31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Dawn of the Dead (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The sequel to George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead shows that the zombie epidemic has gotten much worse and society is on it’s knees. Two television workers plan to escape with two SWAT team members in the TV station traffic helicopter in search of…whatever they can find that’s better than their current situation.

There is so much to love about this friggin’ film. The tenement opening scene (the shoulder bite was cut by the BBFC as was the exploding head), the way the film suddenly changes course completely as the four fly off in the helicopter, the scene where they land to fill up the copter with fuel (theres the taboo of zombie kids being shot here. Theres also the amazing scene of the zombie having his head decapitated by the helicopter’s blades) and then we get to THE SHOPPING MALL!!!

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The shopping mall/man trap

The mall is one of the greatest locations ever used in a film. Imagine having this shopping centre at your personal disposal with everything inside being free and your property. I love Romero’s social commentary regarding this. The dream of consumerism quickly rings hollow as do the images being conveyed within the advertising produced before the zombie epidemic. Within the extended cut of Dawn (which is just as good, if not better than the original theatrical cut of the movie) the female character Francine is the only person who wants to leave the mall when the topic comes up of whether to move on or not. The men state that they have everything they need here and so should stay but Francine says that the mall is ‘a rut. A trap’. Ans she’s completely right.

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The four main characters

The zombies continue to come to the mall (Stephen mentions that ‘this was a big part of their lives’) which is a brilliantly wry observation by Romero. In this film the living dead have a very aesthetically pleasing blue tinge to their skin. Within the film the blood is redder than red making the film fully realise it’s comic-book vision. But it’s more than this. The film looks like a series of Pop Art paintings come to life. Andy Warhol had plenty to say about consumerism and mass production (his studio was called ‘The Factory’). It’s almost like he was art director on this opus.

But aside from all of the insights and allegories, this film is just great, great fun! The kills are innovative, disgusting and completely brilliant (Tom Savini returns to make-up and special effects duties and this film is probably the best demonstration of his work). Savini also stars as the members of a biker gang who try to take over the mall and seize it from the main four characters.

Wanna see a custard pie fight between bikers and zombies? Wanna see a zombie Hare Krishna, nurse and nun? Wanna see John Amplas (the lead from Romero’s earlier ‘Martin’) as a Pop Art Hispanic dude? It’s all in this film- and much much more.

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A zombie gets a custard pie in the kisser

I also love the character arc for Francine and the bromance between Peter and Roger.

This film has it all. Seriously.

5 out of 5 stars

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31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- Bug (1975)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- Bug (1975)

An earthquake uproots cockroach-like bugs that can set fire to things and, more importantly for a horror film, also to animals and humans. But never fear, a biology professor played by Bradford Dillman is on the case.

This great little 70’s B movie is directed by Jeannot Szwarc (who would go on to make the hugely enjoyable Jaws 2 and the brilliant campfest that is Supergirl) and produced by William Castle (no introduction needed). Gorgeous Californian locations, bugs setting cats alight (is it un-PC to find this hilariously entertaining?) and also crawling into huge teased 70’s women’s hairdos and letting rip. This is a great popcorn movie.

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But then the movie changes course and gets all metaphysical as the film’s designated bug expert starts to research the incendiary insects in greater depth and even starts to communicate with them!

This is the kind of film that you could stumble upon on a late night TV channel and absolutely love. A low-key joy.

4 out of 5 stars

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31 Days of Halloween- Day 21- Beware The Rapist (1979)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 21- Beware The Rapist (1979)

When I was growing up I loved the Nanny State Public Information Films. They were akin to state produced horror shorts extolling the dangers of everything from playing near rivers to mixing different types of tyres on the same vehicle.

Beware The Rapist is an American PIF (called Public Service Announcements or PSA’s over there) made in 1979. Produced at the height of some of the most prolific serial killers being at large (Ted Bundy is obviously the inspiration for the preppy looking Christmas card salesman, the balaclava wearing perverts could easily be based on The Golden State Killer) this film offers common sense advice to vulnerable women so that they come to no harm.

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Telephone terror

This advice sometimes comes across as extreme (‘once you get home, lock yourself in!’) but this is shown to be better than becoming another victim. This film holds up a mirror to society at that time and the ghoulish events happening with shocking regularity. But it also reflects the somewhat doom-laden advice from American authorities. Protect yourself- or else!

This is a treat for horror and exploitation fans. Gritty, nerve-jangling and based on fact. Truth is stranger- and more brutal- than fiction.

