Monday, February 27, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Night of the Living Dead 1990

Up until 10 years ago it looked as though zombies were dead and buried. But in 2002, the first Resident Evil movie became a hit and spearheaded a new age of zombie cinema – bolstered by the release of 28 Days Later which followed months later in the UK and came to US theaters in 2003.

Now, with the fourth Resident Evil sequel arriving in theaters, the acclaimed TV series The Walking Dead beginning its third season, and zombies even appearing in kid’s films with the ghoulish stop motion pic ParaNorman, it’s hard to remember a time when zombies were out of fashion. At yet, prior to Resident Evil, zombies had been deep underground for more than a decade.

The film that seemed, from a commercial standpoint, to put a bullet in the head of the zombie genre was 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake. After NOTLD ’90, there were still some classic entries in zombie cinema – like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte, Dellamore (1994), and Brian Yunza’s underrated Return of the Living Dead III (1993) – but they were all either limited release or direct-to-video, films that found an appreciative cult audience rather than mainstream popularity.

Ironically, the only zombie movie to get a wide release during the ‘90s was the 1993 Disney comedy My Boyfriend’s Back (produced by Sean Cunningham and written by Jason Goes to Hell co-writer Dean Lorey) about a teenager who comes back from the dead for a girl he had a crush on but that film (both in its poor quality and dismal box office performance) only confirmed that zombies were deader than they’d ever been.

It looked like modern zombie cinema had, perhaps fittingly, gone out the very way it came in – with Night of the Living Dead. It would’ve been impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice but George Romero’s script for the remake was still a squarely told tale. And having cut his directorial teeth on several episodes of Tales from the Darkside, Tom Savini was an ideal candidate to helm the remake as his first venture into feature filmmaking.

On the surface, all the elements were in place for a successful retelling of NOTLD but when the film was released in October of 1990, even with Halloween around the corner, audiences didn’t turn out for it.

As far as the general public goes, I think the feeling then was that zombies were little more than yesterday’s garbage. After all, by then the zombie genre had devolved into limp comedies, like 1988’s Joe Piscapo/Treat Williams buddy cop/zombie pairing Dead Heat. And in the eyes of older horror fans, the original Night of the Living Dead was sacred ground, a film not to be remade under any circumstances – not even with the original players involved (remember, too, that this was not far from the time of the much-reviled move to colorize classic black and white films – including Night of the Living Dead – so fans were extra sensitive to the idea of anyone tampering with NOTLD).

For a younger generation of horror fans (the first to grow up in the VHS era), weaned from an early age on a diet of splatter heavy zombie films – from Romero’s Night sequels Dawn and Day, to Fulci’s Zombie, to Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground – anything less than an unrated zombie pic just wouldn’t do.

At the time, an R-rated Night remake was too mousy for most fans to bother with – especially with Romero and Savini involved. After Dawn and Day had raised the bar for splatter, what hardcore fan wanted an R-rated zombie film from these guys? The remake seemed to be, and was largely received as, a pointless enterprise (even if it had the well-intended purpose of helping the original filmmakers strengthen their copyright claims to the original). But good filmmaking gets noticed eventually and over the years, NOTLD ’90 has slowly become appreciated in its own right.

Savini’s direction compliments Romero’s lean script by not going for any unnecessary ornamentation. He doesn’t whip out a lot of stylistic tricks; he just puts the camera where it needs to be to get each scene across. It’s an old-fashioned film in that regard as by the late ‘80s/early ‘90s it was common to see directors becoming more indulgent with their visuals, trying to accomplish more impressive, innovative shots. Sometimes this would be to brilliant effect, as with Sam Raimi, but Savini practiced a more classical brand of storytelling.

More time and money on this production might’ve achieved a different result as Savini has said in interviews over the years that many of his storyboarded plans were scuttled due to limitations but such compromises arguably worked to the film’s favor. With Savini in the director’s seat, the film’s myriad FX duties were headed up by John Vulich and Everett Burrell of Optic Nerve FX and their crew did a bang-up job, delivering an array of memorable zombies with some of the gags – such as Johnny’s wince-inducing fatal face dive into a headstone – bearing Savini’s stage magic-based influence of accomplishing illusions in-camera with simple props and misdirection.

