Tobe Hooper’s career echoed that of many a seminal genre director from a particular, boundary-busting era. His struggles, his achievements, and his character iconography contributed to the horror canon. As with other directors who have passed on, his impact on cinema as a whole will continue to be felt.
George A. Romero gave us the black-and-white blood and guts of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, which also laid bare the genre’s potential to make social and political statements – in addition to subverting traditional notions of horror antagonism (“We have met the enemy, and he is us” indeed).
Wes Craven’s first feature, a take on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, brought grit, grunge, color, and a documentary-style aesthetic to a tale of criminal scumbags who subject two flower children to a “coming of age” that hinges on defilement, humiliation, and death. Last House on the Left, despite its self-doubting segues into humor and a banjo-twangin’ theme song, nonetheless brought savagery to the suburbs, breaking the illusions of “security” afforded to the upper class.
For me, this trinity always embodied the humanizing ups and downs of filmmaking business madness. You can find many interviews and commentaries of the late Craven and Romero looking back on scraping together funding, dealing with censor-happy studio heads, and succumbing to compromise when all other avenues failed. These are sadly familiar tales, but their recollections are imbued with a self-deprecating honesty that makes their stories all the more endearing and instructive.
Yet, while Craven and Romero had at least several critically conceded masterpieces under their belts, Tobe Hooper only had one.
But I don’t want to talk about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The conversation about who did or didn’t direct Poltergeist is the type of gossipy crap that bores me. And I’ll let Billy Crash write the apologias for the cult-beloved Lifeforce.
What I’m proposing here, is: While Hooper was just as much a product of a studio system that treated horror as disposable content to turn a profit, his projects over the years maintained signatures of style, characterization, and tonal sensibility. His films were always messy (in the literal and figurative sense), but not due to a lack of skill or temperament.
Maybe someday I’ll do a piece on the virtues of Spontaneous Combustion – the film and the phenomenon – but I’d wager that Brad Dourif’s flamethrower finger was a none-too-subtle reflection of what Hooper wanted to do to the money men who frequently, ahem, “mangled” his work. (Too bad the flames weren’t shooting from Dourif’s middle finger.)
While Tobe Hooper’s output in the new millennium produced successful, off-the-wall remakes of TheToolbox Murders and Mortuary, those films still remain divisive, with support that only falls in line with “cult” status. Even when left to his own devices, Hooper created his own form of madness by drawing wildly opposing reactions.
Dance of the Dead
And his first-season Masters of Horror episode, “Dance of the Dead,” was no exception.
Before I ever had a chance to watch it, I had noticed numerous negative user reviews cropping up on the IMDb. Many claimed that, if it wasn’t the worst episode of that first season, it was one of the worst.
I think Masters of Horror was ahead of the curve – a general precursor to the type of harder-edged, content-unrestricted fare that had been spearheaded by HBO, and later came to dominate Netflix’s programming roster. As a result, though, the show’s ability to push boundaries (with some network-mandated cuts to Dario Argento’s “Jenifer” and the outright banning of Takashi Miike’s “Imprint”) sometimes came off as leaning on gore or nudity for its own sake.
“Dance of the Dead,” however, felt like the one episode that embraced its own crazed boundlessness. Its gore was as organic as its nudity and skeevy presentation of sexuality (which is telling, since the closest it gets to sex is practically necrophilia). Its aesthetic – a series of hammering edits, heavy-metal music (courtesy of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan), and jittery “ghosting” effects – which most IMDb users decried, came across as perfectly fitting for the tale (an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic short story).
Consider some of Hooper’s previous works, and a pattern starts to appear: sets that resemble a claustrophobic notion of a hoarder’s lair. Characters with crazed motives, ranging from the external to the idiosyncratic. Action that storms its way into the frame with the recklessness of a wrecking ball through a brick wall.
Tobe Hooper’s detractors attributed the chaos of his films to a general lack of talent (“Texas Chainsaw was a fluke” being the laziest of article-starters), but less consideration was given to the possibility that Hooper’s brand of chaos was chaos by design.
To be continued…
(Photo of “Dance of the Dead” DVD cover via Undead Review.)
Any corporate person will tell you the most important thing about a business is location, location, location. But in the horror genre, location can bring stories to life in remarkable ways and resonate as a character in the film. When it comes to Horror Locations, some movies rise above in big bad ways.
