The Living Skeleton (1968) review

This early example of a Japanese kaidan (ghost story) with a contemporary setting begins strong but gradually devolves into stupidity, as the scenario figuratively rips itself to shreds with a series of increasingly ridiculous plot twists. In a way, THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen) prefigures the worst aspects of Italian thrillers from subsequent decades, in which gratuitous shocks and surprises overruled logic. The result is too big a mess to be considered good, but it is interesting and occasionally effective. Curiously, the film hailed from Shochiku Eiga, a company more known for respectable dramas than exploitation horror.

Do not expect to see this scene in the movie!
Do not expect to see this scene in the movie!

The first thing you need to know about the story of THE LIVING SKELETON is that it contains no living skeleton (despite a publicity shot of said skeleton menacing a screaming damsel). Call me pedantic, but things like this matter – especially when this glaring omissions serves as a synecdoche for the entire film, which promises much that is never delivered.
THE LIVING SKELETON begins with a prologue in which pirates (including, apparently, members of the crew) kill everyone on board a freighter ship named Dragon King, including a screaming woman begging for mercy from the visibly scarred Tanuma. Three years later, we find Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) living with a Father Akashi (Masumi Okada). Why is a young, attractive, unmarried woman living alone with a Catholic priest? There is some vague lip-service dialogue about this, but it explains nothing – our first hint that something is seriously wrong with the screenplay.
Saeko is the twin sister of Yoriko (also Matsuoka), who was the woman we saw in the prologue – now presumed dead, since no one knows what happened to the freighter. Saeko, however, gets a premonition that her sister is alive; during a storm, she takes a small boat out to see, accompanied by her boyfriend Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa); when the boat overturns, Mcohizuki heads back to shore while Saeko ends up aboard the Dragon King, which has returned like a ghost ship in the fog. (And yes, you read that right: Mochizuki leaves his girlfriend in the ocean, not knowing whether she drowned; he remains pretty much this useless for the rest of the film.)
Saeko sees her dead sister in a cabin, then later shows up on shore, before disappearing again. While Mochizuki and the priest look for her, the former pirates begin dying mysteriously, after glimpsing an apparition of the dead Yoriko – or is it in fact Saeko, possessed by her dead sister?
SPOILERS
To savor the full flavorful range of silliness that is THE LIVING SKELETON, you really need to have the ending spoiled for you. Here goes…
How has Doctor Nishizato survived three years?
How has Doctor Nishizato survived three years aboard a ghost ship?

Eventually, Saeko confesses to Father Akashi, who tosses off a Biblical quotation suggesting she should be merciful. That night, in a genuinely shocking scene, Tanuma strangles Saeko, disrobes her, and hides her body in a suit of armor. It turns out that Father Akashi is actually Tanuma, his scarred face hidden beneath makeup. Tanuma and the remaining members of his gang head out to the Dragon King, where they encounter Doctor Nishizato (Ko Nishimura), Yoriko’s husband, who – despite having been apparently shot ead in the prologue – has been living aboard the Dragon King for the ensuing three years, during which time he has invented very potent acid, which he uses on one of the pirates, melting him down to a soggy mess. Tanuma escapes the doctor but finds Noriko’s corpse holding fast to his ankle.
Saeko shows up (a ghost, presumably, though the script is vague here) and tells Tanuma that Doctor Nishizato had been injecting his own blood into Yorkio’s corpse in an attempt to bring her back to life. (How she knows this is a mystery.) Tanuma tries to escape, but he too falls into a puddle of Nishizato’s acid, which melts him and the floor, eventually eating through the hull of the ship, which starts to sink. Mochizuki arrives to rescue Saeko (one supposes he never noticed her body in the suit of armor), but she apologetically knocks him overboard and goes down with the ship.
Well, that was fun…
END SPOILERS
The Living Skeleton Underwater SkeletonsTHE LIVING SKELETON is loaded with fascinating supernatural elements that are gradually squelched by the narrative nonsense. Saeko’s psychic connection with her murdered sister and the reappearance of the Dragon King set up wonderful anticipation of encroaching revenge from beyond the grave, and the subsequent deaths are cleverly handled in an ambiguous fashion, leaving us to wonder whether it is Yoriko or Saeko who is responsible. However, when Saeko confesses, the story starts to fall apart: she claims to be responsible for murdering four people, but one jumped to his death after seeing her, and another drowned when he became entangled in chains binding several skeletons (presumably of the pirates’ dead victims) under the ocean.
How Saeko is supposed to have affected that death, we are left to determine for ourselves, which renders the “rational” explanation unsatisfactory. Moreover, the murders are generally presaged by omens of the supernatural: bats (of the rubbery flapping genus indigenous to cinema, first encountered on the Dragon King) flap ominously on screen, as if accompanying Saeko/Noriko; and the ghost ship (rendered in moody miniatures not that are not necessarily convincing but are usually somewhat effective) is frequently seen floating through the fog, a harbinger of doom. If Saeko is committing the murders without assistance from her sister’s spirit, these visual motives must be completely coincidental.
Narrative problems multiply with the revelation of Tanuma’s identity. Is this the way a murderous pirate enjoys his ill-gotten gains – three years of celibacy under the same roof with an attractive single woman? The scenario passes up potentially interesting material by playing the deception as a ruse with no clear motivation, instead of suggesting that perhaps Tanuma really was trying to atone for his sins. Also, the possible spiritual conflict between a traditional, vengeful Japanese ghost, and a religion that preaches forgiveness of one’s enemies, is short-circuited when the representative of said religion turns out to be a crook in disguise.
Ghost girl or living corpse? You decide.
Ghost girl or living corpse? You decide.

As frustrating as these problems are, THE LIVING SKELETON truly falls apart with the appearance of Dr. Nishizato, who has somehow survived alone for three years on an unmanned ship that has never been sighted by ghost guard. As if that were not enough, his shipboard office serves quite nicely as a mad scientist’s lab, with enough facilities to create a new acid and make at least some headway toward resurrecting the dead. We also have to assume he propped up Yoriko’s corpse so that Saeko could see it standing in a cabin when she boarded the ship earlier in the film. Why? To inspired Saeko to seek revenge? Who knows?
As if realizing the disappointing nature of this “rational” explanation, THE LIVING SKELETON finally gives us what must be a ghost, when Saeko reappears after her death. Even here, the film stumbles, as Tanuma does not seem particularly perturbed over being confronted by the woman he strangled to death. At least Saeko’s revenge gives the audience some small sense of satisfaction in an otherwise frustrating film.
Visually, THE LIVING SKELETON is impressive. The black-and-white photography captures the seaside atmosphere, creating a cinematic world in which we accept the (apparent) machinations of the supernatural. The first few deaths are handled with nice ambiguity, and the underwater skeletons are reasonably spooky, even if their design (which includes various facial expressions etched into bony skulls) is more bizarre and whimsical than genuinely frightening. The score uses plucked instruments, recorded with lots of reverb, to interesting effect, adding a modern tone to the old-fashioned spook scenes.
Don't expect to find mercy in these eyes.
Don't expect to find mercy in these eyes.

There are occasionally impressive visual flourishes, such as the pleading Yorko’s face reflected in Tanuma’s sunglasses (which has the added benefit of disguising his face, so that we do not recognize him as Father Akashi later). When Yoriko’s corpse grasps Tanuma’s leg, the gesture recaptures a similar moment when she begged for her husband’s life, emphasized by a brief flashback-cut – letting us know his karma has come back to haunt him, literally.
One must give THE LIVING SKELETON some credit for audacity if not good judgment, taking what initially looks like a traditional ghost story and transforming it into horrific exploitation sleaze. Not only do we get a gratuitous night club scene, in which female dancers jiggle, and jiggle, and then jiggle some more; we also get two gruesome acid deaths! The first stage of disintegration is laughably bad (a matte to superimpose the spreading decay on top of the actor’s face), but once the physical effects take over, the visceral impact is surprisingly effective within the context of what initially seemed to be an atmospheric ghost story. Who needs the subtle scares of a vengeful spirit, when you can melt a body down into a big gloppy mess? (Perhaps the film’s title refers to the victims not being quite dead as their flesh starts to melt from their bones?)
Kikko Matsuoka
Kikko Matsuoka

Truly, the best reason to see THE LIVING SKELETON is Kikko Matsuoka in her dual role as Saeko and Yoriko. She conveys an inner sense of tragedy from the beginning that does more than the script to make her eventual doom seem like an integral part of the story; her lovely face invites sympathy even while it is capable of registering in a more sinister light in her Yoriko persona. Unfortunately, the narrative shoves her aside too much, first when the focus shifts to the deaths of the former pirates, and then when Saeko is killed and Nishzato takes over as the film’s locus of horror. Nevertheless, her two deaths scenes (first at the hands of Tanuma, then on the sinking ship) engage our emotions – quite an achievement in a film that otherwise subordinates drama to shock effects.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.