Savini also had an excellent group of actors to work with – with a cast including Tony Todd as Ben, Tom Towles as Cooper, William Butler as Tom, Bill Moseley as Johnny, and Patricia Tallman as Barbara. It’d be right to criticize the decision to turn Barbara into an action heroine – one of several creative choices that ensure this version doesn’t resonate as deeply as the original as it strives to be more rousing and crowd pleasing – except for the fact that Tallman does such a great job with the character.

She’s so good in the part that she makes it easy to overlook the fact that Barbara loses her glasses early on but yet still proves to be a dead shot with a rifle. Female heroines are commonplace these days but Tallman imbues her Barbara with a sense of resiliency and humanity that remains rare.

Tallman’s Barbara isn’t just about mowing down zombies. She makes smart decisions, argues her points with intelligence, and never seems cartoonishly superhuman as many action heroines (as well as their male counterparts) now do. In fact, the best moments of Tallman’s performance show her very human responses to what’s going on around her, as when she’s confronted with a female zombie clutching a child’s doll.

With Barbara in the forefront more than she was in the original, Romero’s script makes Ben slightly more childish in his squabbles with the petty, cowardly Cooper. In the original, Ben was more clearly depicted as the voice of reason (even if he wasn’t always necessarily right) but in the remake, Ben is still heroic and well-intentioned but his inability to temper his rage against Cooper is his undoing (he’s also shown to unfairly overreact to Cooper at times, as when he causes the TV Cooper is carrying to tumble down the cellar stairs) while Barbara is the one who’s more able to keep her cool.

Even Ben’s idea to board up the house turns out to have been a fatally flawed plan as Romero introduces the idea that all that hammering may have been responsible for attracting a larger group of zombies to the farmhouse as we see zombies aimlessly staggering in the field suddenly become aware of the noise and then turn and walk towards it.

Todd fills Duane Jones’ shoes admirably, though, and he gets a classic moment towards the end as he sits alone in the basement, sees the missing keys to the gas pump, and laughs madly to himself at this last bitter irony.

NOTLD ’90 differs from the original most notably in its last act, as characters meet different fates than their original counterparts and we see more of what’s happening in the world outside the farmhouse on the morning after. The sympathy towards the undead that Romero developed in Dawn and Day is in evidence here and as we see the grisly circus of undead abuse unfolding through Barbara’s eyes (this is essentially the ground level view of what the Dawn of the Dead crew glimpsed as they flew in their stolen news helicopter over rednecks shooting zombies for sport), the closing moments of NOTLD ‘90 serve as an effective coda – not just for this retelling of Night, but for Romero’s zombie series as a whole.

Even though this is Savini’s film rather than Romero’s, Romero’s screenplay is enough to give it a credible place within the official Romero canon. If anything, this version of Night dovetails more neatly with Romero’s sequels than the original does.

I hasten to add that this doesn’t make it a better film than the original Night, only that it better reflects how Romero’s “rules” of zombie behavior had evolved over time.

Romero would later (thanks to the resurgence of zombie cinema) add to his undead legacy with Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and 2009’s Survival of the Dead (with more to come, probably) but whether you think those films are good or bad (and they have divided fans), they feel like they inhabit their own separate space.

NOTLD ’90 was the last of the Romero-verse zombie films to be made in Pittsburgh, rather than his current base in the Great White North, and it feels like a grave marker for that earlier homegrown era. Ignored or derided upon its original release, the reputation of Savini’s film has only grown over the years – proving that eventually every Night must have its day.

