Leatherface and Me- Growing Up With (and Without) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Leatherface and Me- Growing Up With (and Without) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the cinema the other day. It’s been a long road but I feel like I’ve had my own personal journey with this horror masterpiece. After years of not being able to view the film, it grew in my mind to almost mythic proportions. When I finally got to see the film, was it worth the wait and would it live up to the hype?

From the very beginning there was a massive amount of controversy with the film in the UK. On it’s original planned cinema release it was banned outright by the BBFC. However, those were the days when local councils could override the BBFC’s official decisions and so, whilst some local authorities agreed with the Board’s decision, a number decided to allow screenings of the film.

The advent of home video would give the film a new, albeit brief, lease of life. The film was originally released on video in 1981. But in 1984 the Board decided that all videos had to be classified by them and so for three years or so the film could be rented and viewed in the privacy of one’s home. My father actually remembers seeing the film on video, an occasion which I wasn’t privy to. Maybe he had decided to watch it when I was safely tucked up in bed. My Dad’s attitude to me watching horror and violent films from an early age was rather laissez-faire to say the least, but maybe even he thought that the film that had such a shocker of a title would be too much for me to take at such a tender age. When he spoke about it, he did so as if to say, ‘Yes, I saw that film!’ accompanied by a startled look on his face. With such a backhanded compliment I now regard my not being able to watch the film with the rest of my family as akin to some kind of child abuse.

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With the Video Nasties moral panic, TCM was promptly banned. However, the parents of a friend of my older brother owned a local video shop and so, as many video shop owners did back in the day, they didn’t return any of the newly banned videos they were asked to take off their shelves. I got to see The Evil Dead via this route but my friend never showed anyone TCM as she had seen it and was truly traumatised by what she had witnessed. With this knowledge, the legend surrounding the film grew even bigger.

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There was an excellent film in the 80’s called Terror in the Aisles which was a compilation of the juiciest bits of horror movies that were segued by legends Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen. Within the movie were clips of TCM along with scenes from another withdrawn classic, The Exorcist which meant the Terror in the Aisles was essential viewing. The scene in which Pam stumbles (literally) into the room covered with chicken feathers and adorned with bizarre home furnishings was included and was so perfect that the fact that the full film couldn’t be seen in the UK meant that I hated the BBFC even more than I already did.

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As I then started to get into punk rock I saw a picture of Johnny Rotten wearing the stickers given away to the patrons of the original screenings of TCM that was being shown in London against the BBFC’s wishes. The Sex Pistols had seen the film and were endorsing it on their ripped clothing. It must be something really shocking and I needed to see it, like, NOW!

TCMStickerTCMJohnnyRottenIt wouldn’t be until 1994 when I would finally get to see the film from start to finish. My friend Tom has scored some horror classics that he taped onto two blank video tapes for me with the jewel in the crown being TCM (the others were Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust and Driller Killer). And so that’s how I got to see the film- a copy that had been copied from a copy that had possibly been copied numerous times before with diminishing quality each time. The picture was fuzzy, some facial expressions were a bit hazy and fine detail was very much lacking. But hey, here was the film! And I loved it! But whilst it was and is such an intense and unnerving experience, there was something that I hadn’t been told about and hence wasn’t expecting- the humour. ‘Look what your brother did to the door!’ was one such moment. Another was the moment in which the garage owner takes the time to go back inside to turn the lights of his garage off just after he’s kidnapped Sally after explaining that the cost of electricity these days could send a man out of business.

Something that also caught me off guard but that I loved was how much the film felt like the most surreal and violent EC Comic that just so happened to have been turned into a film. The film was lurid, colourful and surreal.

Skip forward a few years and I’m living in London and have just completed a film degree. The Institute of Contemporary Arts has curated a festival of film screenings in which still banned horror titles could be legally shown for one day each after getting the green light from the BBFC. One of these films was TCM and so I could finally see it on the big screen.