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Beware The Rapist depicts many different scenarios and locales that can suddenly turn nightmarish. Every setting is here- the laundry room, in the supposed safety of one’s car, the late night walk home. In many ways this film reminds me of the ‘urban horror’ situations depicted in the opening credits of the mid-80’s crime series The Equalizer.

The music used is library based. The same library music used for Dawn of the Dead or the genius Australian women’s prison drama Prisoner Cell Block H. And if that isn’t enough of a recommendation then what is?

An amazing time capsule. You can watch it here.

5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 13- Martin (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 13- Martin (1978)

Martin is by filmmaker George A Romero and was his favourite film from his oeuvre.

Martin is a young man who we see travelling by train to Braddock in Pittsburgh to live with his elderly cousin, Tata Cuda who seems convinced that Martin is the latest in a long line of vampires (‘the family curse’).

The film centres around whether Martin is actually a vampire or if he is just a very confused young man suffering from a severe neurosis and only commits his bloodthirsty acts because of a self fulfiling prophecy.

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In fact the film constantly makes reference to Martin proving that there is ‘no magic’ in the world and that the conventions surrounding vampirism (many inherited from books and films) are untrue and so disproving the myth.

On the train journey over to Pittsburgh we see Martin sedate a woman, making love to her naked body before slashing her arm and drinking her blood. This very sequence shows how Martin accomplishes his ‘vampiric’ impulses. Instead of the well established tropes of hypnosis, fangs etc we see Martin use modern implements such as injections, chemical suppressants and razor blades. He has more in common with a rapist/serial killer than a ‘Nosferatu’. The woman as she is becoming subdued even refers to Martin as a ‘rapist asshole’.

It’s just before Martin enters his victim’s train compartment that he has a vision (in black and white) of how his prey will greet him- reaching out to receive him whilst looking beautiful and seductive. In reality when she is seen leaving the bathroom after being sat on the toilet, her face grotesquely covered in a green face pack and blowing her nose- the exact opposite of the vision Martin had just prior. Martin has a few of these visions throughout the film- are they actually age-old memories (suggesting that he is a vampire) or are they imaginings that he has gleaned from books and films but has confused with memories as part of his brainwashing?

There are other examples of Martin disproving the conventions of the vampire legend. When he arrives at Tata’s house he sees that there is garlic nailed to both Tata’s and Cuda’s granddaughter’s bedroom door. Martin rips this off and takes a bite into a clove to prove to his cousin that this myth isn’t real. He also takes a crucifix from Tata’s hand and rubs it against his own face to prove the same thing- ‘there is no magic. Not ever’.

After Cuda employs an older priest to carry out a makeshift exorcism, Martin appears in front of Cuda dressed as a vampire resplendent with cloak, fangs and make-up. He then spits out the plastic fangs and wipes the white pan-stick from his face to show that this is just a costume. Again, the reality disproving the illusion.

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After interactions with people who treat Martin as a human being (the bored housewife he makes deliveries to, Tata’s granddaughter), instead of some kind of age old Dracula from ‘the old country’, he seems to curtail his bloody excursions and finds that instead of murdering he ‘just lets people go’.

Another aspect of reality that Martin observes is the truth beneath the illusion of the all-smiling American family that permeates advertising. It’s the couples in the film that have the most affluence and comfortable lives who seem the unhappiest and are either having affairs (the couple Martin invades the home of- only the female inhabitant of the house isn’t in bed with her husband) or completely alienated, misunderstood and unfulfilled (Mrs Santini).

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Braddock also provides a harsh reminder of reality. It’s working class, shabby and down at heel. The once active steel mills that were the town’s bread and butter have long since closed down leaving a town to slowly die and rot.

Far from being the villain or monster of a horror film, Martin himself earns nothing but the audience’s sympathy. He’s more like a victim of circumstance, even when we see the crimes he commits.

As you can guess, theres so much to analyse and, in fact, cherish with this film. This is a film with many layers that presumes that it’s audience have the intelligence to make up their own minds as to whether Martin is a vampire or not.

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Original newspaper ad for the Leeds cinema release of ‘Martin’

I first saw this film when it was shown on Channel 4 here in the UK in the mid-80’s. It’s so poignant that it has stayed with me ever since and even with regular viewings it loses none of it’s charm, brilliance or innovation. In fact, with every viewing theres something new that I missed previously.

