Review: “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

The brutality of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” has little to do with gore and everything to do with atmosphere. While there are scenes of violence (heavily concentrated in the fim’s last act), they pale in comparison to the bare-bones, almost clinical camerawork and matter-of-fact story and acting. What causes the dead to rise, though hinted at, remains uncertain. The only certainty in Romero’s world of the living vs. the undead is that survival depends on pragmatism and brutality. There is no room for sentimentality or nostalgia; those who waste time on either are goners. Only the drive to survive — by any means necessary — remains.

Romero does not let his camera recoil from this ruthless reality; he takes no mercy on his characters and no mercy on his audience. Tension hovers in the air in “Night of the Living Dead” — the zombie movie that defined the genre — from its opening shot, an unbroken take of a car puttering down a long, winding road toward a rural Pennsylvania cemetery. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) have come to visit their father’s grave, and Johnny can’t resist poking fun at his sister’s fear of cemeteries. (“They’re coming to get you, Barbra” has not aged at all.) Barbra’s fear becomes real when she’s attacked by a ravenous stranger. Johnny dies during the struggle, but Barbra escapes to a farmhouse. There she encounters not only half-eaten bodies but Ben (Duane Jones), who’s run out of fuel and needs shelter. Ben, intent on surviving, barricades them in the house. He refuses to hide in the cellar, and butts heads with another survivor, Harry (Karl Hardman), who wants to stay downstairs with his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). Ben finds an ally in Tom (Keith Wayne) and his girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley), who devise a plan to escape to the shelter in nearby Willard. Their plan, however, goes wrong in ways both unpredictable and tragic.

Don’t get the wrong idea from the word “tragedy,” though — “Night of the Living Dead” is the opposite of melodrama. As the film spirals into the hellish sucker punch that is its final act, the histrionics are kept to a minimum (with the possible exception of O’Dea, whose overwrought hysteria, then catatonia, prove grating). With its grainy black-and-white footage, “Night of the Living Dead” has the gut-churning immediacy of a home movie, a nice touch that amplifies the tension and the horror tremendously. Several close-up shots of the ghouls — they’re never called “zombies” here — grabbing desperately at Ben through gaps in a hastily boarded window are marvelously effective. Also ghoulish is the shot filmed in the burned pick-up truck, with the walking dead frantically eating the corpses smoldering inside. The entire escape attempt sequence, with Ben and Tom making a mad dash to a nearby fuel pump and Judy running after them, is a burst of pure desperation-fueled adrenaline that’s held up remarkably well. Possessing none of the bells and whistles of later efforts like “Dawn of the Dead” or “28 Days Later,” it’s still a nail-biter, and it’s still scary as hell.

It’s the unrelenting bleakness of “Night of the Living Dead,” really, that wins in the end. The film’s last act may be action-packed, but the action does not detract from the conclusion, one final act of violence that somehow tops all others. Twists of fate don’t get any darker than this, or more hopeless. But Romero is not interested in selling hope or providing a tidy ending, so he does neither. (This decision is just one of the many reasons why “Night of the Living Dead” shocked critics and moviegoers alike, and why it holds up more than 40 years later.) Read it however you want — as a criticism of 1960s America, or consumerism, or the horrors of the Vietnam War. The film lends itself to many interpretations; it works on many levels. Not surprisingly, though, the film works best as a plain old horror film — one that doesn’t go in for short-term shrieks or lazy gotcha bits. Romero deals in the kind of elemental scares you can’t shake no matter how much you want to.

Grade: A

Review: “Fido” (2006)

“I’d say I’m a pretty darn good father. My father tried to eat me; I don’t remember trying to eat Timmy.” ~~Bill Robinson

How would 1950s America deal with zombies? How would humankind stave off a zombie apocalypse? Could zombie milkmen ever learn not to throw the milk bottles at doorsteps? Those are questions no self-respecting zombie film ever raised. Canadian director Andrew Currie remedies that with “Fido,” a curious, entertaining mix of ’50s nostalgia and satire, zombie gore and unabashedly morbid humor that sputters to an unfortunate finish.