Top Ten Horror Locations
Can you imagine if Jack (Jack Nicholson) and family were at a motel off the beaten path instead of the Overlook in The Shining? No, I can’t either. There’d be no crazy maze with all its changing entrances, no intense sense of isolation, and Danny (Danny Lloyd) would just roll around in the parking lot. I guess the creepy sisters would hang out in a sandbox.
The important item is that the Overlook isn’t only haunted, it’s other worldly. Once we see the outdoors, and then peek inside, it’s clear the pink and gold ballroom couldn’t fit. There are doors and stairs to nowhere, windows are in place where it’s impossible for them to exist, and pathway’s change. The greatest thing to add to the unease is that element of pure isolation – and when the snow hits, forget it. The family’s cut off. It’s them and the Overlook. Stephen King may have written the famed novel, but Stanley Kubrick made the Overlook even more menacing in how he presented the property. This is one of Horror Locations‘ most bizarro settings.
What once seems like a getaway for a family to reconnect turns out to be a sinister experience that instantly exploits their existing craziness. It’s clear their issues, from child abuse and anger, to detachment and “shining,” fuel the paranormal fire until it erupts in murder.
In the end, the Overlook becomes a fun house out of an amusement park. The only difference: You’re not supposed to survive the ride.
Isn’t Venice Beautiful?
After you watch Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Know, you may never look at Venice the same way again. Considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful cities and known to travelers as “The Bride of the Sea,” it’s hard to imagine such a venue on a Horror Locations list. But director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond makes every canal, every bridge, and every alley look like a passage to Hell.
Even in the daylight, the city takes on a sense of foreboding, where bridges and canals that once seemed like welcoming passageways, now serve as veins and arteries ready to bleed. The Baxters (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), didn’t come to the city for terror, they wanted to get away and pick up the pieces after their daughter’s death. But Venice brings them no peace: Laura can’t convince John that their daughter’s trying to speak to them from the grave, and John has one hallucination too many that he misinterprets with every blink of his eyes.
All the while, Venice serves as a dark pool ready to absorb them under the waters, just like the pond did to their daughter back home.
Of All the Cities in All the World
It could have landed anywhere, but the giant alien in Cloverfield came up from the depths off the shore of New York’s Coney Island.
New York’s vital to the film because the monster isn’t just toppling buildings and stomping souls, he’s taking out icons. The first piece of destruction is the head of Lady Liberty that sails down the street with Hud (TJ Miller) and friends looking on, then the Brooklyn Bridge gets cut in half, and guess what? Not even the subways are safe. And don’t even think about taking an early morning stroll in Central Park.
Matt Reeves may bring us a creature feature of adult proportions in a major American city, but the release date came just seven years after 9/11. When Hud and his buddies hide out in a shop as a cloud of dust and debris passes by, it’s reminiscent of the real horror that took place in 2001, which only adds to the tension and suspense. Whether you like the hipster Millennials or not, once we have that first image of an exploding building in our mind, followed by that white cloud, it’s hard not to root for any character to get the hell out of there.
But in this journey, the dawn may not bring a new day.
Life’s a Rubik’s Cube
Familiar locations work wonders because we expect them to be innocuous, so when horror ensues, we get that jolt from experiencing “the other.” But imagine waking up in a lame uniform on the floor of a colored room with hatches in the center of each bulkhead. Each room’s a different color, you have no food or water, you’re with some other scared strangers, and you have no idea what the hell’s going on.
This is Cube, Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 independent feature that left many a sci-fi and horror fan with an uneasy feeling. Because it’s not just the fact that there’s a series of rooms to nowhere, but most of them sport horrible death traps. To survive them and somehow find an escape route, the group must focus on their strengths and work together as a team to make it out alive.
Well, that sounds simple enough, but the rooms are silent, and other than different room colors, the move from one cube to the next creates monotony. And with thirst rising and hunger taking its toll, the trapped souls will undoubtedly start to make mistakes.
Cube serves as one of the unique Horror Locations, and it works because the kidnapped occupants have no frame of reference to work from.
Trapped in a room within a room leads to tension, fear, and desperation – and there may be no way out.