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My original ticket stub for the ICA screening

But it was a wider release shortly after this and without the OK from the Board that would lead to the film being legalised. Just as years before local councils could usurp the Board and show films anyway, Camden Council decided to show the film at a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue (and rather cheekily just a few streets away from the Board’s Soho HQ). I didn’t know about these screenings until I was walking past the cinema and my eyes jumped out of their sockets as I saw the poster. Camden Council even had their own certificate of ‘C for Camden’ for the film. I had planned an afternoon (and night) of drinking in London’s more salubrious gay bars but waylaid this to take an excursion into Hell first. The screening was amazing and the sound had been turned up to deafening levels. It really did feel like myself and the two other people in the afternoon screening (that’s right, there were only two other people in the whole cinema!) had undertaken a traumatic experience together and as the film ended we all glanced at each other, nervously laughed and then exited.

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My original ticket stub for the 1999 screening

It would be these screenings that would persuade the BBFC to reexamine their classification of the film and agree to pass it uncut with an 18 certificate. Another significant factor in these proceedings was that James Ferman had retired as Head of the Board. It was during his tenure that he had tried to cut the film to finally get it released. But he concluded that there was nothing that could be cut as there was very little gore and such an underlying sense of constant tension to the film that made it impossible to cut. So basically he was ensuring that the film remain banned for being a horror film that was too effective as a horror film. Ridiculous. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the film was then passed.

The film was duly issued in the UK on both video and DVD by Blue Dolphin in 2000.

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But a funny thing happened just before this release. With the advent of the internet there was a website called Amazon (you may have heard of it) that was based in America where loads of horror movies were available uncut and could be bought and shipped to the UK. This was very much a game of chance with some films being seized by customs and some not. The films that were confiscated bizarrely included some titles that weren’t even banned in the UK at the time. The artwork of other VHS and DVD titles that boasted of their notoriety were being let through (the box artwork for The New York Ripper proudly stated the number of countries the film was banned in but was amazingly let through by customs to the ever grateful horror fan who had ordered it). I ordered the Pioneer DVD of TCM which was chock full of special features such as a director’s commentary and blooper reel and it got through. Yeehaw.

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With such a film as TCM now being available there was only one direction in which the releases from now on could go and that was to restore the film so that it could look and sound as good as possible. But with a film like TCM which has always had a grimy and gritty look to it, would these new restoration programmes mean that the film would loose some of this grit and dirt and look completely different?

Dark Sky picked up the film in the US and cleaned up the visuals and audio significantly for a 2006 DVD release. Suddenly, details that couldn’t be seen before were now visible. It was akin to layers of grime being lifted from a classic painting. There were also oodles of special features and presented in a 2 disc steelbook to boot. And more importantly, the look of the film didn’t suffer one iota because of these new efforts to make the film look and sound as good as it possibly could. The film still sounded like it always had with the bassy and subhuman tremors experienced still present but now sounding even more unearthly. 

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With the advent of Blu ray as a format and then 4K, this meant that even more work could be done on the film and even more care taken to present and preserve the film as the cultural force it had become. Again, Dark Sky took up the task and released a 4 disc Blu ray edition of the film, complete with 7.1 Dolby remix (along with the original mono soundtrack for the purists) and all of the special features imaginable (3 discs worth to be precise!)

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And it was this print that I saw the other day at a cinema that was state of the art and with the biggest screen I’ve ever seen this side of IMAX. It was ironic that I should be watching the film in such a beautiful cinema with gorgeous leather seats and state of the art projection equipment when the film would originally have been seen and experienced in grindhouses and Drive-Ins across America on it’s first run. But did the film still hold up in such surroundings? You bet it did! There was even nuance that could be only be picked up on the mammoth screen and details that could only be heard within the 7.1 remix that couldn’t be picked up in mono (the film gets gradually louder and bassier as the action goes on) with the later part of the film being the hellish (in a great way) experience that all TCM fans know and love. 

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So, as you can see my journey with TCM has been long and winding but so rewarding. The film being banned and then passed uncut and then released on new formats and after extensive work has been done on it has meant that the makers of the film have certainly got their dollars worth from fans like me. But the pleasure of snapping up each new release has been an absolute pleasure and I’m so happy that the film can be appreciated and savoured by future generations. TCM will always be in my list of my Top 10 favourite films. The wait was certainly worth it. 