In Currie’s mad, mad world, space radiation has reanimated the dead, resulting in the Zombie Wars, with humans emerging as the victors. Special burials are created to keep the dead from escaping their coffins. Conglomerate Zomcom has fenced in the remaining zombies, using some — domesticated with electric collars — to work in public service. Owning a zombie has become the ultimate status marker in the small suburb of Willard (a nod to “Night of the Living Dead,” no doubt). Worried about image, Helen Robinson (Carrie-Anne Moss) can’t resist buying a zombie (Billy Connolly) to act as the household’s undead Mr. Belvedere. Her uptight husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is horrified, but the couple’s lonely son Timmy (Kesun Loder) becomes attached to the walking corpse. He names him Fido, teaches him to play catch and even lets Fido off his leash — which leads to a small zombie outbreak Timmy tries unsuccessfully to cover up. This is where the comedy turns especially wicked; the image of a sweet-faced boy burying the severed head of his zombiefied neighbor in a flower bed, for example, is not for those who prefer light-hearted knock-knock jokes. Not to mention the matter of cheerful oddball Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson, underplaying marvelously), Timmy’s neighbor whose interest in his hot-bodied blonde zombie Tammy (Sonja Barrett) takes necrophilia to a whole new level. 

Black comedy aside, Timmy and Fido’s friendship is the real heart of “Fido,” thanks to Connolly’s funny and sometimes stirring performance. The Scottish comedian has no lines, only various grunts, snarls and groans, but his expressive face and good-natured (if gory) protectiveness of the Robinsons are terrific. Also spot-on is Connolly’s stumbling, stiff movements and posture. Still, despite being a literal zombie, Fido’s more affectionate toward Timmy and Helen than Bill, who’s sour-faced and believes emotions should be squashed. (Baker has a peculiar gift for communicating emotional constipation; see 1998’s “Happiness.”) Jonathan Bottoms (Henry Czerny) shares this philosophy and applies it to his work as Zomcom security chief and his family, mostly ignoring his sharp-shooter daughter (Alexia Fast). Much of Willard’s population, in fact, can be divided into people who appreciate the zombies’ humanity (what’s left of it) and those who treat them as chattel. That Currie even touches on this concept — the idea that zombies can relearn normal human behaviors and emotions, or tap into their former selves — is proof he’s not afraid to monkey with tradition. In “Fido,” zombies are not ravenous, emotionless moving targets. They have become the oppressed.

It’s unfortunate that “Fido” can’t quite sustain its early madcap momentum to the end. Or maybe there’s simply no way Currie could extend such a colorful, out-there premise into a 90-minute feature film. Either way, the final act of “Fido” is rather disappointing, though it does give Baker the chance to play action hero for a few frames. The less interesting characters, like the too-broadly-written Mr. Bottoms and the too-mean bullies that torment Timmy, eat up valuable screen time, while the more intriguing crackpots (Mr. Theopolis takes the cake) are left undeveloped. Baker, being the superb character actor that he is, makes the best of Bill, whose traumatic past is merely hinted at. But until its limping conclusion, “Fido” is full of cheek and energy and a few standout performances. Moss makes Helen more than a prototype of the bored ’50s housewife; she finds some earnest loneliness in there that we see mirrored in Timmy. Connolly, though, is the real treat. Who knew a zombie could carry an entire movie? Blame Canada.

Grade: B-

My thought on today

Review: “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

The cheek! The nerve of Zack Snyder, thinking he could remake George Romero’s fine 1978 commentary on consumerism, the very movie that set the standard for the zombie genre! Feel vindicated yet, die-hard Romero fans and zombie purists? Good. Now that the gorilla in the corner’s been pointed out, let’s move on to the more shocking topic: Snyder’s update is not terrible. Actually, 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” is flawed but good — inventive and fast-paced, with enough violence to satisfy gore fiends, some sympathetic characters and nice moments of black humor. Also, there’s a bonafide zombie baby, which is a clear indicator that this remake is zombie flesh of a different pallor.

Snyder, see, is no dummy. He’s aware that Romero’s send-up of shameless consumerism holds less interest for a 21st-century audience, so he’s keen to change things up. He reduces the satire to one line of dialogue and a smattering of brief scenes. With the sly commentary removed, Snyder can focus on the action, the gore and the characters. In addition to upgrading the special effects and the story, the director also upgrades the undead. Snyder’s zombies are dim-witted, but their speed (they can run!) and viciousness renders them more alarming than the lumbering, flesh-craving oafs Romero created. Speed makes the face-chewers in Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” more threatening and predatory; in turn, it makes the humans more vulnerable.

The set-up to this remake has a few things in common with the original: There’s no clear explanation for what’s turning people into zombies; the undead quickly start to outnumber the living; and a group of survivors takes shelter inside a sprawling Milwaukee shopping mall. But “Dawn of the Dead” opens a little differently, introducing the audience to one character, Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse who awakens after her long shift to a world in chaos. After a neighborhood child bites her husband and his reanimated corpse attacks Ana, she has the good sense to grab her car keys, escapes and speeds away. When she crashes her car into a tree, she finds a small group of non-dead humans: Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a cop; Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina); and Michael (Jake Weber), an average guy turned resourceful survivor. They head to the local mall for shelter, where other survivors — including ringleader C.J. (Michael Kelly), a mall cop — are less than thrilled to share their hideout. Stuck in a building swarmed by zombies, Ana and the others slowly adjust to this new normal … until a truck with more survivors shows up, and the contagion threatens to spread inside the group’s stronghold. 