Take Your Skills to the Mall
Thanks to the internet, many may have given up on shopping at malls, but in the 1970s, finding everything you needed from different stores under one roof proved to salute consumerism like no other capitalist idea. George A. Romero knew this all too well, so with his Dawn of the Dead sequel, he forced a group of strangers trying to survive a zombie apocalypse inside the walls of a mall.
And what a great hiding place! There’s food, clothes, beds, and just about everything one could ever want. Except you can’t leave. The zombie horde’s outside waiting to cut you down so you’re trapped in a sort of gilded prison. Plus, there’s a mad biker gang that needs a beat down. So much for the fun and excitement of being locked in a mall. (If there was a movie mashup with Chopping Mall, robot guards on the prowl would have added maybe a bit too much to the mayhem.)
The mall becomes a prison instead of a fortress for the human hangers-on, but where to go?
When a few survivors leave what they once thought was a sanctuary, they may never find a home again.
Nothing like a beautiful, emerald farm in the land of Éire. Unless your farm has a breeding experiment that goes horribly wrong.
In Isolation, Billy O’Brien’s use of an off the beaten path farm as a backdrop for terror really amps up that uncanny feeling when even docile cows can become your worst enemy. Ossie Davis, before her stint as a mother in trouble in Babadook, plays Orla the vet who tries to help farmer Dan (John Lynch) with a pregnant cow in distress. It’s not just that the new calf bites Orla, but experiments with Bovine Genetics Technology have gone haywire and the result is the movie Alien on a farm.
Thanks to veteran cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, Dan’s farm looks like a dark brooding Hell, and cows never looked so creepy. It’s enough to make one think that pure unadulterated terror rests behind every barn stall, and for all we know, tractors may become self-aware and run one down. Ryan’s work proves that lighting and the atmosphere it creates lends so much to Horror Locations.
Even if anyone makes it out alive, the charm of the farm may never return.
A Quaint Little Island
In The Wicker Man, Summerisle looks like that perfect getaway off the coast of Scotland. Nice people, rustic charm, fresh air, and a bizarre rites festival to bring the world we know to its knees.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) comes to the island community via helicopter to find a missing girl – a girl the townspeople say never existed. But Howie’s a constable that doesn’t give up easily, and does his best to work around the smiles, the kindness, and the cheer to find her. Just one problem: The island’s namesake, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) seems to get in his way at every turn.
The horrific beauty of The Wicker Man rests in turning the tropes of the genre on its head. Director Robin Hardy kept the atmosphere light yet bizarre, and most of the terror occurs during the day amongst shiny, happy people.
But is there evil behind every smile, or has Sergeant Howie found himself in a society where the rules of normalcy are a bit different?
Either way, whether he finds the girl or not, there’s a good chance he’ll be next on the “missing” list.
It’s an Atomic Blast!
Ah, the 1950’s. Happy Days. As long as you didn’t live near ground zero when the US government ripped up the Nevada dessert with nuclear tests.
And in The Hills Have Eyes, two families collide: The mutant remains of atomic bomb testing survivors and a “normal” family on vacation. The latter makes the mistake of getting off the main road only to end up stranded in an old nuclear testing area.
The setting is the dessert and its surrounding hills. All is barren, exposed, and one’s life is up for grabs. The odd reality is that this vast wasteland evokes a sense of heightened isolation. There’s no place to run, no place to hide, and the only witness to the carnage is what remains of the Air Force’s testing site. After all, that mutant family is akin to indigenous people who have no clue that a more advanced and orderly world exists outside their own.
This isn’t some backwoods cannibal story, but one where writer/director Wes Craven asks us to forget where we are and the rule of law, and poses the question: Doesn’t a mutant family have the right to survive on their own terms?
The problem is that the dessert isn’t kind to humanity in any form, and loves to keep secrets, which makes it one of the best Horror Locations. It may be a miracle if anyone makes it out at all.
Final Frontier of Death
In Ridley Scott’s, Alien, the mining crew of the Nostromo followed protocol and made one big damned mistake. They landed on a rock, picked up an alien entity, and brought the bugger back with them.
The crew’s 70 million miles from Earth. And in space, no one may be able to hear you scream, but there isn’t much traffic either. Stuck on a ship that will take forever to get to the Outer Rim to contact Antarctic Traffic Control, they must face their chrome-toothed opponent and kill it before their vessel becomes one giant tomb. Take about one of your “really out of the way” Horror Locations.