Review- Censor (2021)

Review- Censor (2021)

Enid is a censor in the 80’s working on classifying the so-called Video Nasties so that they can be released on video. Many are either cut or rejected outright. In her personal life, her sister went missing years before after they had been playing in woods nearby. She has never been found but Enid thinks she might now have a lead through, ironically, the films she’s classifying.

I thought a film based around this period and the Video Nasties moral panic would be interesting with this historical backdrop and the social climate surrounding it.

But whilst all of the resources you need when you base a film around a particular period seem to be at your disposal, the issue of authenticity rises it’s ugly head. I lived through this period and know it inside out because of my love of all things horror and such a monumental shift regarding this with the advent of home video.

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Censor feels like the vintage furnishing shops of Camden had been gone through to facilitate this production. It feels like a faux version of the period, a hipster and completely artificial variant rather than the filmmakers successfully transporting you into that amazing period. It’s a particularly ugly vision of this timeframe that Censor presents too.

Add to this the flimsiest of plots, not being able to care about one single character in the film, attempts at subtexts regarding trauma and state censorship (both dealt with amateurishly) and drama school theatrics and it’s a no from me. Watch the actual video nasties instead or a really good documentary about the topic (Ban The Sadist Videos is a great place to start). But don’t waste your time on such a revisionist and boring film ‘based’ on the period.

Grade- D-

Video Nasties Live Debate From 1984

Video Nasties Live Debate From 1984

It used to be really popular in Britain when I was growing up for the hottest topics of the day to be debated and discussed live in a studio with experts on a stage and an audience who would ask questions and contribute. A famous example is the debate regarding certain religious figures calling for the Monty Python movie The Life Of Brian to be banned on the grounds of blasphemy. John Cleese and Michael Palin debated the issue with Roman Catholic journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood.

A debate that was televised in 1984 regarded the Video Nasties furore and I actually remember watching it at the time! The link is below.

It’s so great to see representatives from both sides of the argument being in the studio and arguing their cases (notice those against the release of horror movies trying to talk over those who wanted them to be released).

I read Martin Barker’s seminal book Video Nasties around this time as I did the publication of Clifford Hill’s flawed study to see just how many kids falsely claimed to have seen the hotly debated cinematic shockers such as The Evil Dead and The Driller Killer.

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A seminal text

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A deeply flawed study

There’s also great footage of a video store of the time, a very funny reenactment of children watching said Video Nasties and some hilariously macabre music to accompany this. This creepy music is even played over the start of the TV debate.

But my favourite line from the whole programme must be MP Graham Bright asserting that these corrupting films not only affect children but also dogs. I do remember my dog at the time being somewhat murderous after we all watched Nightmares In A Damaged Brain for the first time but that might be because we had forgotten to feed her.

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The hysteria of the time must be unbelievable for people to comprehend in 2021 but these horror movies were Public Enemy Number 1 at the time and this moral panic lasted for years. I remember a local newspaper article complaining about the evil effects of horror movies in 1987 which launched an avalanche of angry and disapproving readers letters in the next issue. The editor noted that not one letter standing up for the movies had been received.

And of course the whole furore erupted again in 1993 after James Bulger was abducted and murdered with Child’s Play 3 becoming the 90’s version of The Evil Dead and a target of society’s scorn and bile.

Thankfully common sense prevailed. Or could this hysteria happen again?

This programme is here and my Video Nasties documentary playlist is here.

Great Video Nasties Moral Panic Documentary

Great Video Nasties Moral Panic Documentary

I remember the Video Nasties furore like it was yesterday. With my father being an avid Daily Mail reader and staunch Thatcherite I felt like I had a front row seat with the then Tory government seeking to ban the very films I loved when they were released on video in the early 80’s.