The addition of more survivors, unfortunately, muddies the water. It’s not the smartest move, since more characters mean that some leave little impression, while others are puzzling (like the wannabe stripper) or downright annoying (the dog-obsessed teen orphan, for example). Still, Snyder manages to keep the people we form emotional connections with — Ana, Kenneth, Andre and Michael — central to the story. James Gunn’s adapted screenplay provides a few affecting scenes, such as Ana and Michael’s slow-growing affection for one another and Andre’s fierce determination to protect Luda and his unborn child. Rhames’ friendship with another survivor, Andy (Bruce Bohne), a marksman trapped on the roof of an ammo shop yards away, is a nice touch. The two use binoculars and signs to communicate, devising macabre zombie shooting games and even playing chess. Snyder keeps these moments of human connection brief enough that they don’t hamper the violence, but not so brief that the survivors feel like anonymous zombie chow.

“Dawn of the Dead” gets extra points for first-rate song selection and editing, notably in montages and the credits. The early news footage montage set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” ingeniously enhances the song’s ominous tone, while a blink-and-miss-it scene in an elevator gets a pinch of humor from the “All Out of Love” muzak background. Another montage, soundtracked to Disturbed’s bleakly cheery “Down with the Sickness,” is distinctly unsettling. And the closing credits add a pitch-black finale to the survivors’ tale, shown in flashes of hand-held video camera footage — an intimate and chilling end for this successful update.    

Grade: B+

Review: “Five Easy Pieces” (1970)

Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a gifted pianist, but that’s not his greatest talent. Robert’s true gift is running away. A bright future in piano performance, a well-to-do family of intellectuals, a needy and pregnant girlfriend — he can walk away from any situation at a moment’s notice. He reinvents himself constantly. Robert’s not quite as talented, though, at acting out whatever new part he’s written. The bitterness, the rage and the discontentment that seep out tend to give him away.

Other people are part of this man’s world, of course, but Bob Rafelson’s comprehensive character study “Five Easy Pieces” revolves around the volatile curiosity that is Robert Dupea. Much like the actor who plays him, Robert cannot be pinned down. He is aimless and distant and restless, a man perpetually ill at ease in his own skin. He’s also disgruntled, though the source of his discontentment is murky. What little information the script provides doesn’t make it any easier to diagnosis Robert’s problem, either. He works in a California oil field, spending his off hours with girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress who idolizes Tammy Wynette and Robert in equal measure. Rayette’s hero worship suffocates him, and he treats her with contempt and cheats on her. He also kills time drinking with buddy Elton (Billy Bush). None of this makes him especially happy. Neither do Rayette’s unexpected pregnancy and Elton’s arrest for a convenience store robbery. So when Robert finds out accidentally that his father (William Challee) is ill, he sees his chance to escape … except that a moment of exasperation means Rayette is along for the ride.

An eventual clash of these two worlds — Robert’s listless life with Rayette and his family’s more urbane, pretentious existence — is inevitable. Where Rafelson takes the road less traveled is the result of this collision. He doesn’t present either life as a particularly charmed choice. Robert’s family, a cluster of aggressively cultured types, delights in insufferable dinner guests who name-drop equally insufferable philosophers and belittle the working classes, taking special aim at Rayette. Rayette, on the other hand, is naïve in a way that’s not the least bit charming: She shows up at the Dupea’s Puget Sound mansion when it’s crystal clear Robert doesn’t want her there; she asks for ketchup during a fancy dinner party; she chalks Robert’s hateful tirades and violent behavior up to “moodiness.” Before these two worlds can collide, though, Rafelson foreshadows the tension with the strained, beautifully shot road trip. In this portion of “Five Easy Pieces,” Nicholson outdoes himself. He simmers quietly but dangerously, weathering Rayette’s non-stop singing, her constant need for attention and approval. Robert swallows his annoyance with two bizarre hitchhikers, but some of it spills over in Nicholson’s now-famous “chicken salad sandwich” scene. His contempt for the rude waitress is positively scalding; his sarcasm, withering and razor-sharp. It’s not hard to see why this scene is often touted as the one that made his name — and his career.