Since the Nostromo’s a mining vessel, this isn’t some lovely well-lit space craft. It’s a blue collar truck in space hauling ore with the barest accommodations. The ship’s dark, stark, and claustrophobic. Even the flight deck has the crew on top of each other because more room means less ore and that means less profit for the company.
It’s a fight in tight quarters to defeat the beast before that long trip home.
But will anyone escape when there’s nothing but the cold, vast vacuum of space to keep them company?
A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
As far as Horror Locations go, for the men at Outpost Number 31, it’s the first goddamned week of winter of their discontent. They’re not happy, they’re dulled by their Antarctic surroundings of endless white ice and cold winds that never stop bringing the chills that can go to seventy below. Plus, the station has come alive with something weird and pissed off that’s not of this world. The radio’s down. The choppers and other vehicles have been hacked. The sled dogs are dead. They’re completely cut off and facing an enemy that can change at will – and may be the person standing right beside them.
John Carpenter brought the cold and then some with a landscape that glowed blue, gray, and ugly in The Thing. And with Ennio Morricone’s suspense laden and minimalist score, the sense of doom’s pervasive.
It’s safe to say all hope’s lost, and if anything can survive the bitter temperature and the tumult, it’s most likely the Thing in furry form.
So that’s the top ten – off the top of my head. But this is only round one. Other great Horror Locations have much to say, from the alien underworld in Crawl or Die to haunted house in The Changeling and beyond, so expect to see a “part two” sometime soon.
Share your favorite’s, and maybe they’ll find themselves on the next list…
Billy Crash (aka William D. Prystauk)
He loves great, in depth characters and storytelling in horror, and likes to see heads roll, but if you kill a dog on screen he’ll cry like a baby. Billy co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, and his professional website.
Recently, an excellent, thought-provoking article, “A Dinner with George” by Isaac Thorne, was featured at Crash Palace. Isaac’s nostalgic, heartfelt piece on George A. Romero and his iconic masterpiece (IMO) of Night of the Living Dead captured my thoughts and memories of yesteryear, launching me mentally into the past, reflecting somewhat on how and why horror and science fiction films impacted my life.
During my years of youth, the concoction of real-life horrors and fantasy ones on the big, white screen were indeed a strange brew that some may have suggested were unworthy of human consumption. The bitterness of reality is always a poor dish served, neither sweet nor savory.
I was born eighteen months before the end of the Korean War. Like post World War II, soldiers returning stateside proceeded as best and as quickly as they could to find hearth, home, and procreation, if they hadn’t done so before serving. After all, why would “Dear John” letters exist without pre-war girlfriends and sometimes, wives.
My youth was partially spent feasting on horror and science fiction movies of the day… while in a real way trying to find a path to minimally comprehend and survive the seemingly constant onslaught of reports of the gloomiest nature from here and abroad that we may be headed into another war ─ especially one featuring the unfettered use of nuclear weapons. As we were taught with alarming regularity, this next one would be the war that would truly end all wars and life on this blue planet as we had only begun to be taught, discover, and appreciate it.
In dimly-lit rooms of flickering fiction and most regrettably almost everywhere else in nonfiction, the atomic age of real or imagined horrors had landed on us. In frightening movies, we were fed disaster as salty and warm as a box of never-ending popcorn, and in our daily lives in school, we practiced, rehearsing our nuclear attack procedures even more often than our fire drills. A horrible, fiery death was either one atomic bomb, one gigantic, nuked insect, or a single assassin away.
Like most Americans who lived during these years, I’ll never forget the day our president was shot and killed. It had happened during a school day. After a school wide nuclear attack drill, we were called to the school’s auditorium for the dire announcement. John F. Kennedy’s assassination exacerbated the growing feelings of despair, fear and futility for us grade school kids in our tumultuous neighborhood, an Atlanta, governmental, housing project.
In addition to carrying a full lunch sack of horrors, back in the 60’s, during the national manhunt for another assassin, we’d learned from the news media that the fiend who had killed Martin Luther King, Jr. had abandoned his still warm and smoking getaway car, a Ford Mustang, on our turf, parking it on a city street beside our elementary school, Ed. S. Cook, in Atlanta, Georgia.
