara finally remembers the parking brake and thank god she’s parked on a hill because she finally rolls away. She crashes into a tree, gets out of the car and continues to hoof it, managing to escape her zombie pursuer and seek refuge in what appears to be an abandoned farmhouse. Of course, this just means she’s lead the walker to the house as well, and now he’s got buddies wandering out of the woods to see what all the fuss is about.
I love love love the constant thunder and no rain during these early scenes, PS. Such old school horror dramatics! But back to Babs. I’m calling her Babs now, we’re tight like that. So Babs decides to start wandering around the farmhouse and investigate, which can only end well, right?
Ok, I’ll give you this Babs: that body you found was pretty gross. And begs the question: what happened? Why are they not one of the walking undead? Was their brain eaten? Is this the first example of brain consumption in zombie films? INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW!
Babs has a little freakout, understandably, and starts to run outside straight into the arms of the undead when all of a sudden… Headlights! Door closing! Ben is here!
Can I just say how much I love Ben? And not just for the socio-political blah-biddy-blah he represents (HOORAY FOR THE BLACK MAN BEING THE HERO!) but for being the person I want with me in the case of a zombie apocalypse. My apocalypse survival dream team is something like Ben here, Daryl Dixon from Walking Dead, Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise, River Tam from Firefly and Ash from Evil Dead. And, as previously stated, my brother.
Now Ben is here and immediately takes charge. Which is good, because Barbara has officially become as useful as the stuffed animal heads she found in the den. Look, I get it, I’d probably be in shock too. Except not really, I think I’d be more like Ben and find this mute blondie wholly frustrating and an unnecessary burden I’d now find myself saddled with. I mean, Ben is at the farmhouse less than ten minutes and he’s already taken care of three zombies. Babs hasn’t done much more than stare at everything with wide, stupid eyes. This is what I’m talking about, people. Ben then tells Babs the horrors he encountered – an out of control gas tanker, a flaming inferno, a diner surrounded by ghouls, plowing through dozens of the undead… it’s dramatic and haunting. Barbara then attempts to tell her tale and it sounds like the ramblings of a half asleep five year old trying to describe the dream they just had. I mean great, she’s finally talking, but nothing she says makes any sense. And the more she talks, the more agitated she gets. She suddenly remembers that brother of hers and insists that they must go get him. “Don’t you know what’s going on out there? This is no Sunday school picnic!” Ben reminds her. And then… SLAPFEST! Babs slaps Ben! Ben slaps her right back! And then there’s that ever-so-brief moment where they both kind of stop and consider the fact that this black man just slapped this white woman. And then she faints like the useless lump of clay that she is. And still Ben is taking care of her!
After Barbara passes out and puts us all out of our misery for the time being, we get some pretty sweet exposition from a radio announcer. This epidemic is everywhere! Bands of mass murderers roving various towns and villages killing people! Murder sprees! It’s pandemonium! Ben hurries to finish boarding up the place while Babs hurries to finish being passed out. When she finally comes to, Ben brings her slippers because she lost her shoes in her escape from the graveyard and Ben noticed that because HE IS WONDERFUL. Bitch doesn’t even say thank you.
“Murder victims show evidence of having been… partially devoured by their murderers.” Exposition radio strikes again! We are now getting a little more insight into what exactly these things that were once “people” are doing. Ben tries to explain to Barbara what he’s done so far and how he’s going upstairs to check things out, but it’s like talking to a wall. As Babs sits on the couch staring blankly, she notices the cellar door is creaking open…
You spent all that time securing the house and you didn’t bother checking the cellar? Ben, I expected more from you. Up from the cellar emerges Harry (your archetypal horror movie asshole) and Tom (your archetypal naive teenager who is sooooooo gonna be zombie meat, you just know it). We also eventually meet their significant others, Harry’s wife Helen and Tom’s lady friend Judy. There’s also a sick little kid in the cellar which I’m sure we can all agree won’t be significant at any point in the future. Nope, not at all. And is it just me, or does Harry bare a striking resemblance to Rob Corddry?
I mean, it’s not just me, right?
Harry proves himself to be a total dick by basically saying he heard Babs screaming and knew someone was upstairs, but didn’t want to risk the safety of the basement for a stranger. Ben finds this despicable, so you can tell these two are gonna be BFFs. Harry wants everyone in the basement. Ben thinks this is dumb. Arguments ensue. Arguments so loud that they draw the attention of the ever growing number of undead outside. They start to bust through the boards and the men fight them off. Sidenote: there is something extra disturbing about the minimal sound effects used in independent horror films. Watching Tom slice at a zombie hand sounds just like someone stabbing at clay and looks a bit like it too. Super off-putting. But in a good way? I’m starting too drift here folks…
This attack just convinces Harry all the more they need to go down into the basement. Ben finally tells him to go if he wants, and shut up about it. Harry wants to bring Babs down with him and while I’d personally welcome the chance to be rid of the weirdo, Ben states in no uncertain terms that Harry is not to touch her. He then adds that the radio and the food stay upstairs with him and if he’s fighting up here, he’s fighting to protect these things as well. Harry tries to sway Ben by playing the “sick kid” card. “Well, you’re her father. If you’re stupid enough to go die in that trap, that’s your business. However, I am not stupid enough to follow you. It is tough for the kid, that her old man is so stupid. Now get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there. I’m boss up here.” Ben is BAD. ASS. Harry retreats to the basement, and his wife Helen basically tells him he’s a moron. “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything,” she scoffs. Clearly there is trouble in Harry and Helen’s paradise!