Ultimately, THE LIVING SKELETON is a frustration experience that promises something much finer than it delivers. There is some camp entertainment in watching the filmmakers carelessly toss their ghost story overboard to make room for a mad doctor movie, but you wish they had finished the film they started, and saved the acid bath for another production
THE LIVING SKELETON is one of four horror and/or science fiction films made by Shochiku in 1967 and 1968, along with THE X FROM OUTER SPACE; GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL; and GENOCIDE. All four are available in the Criterion box set Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku. They can also be streamed on Hulu Plus, which has a deal with Criterion for these and several other Japanese ghost stories, such as YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959).
[rating=2]
Ghostly goodness marred by medical malpractice.
The Living Skeleton poster
THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen, 1968). Shochiku Eiga. 81 mins. Unrated. Directed by Hiroshi Matsuno. Written by Kyuzo Kobayashi, Kikuma Shimoizaka. Cast: Kikko Matsuoka, Yasunori Irikawa, masumi Okada, Asao Uchida, Asao Koike.
[serialposts]

Destroy All Monsters (1968) – Kaiju Review

Destroy All Monsters (1968)DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is probably the last well-regarded entry in the original Godzilla series. By this time, all serious threat of the monsters had disappeared; recognizing this, director Ishiro Honda (who had helmed the original GODIZLLA in 1954 and many of the subsequent sequels) opted for a fast-paced action-adventure roller-coaster thrill ride that was seldom scary but always entertaining. Co-scripting with Takeshi Kimura (RODAN), Honda used a slim, familiar story (aliens use monsters as weapons in a war against the Earth) to string together as many effects sequences as possible, creating a memorably colorful confection.
Basically, it’s MONSTER ZERO (a.k.a. INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER) all over again, except this time, instead of just Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah, we also get Mothra, Anguirus, Gorosaurus, Manda,  Kumonga (a.k.a. Spiga, the giant spider), Varan, Baragon and Minya, Godzilla’s son. DESTROY ALL MONSTERS lacks MONSTER ZERO’s slightly more adult storyline and the clever banter between Nick Adams and Akira Takarada, but it delivers much more monster action. True, some of the monsters make little more than cameo appearances, but the big stars get plenty of screen time, and second-stringers Anguirus, Gorosaurus, and Manda get a  few moments to shine as well.
Before DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, the previous two films in the series, GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER and SON OF GODZILLA, had shifted gears, with director Jun Fukada and composer Masuro Sato replacing the Ishiro Honda and composer Akira Ifukube. The results were light-hearted and fun, offering a clear change of pace for the series.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS sees a return to form, with the old director-composer team back in place, with Ifukube offering another example of his impressive monster movie music, by turns ominous, mysterious, and rousing – quite a contrast to Sato’s jazz-pop stylings (which were more suited to something like GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER, which stuck the monsters in the middle of what looked like a spy adventure).
Also notable is the absence of screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, one of the chief architects of transforming Godzilla from villain to hero. It would be going too far to say that his absence signals a more serious approach in DESTROY ALL MONSTER, but the screenplay by Honda and Kimura definitely avoids the juvenile tone of SON OF GODZILLA.
Instead, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is a true movie-movie. It takes itself seriously only in the sense that it does not adopt an attitude of campy condesension towards its monster-filled alien-invasion scenario. The events are presented in a straight-forward way that is an almost perfect realization of any ten-year-old boy’s dream of the most awesome movie adventure ever, loaded with heroic heroes piloting rocket ships to the moon and back while battling an evil race that has turned all of Earth’s monsters loose in one cataclysmic attack.
Honda directs DESTROY ALL MONSTERS with brisk efficiency, using the widescreen image to show off the sets and letting the actors have a ball. A free-for-all shoot out between astronauts and aliens has the heroes waving guns around not in manner designed to actualy hit a target but simply to look good on camera. In a way, this is the apex of ’60s cinema, back when movies like OUR MAN FLYNT were all about having a good time with gadgets and explosions, no matter how unlikely the storyline.
Fortunately, Honda offers more than just monsters and mayhem; there are even a few intriguing moments that border on the subtle. A long interrogation with a human taken over by aliens holds attention because the interrogation subject (Yoshio Tsuchiya) always seems on the verge of breaking his silence – but he never does. Outside on the beach, another human controlled by aliens – this one a woman – walks along a beach in high heels; the sight of those high-fashion stilettos sinking into the sand is almost surreal.
And in one of the most memorable sequences of any giant monster movie, this same alien-controlled woman walks, calm and unconcerned, amidst the panic that erupts when sirens announce an imminent attack on Tokyo. The stark contrast between the mad, rushing crowds and her serence face, indifferent to (or perhaps even eager for) the monsters’ arrival, is a wonderful sight to behold.
Special effects director Sadamasa Arikawa (working under the “supervision” of Japanese effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya) delivers several memorable sequences in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. The initial attacks on Moscow, Paris, and New York go by too fast, but theyleave you wanting more. The aforementioned attack on Tokyo is one of the great sequences of its type, featuring a coordinated assault by four monsters (Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and Manda), with some cleverly timed action (e.g., the serpentine Manda cracks a bridge in the foreground simultaneously with Godzilla’s blasting a building with his radioactive breath).
Of course, Arikawa’s effects are far from convincing, but that becomes part of the charm. By this time, Toho had given up almost any pretense of making you believe in their menagerie of monsters and had developed their own particular aesthetic, in which acrobatic flair and flashy pyrotechnics outweighed believability. Consequently, even if the vision of space travel, rockets, and lunar landscapes in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS looks quaint compared to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY – well, the unreality suits the storyline.

A behind-the-scenes publicity shot on the Mt Fuji set.
A behind-the-scenes publicity shot on the Mt Fuji set of the final battle.

Keeping with this tradition, the final all-out assault of Earth’s monsters against the alien’s ace in the hole, King Ghidorah, is as entertaining a battle as ever put on screen, even though the wires show. The action deliberately defies physics, opting for a World Wrestling aesthetic in which monsters supposedly weighing thousands of tons effortlessly leap, jump, and fly with acrobatic flair; at one point, Gorosaurus even springs high off the ground to deliver a kick to Ghidorah’s back. Also as in wrestling, bodies are slammed, kicked, punched, and pummelled, with little if any real damage ever done – it’s all for show, not effectiveness. And Arikawa cannot resist the urge to anthropomorphize the monsters, as when Minya shields his eyes to avoid seeing King Ghidorah drop Anguirus to the ground (a shot deleted by AIP when the film played in U.S. theatres).
Despite all this, Ishiro Honda and Sadamasa Arikawa combine their talents to create one scene in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS that offers at least an echo of genuine suspense: when the heroes search for the aliens’ hidden lair on Earth, they are interrupted by Godzilla and Anguiras, acting as enormous guard dogs. Unlike many of Toho’s then-current films, which tended to shoot the monsters at eye level, undermining the sense of size, this sequence presents a good combination of camera angles, from the human perspective looking up and from the monster perspective looking down, including some effective composite shots that integrate humans with monsters in the same frame. For a brief moment, you almost remember what it was like to be frightened at the prospect of being crushed by something so huge that it would barely feel you under its toes.
In the end, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is too slim in its storyline, too thin in its characterizations, to be considered a truly great film. It is not as impressive as the original GODZILLA, and it is not as hip as MONSTER ZERO. But for the ten-year-old living inside us all, it is entertainment of the most awesome sort.

TRIVIA

Godzilla on Monster Island
Godzilla on Monster Island

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS introduced the concept of Monster Island (here called “Monster Land” in the English dubbing), an island where all of Earth’s monsters had been gathered and kept locked up for study. Future Godzilla films would use Monster Island as a lazy way to re-introduce the monster without having to worry too much about continuity.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS features the return appearance of Anguirus, the very first monster to fight Godzilla, way back in 1955’s GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (a.k.a. GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER). Basically an oversized dinosaur (an ankylosaurus), Anguirus would go on to appear in GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA in the 1970s. On the basis of these few appearances, Anguirus inexplciably became a favorite among some fans, who eagerly awaited his return when the Godzilla franchise was revived in the 1990s. Anguirus finally reappeared in the “last” Godzilla film, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, a virtual remake of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.
Directors Contrad Vernon and Rob Letterman cited DESTROY ALL MONSTERS as an influence on their 2009 animated film MONSTERS VS. ALIENS: “We watched it three or four times,” says Vernon, who was inspired by the plot involving mangy monsters freed from an island prison by galactic invaders. “We even have our villain, Gallaxhar, use the command, ‘Destroy all monsters.’”
INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) also bears structural similarities to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. The filmmaking team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin would go on to do the 1998 American version of GODZILLA.

DUBBING DIFFERENCES

Unlike most of the Toho giant monster movies, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS reached U.S. shores relatively unchanged, except for being dubbed into English. Ironically, Toho had created an English dub of the film to increase its export value, but the U.S. distributor, American International Pictures, commissioned a new dialogue track, featuring the likes of Hal Linden (television’s BARNEY MILLER).
The AIP dub rewrites some of the lines and provides better voice acting. This version was seen in theatres and on television in the U.S., but it has not been available since the defunct AIP’s distribution rights lapsed. Currently available prints are of the Toho “International” version.

In the Japanese poster, Godzilla is recognizable (unlike the U.S. poster seen at top of page).
In the Japanese poster, Godzilla is recognizable (unlike the U.S. poster seen at top of page).