The deadly, racist serpent had escaped, slithering from this location beside our school playground. By the time his Mustang was located, reportedly, the crazed shooter was supposedly fleeing to a foreign country directly passed the front door of our apartment en route to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, heading north.
Death seemed to live and thrive within our Capitol Homes neighborhood. Surely, we and Atlanta were vital targets for atomic bombs raining down on us from the USSR!
Our warring history, present conflict maybes, and future prognosis had signaled to those in the universe beyond Earth that we were not worthy of club membership in a rational, intellectual, evolved, peace-loving, universal community of beings. In 1951, the sternest Einstein-worthy-ray-of-oblivion-across-the-bow-of-Earth to date was issued within the film classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Obviously, we were not feeling Gort.
Concurrently, during the fifties and sixties as fictional fodder fallout from our past use, continued testing, and potential abuse of atomic weapons, a plethora of gigantic creature features swept big screens of drive-in and air-conditioned, walk-in theaters across the country ─ Godzilla (1954), Them (1954), and Mothra (1961) to name a few. How many times and ways must we be warned?
From the nuclear testing grounds of the western USA, to the depths of the Pacific, and from the entirety of Japan and the seas around the island, came massive monsters like we’d not seen in such numbers, appetites, or propensity. All were bent on avenging that which reckless humans had wreaked. In self-preservation mode, nature was fighting back in horrific, non-nurturing ways.
It’s shocking how much difference ten to fifteen years in age can make where and when you view a great horror film or the works of a fine horror director like Isaac Thorne writes about. I very much enjoyed reading about Isaac’s life, feelings, and experiences in conjunction with Romero’s film.
Thorne’s article also caused the above and below reflections on my life when Night of the Living Dead hit the scene. Back in 1968, we were well accustomed to black and white films and television. In short, the use of classic black and white in photography and films held on for as long as the world in those days remained in its drab shades of carnage. I’d be inclined to think for some of these people, the true colors of it all may have been too harsh in an all too real way.
In 1968, I would turn seventeen and the potentiality of going away, experiencing Vietnam, was only a year off, if I didn’t volunteer first. But where I came from you didn’t volunteer for Jack or his rabbit because “the man” shopped for warm bodies and weak minds in our impoverished area with great regularity. The poor are easily forgotten.
So, in 1968, Night of the Living Dead became the perfect metaphor for the prospects of carnage and futility of a bright future we “boy-men” were experiencing daily.
In Atlanta, among other odd jobs, I worked as a soda jerk at a drug store located across the street from one of the oldest, busiest, and largest funeral homes in Atlanta. Back then, the boys, men now, were coming home in great numbers in pieces in body bags. Some were friends from high school and later, college.
It became increasingly difficult to be entertained by make believe death and fantasy mayhem in a movie during this bleak period. In some forms of entertainment such as films, like Night of the Living Dead, it seemed they took on a more sinister meaning than simply being a brief time spent enjoying something unreal.
At times, it felt as if the dead were all around us. During these moments, the “Barbras” in living color, moms, wives, daughters, friends, and girlfriends were as hysterical, fetal, and in frightened tears as the Barbra in black and white on the big screen.
Often, those brave soldiers who did make it home alive were reduced to a state of living while walking dead. Nobody seemed to care, but the funeral homes, alcohol, drug, and methadone clinics, and much more sadly, Veteran’s Administration hospitals, were thriving businesses.
In the sixties and seventies, a heroin epidemic was also sweeping the nation. Once again, death and destruction were as formidable as the dead rising from the grave. Many veterans who had made it back succumbed to a less obvious enemy, trying to “inject” and often drink their post traumatic stress disorder and nightmares of war away.
Yes. It can be both sad and obvious to see how at times art can imitate life and death, and comprehend why it becomes a direct reflection on the reality of life through films. In respect to Night of the Living Dead, these factors appeared to be mutually exclusive in comparison and even sensory numbing in the end when the living dead and living became merely target practice for robotic men with hair triggers on their weapons with plenty of ammo at the ready.
“They’re coming to get you Barbra (or Bob)” took on a true deadly meaning when Uncle Sam’s letter to report for your physical for the draft arrived in the mail. I would think most high school boys were ill-equipped to handle such potentially deadly realities.