I saw most of the media coverage regarding this as it happened. I’ve also seen the later retrospective takes on the moral panic regarding the so-called ‘Video Nasties’ but there is one documentary that perfectly captures the sense of fear, paranoia and scapegoating for the ills of society unfairly placed on these horror films which some were even calling ‘snuff movies’ (!) I’ve uploaded this here for your delectation. Please watch and prepare for your jaw to drop as you witness a frankly unbelievable episode from history in which, at the time, there seemed to be plenty of authoritative voices against these videos but none in the mainstream media who were standing up for them. It was akin to book-burning.

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Hopefully we can learn from this sad era. It could never happen again. Or could it? With this documentary reminding us what happened, more and more this seems like an episode of unjustified censorship which can be consigned to history where it belongs.

 

Excursions Into Hell: My Favourite Filmgoing Experiences

Excursions Into Hell: My Favourite Filmgoing Experiences

With the news that Female Trouble, John Waters’ meisterwerk and design for living is being shown, my noggin got a joggin’.

I started thinking about the films that I’ve been lucky enough to watch on the big screen and with an audience.

My favourite filmgoing experience has to be when I got to see a film that I never thought I’d ever see in a cinema AND in the format that it was intended to be seen in. That film is the brilliant Friday the 13th Part 3D. I had moved to London from York in 1994 to study film and had started to go to the amazing but very high-brow (although it can’t be that high-brow as they let me in…) National Film Theatre known as the NFT to London’s cineastes and skinny latte drinking set.

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Shortly after graduating from Uni and getting a job (real life is worse than ANY horror film) I heard that the NFT were to show a season of 3D films which were to be actually shown in 3D using the vintage technology that was required. I then read that the third Friday the 13th film would be part of the season. I have never bought a cinema ticket faster in my fucking life!

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Friday the 13th Part 3D starts with the end of Part 2 which isn’t in 3D. The NFT film snobs were sniggering at how corny this sequence was and were clearly thinking that their tastes in film were so much more elevated than this supposed generic slasher film they were watching on the screen.

But then, Part 3 started in earnest. If you haven’t seen the film, the 3D is brilliantly done. The makers of the movie really knew how they could make full effect of the 3D process and were willing to use it to blow audience’s minds.

The first glimpse of the 3D happens when the titles literally shoot out of the screen at the audience out of the decapitated head of Pamela Voorhees. But to really show how awesome the process was and how far it could be taken, the titles come forth but only part way before they come out even further so that they are right in front of the audience’s noses. It was a great piece of showmanship on the part of the filmmakers- ‘Here’s the 3D. Oh, hang on, we can do better than that! HERE’S the 3D!’

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With that first 3D one-two punch by the film I have never heard such a scream of excitement emitted by a cinema audience (and it sounded like every single member of that audience squealed in delight) before or since. The film was so well crafted with so much thought placed on the 3D aspects and how the gimmick could be used in so many innovative ways. A movie that was primarily made for horror fiends had just demonstrated that it could also work on the snobbiest film audiences imaginable and completely enthral them. Now that’s genius.

The 3D was used for both comical purposes to make the audience chuckle ( these involve yo-yos, juggling, a joint being passed towards the audience) but more importantly it’s also used so that spectators can experience the sheer pain of Jason’s killings. There is one scene in which Mr Voorhees squeezes a bit too hard on a character’s head and one of his eyeballs shoots out of it’s socket and straight at the audience. In another we get an arrow shot from a harpoon that Jason has fired at another victim. This also shoots her in the eye (after wheezing towards us first). It’s almost like the filmmakers wanted to exploit the ‘eye injury’ angle with this being a 3D movie. They were making the movie as painful as possible for the audience. Hooray for 3D!

We even get Jason staggering towards us whilst he’s mid-battle with the film’s Final Girl with an axe sticking out of his hockey mask.

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This screening was such a success with the NFT’s audience that there was even applause when it finished. The audience whooped, yelped and had a jolly good time. Job done.

I went to see Jaws 3D the following night. Even in 3D it’s dreadful and further testament to the innovative use of the format by Friday’s filmmakers.

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Shortly after this screening I heard about a season of films showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (known as the ICA), another establishment of all things high culture and respectability. All of the films chosen were then (1998) still banned by the British Board of Film Classification (the BBFC- as you can tell we like our acronyms here in the United Kingdom or UK *haha*) and were all banned horror movies with some appearing on the infamous Video Nasties DDP List. Through some legal wrangling the ICA had asked the BBFC to let them be shown for one day only.