The dub on the International version of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS features a literal English translation of the Japanese dialogue, which does not always sound natural; the problem is aggravated by the weak vocal performances.
In at least one case, the International version’s audio track is superior. In the AIP dub, there is a lame line when a reporter watching the climactic battle near Mt. Fuji holds up his microphone and says, “I’ll turn up the sound so you can hear the monsters dueling to the death.” The Toho dub offers instead a memorable moment of high-camp comedy: “It’s horrible, ladies and gentlemen – listen to the monsters and their cries of sudden death!” This perhaps intentional echo of the “Oh, the humanity!” account of the Hindenburg disaster is capable of bringing the house down with laughter, should you ever be lucky enough to see DESTORY ALL MONSTERS in a theatre crowded with kaiju fans.
During the early montage of monsters attacking different cities around the globe, the International version offers newscaster voices overs doing very bad accents (Russian, French, etc) – an effect carried over to some extent in the AIP dub. (The original Japanese audio track has the voice-overs speaking in their native languages.)
The above-mentioned montage contains one of the more memorable film flubs in the Godzilla series. France’s Arc de Triomphe was supposed to be toppled by the burrowing monster Baragon (introduced in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD), but problems with the suit necessitated that Gorosaurus get the job instead. The dialogue was never changed, so the monster is erroneously identified as Baragon – a mistake carried over in the written text of the U.S. theatrical trailer.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (Kaiju Soshingeki [“Monster Invasion”], 1968). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Ishiro Honda, Takeshi Kimura. Cast: Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki, Yukiko Kobayashi, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kyoko ai, Andrew Hughes, Chotaro Togin, Yoshifumi Tajima, Kenji Sahara, Hisaya Ito, Yoshio Katsuda.

Portions of this review originally appeared in “Godzilla Invades L.A.” in the December 1996 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Issue 6).

Rosemary's Baby (1968) – Horror Film Review

Writer-director Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel has earned a reputation as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It is easy to understand why: this is a serious effort that gradually and carefully constructs a mounting sense of paranoia that climaxes in a horrible final-scene revelation. The setting and performances are completely credible; even the basic plot line (a woman undergoing a difficult first pregnancy) has an everyday believability that invites audience identification. In short, ROSEMARY’S BABY transcends its genre trappings: viewers are not allowed to sit back and enjoy a pleasant roller-coaster thrill-ride; they are lured into the plot and set them up to be terrified and disturbed by the unfolding events And yet, despite these undeniable strengths, the film is too deliberately paced and ultimately too tame to completely justify the high regard in which it is held. It’s a horror film for people who want to be scared – but not too much.

SUMMARY 

Despite being based on a best-selling novel, Polanski’s film actually seems inspired by THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943), a Val Lewton production about Satanists living in modern New York City. ROSEMARY’S BABY begins with Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse moving into a New York apartment, which was split off from a much larger apartment. The previous tenant died after lapsing into a coma but not before mysteriously moving a huge piece of furniture in front of a closet (which, we learn much later, hides a door leading into the other half of the apartment from which this unit was split off). Rosemary meets Terry Gionoffrio (Victoria Vetri), who lives with Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon) in that very unit; soon thereafter, Terry dies from a fall out the window. The Castevets invite Rosemary and Guy over for dinner; Rosemary has a strange dream in which she imagines being ravished by the Devil, and soon Guy’s acting career is taking off. Strange developments disturb Rosemary; her friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) tries to warn her, but he too lapses into a coma and dies, although not before sending her a book about witches. After reading it, Rosemary becomes convinced that the Castevets are witches who plan to sacrifice her baby in some kind of ceremony.
Rosemary seeks help, but her husband and her doctor are in league with the Castavets. After being sedated, Rosemary wakes up to find her pregnancy terminated; Guy and her doctor insist the baby died, but Rosemary hears crying through the wall. Using the door hidden in the closet, she sneaks into the Castavets apartment and finds that the Castevets — and many others, including a visitor from the east, bearing gifts — are not sacrificing her baby but worshipping it. Rosemary screams when she sees her baby’s eyes, but Roman Castevet tells her the child has his father’s eyes — his father being Satan. Rosemary is shocked to learn that her child is destined to be the anti-Christ, but her maternal instincts take over and she decides to mother the child…

CRITICISM

One of the problems facing ROSEMARY’S BABY today is that we all know the surprise ending, so much of what proceeds it feels like an extended prologue to the brief revelation of horror in the finale scene. What keeps the story somewhat interesting is that it is laid out like a paranoid thriller that, in retrospect, leaves open the question of whether or not anything supernatural really has occurred. Yes, the coven really believe that Rosemary’s baby is the child of Satan, and they convince Rosemary of this, but is there really any reason to believe they are correct?
The film even emphasizes the weakness of the supernatural explanation in a scene wherein Rosemary seeks help from a doctor and babbles out a litany of her suspicions — which sound like crazy ramblings that add up to nothing. To a certain extent, the film plays off the sense that Rosemary’s condition, with all the hormonal changes that go with it, may be leading to mood swings that cause her to succumb to paranoia.
Of course, ultimately her paranoia turns out to be justified — at least to the extent that she is the victim of a conspiracy, but whether or not it is supernatural in nature is not definitively clear. Rosemary dreams of being ravished by the Devil, but that is clearly the result of a chalky-tasting drug slipped into a dessert made by Minnie Castevet; the subsequent problems with Rosemary’s pregnancy, including her child’s appearance, might also be a result of the strange herbal concoctions that Minnie feeds her for ninth months. A couple people die while in comas, and another loses his sight (so that Guy can take his place in an important acting role), but those could be mere coincidences, caused by natural causes; or (recalling Minnie’s herbal remedies) they might even have been the result of some kind of poison.
The film’s two highlights are Rosemary’s dream sequence and the ending. The former is a marvelous piece of surrealism in the manner of the best of Luis Bunuel: dissolves linking disjointed scenes on a yacht with tracking shots of religious imagery, segueing into presumably “real” scenes of Rosemary being tied down by the Castavets’ coven so that Guy can mount her — only close-ups of Guy’s hands and eyes give way to briefly glimpsed scaly claws and burning red orbs.
And the final scene carries a wonderfully twisted sense of triumphant evil that is genuinely disturbing. The crib shrouded in black, with an upside-down cross dangling from it, is a memorable image, and not actually showing the title character is a brilliant stroke of subtlety that allows the audience to conjure its own mental images (the only hint we’re given is a brief flashback to the red eyes that Rosemary saw in her dream earlier).
There is a certain touch of black humor in the proceedings that underlines the horror (as in the Biblical account of the birth of Christ, there is a magi-type character bringing gifts from the east). Whether or not Rosemary’s Baby is in fact the anti-Christ who will sow death and destruction, the exuberant joy of the coven is terrifying, and it is tragic to see Rosemary becoming one of them, at least to the extent of agreeing to raise the child.
In the end, ROSEMARY’S BABY still works because it takes a character in an identifiable and relatable situation (going through pregnancy and all the concerns that entails) and magnifies it to horrific proportions. The realistic situation lends the film a sense of credibility lacking in most horror stories, which is maintained by presenting the supernatural interpretation in an ambiguous way.

TRIVIA

Although ROSEMARY’S BABY is adapted from a novel, its story bears striking similarities to Roman Polanski’s other films:

  • As in DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES (or THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS), there is a group of characters representing evil (in this case witches rather than vampires) who are far more highly organized and effective than the hapless protagonists.
  • As in REPULSION, the film deals with a young blond woman living in an apartment who gradually succumbs to paranoid fears of persecution; the difference of course is that Rosemary’s fears turn out to be at least somewhat justified.Polanski’s subsequent films THE TENANT and THE PIANIST also deal with characters hiding out in apartments, hiding from persecution by some outside group. Again, the only distinction is how justified each character’s sense of persecution is. From least justified to most justified, they should be ranked: REPULSION, THE TENANT, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE PIANIST.

This was the first Hollywood film directed by Polanski, who had made a name for himself in Europe with such films as KNIFE IN THE WATER, CUL-DE-SAC, REPULSION, and DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES.
The film’s producer, William Castle, purchased the rights to the Ira Levin novel with the intention of directing the film himself, but Paramount Pictures balked, insisting the Polanski direct instead. Castle had directed several entertaining horror films (such as THE TINGLER and THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, both with Vincent Price), but his style was campy and gimmick-laden — the antithesis of the serious approach employed by Polanski.
When Rosemary meets Terry Gionoffrio, she apologizes for staring, explaining that she mistook Terry for an actress named Victoria Vetri. In fact, Terry is played by an actress named Victoria Vetri  – although at this point in her career, Vetri was credited under the stage name Angela Dorian. Reportedly, Polanski asked her why she was using the name of a sunken ship – referring to the ill-fated Andrea Doria, which collided with another vessel and sank on July 25, 1956. Under her real name, Vetri (who was also a Playboy Playmate of the Year) later appeared in WHEN DINOSAURS RULES THE EARTH and INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (written by Nicolas Myers) before her career faded out.
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968). Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Polanski, based on the novel by Ira Levin. Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Charles Gordon, Victoria Vetri.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) – A Nostalgia Review

Campy poster art for DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE

“Ah! The good old time – the good old time. Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea. […T]ell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea, young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing.”

– Joseph Conrad, “Youth: A Narrative.