Originally published on 9/13/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Silent Rage (1982)

With the ‘80s action hero ensemble The Expendables 2 currently on theater screens worldwide, it’s worth remembering that most of these men of action have dabbled in horror over the years. Bruce Willis has the ghostly hit The Sixth Sense (1999) to his credit; Arnold Schwarzennegger went toe to toe with a tenacious space-spawned hunter in the classic sci-fi/horror hybrid Predator (1987) and took on Satan in End of Days (1999); Sylvester Stallone battled a serial killer in the little-seen Eye See You (1999) and some would say that his violent cop thriller Cobra (1986) rests comfortably on the periphery of the ‘80s slasher genre. But despite the various merits of those films, I have to single out the Chuck Norris vehicle Silent Rage (1982) as a true action/horror favorite.

In Silent Rage, directed by Michael Miller and written by Edward di Lorenzo and Joseph Fraley, Chuck plays Sheriff Dan Stevens, the head lawman of a small town who finds himself at war with a relentless human killing machine. Some would say that nature alone could never create a being powerful enough to go up against Chuck Norris and the makers of Silent Rage wholeheartedly agreed, making their unstoppable maniac (Brian Libby) the Godless product of scientists who commit the mistake of reviving a homicidal killer hovering on Death’s Door.

Not only is he granted a new lease on life, but thanks to the miracle of genetic engineering, this psycho can now withstand almost any form of physical harm. The “almost” is where Chuck Norris comes in. As Silent Rage begins we meet Libby’s character of John Kirby as he wakes up in the boarding house where he’s been staying. Kirby receives a concerned call from Tom Halman, his psychiatrist (Ron Silver), and during the brief call Kirby struggles to talk while fumbling in vain for his medication.

We sense that Kirby might be losing it – especially when he tells Halman “I’m losing it, Doc! I’m looosing it!” He then proceeds to lose it, chasing his landlady through the house with an axe (complete with a nod to The Shining as Kirby leers maniacally at the landlady through the hole in the door he’s just chopped through).

This homicidal outburst, naturally, brings Chuck onto the scene. While he has back up available in the flabby form of his devoted deputy Charlie (Stephen Furst, best known as Animal House’s “Flounder”), Chuck goes in alone like the one man army that he is and, after a prolonged fight, he puts Kirby in cuffs.

Unfortunately while waiting in the back of a cruiser, Kirby breaks free and the cops on the scene have no choice but to gun him down, much to the anguished protest of Halman, who arrives too late to spare his troubled patient.

Barely alive, Kirby is taken to the medical facility where Halman works and where, it just so happens, groundbreaking genetic research is being done (not the thing you’d expect to find in a small town, but whatever). Against Halman’s ethical protests, Kirby is revived by the ambitious and scientifically ruthless Dr. Philip Spires (Steven Keats) and Spires’ devoted toady, Dr. Paul Vaughn (genre regular William Finley).

Thanks to an injection of Spires’ experimental serum, Kirby is now virtually impervious to injury. Why Spires couldn’t have waited to give the gift of invincibility to someone who wasn’t a psychotic murderer, we don’t know, but scientists in movies are prone to making catastrophically bad decisions.

Once the new and improved Kirby gets his feet on the ground, he covertly exits the lab and pays a nighttime visit to Halman – and it’s not for a therapy session. The home invasion that follows as Kirby arrives at Halman’s isolated abode is Silent Rage’s horror centerpiece as the malevolent Kirby goes after both Halman and then Halman’s wife. The scene isn’t graphically gory but instead features expertly staged suspense (a prolonged pursuit is punctuated by a surprise head slam to the wall that effectively startles, even on repeated viewings).

The towering Libby is truly sinister as Kirby and he stands out as one of the more formidable movie maniacs of the ’80s. While the majority of Halloween and Friday the 13th rip-offs that were in theaters at the time made splatter FX their selling point, Silent Rage went light on gore but applied hard-hitting action to the slasher formula.

The climax to Halloween had Michael Myers shot off the second floor balcony of the Doyle home and fall with a heavy thud on the dirt of the Doyle’s backyard but in Silent Rage, Kirby is shot through the glass window of a medical facility and plummets about five floors down to the pavement and that’s just the start of an extended climatic battle between Kirby and Sheriff Stevens (one that sees Kirby undergo a head to toe burn similar to the one that Myers endures in Halloween II).