Like hundreds of thousands of young boys, I had a 2S draft exemption status while attending college in Macon, Georgia. Slowly and methodically, the government began ending the draft exemption for most, if not all, students, depending on your date of birth and luck of the lottery draw. We’d soon learn bingo had never been so intense.
In 1971 while in college, my lottery time had arrived. As we know, several Vietnam draft lotteries were conducted, starting in 1970. The strong rumor mill, also implied by the media, had it that if your number was two hundred or lower, say goodbye frat row and hello Vietnam. It was a somber crew of boys that day at Mercer University watching the drawing live at our Kappa Sigma lodge. The atmosphere was a direct opposite – a dire, visceral, and visual juxtaposition of when we gathered at the lodge to enjoy Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” each week huddled close to our dates.
For those fighting the war, their potential Night of the Living Dead became at least one tour, if they survived that long. Life had become as black and white as death back then.
After that lottery, I think they drafted numbers up to around one hundred. At the time, I was somewhat optimistic with a guarded sigh of relief since my lottery number was above one hundred and fifty. To this day, I regret those feelings while so many had stepped up voluntarily to answer the call or had reported as ordered once drafted. To me at least, a debate on whether any war is just or not is almost as futile as Tom living beyond the day after his Night of the Living Dead.
Not serving my country during this time is one my greatest regrets in life. , I also cowered in the basement, unwilling to step forward, helping at minimum to join with those willing to stand and fight regardless of self.
Isaac, your piece was excellent!
(Photo of Night of the Living Dead from Pittsburgh Haunted Tours. Photo of Ron Shaw from the author.)
Crash Analysis Support Team:
Ron Shaw is an Atlanta, Georgia native who currently resides in metro Atlanta with his wife and daughter. In1974, he graduated from Georgia State University with a B.A. degree in English Literature. In 1996, he retired from the Atlanta Police Department with the rank of Captain. In 2013, with “Seven Fish Tree,” he began his writing career. Since writing his initial book, he has authored other novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, and poetry. As his published works indicate, Ron enjoys writing in a wide variety of genres like romance, horror, humor, travel, young adult, coming of age, science fiction, paranormal, erotica, visionary and metaphysical, among others.
I was having dinner with a good friend the evening of July 16 when I heard the news. As most folks do these days, my dinner guest and I occasionally glanced at our phones to check notifications and create replies on social media during our meal. Don’t judge. We’ve known each other for a long time now, and we’re comfortable that way. At one of her Twitter checks, my friend turned to me and said, “Some big horror person named George has died.” The name that automatically appeared in my head and from my lips was, unfortunately, the correct one. The father of the modern zombie apocalypse, George A. Romero, had passed away at the age of 77 after a brief battle with lung cancer.
It wasn’t long before the Twitterverse exploded with tributes, all well deserved.
Contrary to many kids of the 1970s and 1980s, my first encounter with Romero’s work was not an airing of Night of the Living Dead on late-night independent television. I believe the first Romero movie I ever saw was 1982’s Creepshow, the EC Comics tribute collaboration with Stephen King. I think I saw it in a hotel room while on a trip with my parents. The hotel in question just happened to have HBO – I believe that it was HBO, anyway – and that particular night HBO just happened to be showing Creepshow. I was both amused and terrified, and I think that might have been the point that I became not a fan of Romero, but of King.
I am ashamed to say that I learned little about Romero in the years after I first saw Creepshow, aside from what I later read in a mass market paperback edition of Stephen King’s 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre. I don’t know whether I should attribute that to my own teenage horror fan laziness, or the fact that Romero was routinely shafted and rebuffed by the larger film industry, so I was less likely to notice him. It was not until I started college in the very early 1990s that I first saw the original Night of the Living Dead. I believe I saw it on an episode of the Joe Bob Briggs B-movie showcase Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater, back when it aired on The Movie Channel, which was Showtime’s other cable property at the time. Briggs aired Night of the Living Dead as a double feature along with the 1990 Tom Savini remake of the same name, bookended by interviews with some of the original cast.
Over time, Romero has developed an enormous iconoclastic reputation in horror filmmaking, and his films have been dissected over and over as social commentary. Although I was of college age the first time I saw the film and attending a liberal arts university, I didn’t at first get the apparent 1960s subtext of Night of the Living Dead. I grew up partially in the me decade, so I suppose my natural instinct at that time of my life was to try to make the films I watched somehow about me. And so it was with Night of the Living Dead.