Yes, the glories of a youth are a treasure trove of riches that shine on like dusky jewels buried in the pirate chest of one’s memory. For me, however, that “good old time” of Youth and Glamor had nothing to do with the sea. My dark ocean was the cinema screen; my luxury liner was the local theatre; my ticket was still a ticket, but my ports of call ranged from when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, to the Dawn of Man, to Beyond the Infinite. Unlike “the sea that gives nothing,” the vast timeless ocean that I explored – of past, present, and future – gave me everything: amazing adventure and enchanting excitement, fear and fantasy, and most of all – that grandeur of awe that first evokes a Sense of Wonder. I may have resided in a small, unexceptional suburb a half-hour east of Hollywood, but thanks to movies – particularly cinefantastique – my mind soared through the stars: I never felt earthbound, trapped, limited; infinite vistas always lay before me, for little more than a quarter.
Recollecting these hours upon hours spent gazing up at the flickering images on the silver screen, the verbal temptation is to joke about my “misspent” youth, but I cannot deem it so. So much of our identity – so much of our very selves – is derived from our memories. So much of who we are is expressed in our dreams. For me, memories and dreams merge in the movie houses of my youth, and in retrospect I cherish every moment – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Perhaps strangely, I do not harbor a particular fascination for the films of the ’60s and ’70s, except in so far as I relate to them personally. I do not think the films of my youth represent the apex of cinema, nor do I wax nostalgic for the good old days. Many of my favorite movies come from earlier eras; just as many, perhaps more, arrived in the ’80s, ’90s, and on into the present day. Yet there is some kind of magic about the classics of yesteryear.
For me, “classics” always referred to films made before I was old enough to book passage: the Universal films of the ’30s, the Hammer horrors of the ’50s. However, as my luxury cinema liner continues to carry me to new and ever more modern and exotic ports – places of enchantment, mystery, and horror – I realize that many of my past journeys were to places that, although new at the time, have since become cherished by subsequent generations, who regard with reverential awe what I now take for granted.
This concept rammed me like an unexpected iceberg during a cybersurfing trip to Horror Movie a Day, where Brian Collins lamented in this post:

My biggest regret as a human being is that I wasn’t born in 1959 or so. I would have loved to have been a kid in the 70s, getting to experience pretty much all of my favorite horror films when they were first released, instead of 10-20 years later, after many of them had their impact blunted by ripoffs (and now remakes).

Perhaps it was just a cosmic coincidence, but I prefer to think of it as an omen that Brian named my year of birth. Hence, I am launching this semi-regular feature, a sort of travelogue of my past cinematic voyages, from the depths of darkness to the shores of space. Casting my mind back over the many far-off lands I visited from the comfort of my first-class passenger seat in the local movie house, I recall that my very first solo voyage (that is, sans parents) was to a double bill of Hammer horror, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1968).

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is the third Hammer horror film to feature Christopher Lee as the Count, although I did not know that at the time. I had seen the last few minutes of REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN on television, so I had a glimpse of Hammer’s horror output even though I was ignorant of their history. Thanks to movies like FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1958), I knew that low-budget filmmakers would sometimes cash in on a famous character name, creating pseudo-sequels to the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s (which I had seen on late-night television with my parents). I assumed that DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED were examples of this strategy; I had no idea they were genuine sequels to the earlier Hammer films, HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957).
I cannot remember exactly when this double bill reached the El Monte Theatre, but it was at least a year or two after films were produced. The advertisement in the local papers listed the titles along with their ratings: G for DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, GP for FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. Since the GP rating replaced the old M-rating in January of 1970, it is safe I enjoyed this experience sometime before my eleventh birthday (which took place in December).
My siblings and I importuned our parents to take us to the film; they had taken us to other mature movies (including the M-rated BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID), but for some reason they decided not to attend these horror movies, leaving us off at the theatre for the very first time. The ratings system had only been around for a couple years, and there were then (as now) concerns about too much violence on screen. Uncertain about the new GP rating (which had replaced the M for Mature Audiences), my dad asked the girl behind the ticket window whether these movies were “okay for kids,” and she assured him they were.
Back then, tickets for kids cost fifty cents. We got some money to buy popcorn and sodas, too. Then we took our seats; the lights went down; the screen opened; and the film began. It is safe to say I have never been the same since…
I’m not sure what we were expecting. We had seen horror movies on television, but they were usually old black-and-white films that relied on atmosphere and suggestion. Even then, we knew that films on TV were often cut (we would hear our parents complaining about scenes missing from films they had seen in theatres), and we knew that the rating system had been invented to deal with the increasing amount of on-screen bloodshed. Ther very fact that we were sitting in a movie theatre, about to watch a horror film, meant we might be seeing something we had never seen before – maybe even (thanks to the confusion fo the ratings system) something that we were not meant to see…
DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE begins with big bold titles that give a sort of psychedelic impression of exploding corpuscles. I didn’t know anything about directors and screenwriters then, but I think I had read Bram Stoker’s novel and recognized his name on screen (the credit reads something along the lines of “based on the character created by…”). There followed a brief prologue, with a bell-ringer seeing blood dripping down the rope he is pulling. This leads him to investigate the church tower above – and the youthful audience in my local theatre screamed in fright as a woman’s body flopped upside down from its hiding place, stuffed inside the bell.
This was the first of many frights that day, but in general I did not find DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE to be particularly terrifying. I had always had a fondness for the Count and his vampire brethren, based on my fondness for bats. Although this version of Dracula (personified by Christopher Lee) did not turn into a flapping rubber vampire bat, the association in my mind was still strong, and the Count’s long black cloak was enough like bat-wings to suggest the similarity. I liked Dracula, and even though I knew he had to die, I didn’t particularly want to see him go. In a way, I was rooting for him, not frightened by him.
No, the enjoyment I got from this vampire film was more along the lines of excitement. Although I could not articulate it at the time, I must have sensed that this was a glossy well-made film, filled with atmosphere and action. I might have said it was “fun.” Today, the word I would use is “enthralling.” Certainly, my siblings and I – along with the rest of the young viewers – were as much under Dracula’s spell as any on-screen victim.
But to continue…
One year later, Msgr. Muller (Rupert Davies) finds the locals in Klausenberg still living in fear of the departed Dracula, so he and the local priest (Ewan Hooper) head up to the castle to read a rite of exorcism. The Count makes his first appearance after the local priest lags behind, falls and cuts his head, his blood seeping through the broken ice to revive the vampire. The sight of the bloody lips savoring the rejuvenating fluid elicited a loud communal “EWWWWWWW!” from my fellow theatre-goers.
Dracula turns the priest into a slave and sets out to avenge himself against the Msgr. Muller for putting the cross on his castle. Vampire and assistant head to Muller’s home town in a carraige; the slightly speeded-up footage of the Count furiously whpping the horses, his face twisted in demonic anger, drew gasps of excited approval from the crowd in the movie house. (We didn’t wonder where the horses had come from. Had they survived in Dracula’s stable for a year without anyone to look after them, or were they stolen – like the coffin the priest digs out of the ground so that Dracula will have a resting place in the far-off city?)
Muller’s niece Maria (Veronica Carlson) is in love with Paul (Barry Andrews), but Muller disapproves because Paul is an atheist. Dracula claims Zena (Barbara Ewing) as his first female victim but soon sets his sights on Maria. Muller tries to protect her, but the local priest wounds him fatally. Paul takes over, but being an atheist he refuses to pray after driving a stake through Dracula’s heart.

The vampire (Christopher Lee) is staked but manages to survive

This scene, with its over the top gore, was a highlight of that long-ago afternoon. Kids gagged in horror as the stake went in; they gagged louder when the blood started to spurt; and they really started to scream when the camera cut in for a closer look. Best of all was the big surprise: we had thought this was the end of the movie, but the vampire managed to pull the stake out of his chest and survive! If Dracula is to be portrayed as a fearsome foe, then he should not be easily killed off, and Paul’s horrible moment of realization – that he was now face to face with a vampire who was holding the stake in his hand like a spear, ready to hoist the would-be vampire slayer on his own petard – was worth the price of admission.
Dracula absconds with Maria and heads back to his castle, ordering her to toss the offending cross over the battlements. Paul pursues, and a struggle ensues. Dracula ends up falling over the battlements and impaled on the giant cross, while the local priest, the vampire’s spell broken, says the necessary prayer to ensure that the vampire will die. It is the major, enduring miracle of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE that, after the aborted staking scene, the film actually manages to top itself with the even more spectacular “crucifiction” finale. With the cross wedged in from behind, there was no way that Dracula was going to reach around and pull it out, and the screams of horror in the theatre echoed louder than ever before, amplified by the sight of the vampire weeping blood. The echoes started to fade only when the credits rolled, superimposed over a wide-shot of the empty cross, with Castle Dracula in the background, the Count’s body apparently having disintegrated off-screen.
I cannot recall the exact conversation after the lights went up, but it is safe to say we were stunned – and not in a bad way. There was a sense that we had perhaps transgressed in some sense – seeing more than our parents might have wished us to see, despite the imprimatur of the MPAA’s G-rating. Yet we knew we had seen something good. It might or might not give us nightmares (I never had any), but this was the kind of film that you told people about, relating the juicy details to your jealous friends who had not been so fortunate as you to see the movie.
I have to admit that I was not totally pleased with DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. I had dressed up as Dracula for Halloween, and to my young eyes, the pasty vampire makeup on Christopher Lee looked no better than the chalk-white that had been applied to my own face. (Looking back, I realize that the idea was to make Lee’s Dracula appear older in this film, to create a visual contrast with the young ingenues.) I was also disappointed that we never saw the inside of Castle Dracula – the exterior promised so much, but just when the Count was about to take his new bride home and set up house, Paul came along and ruined everything!
Having been raised in the Catholic Church, I totally got the religious subtext of the film, the Battle between Good and Evil. I knew Dracula was alligned with the Devil, and it was up to the Church to send him back to Hell. Of course, the script plays around with this a bit, but Barry Andrews (as Paul) is so clearly a decent person – a scholar who makes a point of giving an honest answer instead of an easy lie – that you know he is on the side of the angels even if he does not believe in them. (It was not until years later, when I became a fan of the Who, that someone pointed out Andrews’ resemblance to vocalist Roger Daltrey.)
Also magnificent was Count Dracula’s reluctant Renfield – a priest who becomes the vampire’s slave because of his own human weakness. This seemed to suggest that, whatever the ideals of the Church, it took a man with some courage to live up to it, and that courage was not always found within those who professed to believe those ideals. Not profound by adult standards perhaps, but it added something extra to the movie.
I’m sure I was too young to fully appreciate Barbara Ewing and Veronica Carlson, but I was not blind to the suggestive costumes that the former wore in her barmaid role, and I could not help noticing that the film contrived to open Carlson’s blouse for one or two scenes. Both women were obviously pretty, but Carlson in particular was gorgeous; she really is forever embedded in my mind as the ideal of the vampire’s victim – buxom, blond, and beautiful.