It might not have been any direct inspiration on trends to come but certainly the stunt-heavy nature of Silent Rage did anticipate the more action-oriented approach the slasher sub-genre adopted as the ’80s went on. Once the MPAA all but outlawed gore by the mid-‘80s, it left filmmakers little choice but to turn to action as a readily exploitable, and more easily MPAA sanctioned, element.

Latter day Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels were much more aligned with action cinema than the series’ earlier films had been. Witness scenes like Michael Myers battling gun-toting members of a Haddonfield posse while on the back of a speeding pick-up truck in Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), the spectacular RV crash that Jason survives in 1986’s Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, or even the wink to the James Bond series seen in that film’s title sequence.

The final frames of Silent Rage left the gate wide open for a Silent Rage 2 but sadly a sequel never came about. Either the film wasn’t regarded as a big enough hit (it grossed just under $11 million in US theaters) or else Norris was simply on to bigger things as his career was moving into its peak years with hits like Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Code of Silence (1985), and others.

Norris is regarded these days as something of a camp character – especially by younger fans who, thanks to late night host Conan O’Brien, think of him first and foremost from the long running TV series Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001) – but Silent Rage is a good example of the straight-forward B-fare he originally made his name on.

As a reminder of an earnest exploitation era when slasher films and Chuck Norris pictures were two of the best reasons to go to the movies, Silent Rage endures as a satisfying and high-kicking genre hybrid.

Originally published on 8/31/12 at Shock Till You Drop.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Friday the 13th Part 3-D (1982)

As the summer of 2012 rolls on, tributes to and fond reminisces of the summer of ’82 continue to pepper the internet as that legendary summer – one that arguably yielded the biggest bumper crop of genre classics ever – celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. The most famed titles of that summer are never far from the hearts and minds of genre fans as films like The Thing, Blade Runner, and Poltergeist continue to be obsessed over, three decades after their releases.

But the summer of ’82 wasn’t just about its genre milestones (even if the films that fit that description now weren’t all recognized as such back then). No, there was also a fair share of schlock to be found. In the case of films like Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster, it was often golden, grade-A schlock as only the early ‘80s could supply – but it was still schlock nonetheless.

One film from that history-making summer that fit firmly into the schlock category was the third installment of the Friday the 13th saga, with Jason slashing to the same familiar beats but this time doing it in 3-D. Just three films into the series, the limiting nature of Friday’s body count formula was evident. Although initial discussions on Part 3 had involved the idea of continuing the story of Amy Steel’s character from Part 2 as she dealt with her trauma in a mental institution, that new direction never took hold. Instead, a choice was made to stick to the tried and true elements that had proven to be popular with audiences. That meant bringing another group of young kids into the woods to be slaughtered by Jason.

With so little to differentiate Part 3 from its predecessors, though, Friday’s producers felt they needed a hook to draw audiences back for more of the same. Luckily, 3-D was on the rise again and it seemed like an obvious match for a Friday film. This time around, the new batch of kids heading to their doom weren’t camp counselors but rather a loosely gathered bunch of friends looking for a weekend getaway on the rustic grounds of Higgin’s Haven.

You would think that even the dumbest of kids would have second thoughts about partying anywhere near Crystal Lake as, within the timeline of the series, the grisly events of Part 2 have just happened and the killer is very much still at large. But in the world of Friday the 13th, good sense would only get in the way of a good slaughter so this group of fun-loving kids throws caution to the wind with nary a second thought, piling in the van with plenty of weed on hand and heads to their secluded weekend getaway.

As much as the majority of Part 3 indulges in déjà vu nods towards the first Friday (an under the hammock kill that mirror Kevin Bacon’s death in the original, a final dream sequence with another leap from a lake), it isn’t all idle repetition. We’ll get to the addition of Jason’s famous face gear momentarily but first, it should be noted that we learn an essential new “don’t'” in the Friday the 13th universe in Part 3 in addition to the already familiar maxims of “don’t have sex” and “don’t do drugs.” Some might believe it to be unnecessary for this particular “don’t” to be explained but Part 3 confirms that when you survive an encounter with Jason, it’s a terrible idea to test your luck with a rematch.

