For the first time ever, Cinefantastique has made a movie: CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD, co-produced with Mindset Films. As you might guess from the title, the new documentary chronicles the making of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). New interviews with filmmakers Russ Streiner and John Russo combine with vintage clips of George A. Romero provide a lively look back at the seminal film that unleashed the zombie apocalypse genre on an unsuspecting public.
Even if you think you know everything there is to know about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, you may be surprised at how much fun there is to be had watching CHRONICLES OF THE DEAD. If you don’t believe us, just check out the two embedded clips.
Russ Streiner discusses filming the Washington footage in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) in this clip from CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD, co-produced by Mindset Films and Cinefantastique.
CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD is available in the September Horror Block from Nerd Block. Each monthly horror block contains 4-6 frightening collectibles and a t-shirt – a $60 for a $19.99/month subscription.
Brilliant, funny short film, showing the zombie apocalypse from the perspective of felines.
This year marks The Batman’s 75th anniversary. Most of you will be aware the Batman character first appeared in Detective Comics Number 27, the May 1939 issue. As comic books then and now tend to be dated three months in advance, it probably hit the newsstands about mid-February or March of that year. The cover depicted The Batman swinging across the rooftops carrying a criminal in a decidedly dangerous looking headlock as his stunned accomplices looked on.
The character looked different in the early days: darker, sinister — more bat-like, with exaggerated ears and a stiff winged cape. He was the product of a young cartoonist from the Bronx named Bob Kane (Robert Kahn), who created the masked avenger with the help of Bill Finger.
Kane had been doing gag cartoons and a Terry and the Pirates inspired adventure feature for Detective and Adventure Comics when one of the editors (usually identified as Vin Sullivan) asked him if thought he could come up with a costumed hero. DC was interested in duplicating the success they were having with Superman. When told he might make as much as $700 dollars a month by doing so, Bob Kane became very interested. It was a Friday, and Kane said he’d have one ready Monday morning. He was not going to miss out on an opportunity like this.
Kane already had a vague idea of what he wanted to do. The editor had suggested the idea after seeing some Flash Gordon sketches Kane had done to hone his talents, which were more naturally inclined to cartooning rather then realistic figure drawing. The Hawkmen character in the Flash Gordon strip had captured Kane’s imagination, and he first thought of the new character as another concept of a winged man. After toying with the idea of calling the character Birdman, Kane recounted in later years that he went through his old notebooks and verified that in his famous ornithopter sketches, Leonardo DaVinci had intended the wings be shaped like a bat’s. The Bat-Man – now that sounded dramatic.
Kane originally depicted the new hero as wearing bright red leotard, a Zorro-like black mask, and mechanical batwings that he would use to swoop down upon criminals. He contacted his friend Milton ‘Bill’ Finger, part-time shoe salesman and an avid pulp magazine reader who Kane had hired as a ghost writer to help plot and write his Rusty and His Pals stories for Adventure Comics. Finger suggested Kane replace the cumbersome mechanical wings with a bat-winged cape, like the villain in the movie The Bat Whispers. He also urged him to make the tights a more somber gray, and to make the mask a cowl that covered the head. The eyes would be left blank like Lee Falk’s Phantom to give The Batman an extra touch of mystery. Kane agreed with Finger’s ideas, and added long pointed ears and a long-nosed mask that suggested the features of a bat. They added a belt that could carry gas vials and other equipment, as well as gloves, so that he would leave no identifying fingerprints.
Despite some misgivings about his sinister appearance, DC decided to try out the character. Some there had originally thought Superman was too outlandish to succeed, but he’d been a tremendous hit. Perhaps lighting would strike twice. So Bob Kane and Bill Finger went to work. As noted, Finger was pulp fan, and the then-inexperienced writer based the first story; The Case of the Chemical Syndicate on a Shadow novel, Partners in Peril (written by Theodore Tinsley under the Maxwell Grant house name).
Elements of pulp Zorro, the Shadow, and the Spider influenced The Batman, as did the origin of the pulp hero The Bat (likely written by Johnston McCulley, creator of Zorro). Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip would also have an influence as the series progressed.
Bruce Wayne’s name supposedly came from the Scots hero Robert the Bruce and Revolutionary War general Mad Anthony Wayne — but it also sounds a lot like Bob Kane! For Batman was Kane’s alter ego of sorts, a mysterious, romantic figure who was rich and athletic, virtuous yet not bound by laws or convention. He would be a hero made superhuman not by powers beyond those of mortal men, but by an incredible will and unceasing effort. He was the flip side of Superman, the dark contrast to his bright colors, not quite as unique perhaps, but all the more compelling because he was just within the bounds of possibility.
RADIO AND FILM
It seems odd that Batman never had a radio show of his own. He did appear on The Adventures of Superman, but not until 1945. On March 1st of that year, Superman rescued a boy adrift in a rowboat who proved to be Robin, the boy wonder. He tracked down and rescued the missing Batman, forming an enduring partnership. Batman and Robin became recurring characters on the show, largely so that Bud Collyer could take time off from playing Superman. Robin was always portrayed by Ronald Liss, but the part of Batman would be played by a number of actors, including Stacy Harris, Matt Crowely (the majority of appearances), and Garry Merrill. Superman radio announcer and character actor Jackson Beck (voice of Bluto in many Popeye cartoons) would play Alfred when needed, using a cockney accent to humorous effect.