This may be a small budget film but it feels like Romero gained from this rather than letting it detract from the film and it’s production. Romero and crew just used their ingenuity to overcome any limitations and work around them and it works beautifully. Martin feels intimate and personal as a film.

Romero’s original cut of this film was significantly longer, clocking in at 2 and a half hours and was completely in black and white. Only one copy of this version ever existed and mysteriously went missing from Romero’s office many moons ago.

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This film should be readily available on Blu ray but apparently there are, ahem, ‘rights issues’ that prevent a definitive version of this or Dawn of the Dead being issued on a restored Blu ray. Criterion or Scream Factory could give this masterpiece the treatment it richly deserves. Let’s hope these ‘issues’ are resolved soon so that these glittering jewels of the horror genre can be widely accessible and enjoyed further.

Another great component of the film is the soundtrack by Donald Rubinstein. A few years back this was reissued on CD and is currently on iTunes. The music is just as haunting as the film itself.

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The pop group Soft Cell wrote a song (also called ‘Martin’) based on the film which is very faithful to the movie’s narrative and is just as brilliant as the film. There are even snatches of the film’s soundtrack used on the song. Check it out here.

Martin is a peach of a movie. In fact, it’s a masterpiece just like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.

5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 4- Burnt Offerings (1976)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 4- Burnt Offerings (1976)

A family rent a huge house for the summer from it’s brother and sister owners who have one condition for the rental- that their elderly mother stays in the house and they provide her with meals. Things then start to go crazy for the new inhabitants and it’s almost as if the house is alive and playing with their minds just for it’s own amusement (I hate it when houses do that). The family members start to act very differently to how they would normally as if the darkest parts of their psyches are being brought to the fore.

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The genre of a house as a living being and force of evil can either work really well or can come across as very cliched and tired. Burnt Offerings does both. The big scares feel a bit overplayed and done better elsewhere especially after having seen the genre changing horror of The Shining on one end of the spectrum and the unabashed popcorn cheesiness of The Amityville Horror. But Burnt Offerings has smaller, more subtle scares that work brilliantly well. Check out the scene when Marian sees the family portraits for the first time or when Ben, taking a break from gardening, suddenly sees a pallbearer arriving in a hearse at the house.

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It’s a shame that the film is such a mixed bag rather than being consistently brilliant as the cast (Burgess Meredith! Oliver Reed!! Karen Black!!! BETTE FUCKING DAVIS!!!!) reads like a wishlist of crazy brilliance who would work amazingly well together in a 70’s horror film. Davis especially is wasted in her role as she doesn’t have enough to do although wearing floral polyester prints and being Bette Davis comes close. I think it’s also because she’s playing a nice character. She disappears halfway through the film as if she had better things to do than last until the closing credits in some mediocre 70’s horror flick.

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Even though there are slow moments and the film could be so much better, the ending of the film is completely crazy, gory and genuinely unsettling. If you make it through to the last five minutes you will be richly rewarded.

The look of Burnt Offerings is beautiful. It’s almost as if the whole film was filmed with a veil of mist in front of the camera.

Fun fact- The location used for the house was later used in the horror masterpiece Phantasm. The photos below show the house in Burnt Offerings, Phantasm and as it is today.

So, a film with interesting moments but not enough to fill 90 minutes. But stick around for the ending- it’s a corker!

2 out of 5 stars

 

Review- ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)

Review- ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)

I was umm-ing and ahh-ing about going to see this at my local cinema. It was a one-off showing of the 4K Blu ray print and the chance of seeing this on the big screen was too much of a rare occurrence to knock back. The reason for my reticence was that when I had previously seen the film for the first time (in about 1993) I had loved it but the actual subject matter was so traumatising and shocking. It’s not often that I experience this when it comes to film and so I was erm, keen to see if this film was just as raw as it had been all of those years ago.

And the simple answer is yes. It still packs one hell of a punch with it’s unblinking view of how vile war really is.

But before the war scenes we are presented with the slowww build-up in the small town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. Some critics have said that there is too much emphasis on this section of the film but I think it’s necessary to get under the skin of the characters and fully experience their lives. This isn’t some romanticised vision of American life especially as we see Meryl Streep’s character Linda having to endure a physically abusive father. We also see that the group of guys who constitute the main characters within the film argue, bicker and fight as well as being part of a tight pack of friends and drinking buddies.