The innkeeper (Michae Ripper) and Paul (Barry Andrews) console Maria (Veronica Carlson) after a close encounter with Dracula.

The sexual undertones of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE were also quite oblivious to me and (I imagine) the rest of the audience, who were all about my age. When Maria has to get a drunken Paul into bed, it only struck me as a little embarrassing for her when she had to bring herself to undress him. It never occurred to me that the cutaway, after Paul awakens and embraces her, indicated that they had had sex. Likewise, Dracula’s embrace of both women registered as bloodlust, not lust. It was food he was after, not sex, and I’m sure we all assumed that the heaving bosoms on display were simply an attempt to lure in older teenage viewers, in the same way the Raquel Welch’s presence in ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. would sell tickets to people who didn’t like dinosaurs.
In retrospect, I realize that Dracula’s visit to Maria’s bedroom was probably the first sex scene I ever witnessed on screen. Sure, it was disguised as blood-drinking, but it was still about the exchange of bodily fluids between a man and a woman. Of course, this had always been latent in the vampire mythology, but DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE pushed the envelope quite a bit. It was not just that Veronica Carlson was gorgeous and profoundly sexually attractive; it was that she was the Good Girl, the innocent blond, yet she welcomed Dracula almost as enthusiastically as the barmaid. As a child, I assumed the Count put a hypnotic spell on his victims, the mise-en-scene suggests something else, a sort of willing seduction to which Maria succumbs without much if any struggle. The implications are bizarrre to say the least: Do women – even the pure and innocent – yearn for overpowering strangers to ravish them in their bedrooms? No doubt it is just as well that this element sailed right past me, because I doubt my ten-year-old mind could have processed it. It would take some heavy-duty psychoanalysis to determine whether that first viewing had a lasting effect on me, but I do know that the scene still stirs up some dark waters; beneath the rippling waves are distorted glimpses of domination-submission, sado-masochism, and even necrophilia. If only my parents had known, when they bought our tickets and left us off like passengers boarding a ship, to what strange destination this dark voyage would take their children!
Looking back, I am also amazed at the way DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE conveyed more than it showed. Although the impact is somewhat muted decades later, there is a nice moment when Dracula’s attitude shifts from seductive to lethal toward Zena. All we see is the change of Chirstopher Lee’s expression; his hands grip Barbara Ewing’s shoulder’s tightly; she screams, and a red filter descends over the image as the scene fades. We know the Count is going to drain her dry, without having to see it happen…
This is followed by perhaps the grizzliest sequence, in which the Count orders the priest to dispose of Zena before she can be reborn as a vampire. Again, we do not actually see what happens, just the image of the priest carrying her body toward the furnace. The dancing red firelight, reflecting off the actor’s sweating brow, conveys what is going to happen in a way that was perfectly revolting to my ten-year-old mind – probably the most genuinely frightening scene for me at the time.
I would go to many more horror movies at the local theatre, sometimes with my mom and/or dad, sometimes with my brother and sister, and later alone. This was a good time for horror films, at least in quantity if not quality, with new titles arriving on marquees on almost a weekly basis. Unfortunately, this was also a time when wretchedly awful movies (which today would be consigned to video oblivion) played on the big screen, and thanks to the relatively recent ratings system, censorship was deader than a crucified vampire, allowing exploitation filmmakers to push the limits of a GP (later PG) rating with blood-and-gore, revealing costumes, and even occasional flashes of nudity. I enjoyed many of these, but few had the same impact as DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE – which set the standard for all the followed.
The film provided the yardstick that has stayed with me the rest of my life. I have always known, despite howls of outrage from concerned moral guardians, that horror films can be violent and sexy without harming the minds of young viewers. Furthermore, based on this film, I always sensed in some intuitive way that even the most horrific subject matter could be entertaining and fun – a truly cathartic, satisfying experience. Other films with the same amount of gore – or even less – might merely disgust with their shoddy cinematic technique, but DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE proved that a little craftsmanship and – dare I say it? – artistry could transform disreputable material into a kind of art.
I did not know it then, but this was the beginning of a life-long love for Hammer horror. Eventually, I would discover the earlier, even better films (made before the company began recycling all their hits), but DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE continues to hold a special place in my heart. Thanks to broadcast television, cable, revival screenings, and DVD, I have seen DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE many, many times over the years, but I would not trade that first experience for anything.
Of course, I experienced a one-two punch on that day, Count Dracula sharing the screen with his fellow titan of terror, the Baron, who appeared in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. Unlike DRACULAS HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, the Frankenstein film did terrify me, but I will leave that experience to form the next chapter in this travelogue…

ADULT PERSPECTIVE

So, that is what DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE meant to me as a child, and later as a teenager when I saw the film again on television (usually with the close-up of the stake through the chest deleted).  How do I view the film now, as an adult? Is it pure nostalgia value, or does this trip to Transylvania still have sights worth seeing through more mature eyes?
Having now seen all the Hammer Dracula’s many times over, I can fairly say that DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is a slight step down from the HORROR OF DRACULA and the almost (but not quite) as good DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Some of the freshness has gone out of the franchise, and screenwriter Anthony Hinds (using his “John Elder” pseudonym) seems not to know what to do with the Count, so instead he concocts a love story about two other characters and uses Dracula as a plot complication. Fortunately, the production values and Gothic atmosphere remain as lush as ever, and former cinematographer Freddie Francis does a spectacular job in the director’s chair, milking every scene for maximum visual impact, emphasizing not only the Gothic horror but also the romance. He puts the camera in close during Dracula ravishment of Maria, creating a seductive intimacy that goes even a little bit beyond what director Terence Fisher had focused on in HORROR OF DRACULA and DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS.

The Count lavishes his attention on Maria (Veronica Carlson).

As often happened in the Hammer Dracula series, the Count seems motivated by petty revenge, which he executes mostly through his assistants (in this case the priest and Zena). The real focus of the story is on Paul and Maria, whose love is thwarted by Paul’s atheistic beliefs (and on his insistence on expressing them to Maria’s Catholic uncle!). The only connecting link between this pair and Dracula is Maria’s uncle. As a result, the story seems a bit arbitrary and stitched together, without the strong, usually action-packed narrative line displayed in the best of Hammer’s classic horrors.
Nevertheless, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE contains several interesting ironies, with the weak-willed local priest falling under the vampire’s spell, while the non-believer Paul is Dracula’s chief adversary. Not unexpectedly, Paul becomes a believer by the end, after seeing the power of the cross destroy the Count. Clearly, writer Anthony Hinds was trying to exploit the religious subtext of the Dracula myth. Even the title rings a note reminiscent of the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament, and surely it is no accident that Dracula is almost literally crucified at the end — in one of the most spectacular demises ever suffered by the vampire, who weeps tears of blood as he expires.

Unfortunately, the portrayal of Count Dracula as an Antichrist figure is mostly symbolic. Absent from the script is any action that shows him devoted to the grandeur of evil; he behaves like a run-of-the-mill, garden variety vampire, leaving it up to Christopher Lee to imply the character’s stature as the “Prince of Darkness” in his performance. This he accomplishes to a great degree with little more than body language and screen presence, although he is aided by a few masterfully lit and composed shots that emphasize the brooding stillness of the Count as he lurks in shadows, awaiting his next victim. In a matter of a few seconds, these images convey a tiny glimpse of what immortality must be like for the vampire.

In a masterfully composed and lit shot, Dracula waits and broods in his subterranean lair.

Also heavily emphasized in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE are the sexual undertones inherent in vampire mythology. Count Dracula’s first female victim is a dark-haired woman of easy virtue who had tried to seduce Paul. Yet the blond and apparently innocent Maria turns out to be not that different from Zena: not only does she sleep with Paul (even though they are not married); she also overtly responds to Dracula’s advances when he sneaks into her bedroom. Francis puts his camera in close, heightening the tension and the eroticism, which is much more seductive than that seen in HORROR OF DRACULA (which more resembled a rape). Here, the vampire lover gently nuzzles Maria’s neck first, as if sensitizing her skin for the bite to come. And Christopher Lee eschews his trademark red contact lenses for the close-ups of his eyes, implying that it is not blood lust that is so much motivating the Count.