Thus, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Driller Killer, Zombie Flesh Eaters, House by the Cemetary, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain and Zombie Holocaust were all shown whilst they were all still banned in the UK.

The thrill of seeing these forbidden fruits of the Video Nasties era when they were still banned was palpable. James Ferman was still the Director of the BBFC and was notoriously strict when it came to horror (it was under his regime that The Exorcist and Texas Chain Saw Massacre remained banned. He seemed inflexible when it came to art of any kind and clearly behind the times).

But things were about to change when it came to TCM. The movie was released in early 1999 in London when Camden Council were granted a license to show the film within it’s area boundaries only. For this release the film even had it’s own certificate of ‘C’ for Camden. Only people who were 18 and over would be able to watch the film in a cinema. I saw the film during this release.

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I remember I had gone into London to browse the many film memorabilia shops that existed around the West End then (all sadly gone now unfortunately) and then to go onto the gay scene with it’s numerous bars that were close to the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue. As I exited the excellent Cinema Store I walked past the ABC Cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue and saw that TCM was showing. I didn’t know about this release until I saw the poster outside the cinema.

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This was also my first visit to this particular cinema with it’s gorgeous carved frieze on the outside. It reeked of history inside and out and with further investigation I found out that it went back decades and was even used for film premieres.

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The afternoon screening of TCM only had two other people in it. Watching TCM is like going to Hell (in a good way) for an hour and a half and it seemed really perverse that one minute I was trolling the West End and was then immersed in one of the most intense and frightening horror movies ever made. I remember none of the punters in that screening left before we had seen all of the end credits through to the end. The house lights then went up, we exchanged looks to each other as if to say ‘What the fuck have we just been through together?!’, smiled and then left.

A favourite more recent screening that sticks in my mind was when my local arthouse cinema showed Pink Flamingos. The Hyde Park Picturehouse here in Leeds shows a cult film most Saturdays under the banner of Creatures of the Night. The cinema is located in a part of Leeds which has a huge student population. Hence, you have plenty of students who attend these screenings, a minority of whom think that ‘cult’ means ‘rubbish’. These people obviously don’t know what cult cinema is and wouldn’t know shit from clay. I’ve attended screenings here of films such as The Terminator, The Warriors and Christine which, unfortunately, this clueless and jaded minority have thought it appropriate to snigger at and ridicule. As a side note, these people will never ruin a cinema screening for me. I would never give them the satisfaction or feed their narcissism in such a way.

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A surefire way to tell if your film still has ‘it’ when it comes to cult cinema is to see and hear how the audience reacts. Right from the get-go Pink Flamingos shocked the audience at this particular screening into submission. At the start of the film there was a stunned silence of utter disbelief at what was being seen and then there were howls of laughter at all the right places with screams of disgust at all the appropriate scenes also (the dog poo scene especially) as Divine and co won the hearts of the punters.

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In fact, there have been a few John Waters related screenings that stick in my mind. Firstly, the time I went to see his live film This Filthy World in New York which he attended. He answered questions after it. Also, the time he taught a film class that I was lucky to be invited to in which he showed one of his favourite films, Boom! starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. We all then talked about it and asked him about his career…But that has been covered by myself in a previous blog post. Talking about it again might be seen as bragging *walks away whistling*

Video World- A Blast From The Past

Video World- A Blast From The Past

It’s funny what crops up on the internet.

When video started to become popular there were also brilliant magazines that catered for the video industry and video fans alike. The majority of the column inches and pages were devoted to horror, action and exploitation with a few pages at the back devoted to porn. I think this is why my Dad always took an opportunity to flick through/perv over these video magazines when I bought them. They usually featured a Page 3 stunner on the front cover but my newsagent never once thought not to sell these mags to me even though they looked identical to top shelf filth like Razzle or Fiesta. Even my Dad didn’t care about me buying these magazines. Maybe he thought that his youngest son might be *normal* rather than homosexual which I know he worried about. Sorry Dad.