5 minutes after Harry’s hissy fit, Tom is telling them they’ve got a TV and maybe they want to come back up? Harry looks like he wants to be stubborn about it but his wife asks Tom’s girlfriend Judy to sit with their essentially comatose child so they can go watch the TV broadcast. Cuz, you know, why would Judy want to watch? Barbara has now devolved into little more than a shy five year old. As much as I dislike Barbara, I do acknowledge that as far as realism goes, she’s probably the only character to accurately portray how someone would handle all this craziness. That said, I’m still not a fan. Ben continues to stand up for her though. Because, you know, he is perfect. They bring the TV in and we finally address the undead elephant in the room: “It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder. A widespread investigation of funeral homes, morgues, and hospitals has concluded that the unburied dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims. It’s hard for us here to be reporting this to you, but it does seem to be a fact.”
And there you have it: our modern understanding of zombies is born. Our survivors sit, rapt, and listen to speculation of this mayhem being caused by radiation from some crashed satellite. I’ve seen this movie at least a dozen times now and still always block out this part where the whole zombie phenomenon may be the result of space radiation or something. What? Alien zombies? No thank you. I’ll just stick to the bodies of the dead becoming reanimated for reasons beyond explanation.
Ben thinks it is high time to get out of here. Surprising no one, Harry disagrees. Harry’s wife points out that if they could get to one of these outposts they saw on the news, their sick, forgotten daughter in the basement might actually be able to get medical care? Harry still scoffs. Say, what’s wrong with the kid anyway? “One of those things grabbed her, bit her on the arm.” Oh… well then. I’m sure she’ll be fine… Ben and Tom concoct a plan that involves leaving Harry (aka Mr. Stability) in the house with the women, lobbing molotov cocktails at the ghouls to distract/incinerate them. Then, Ben and Tom will make a run to the gas pump in the hopes of getting the truck running and getting them all out of there. Foolproof, right?
Fare thee well, Tom and Judy! Maybe if you’d stayed in the house like planned, Judy, you wouldn’t be a crispy critter right now. Ben watches in horror, as does Harry from the house. Ben heads back to the farmhouse and Harry, ever the coward, tries to leave him out there. Of course, there’s just no stopping Ben and he busts in that door and, once he secures it and makes sure no zombies are getting through, he gives Harry the beat down he’s been waiting all night to give him. “I ought to drag you out there and FEED you to those things!” he growls. Not gonna lie: kinda hot.
Hey, fun fact about zombies: they may be scared of fire, but they sure love some BBQ!
This scene is gross and glorious. Dozens and dozens of shambling undead tearing meat off bones and sharing strings of intestines from the burnt remains of our teenage sweethearts. I can only imagine how fun that was to shoot.
Say, let’s check in with the TV again, shall we?
THEY’RE ALL MESSED UP. I don’t know why that makes me laugh, but it does, EVERY TIME. We now get introduced to the modern understanding of how to kill a zombie – shoot them in the head, take out the brain, set them on fire, etc. “They go up pretty easy,” the sheriff assures us. This is all well and good but isn’t much help once the zombies surrounding our heroes finally figure out that if they team up and throw rocks they should be able to break in. Suddenly, everything comes to a head. Zombies attack! Harry tries to take the gun! Ben gets it back! Shoots Harry in the chest! He falls back into the cellar! Helen doesn’t really have time to mourn (and I’m not convinced she even would) because now she’s being grabbed by the disembodied limbs of the attackers outside. This finally wakes Babs up and she tries to fight back for once… just in time for her brother to get here and presumably eat her face.
Try as he might, Ben can’t rescue Babs this time. RIP, blondie.
Hey, remember that sick little girl we keep referencing in the basement?
Seems little Karen has finally succumbed to the bite she suffered. Her mother stumbles into the basement to check on her and finds her little baby feasting upon the remains of her murdered father. Then comes one of the more horrifying scenes: Karen picks up a trowel, advances on her mother and proceeds to stab her repeatedly in the stomach. WHAT THE HELL, KAREN. This is not standard zombie behaviour, folks. It’s also another addition to the “creepy kids in horror movies creeping me out” file.
Karen finds her way out of the basement and joins the attack on Ben. He fights her off, as well as the others busting in the doors, but the undead horde have finally overcome Ben’s precautions and he is forced to retreat into the basement. If he wasn’t dead already I’m sure Harry would delight in rubbing this in Ben’s face, but oh well. After boarding himself in, Ben descends the stairs to find Harry is coming back to life! BLAM! No worries there. Ben then hunkers down, watching Helen, waiting for her to move… BLAM! Don’t think so, Helen! And then there was Ben, the last man standing, boarded up alone in the cellar. WAH WAH WAHHHHHHH.
The next morning! Authorities have arrived and are sweeping the area for any shamblers. Ben hears the commotion outside and slowly, carefully emerges from the basement to peek out the window to investigate and…
GOD DAMMIT. It still kills me that Ben gets shot by that white southern deputy. Every time. It’s perfect, it’s brilliant, It’s exactly the non-happy Hollywood ending that Romero wanted. But good heavens does it ever bum me out. Ben did everything right! He was the intrepid survivor! And he was shot right in the head without even a second thought! And good heavens, those credits…
Watching Ben’s body get dragged from the house with meat hooks, tossed onto a pile of bodies, set on fire… all in single picture stills? It’s pretty depressing folks. And that’s what makes it so perfect. THERE ARE NO WINNERS IN A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, KIDS. Except for me. Just wait and see.
Well, thanks for reading! I hope it wasn’t too long or ramble-y! Tune in tomorrow when I continue my love of the undead with the Dawn of the Dead remake from 2004. You can berate me for not watching the original version at that time.