As in many good horror films, the simplicity of the story does stir up some interesting imagery that resonates on a deeper, mythic (sometimes even subconscious) level. The trek by Dracula and Maria back to the castle features the woman clinging to his coffin as if yearning for a lover. Later, she follows through the woods, the camera tilting down to her bare feet, emphasizing her indifference to her own pain as she follows her new vampire lord and master. Then, in a quick ironic shift, we dissolve to the Count carrying her up the rocky terrain toward his castle, looking for all the world like a bridegroom carrying his beloved to the threshold.
Although G-rated, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE hardly seems tame. There is no actual nudity, but both Barbar Ewing and Veronica Carlson display their ample charms, either in corsets of low-cut dresses. And the gore is plenty effective, too, particularly during the failed staking of the vampire. Although some purists (including Lee himself) have objected to this scene, it works wonderfully and gives some hint as to how the Vampire King could have survived for centuries – destroying him with a wooden stake just is not as easy as it looks. The final “crucifiction” scene does not feature as much flowing blood, but it is just as grizzly, with the pont of the cross producting from Dracula’s chest. Francis serves up a variety of camera angles, giving ample screen time for Lee to register the Count’s helpless agony on an almost operatic level of melodrama.

The Count (probably Christopher Lee's stunt double Eddie Powell)  is crucified - impaled on a crucifix.

The cast is strong. Christopher Lee, as always, makes Count Dracula a formidable figure, both frightening and alluring; even if the script does not serve him well, he makes the most of his scenes, indelibly impressing himself on the audience imagination with all the force of an archetype that needs no distinguishing details.
Rupert Davies does a good job as his chief religious opposition, and Ewan Cooper creates a wonderfully weak portrait of the priest who falls under the vampire’s spell. Stalwart character actor Michael Ripper lends amiable support, and Barbara Ewing makes a good first victim, perfectly registering sexual attraction to the Count and then jealousy when he turns his attention elsewhere. Barry Andrews has the right charm and charisma to pull of the young male lead role, and Carlson is absolutely gorgeous – the perfect embodiment of “Dracula’s most beautiful victim” (as she was called in some of the film’s promotional materials).
James Bernard provides another rousing score, reusing his famous three-note Dracula motif (the orchestra almost seems to be singing “DRA-cu-la!”). And Bernard Robinson’s sets are wonderful as always (although it is disappointing that we never see the interior of Castle Dracula). If only the script had been able to meld is religious and sexual motifs into a stronger narrative that did full justice to the Dracula character, then DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE could have taken its place alongside HORROR OF DRACULA as genre masterpiece. As it stands, this is an above-average sequel that lingers in the mind thanks to its memorable imagery and directorial flair.

TRIVIA

DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965), the previous film in the series, had ended with the Count sinking beneath the icy waters around his castle. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was trying to pick up directly from where its predecessor left off by showing the vampire revived from beneath the ice. However, the script fudges continuity a bit: We are told that Dracula killed the woman found in the bell-tower in the prologue – an even that took place one year before the main action of the film. Since Dracula had been dead during the ten years of screen time that separate HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) from DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the bell-tower even must have taken place sometime during the later film; however, the Count certainly did not seem to have time for this diversion during the frantic back-and-forth action of PRINCE OF DARKNESS.
This is the first Hammer Dracula that presents “Count Dracula” as a household name familiar to all the characters: When Msgr. Muller announces that the vampire is alive, his sister-in-law gasps in horror, obviously knowing who – and what – he is talking about, without any further explanation. This has the unfortunate side-effect of reducing the tone to the level of an old-fashioned, melodramatic horror movie, abandoning the more modern approach of Hammer’s previous Dracula films, which had avoided such histrionics.
This is the first time that Christopher Lee speaks as Dracula since the opening scenes of HORROR OF DRACULA. The character remained mute throughout the later portions of that film and throughout the entirety of the sequel, DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Curiously, Lee abandons the fast-paced, authoritative voice he used in HORROR OF DRACULA, here opting for a slower-paced, sepulchral tone.
This is the first of Lee’s Hammer Dracula films in which we do not see the interior of Dracula’s castle. This will happen again in the next film TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, as well as the later DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA. Only SCARS OF DRACULA will show us Lee at home in his castle once again.
Terence Fisher, who had helmed Hammer’s three previous “Dracula” films (including BRIDES OF DRACULA, in which the Count does not appear), was scheduled to direct DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, but he injured in a car accident while crossing the street and had to drop out of the project. Although his replacement, Freddie Francis, brought a refreshing visual style to the film, loaded with nifty camera angles and atmospheric staging, it seems likely the Fisher would have hammered out the screenplay’s narrative kinks if he had had the chance.

DVD DETAILS

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is available in a bare-bones DVD presentation from Warner Brothers. The disc offers English and French audio tracks with optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The only bonus features is a theatrical trailer. The transfer mattes the full-frame image to the 1.85 aspect ratio of theatrical screenings, and the picture has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. The transfer displays all the artful color of the photography (including Freddie Francis trademark use of a custom-made filter that shades off lighting toward the edge of the frame, creating a “spotlight” effect toward the center). In fact, the use of color recalls some of the best work scene in the Gothic films that Italian Mario Bava (another cinematographer-turned-director) was making during the same decade.

Beautiful, atmospheric colors in the DVD transfer recall the best work of Mario Bava.

There is a nice piece of cover art on the front. The back features a close-up of Lee in his Dracula makeup. The inside cover lists the 23 chapter stops, which are printed over a gruesome color shot of Lee with blood streaming out his chest from the stake in his heart. Artwork on the disc features an image of Lee’s face lowering toward Carlson, who rests her head on a pillow – a composition later echoed during the infamous “head” scene in REANIMATOR (1985).

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968). Directed by Freddie Francis. Screenplay by John Elder (Anthony Hinds), based on the character created by Bram Stoker. Cast: Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies, Veronica Carlson, Barbara Ewing, Barry Andrews, Ewan Hooper, Michael Ripper.

Danger: Diabolik (1968) – DVD Review

DANGER: DIABOLIK is one of the best films from the late Italian director Mario Bava. Although Bava was best known for his work in the horror genre (traditional Gothic exercises like BLACK SUNDAY, contemporary thrillers like BLOOD AND BLACK LACE ), he also directed many other types of films, including this slightly campy James Bond-style thriller with science fiction overtones. Like Gary Grant in TO CATCH A THIEF, John Phillip Law (THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD) cuts a striking and charismatic figure as the titular character, a master thief who always manages to outwit the law, in the form of Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli, who earns our sympathy if only because he tries so hard and fails so often). In the tradition of master criminals from Fantomas to Dr. Phibes, Diabolik uses a variety of high-tech gadgets and low-tech cunning to pull off his heists: in one amusing moment, he takes a Polaroid photograph of a room and props it up in front of the security camera, so that the guards watching the monitor see only the image of the empty room while Diabolik is ransacking the place.
Of course, we’re supposed to root for Diabolik because he’s good-looking and cool, also because he has a passionate relationship with his girlfriend, Eva Kant (Marisa Mell), and it’s clear that the robberies are done not for the money but for the excitement and titillation. (In one of the most memorable sequences, the police wonder what he is doing with all the stolen loot, and the film cuts to Diabolik and his lady love on a huge circular bed, buried in thousands of dollars of cash as they make love.)
Produced by Dino DeLaurentiis, the film is quite lavish by Bava standards, although modest compared to Hollywood productions. Bava was an expert at using available locations and old-fashioned camera tricks (he was a cinematographer before turning to directing) to create impressive-looking settings for his films. The art direction is a 1960s vision of futurism – cool, graceful, and sleek.


Unlike the source material (the comic book is reportedly much more sinister), the overall tone of the film is amusing: it is meant to be a slick adventure, a la James Bond (a fact underlined by the presence of THUNDERBALL’s Adolph Celli in the cast), but most of all it is fun – a romp that should not be taken too seriously. Among other absurdities, Diabolik heists a 20-ton block of gold the size of a minibus. (Of course, 20 tons of gold would actually be a much smaller size, due to the metal’s great density.)
Law and Mell are great in the leads. In a film like this, there is no depth to the characterizations; the style calls for a broad kind of performance, which both deliver – especially Law, who relies on exaggerated body language when his face is obscured by Diabolik’s signature mask. They also have a wonderful on-screen chemistry that makes us like the characters in spite of the criminal ways. This isn’t just James Bond-style eroticism; there really is a delirious romanticism at work that makes the movie fly with joy, instead of just sitting there and looking pretty like a gilded artifact from another generation.
It’s unfortunate that MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, during its final season, missed the joke and tried to use this film as an object of ridicule. The film itself is already slyly nudging its audience to enjoy the over-the-top antics with a smile on their face; there was no need for the MST3K crowd to try to add their own jokes.
The film’s ending sees Diabolik at last hoist upon his own petard, but a final fadeout wink to the audience seems to promise a sequel. Alas, none was ever made.