“Five Easy Pieces,” though mostly (and undeniably) a vehicle for Nicholson’s talent, also excels visually. Cinematographer László Kovács takes great pains to film the parts of California travel guide photographers shy away from: the barren, featureless landscapes and oil fields; Rayette’s disheveled, nothing-special trailer home; the winding, dusty roads crammed with traffic so thick the exhaust fumes are nearly visible. It’s hardly surprising that Robert, suffocated by the cars, abandons his car in the mess, climbs aboard a truck hauling a piano and starts playing. Music offers a temporary escape, and his childhood home appears, at first, to be a respite as well: lush, verdant, overlooking the magestic Puget Sound. But for Robert, the Dupea home is merely another cage with nicer window dressing. He’s no happier in California than he is in Washington, with Rayette or with Catherine (Susan Anspach), his brother’s fiancée. Ultimately it’s Catherine who points out this terminal unhappiness to Robert, but he’d rather flee the scene than accept the truth. Thus, “Five Easy Pieces” cannot provide a conclusion with any sort of closure because Robert fears closure. He’s on the run from himself, and that’s a race he seems unwilling to give up.

Grade: A

My thought on today

Review: “Blue Valentine” (2010)

“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.” ~~H.L. Mencken

Maybe at first in love imagination does win over intelligence, as Mencken argued. But it’s inevitable that imagination doesn’t get to keep winning. One day unpretty, rational thinking, the bills-and-dead-car-batteries reality, takes over. For the more resilient couples, this is merely the beginning of a new phase of love; in Derek Cianfrance’s vivid, heartbreaking drama “Blue Valentine,” it is the beginning of the end for Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). Their fragile bond, built on the whimsy and giddiness of new love, cannot withstand the shift. And when the whimsy wears off, Dean and Cindy have nowhere to go but down.

With his focus on the whole story, told through flashbacks that blend the beginning, middle and end admirably, Cianfrance sets his film apart from other romantic dramas — or, to be more accurate, romantic melodramas. He does not paint over the ugly parts; nor does he allow “Blue Valentine” to descend into endless shrieking matches. Cianfrance also does not make the sweet moments of Dean and Cindy’s early courtship seem saccharine and larger-than-life. He starts the film when the 30something couple’s marriage is at the point of near-fracture. Dean’s fundamental lack of drive has begun to gnaw at Cindy, a nurse who wants to advance her career. What once seemed spontaneous and charming has become a constant source of frustration for Cindy. Dean, a hard-drinking house painter, can’t understand why just being Cindy’s husband and father to their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), isn’t enough. He doesn’t buy into the concept of potential, so he doesn’t think he’s squandering his. Still, Dean has a good heart, and in an 11th-hour bid to rekindle some of the old spark he books a hotel room. But too much booze and too many exposed nerves turn the evening gut-wrenchingly sour.

Interspersed in these tense scenes are the early days of Cindy and Dean’s relationship, from their chance meeting at a nursing home — where Cindy is visiting her grandmother (Jen Jones) and Dean is moving furniture — and sweet first date to Cindy’s unexpected pregnancy and Dean’s clash with her volatile ex-boyfriend Dean (Mike Vogel). The flashbacks are rich in small but rich character details that Williams and Gosling underplay to great effect. Cindy’s interactions with her bullish father (John Doman) might explain her hunger for male attention and her attachment to Dean, the antithesis of violent-tempered men like her father. Dean’s attempt to woo Cindy — using a ukelele and a warbled love song — speaks to his tendency toward courtly love. He is a romantic at heart, an unrepentant one; there’s the suggestion that he sort of fancies himself the Prince Charming to Cindy’s distressed damsel. Nowhere does “Blue Valentine” capture this more beautifully than during Cindy and Dean’s impromptu courthouse wedding. They are caught thick in the haze of romance, wanting to rush forward, be reckless for the grand and heart-swelling cause of love. Underneath that love, though, there’s a tinge of desperation, the kind of subtle but vital emotion that only actors as compelling as Williams and Gosling could pull off.

To get to the gut level of this splintering relationship, Cianfrance relies on the intimacy of 16mm film and the dingy buildings in Brooklyn and Pennsylvania. His true gift is making these locales change as Cindy and Dean’s relationship changes: at the start, these shop fronts and weedy concrete sidewalks seem inviting, whisper of promise. But near the end, they feel cool, dank and unwelcoming (the barroom hotel room lighting accomplishes this aim stunningly well). Remarkable as well are the gradual and sometimes painfully realistic changes Williams and Gosling give to their characters. The physical changes (both gained 15 pounds to play their 30-year-old selves) look authentic; what’s really incredible, however, is the way these actors adapt their characters. Both Williams and Gosling understand the power of body language and facial expressions. They are able to convey all aspects of Dean and Cindy’s life together with brutal clarity: the exciting spark of early romance; the shift to married life and raising a child; and their emotionally bruising final argument, the pressure-overwhelmed hole that causes the dam to break.    

 Grade: A

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