Teaching us that painful lesson here is the character of Ali (Nick Savage) – a bad-ass biker who isn’t content with living to tell the tale of his brush with Jason. Ali first takes on Jason in a barn and is quickly beat down in what appears to be fatal fashion. But while Jason leaves him for dead, Ali pops up again towards the end of the film in a surprise resurrection worthy of Jason himself, momentarily distracting Jason from his attack on Final Girl Chris (Dana Kimmell).

But having the element of surprise on his side isn’t enough of an edge for Ali as Jason immediately chops off the biker’s right forearm before finishing him off for good. When it comes to Jason, if you should ever miraculously survive Round 1, DON’T challenge the Sultan of Slaughter to Round 2.

Of course, Part 3 is famously the film where Jason established his signature look as his iconic hockey mask was introduced – the most important contribution to the series aside from Harry Manfredini’s Ki-ki-ki Ma-ma-ma score. It’s never been decisively determined who made the creative decision concerning Jason’s hockey mask but whoever did come up with it, they gave Jason one of the most distinctive looks of any screen psycho.

The Friday series pretty much fell ass-backwards into its own mythology over the course of the series’ early films but this is the one where things began to get fully locked down. This was also the first Friday to establish the tradition of bringing in random victims outside of the core group of characters just to put up bigger numbers for Jason.

In the first two films, you needed a harbinger of doom to provide some unheeded warnings so Crazy Ralph wasn’t so out of place and, of course, the law had to get more directly involved eventually so the sheriff in Part 2 wasn’t so random but Part 3 was the first Friday that brought in completely extraneous characters just to have them killed.

If you loved the banana-eating hitchhiker in The Final Chapter, or any of the many ‘walk-on’ victims that have appeared in other Fridays over the years, you can thank Part 3. It was with this film that the producers realized that it was always better to fill screen time with someone getting killed – no matter whom it was or what part they played in the film. Hence, in Part 3 there’s Harold, the luckless shop owner (played by the late Steve Susskind) and his nagging wife Edna (Cheri Maugans) as well as Ali and his two sidekicks in mischief, Fox (Gloria Charles) and Loco (Kevin O’Brien), who all run afoul of Jason.

Screen time that in the previous films might’ve been spent on moments of character development with the main cast were now used to deliver more of the moments that audiences came to see in a Friday the 13th film. No more downtime as we listen to Bill strum his guitar, or a buzzed Ginny theorize at a local bar about the legend of Jason – Part 3 changed the pace of the series.

This practice of shoe-horning in more and more kills reached its apex in A New Beginning with its staggering body count of seventeen (twenty-one, if you count the death of the bogus Jason along with his son’s death and two dream deaths in the pre-title sequence).

As with Part 2, encoring director Steve Miner staged yet another exciting final chase with Richard Brooker’s Jason pursuing Chris over every inch of Higgins’ Haven. With Jason portrayed as a hard to kill backwoods psycho, rather than as a reanimated zombie (as an old-school Friday fan, I continue to prefer this earlier version of Jason), Brooker gets to display some moments of human rage during the film’s climatic chase – as when he throws a frustrated fit in a barn stall when it momentarily looks like Chris has eluded him.

It was moments like these that suggested, albeit briefly, an extra dimension to Jason beyond what was engineered by 3-D technology. Many fans consider 1984’s The Final Chapter to be the quintessential Friday but I think Part 3 deserves that mantle a little bit more. It was where the series became more polished in its presentation and where Jason became a true slasher icon. It made the difference between the Friday films going on to be an enduring franchise or simply closing out as a trilogy.

But even if you don’t regard Part 3 as being the quintessential Friday, its place in the line-up of ’82 means that it’ll always be remembered as part of a classic summer gone by.

Originally published on 7/25/12 at Shock Till You Drop.