DVD DETAILS

The DVD features an English-language Dolby Digital mono track. Bonus features include an audio commentary from John Phillip Law and Bava-expert Tim Lucas (editor of Video Watchdog); a short documentary; a teaser trailer; a theatrical trailer; and a music video.
The documentary “From Fumetti to Film” consists mostly of an interview with comic book artist Stephen R. Bissette (best known for his work on SWAMP THING), who discusses his admiration for DANGER: DIABOLIK. He denies the “camp” label that some critics applied to the film in the wake of the BATMAN television series and points out that the tone is playful, rather than mocking of the subject matter. He also rightly points out the ways in which director Mario Bava visually translated the feel of the comic book form in a way that worked on screen – to much better effect than was achieved in other comic books adaptations from the era, such as BATMAN or BARBARELLA (the later of which also featured John Phillip Law).
Adam Hauch of the Beastie Boys also shows up to discuss the group’s “Body Movin'” music video, which uses extensive clips from DANGER: DIABOLIK. Unlike Bissette, he does think DIABOLIK is “campy,” though he is quick to add “not in a bad way.”
There are also brief snippets of interviews with producer Dino DeLaurentiis, composer Ennio Morricone, and star John Phillip Law (who describes adding mascara to his eyebrows before meeting with Bava, in order to make himself look like the comic book character). Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford) shows up to talk about how DIABOLIK influence his film CQ, which is set in the world of Italian film-making back in the 1960s.
Overall, “Fumetti to Film” is a pleasant tribute to and appreciation of DANGER: DIABOLIK, but you won’t learn much about the making of the film. Mario Bava has been dead since 1980, but his son Lamberto (who worked as an assistant on the film) is still around. It’s too bad there is no input from him, describing the behind-the-scenes story of the making of this little masterpiece. (NOTE: “fumetti” is the Italian term for comic books; the word literally means “puff of smoke.”)
The “Body Movin'” video is included as a bonus feature, so that we can see what Adam Yauch was talking about in the “Fumetti” documentary. It’s modestly amusing but not nearly as much fun as the group’s “Sabotage.” Still, there is one worthwhile insight. You can watch the video with or without audio commentary from Yauch, who points out something that neither John Phillip Law nor Tim Lucas note in the commentary for the film itself: the numerous Jaguars (the favored car of Diabolik and his girlfriend Eva) seen in a long-shot in Diabolik’s lair. This certainly explains how Diabolik manages to continue driving one of the cars – even after we have seen one dive over a cliff.
The trailers, made for the film’s American release by Paramount, are not particularly good: the “teaser” trailer is actually just a shorter version of the “theatrical” trailer; both give away too much, including the ending! It is interesting to note that the narration is read by Telly Savalas, who would later work with Bava in LISA AND THE DEVIL.
As with almost any special edition DVD, the most eagerly anticipated bonus feature is the audio commentary; unfortunately, this one is a slight disappointment. Even with both Law and Lucas offering their insights, the commentary track often runs dry, and we are left simply sitting through the film again. Law tells some interesting stories about working with Bava and with co-star Marisa Mell, and Lucas provides lots of behind-the-scenes information. But even so, the result is often frustrating, raising as many questions as are answered.
For example, we learn that producer Dino DeLaurentiis put up $3-million to make the film, of which Bava used only $400,000. DeLaurentiis was eager to use the leftover money to make a sequel, but Bava declined. He was unhappy with the experience of making an expensive movie, because he did not like the interference from his producer (who wanted to tone down the title character’s villainy in the hope of turning him into an international icon that might launch a successful franchise). That certainly explains why Bava never made a sequel, but one is left wondering why DeLaurentiis did not proceed without him. Also, Lucas tells us that there are two English-language dubs of the film, but he barely discusses the differences or even notes that the many of the voice actors assume English accents, as if the story were meant to be set in Britain (despite the fact that Diabolik is stealing dollars, not pounds).
Even so, Bava fans will find much to enjoy here. DANGER: DIABOLIK is worth owning on DVD just for the film itself. The bonus features may not be as wonderful as one might want, but they do add considerable icing to the cake.

John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell enjoy the fruits of Diabolik's criminal activities.

DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968). Directed by Mario Bava. Screenplay by Bava, Adriano Baracco, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates, and Arduino Maiuri, from the comic book character by Angela & Luciana Giussani; based on the comic book by Angela & Luciana Giussani. Cast: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celli, Claudio Gora.

Texas Frightmare Weekend: "Night of the Living Dead" 40th Anniversary Screening

40th Anniversary Screening of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Photo copyright 2008 by Drew Fitzpatrick)Grapevine, Texas is one of numerous communities that surround the gargantuan Dallas/Ft Worth International Airport. They exist in a symbiotic relationship; the airport brings thousands of short-stay passengers into the area each day, and the communities provide hotels, restaurants, and a preponderance of the writ-large shopping experience that one would expect from Texas. While there isn’t much in the way of specific character to the area (a trait that large airports rarely inspire), sometimes people bring their own – and that’s precisely what happened at the Texas Frightmare Weekend. The large scale horror convention is a relatively recent phenomenon, gaining steadily in popularity in larger cities on the East and West coast for the last few decades. And while in terms of size and attendance, the TFW is still the little brother to the Chiller and Fangoria cons – it’s also free of many of their pitfalls.
The TFW kicked off in earnest on Thursday, Feb 21st with a 40th anniversary screening of a film that, for many people, represents ground zero for the modern horror film – NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Presented in conjunction with AFI Dallasat the Inwood theater; the TFW gathered much of the original cast together, including Judith O’Dea (Barbara), Russ Streiner (Johnny), Bill Hinzman, (1st graveyard zombie), George Kosana (the Sheriff, whose line “They’re dead, there…all messed up” ignited a deafening audience reaction), Kyra Schon (Karen), co-writer John Russo, and, of course, George A Romero. Amazingly, Marilyn Eastman (Helen), unable to attend the screening after injuring her ribs in a bad fall, actually made the rest of the convention from a wheelchair!
The Inwood has been part of the Landmark Theaters chain since 1988, and along with sister theater, the Magnolia, provide Dallas with an enviable art-house experience. Though the strip mall that houses it will set few hearts aflutter, once under the gleaming marquee you feel like whoever runs the joint is there for the same reason you are. Remaining non-believers (and sober correspondents) should be set right by the Inwood Lounge located in the theater lobby. Why more theaters don’t follow this example is puzzling – any seat that isn’t spinning is a good one.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been brining in American pop-culture for 4 decades; few horror film have soaked up as much allegorical encumbrance, and fewer still are able to bear up under the scrutiny. Romero has never said that the casting of African-American Duane Jones was anything other than a case of ‘right man, right part’, but color blind casting was a rare bird in 1968, and even popular stars like Sidney Poitier rarely found roles where he was free from embodying the noble suffering of his race at every turn. After all, a black actor in a leading role in a motion picture had to mean something, right? And what of the zombies themselves? What dark aspect of our society does the lurching army of the undead represent? The redneck zombie-hunting parties? (well, that one isn’t too hard…)
NIGHT was made in 1968, unquestionably one of the more turbulent years in our history. With an unpopular war raging abroad, assassinations taking the lives of popular, progressive leaders, and rampant student protests tearing up both college campuses and city streets – could it really be called just a horror film? Thankfully, there is no single answer; NIGHT is teeming with political meaning – all you have to do is lightly scratch the surface. One could argue that the ultimate fate of Duane Jones’ character speaks far more eloquently on the (then) current state of race relations than other, more meaningful films (GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, long considered the ne plus ultra of late ’60s liberal film-making, now plays painfully stilted).
But most importantly, NIGHT is still a gangbusters horror film. The B&W cinematography perfectly captures the textures of a nightmare – compare this to the dreamy, albeit rambling tone of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, a film we have yet to remain awake through a complete run of (current record – 40min!). And unlike the vast majority of films in the genre, the acting is uniformly good. Low budget horror films are much like life rafts in a storm; all it takes is for one performer – lead or supporting – whose reach exceeds their grasp and everyone goes into the drink. Duane Jones (whose CV prior to NIGHT is non-existent) in particular provides immeasurable gravitas to a film that rarely stops to provide its characters with back story or motivation.
The 40th Anniversary print that is currently making the rounds looks little better than one of Romero’s re-animated corpses; many fans of the film are still surprised to learn that NIGHT was indeed shot on 35mm film. After the Walter Reade Organization filed to copyright the film (an error which likely cost them far more in revenue over the years than Romero) it fell into the public domain. Since the dawn of the home video age in the early 80s, bargain bins around the world have been filled with inferior copies of the film, as there was no need to pay royalties. It wasn’t until 1995, when Elite Entertainment undertook a painstaking restoration of the film for a laserdisc release, that an acceptable edition of the film made it into the hands of the public – and what they produced was nothing short of a revelation. Nearly 3 decades of neglect was wiped away, allowing fans who hadn’t even been born in 1968 the chance to see the film as originally intended.
This restoration, however, was of the video master only; restoring a 35mm print is another (considerably more expensive) matter entirely. The contrast of the AFI print was poor, and much fine detail has been lost to time. The soundtrack pops and sizzles like a burning breakfast, and there are enough frame dropouts to constitute a second feature – and none of it mattered one blessed bit. While some films have trouble surviving a sub-par presentation, NIGHT almost seems to thrive on it; the flickering, unstable image plays like an extended newsreel clip of some narrowly avoided apocalyptic event. Romero’s future installments to his zombie oeuvre were far slicker (and in the case of 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, arguably better) but none pack NIGHT’s raw, rough punch. The only demonstrable glitch was the in the projection: NIGHT was photographed in the Academy Ratio of 1.37 and has been correctly presented ‘flat’ (without letterboxing bars) on all home video releases. For some reason, the projectionist chose to frame the film for 1.85 and cut off significant portions of the top and bottom of the screen. I didn’t hear anyone else mention it, but anyone familiar with the film must have noticed the cramped compositions forced onto it. Romero, who has probably seen the film plenty of times, left before the screening began – but it was strange (and embarrassing) for this to happen under the auspices of the AFI.
George Romero answers questions at the screening (photo copyright 2008 by Drew Fitzpatrick)Romero and his cast took the stage for a Q&A that was rather surprisingly hosted by fellow Frightmare guest Malcolm McDowell (McDowell was certainly game, but it was obvious that he had never seen the film before and was fulfilling pre-arranged convention duties). They discussed their company’s humble beginnings in Pittsburgh, the initial hostile reaction to the film – and a story I’ve not heard before: while driving to NYC with Russ Streiner to meet with the Walter Reade people, the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination broke on the radio. Romero sheepishly confessed that now they might “really have something” with the casting of Jones. It was a great evening, and a wonderful kickoff to the weekend.
[serialposts]