My early college days were a dark time for me. Yes, the United States was engaged in the first Gulf War, and rushing headlong into an economic recession. However, above all that for me was the fact that I knew my childhood was officially at an end. In my youth, I doubt anyone could ever have accused me of wanting to grow up too fast. I was happy being a kid. At the time, my impression of being a grown up meant nearly killing yourself every day to make ends meet, feeling like you were a failure at family, and being angry all the time. I figured that was no way to live a life, but I could also see no way out of that eventuality. I knew that once I graduated college, the immediate expectations for me would be to nail down a comfortable salaried job, start a family, and buy a house. It was the American dream, yes, but it wasn’t my dream.
Watching Ben and Barbra board up that old farmhouse while the apocalypse shambled toward them, ready to eat them and their futures alive, felt like a metaphor for my existential crisis in those days. I was Ben and Barbra, furiously attempting to maintain a small pocket universe of normal by closing up any portal to the outside world I could find. I was building walls where walls were not supposed to exist to keep out the reality that was ever so slowly closing in on me from every side of my simple little existence.
If I wanted to extend that metaphor today, I would add that attempting to build such walls is useless. The world scrambles over those walls. In Night of the Living Dead, it comes through in emergency broadcasts on the radio and the television. It breaks through even more forcefully with the arrivals of Harry, Helen, Karen, and Tom, the extended emergency family of Ben and Barbra, who bring with them their wants and desires that are antagonistic to the dream of preservation pursued by Ben and Barbra. They are united in their desire to keep the dangerous world out, yet divided as to both the why and the how of it.
“That cellar’s a death trap,” Ben says when Karl insists on squirreling his family away in the lowest portion of the house. It turns out to be prophetic for Karl and family, but not for the reasons Ben fears.
After I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time, I immediately wanted to watch it again. Fortunately for me, I had recorded that episode of Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater. Not only did I enjoy both versions of the film over and over again while I was in college, but I returned to that tape many times in the years after I graduated. Perhaps I wanted to remind myself of what I had been so afraid of turning into back then. Maybe I wanted to tell myself that turning into what I feared is still and always will be a genuine danger.
I haven’t owned a working VCR for many years, but I’m pretty sure I still have that old VHS recording of Joe Bob’s Drive-In stored in a drawer somewhere. I’d love to dust it off again in memory of the man who, unbeknownst to him, helped me face some genuine fears in my past.
Thank you, Mr. Romero. The horror-loving world’s everlasting gratitude might not be enough to make up for the shaft you got from the film industry many times over, but in my heart, I do hope you understand what a difference you made in people’s lives; in mine, anyway.
Rest in peace.
(Photo of George Romero from Geek Tyrant. Photo of Isaac Thorne from the author.)
Crash Analysis Support Team:
He’s the author of several short tales of dark comic horror. He’s a nice man who simply wants to provide you with a few fun frights. Over time, he has developed a modest ability to spin a good yarn. Really. He promises. His collection of short tales of dark horror, Road Kills, will be available in both paperback and ebook formats in October of 2017.
George A. Romero brought the world a new kind of ghoul in 1968 with his seminal film, Night of the Living Dead. Since then, the social conscientious independent went on to write, produce, and helm many films around his adopted city of Pittsburgh.
Romero wasn’t just an indie filmmaker, but a career maker for some and an inspiration to others. We’ll look at this renowned gentleman and his life, and his work from the remainder of his “dead” series, to Martin, Creepshow, and more.
Horror lost a beloved director and master of the genre on July 16, but we extend our condolences and very best wishes to his family and friend because they lost much more.
Without technology, the western world would be living as if in the Dark Ages. To imagine life without a microwave, a personal computer, or a cell phone would make many souls break down in tears. However, if horror cinema has taught us anything, it’s that the things we love to cling to for ease or safety are illusions – and can be used against us at any time.
So join Billy and Jonny as they look at terror technology from Nightmare Weekend and Unfriended to Chopping Mall and Hardware – and other Frankensteinian like creations from metal, plastic, and such. Now, pat the top of your computer, treat your car to some air freshener, and don’t you dare turn your back on your wide screen television, and listen in…