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The original newspaper ad for the Leeds screening

Contrast this section of the film with the all too sudden Vietnam sequences and you’ll see that whereas the Pennsylvania sequences feel like every minute detail is being recorded, the Viet Cong second act zips by very quickly indeed. One second we see the Vietnamese troops approaching the next we see the main characters in a bamboo cage. The pace of the film directly depicts the events being depicted- the slowness of small-town life as opposed to the surreal rush of the unfathomable events taking place in Vietnam.

The film also brilliantly depicts Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which had very rarely been tackled in a war film before this. Men had stereotypically been depicted in this genre as tough, unrealistically resilient and untouched by the atrocities of war. Witness Nick’s meltdown in the sanatorium and Michael’s emotional and overwhelming return to his hometown after the horror that he’s witnessed and been forced to participate in.

The film also perceptively depicts how destructive the mind can be when such trauma has been experienced. It’s no accident that Nick stumbles into a Russian Roulette gambling ring, just as it’s no accident that Michael is already in the audience there watching this ghoulish spectacle.

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The Deer Hunter proved to be very controversial when it was originally released. There were criticisms that the film was a distortion of the truth as it was felt by some to be so one-sided and so relentlessly pro-American. I don’t really have a problem with the film’s narrative as it doesn’t suggest that the American troops in this war weren’t committing atrocities of their own. A viewer would have to be pretty naive to think that all American soldiers were good and all Vietnamese bad.

There was also criticism regarding the Russian Roulette scenes with critics saying that this never actually happened during the Vietnam War (although director Cimino said that he had read accounts of this being utilised by the Vietnamese). It really doesn’t matter either way- these scenes act as a very powerful metaphor for the horrors of war.

I love the fact that Jane Fonda criticised the film and referred to the film’s protestors as ‘friends’ but then admitted that she hadn’t actually seen the film. Some things never change- protestors are going to criticise a film on what they’ve heard about it rather than seeing the film firsthand and then forming an opinion on the events depicted therein.

The scenes between Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep stand out in a film that contains uniformly brilliant performances. You get the idea that you’re privileged to be witnessing arguably the best actor and actress of their generation at the peak of their game and the results crackle with electricity.

 

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The scene in which the characters sing ‘God Bless America’ is masterful as it will be interpreted by the audience according to their political beliefs and if they thought the Vietnam War was justifiable or not. Is this scene ironic, sarcastic or totally sincere?

A tough watch but thats to be expected because of the subject matter. A must see film for any self-respecting fan of cinema.

5 out of 5

 

Review- ‘Death Weekend’ (1976)

Review- ‘Death Weekend’ (1976)

Harry is on his way to a country holiday home with his new ex-model girlfriend, Diane when they cross paths with a rowdy car-full of drunken yahoos who try to intimidate them. After the couple run them off the road and ruin the suspension on their car, they are tracked to their country lair with the angry men proceeding to invade this picuresque idyll.

Violence and rape ensues as the hillbilly gang seek revenge. In the course of events Harry is actually killed and Diane is raped when trying to escape. But then Diane turns the tables single-handedly and in brutal fashion.

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The original newspaper advert for Death Weekend when its showed in Yorkshire, UK in the 70s

They are elements of both Last House on the Left and Straw Dogs within this film’s premise (in the UK, this film played as part of a double bill with the latter film) but theres also enough to distinguish Death Weekend from these two films. Theres a strong feeling of the ‘haves vs have nots’ thats interesting. The hillbilly gang see what they don’t have within the house and their lives and instinctively seek to destroy and tarnish it.

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The UK quad for the Straw Dogs/Death Weekend double-bill

Also, this isn’t a case of the good vs the bad- when Diane arrives at the house by the lake she very quickly realises that Harry is a slimeball personified. Hes a swinger who has invited Diane to the house for one reason and that isn’t holding hands and going for long walks. We see him taking pictures of Diane as she gets undressed and showers as the mirrors in the swingers paradise masquerading as a country house are all two-way. Diane finds out this later when one of the gang stumbles upon the pictures that the pervert Harry has taken unbeknownst to her.

Also, just before the gang invades the house Diane is just about to leave as she learns that although Harry had told her that there were other guests who would be joining them, in fact this was a lie. Harry appears to be just as repellent as the gang members who are just about to kick the door in- its just his social class that separates him from them.

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The original newspaper ad for the film when it played with ‘The Changeling’ in the 70s

This film is also made noteworthy by the cast with Brenda Vacarro and Don Stroud deserving special mention.

A very good film that deserves a really good Blu ray release. In fact, this would be ideal for Scream Factory.

3 and a half out of 5.