Night of the Living Dead (1968) – A Retrospective


With George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD, the latest installment in his “Living Dead” franchise, opening in exclusive engagements around the country this Friday, we offer this retrospective of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the film that started it all.
Director-cinematographer-editor (and co-writer) George Romero set a new standard for horror with this low-budget opus, which launched a trilogy later continued with DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD.
The limited budget actually enhances the effectiveness, as the limited locations and cast create a sense of claustrophobic dread in the face of the living dead onslaught. The symbolic impact of the home under assault from outside is immense, and the disintegration of the group within adds immeasurably to the tension. The black-and-white images convey the horror in stark detail; the camera work and editing and perfectly suited to the subject matter. It’s hard to imagine how this film could be improved on with bigger production values and/or color photography (a fact born out by the competent but uninspired remake in 1990). There’s something intense and unrelenting about this film, which deliberately violates taboos and expectations, leaving the audience with no comfort level. A cynical, downer ending perfectly caps off this long, moody masterpiece. Guaranteed to give you the creeps.

Despite sequels, remakes, and rip-offs that would seem to have run the idea into the ground, the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD holds up quite well today—in some ways, even better than when it was originally released. The marauding ghouls remain as frightening as ever, thanks to black-and-white photography that retains its atmospheric impact. Equally impressive, repeated viewings reveal the effectiveness of the internal conflict between the human characters, as they argue endlessly about how to face the menace, instead of coordinating their efforts to confront the common enemy. What’s interesting in retrospect is the way the film invites you into identifying with Ben because he seems to be the traditionally heroic man of action, while subtly undermining his heroic status. He’s at least as belligerent as Harry Cooper, whom we’re obviously supposed to dislike; and although we assume that Ben is taking his position because it’s the right one, it could just as easily be that he likes getting his way and doesn’t want to hear what anyone else has to say. And of course, despite all his protestations to the contrary, after all his attempts to secure the house and escape have resulted in the deaths of the other characters, Ben finally does what Harry advocated all along: he locks himself into the cellar.

RETROSPECTIVE

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD grew out of George Romero’s desire to make a commercial feature film. The young Brooklyn-born filmmaker had served his apprenticeship working in a news editing room before forming Latent Image, a Pittsburgh-based company that made industrial films. For the company’s first shot at a theatrical release, Romero and his partners opted for a horror script, taking the germ of an idea from I AM LEGEND, a modern-day vampire novel by Richard Matheson, in which a plague of the undead overwhelms human society.
“Our overriding goal was to produce something that would get enough of a release to earn back our investment and, if things went unexpectedly well, possibly even return a profit,” Romero explains. “With that in mind, we set out to make a horror flick that pushed the envelope and didn’t flinch by cutting away when things got too juicy.”
Romero’s script “grew out of a short story I had written, which was basically a rip-off of the Richard Matheson novel,” Romero recalls. “In the book and the [previous] films, the very first scene presents us with the last living human being already alone in a world of vampires. That’s Matheson’s jumping off point for what is basically a siege story. I used zombies instead of vampires; I always thought that zombies were a sort of blue collar, working class monsters that might show up in anybody’s backyard. I also felt that, rather than opening with a fait accompli, it might be more interesting to observe the world during its collapse, to watch the disintegration of the old guard as its downfall is brought about. I ripped off the siege and the central idea, which I thought was so powerful—that this particular plague involved the entire planet.”
Romero and producers Russell W. Streiner and Karl Hardman, along with seven other partners, began production with only $6,000. “Ten of us put in $600 a piece and started to shoot,” the director explains. “Gradually, we were able to raise money from investors around town. We wound up spending $70,000 in cash and owing $44,0000 in deferments, but we paid that off.”

The horde of ghouls surrounding the isolated house

Despite the low budget, Romero managed to get an impressive amount of camera coverage: the film is filled with interesting wide-angle setups, and the action scenes feature very effective editing of numerous angles that convey the sense of being overwhelmed by the marauding ghouls. Romero credits this to the single, old Arriflex camera he used to film the scenes and dialogue.
“When we were shooting dialogue, the camera was housed in a blimp, a gizmo designed to dampen the sound of the camera, which was as loud as a Sherman tank,” Romero jokes. “The blimp weighed as much as a human and was roughly the size of a Volkswagen. This largely explains why the dialogue sequences are so static. When the camera was out of the blimp, it was a twelve-pound wonder. It could be held one-handed, with your thumb on a red ‘Shoot’ button—only slightly more cumbersome than today’s camcorders. The only thing about it was the film load, but you didn’t have to load 440-foot reels; you could load 100-footers and feel as free as the breeze. I was able to shoot only MOS [without sound] sequences handheld; that’s why they look like newsreels. I was able to shoot non-dialogue action sequences the same way; that’s why I was able to make so many shots. I always used to say that I’d rather have 100 bad shots than ten that are beautiful. You can edit 100 shots in a million different configurations, until you come up with something that’s close to what you intended. A single shot, no matter how perfect, leaves you no options.”
The result is a film that conveys the immediacy of a documentary newsreel. “In those days, the news came to us in black-and-white,” Romero recalls. “Our images look like newsreel images mainly because they were pretty much unlit. We were working with a package of 650- and 1000-watt lights—no soft lights, no scrims. I did what I could trying to make the starkness seem deliberate, stealing what I could remember from Welles’ OTHELLO and MACBETH. Only backhanded credit, if any, is deserved—the sort of credit awarded to a cat burglar. The images that most resemble reality were shot in daylight—most notably, the scenes of a posse arriving with their dogs to scour the countryside.”


Looking back on his successful efforts to squeeze quality out of limited resources, Romero seems to consider himself unworthy of the praise that his debut film has earned.” “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was born of backhanded strokes, made speedily and in most cases out of desperation,” he states. “When I made the film, I wasn’t an auteur in command; I was a student, an apprentice, learning every day. I had read my share of Poe. I collected EC Comics, and I’m old enough to have seen FRANKENSTEIN [1931] and DRACULA [1931] on the big screen—when they were re-released. I saw THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD [1951] in its first run, also on the big screen. I was a fan but not a scholar. I had a gut feeling for what worked and what didn’t work. I stole what worked, for me, and used it, in some cases shot for shot, wherever I could.”
As for the artistic level—and it’s hard not to see some kind of message in the film—Romero states, “We weren’t actually trying to use NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a forum for our socio-political leanings. They simply crept in through the back door. Perhaps there is some back-handed credit due for not shrinking from our views, for letting them show.”

VIDEO & DVD DETAILS

The public domain status of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has led to numerous atrocities perpetrated on what should be treated as a classic of horror cinema. There was a computer-colorized version released on video. There is supposed to be an edited cut in circulation, although this is probably only a myth. But perhaps the greatest atrocity was perpetrated by John Russo himself, who released a so-called “30th Anniversary Edition” on video and DVD in 1999. This version deletes 15 minutes of the original and adds news scenes and an original score.
The preferred disc is Elite Entertainment’s “Millennium Edition” DVD; in fact, its images are clearer and sharper than the theatrical prints were when the film was originally released, so the film’s impact is that much greater. Released in 2002, is the disc contains two informative audio commentaries from the director, cast, and crew, which were available on their previous 1997 DVD, and adds several more extras, including an interview with the late Duane Jones. And you don’t want to miss the short spoof “Night of the Living Bread”!

Johnny comes back from the dead

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Directed by George Romero. Written by John Russo and George Romero. Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon.
[serialposts]

Witchfinder General (1968) – A Retrospective

Director Michael Reeves’ historical horror film features Vincent Price in one of the most grim and serious of his many performances, as Matthew Hopkins, a real-life figure who earned the title “Witchfinder General” for his efforts during the Cromwell era. Reeves threw out historical accuracy and turned the plot into a revenge story that is all the more powerful for not condoning vengeance. Despite a misleading title (THE CONQUEROR WORM) grafted on for American distribution, WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a mini-masterpiece of the horror genre—albeit a much more grim and realistic kind of horror than that seen in most films of the era—and the film stands up well when seen today at revival screenings or on television and home video.

Read below the fold for an in-depth retrospective on the film. Read More