Anyway, someone online scanned pages from Video Review which came out in the early 80’s. I remember this periodcal along with Video World. The memories (and mammories) come flooding back. What a giddy exciting time the 80’s were for horror fans and gorehounds.

Day 8- 31 Days of Halloween- Night Train Murders (1975)

Day 8- 31 Days of Halloween- Night Train Murders (1975)

Or Last House on the Left On A Train.

Two young teenagers cross paths (or tracks) with a trio who degradate and sexually humiliate them. One of them is accidentally killed, the other jumps from the train to escape her captors. The trio then find themselves at the home of one of the teenagers. Revenge ensues.

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Stylish direction and cinematography prevail in this film whilst the 70’s Euro vibe is captured very well indeed. Just like Last House this film is VERY extreme!

In fact this film was banned by the BBFC when submitted for cinema screenings in 1975. The video was placed on the Video Nasties list in 1983 but was then acquitted the year after and promptly removed from the DPP list.

3/5 out of 5 stars

Day 4- 31 Days of Halloween- The Witch Who Came From The Sea (1976)

Day 4- 31 Days of Halloween- The Witch Who Came From The Sea (1976)

A far-out and thoroughly groovy tale of the swinging scene of 1970’s California. But also a disturbing tale of childhood abuse. Molly has fantasies of tying up men that also involves the use of razors. Two American Football stars are found butchered. Could Molly be responsible? Have her fantasises started to overlap with reality?

The great thing about the Video Nasties list was that it contained low-key gems that were truly left-field like this movie.

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The film doesn’t really make much sense but it doesn’t have to. The Drive-In and 42nd Street crowd would have been watching this film with their friend Mary Jane in attendance. And its possibly much more of a mind-expanding experience that way. But either way this is a very enjoyable piece of off-kilter 70’s goodness.

The film also looks unexpectedly gorgeous. And so it should as the Director of Photography was a young Dean Cundey. He shot this just two years before Halloween.

4 out of 5 stars

Day 2- 31 Days of Halloween- The Horrifying Experiments of the SS Last Days (1977)

Day 2- 31 Days of Halloween- The Horrifying Experiments of the SS Last Days (1977)

Is this-

a) A beautifully acted, nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the horror of the Nazis and those unlucky enough to have crossed paths with them?

or b) A badly acted slice of exploitation resplendent with terrible dubbing and almost no budget?

I’ll give you a clue- look at the film’s name! This is also known as The Beast in Heat (it’s on the UK Video Nasties list under that title) and Gestapo’s Last Orgy.

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I’d love to give you a summary of the plot but I don’t want to be banned from this platform.

Be sure to run a bath before watching this. You’ll need it.

But when you know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for this movie ticks all of the depraved boxes regarding lurid and boundary pushing schlock filmmaking. Imagine watching this back in the day on 42nd Street or on VHS in the early 80’s in the UK. Your mind would have been well and truly blown.

And by a weird turn of fate it’s uncut on YouTube! Enjoy (if thats the word).

4 out of 5 stars

Day 18- 31 Days of Halloween- Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

Day 18- 31 Days of Halloween- Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

A boat sails into New York but the only person onboard happens to be a morbidly obese zombie who seems to be pissed off and hungry. The daughter of the boat’s owner decides to venture to where her father had been, a Caribbean island called Matul. She takes along with her a journalist who smells a story.

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This film was butchered by the BBFC on its initial release. The distributors decided to release a stronger uncut version that then lead to the film being banned and placed on the DPP video nasties list.

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This film is reknowned for going the extra mile. Ever wondered what would happen if a zombie took on a shark? Of course you have! This film features it. Add to the mix a revolutionary eye-gouging scene, a great score by Fabio Frizzi and one of the most iconic ending scenes in horror history. Oh, and some of the most annoyed zombies with especially bad attitudes and you have a great movie.

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This Italian shocker directed by maestro Lucio Fulci actually billed itself as a sequel to the Argento cut of Dawn of the Dead in Italy. Is it a masterpiece like Dawn? No. But its still one hell of a ride.