Thursday, November 7, 2013


I remember going to the Westgate Mall Cinema in Brockton, MA to see a midnight showing of Night of the Living Dead. This was an event, for the movie had been slogging around the country for years, creating its reputation as the biggest and baddest horror movie ever made. By the time it came to Brockton, it was as if Satan himself had landed. I don't know how I finagled it. Going to Brockton at midnight was not something my folks would've condoned, so I must have worked some kind of magic on them.
What I remember most about that night, aside from being impressed by the movie, was the sound of the audience. I've been to my share of midnight movies, but the gathering assembled that night at the Westgate was different. There was a  jumpy feeling in the air. I've heard audiences shout at the screen in my time, but on this night the sound was unlike any I'd heard; it was shrill, hyper-active, and more than once I saw someone's popcorn fly out of their hands. At some horror movies the screams would be followed by laughter. But there was very little laughing at this showing. After the first 20 minutes, the place began to feel dead, as if the audience had been worn out. 

I also remember that people would get up and walk around the theater, not to cause trouble, but because they didn't want to remain seated. At one point I looked around, and was shocked to see so many empty seats around me. People were lined up along the walls, as if driven out of their seats and slammed to the back of the theater by the sheer force of the movie. I imagined they were standing near the exits in case they wanted to flee the scene. I remember people covering their faces, wanting to look, but not wanting to see. I remember how the audience  groaned during certain scenes, as if watching a real life disaster play out. At times, I think I heard actual sobbing, as if the movie had driven the audience to a sort of mass nervous breakdown.

That night in Brockton came back to me while watching Rob Kuhns' excellent new documentary, Birth of the Living Dead.  There are great stories here about the making of the film, with a local butcher providing actual entrails for the famous gut-eating scenes, and Pittsburgh cops happily taking part in the movie. Various talking heads offer their thoughts on why the film works so well, but in between rhapsodic reveries on how the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights marches affected movie violence of the 1960s and '70s, the best bit is from a fellow recalling a matinee in a Detroit cinema when kids ran out of the place screaming. Those kids, and my group in Brockton, weren't thinking about Vietnam. It's fear, not a social conscience, that makes Night of the Living Dead a classic.
The highlight of the new doc is George Romero, the mastermind behind the Living Dead movies. He's a charmer, and genuinely loves to reminisce about the days spent filming guerrilla style in Pittsburgh. I believe him when he says he simply wanted to make a ballsy little horror movie. The pundits can talk all they want about the influence of the film, and how important it was to see a black actor in a lead role; but it's Romero who provides the documentary with its juice. His crooked smile, his guttural laugh,  and his sense of mischief make the film an utter joy. He acts as if he still can't believe he pulled it off, and seems pleased that people are still talking about Night of the Living Dead all these decades later.

My only quibble is that the Kuhn film runs a little short.  It could've used  more from Romero. I'd like to know his thoughts about shooting horror films. I'd like to know more about how he turned a theater full of Brockton brats into a captive audience. I wonder if those who saw it that night remember it the way I do. Do they remember how they cowered against the walls, like prisoners who'd been whipped and we're pleading no more, please, no more...

I remember the place began emptying out, as various ticket holders would see enough and leave. It was too much for them. I stayed until the end, though. I remember being bone tired. I remember that the film actually seemed to be throbbing on the screen, pulsating. The theater began to feel chilly with fewer people there. It was the dead of winter, and I'll bet the theater owner turned the heat down to save on electricity. By the end, the theater was down to just a few dozen people. I think there were more zombies on the screen than people in the seats. It was a wonderful night.

The first scene of The  Last Days on Mars is breathtaking. On a dry, pinkish landscape, the sort that Ray Bradbury must've envisioned when he wrote The Martian Chronicles more than 60s years ago, we see an innocent land rover trekking across the red soil. Then, a dust storm is seen ahead, a giant swirl of pink dust rising and gathering momentum. The passengers, Liev Schreiber and Ramola Garai, have to race back to their camp before the dust gets to them. I liked this sort of "man vs environment' scenario, and hoped for more. Instead, writer/director Ruairi Robinson introduces some kind of bacteria that turns the astronauts into murderous zombie type creatures, and the film dissolves into just another zombie movie. Granted, if I heard "zombies on Mars" at a pitch meeting, I'd probably perk up a bit. But The Last Days on Mars feels not only like a lost opportunity, but a misguided one.

The problems are the usual ones in a movie of this type, namely a bunch of characters that are no more than ciphers. Various groups are represented, male, female, American, European, black, white. But each is a cliche. Rather than get people we might care about, we get types: the no-nonsense woman who wants respect; the weepy fellow who wants only to see his children again; the skipper who tries to hold everything together; the angry one; the scared one; the one who plays chess by himself (to show he's smart, see? Cuz smart guys always play chess by themselves...); and of course, the tough guy who is willing to risk it all. They argue a lot, until someone says, "That's enough!" We've seen this sort of movie dozens of times. And  it wasn't very good the first time.

But worse than the meaningless characters is Robinson's decision to place most of the action inside a space ship. He creates a lovely Mars backdrop, and then, inexplicably, turns the film into a cabin fever story. When the action does go outside, and two astronauts are battling each other, rather than move the camera back to show these two tiny figures fighting on this giant red landscape, a scene that might've given the movie an existential, epic quality, he keeps the camera tight on them, so all we get is a lot of blurry scuffling and the sound of heavy breathing from inside somebody's space suit.
How I craved that far away shot. I think a homage to the final shot in Greed would've been perfect, combined with that pink landscape. The camera, though, swoops above the characters, and then, doesn't even go up into outer space.
Schrieber is reasonably convincing as the camp's tough guy, but since he's surrounded by a lot of women and old men, he takes the crown by default. A big problem in the film is that there are many scenes where we really can't tell who is who because they're all wearing bulky spacesuits.
A film like this one can only end in one of two ways. Either the tough guy beats back the menace, or he dies, too. Seeing that the current trend in horror films is one of sophomoric bleakness, I wasn't hedging my bets.

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