An odd conceit of the radio series is that Bruce Wayne seemed to live in an upscale suburb of Metropolis, rather than a distant city. At first, Superman knows the true identities of Batman and Robin, but they don’t know his. When Clark Kent has to approach Bruce Wayne for Batman’s help, Wayne is hostile and suspicious, and Kent reluctantly reveals his Superman identity. It’s not clear if Robin is entrusted with the secret at that time.
What many people don’t know is that Batman had been suggested as a radio show before then. A script was written for a pilot Batman program entitled The Case of the Drowning Seal, and an audition disk was made in 1943. This was a wartime script ; the villains were Nazi agents and the destroyed towns of Lidice and Coventry are pointedly mentioned. It’s been a number of years since I read the material, but it was a rather different idea of Batman.
To differentiate Bruce Wayne from the Batman, the masked hero spoke with a British accent. The character’s costume was described as being simply a “horned” black mask and bat-like cape. Apparently( from the context of the script) this simply was worn over Bruce Wayne’s street clothes, and Batman seemed not to bother with gloves, since he identifies one of the Nazi agents previously encountered in darkness because he has oil on his face — the same black oil that the Batman got on his fist when he socked one of the villains on the jaw. Not too worried about the secret identity, it seems. This was perhaps because the Batman was something along the lines of a secret agent, known to the U.S. government.
This lack of concern about secrecy is also shown by the fact that Bruce Wayne is also dealing with the orphaned son of Bruce’s friends the Graysons, undercover FBI agents who have been murdered by the spies. The boy is named Robin Grayson, not Dick — which kind of makes the team of Batman and Robin a bit too obvious even for the most dim-witted of criminals. Radio historian Jack French informed me that Scott Douglas portrayed Batman in this version. The actor had also played the pulp and comic book character The Black Hood in a 1943 series on the Mutual Network, which carried Superman as well.
Batman may have struck out on Radio but he had leapt from the comic book pages and onto the silver screen with greater success. 1943 also saw the release of the Columbia serial BATMAN.
It was 15 chapters of low-budget slam-bang thrills, directed by Lambert Hillyer; primarily an action specialist who also directed atmospheric horror thrillers such as Dracula’s Daughter and The Invisible Ray. Batman was played by Lewis Wilson. (Crime fighting must run in the family, because his son Michael Wilson now produces the James Bond films). Robin was portrayed by juvenile actor Douglas Croft, who also appeared in a number of “A” features, most notably playing the young George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The part of Alfred the butler was played by William Austin, who was tall and slim, and wore a mustache –- quite the opposite of the comic book Alfred who was at that time depicted as short, chubby and clean-shaven.
None of the other comic book regulars appeared in the serial. There’s no Commissioner Gordon, instead the Batman enjoys teasing Captain Arnold (Charles C. Wilson, This Gun For Hire). Phased-out comic book girlfriend socialite-turned actress Julie Madison is replaced by medical secretary Linda Page, played by Shirley Patterson — who would later change her screen name to Shawn Smith and appear in 50’s faves such as The Land Unknown and It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
The serial must have impressed Bob Kane, who permanently changed the appearance of the Alfred character to resemble the actor. Linda Page (now a nurse) was introduced in the new Batman newspaper strip, and Captain Arnold would also make a few appearances. Other long-lasting adaptations included the Bat’s Cave of the movie, which became the Batcave, along with the idea of entering it through a grandfather clock, which the serial writers had cribbed from Zorro. It’s interesting to note that like the radio pilot, Bruce Wayne/Batman’s identity seems to be known to the government, and he is willing to undertake missions for them. (Likely this was a case of the film serial inspiring the radio series.)
There is no Batmobile, with the crimefighters getting around in Bruce Wayne’s sleek black Cadillac convertible. Alfred often serves as wheelman, and nervously dons disguises when needed to aid the caped crime-fighters.
The serial is a lot of fun, and rather well done by the standards of Columbia chapterplays. Actually, BATMAN was produced outside the studio by Rudolph Flothow (Ramar of The Jungle TV series) for Larry Darmour Productions, who handled Columbia’s serials and a number of their ‘series films’, such as Ellery Queen, Lone Wolf and Crime Doctor at the time — acting as an essentially independent B-Unit with their own off-lot soundstage facilities. When needed, they could rent the Columbia Ranch or the Warner Brother’s backlot.
BATMAN has a nice visual look to it for the budget, using fluid camera work and creative lighting by Director of Photography James S. Brown Jr. (Strangler of the Swamp 1946.). The villainous Dr. Daka’s (J. Caroll Naish House of Frankenstein) laboratory features a nice array of equipment, including Frankenstein electrical apparatus rented from Kenneth Strickfadden. With this, he can create human ‘zombies’; mind-controlled slaves to further his campaigns of sabotage and subversion. There’s also a nifty radium-powered ray pistol (which would show up years later in 1960’s Cape Canaveral Monsters), though it’s quickly captured by Batman and rendered moot, though the bad guys continue to hunt for radium to buld a larger version. Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless, Charles Middleton gets a rare good-guy role as a prospector friend of Bruce Wayne.
Lee Zahler provides a effective, if strident score, basing his main themes on darker motifs from Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, and likely other classic influences.
However, despite the positive things in its favor, there are some puzzling editing errors — such as keeping in a portion of a fight scene wherein Batman looses his cape, only have it back on following a cut-away to Alfred waiting in the car below. Logically, the place to put the edit would have been at the point where the hero begins to have cape trouble, rather than continuing to show the fighting sans cloak. A letter to Bruce Wayne from the government asking him to look into a aircaft plant is shown with a Los Angeles address, although the film is indeed set in Gotham City. The recent DVD release seems to have added an editing slip-up or two, possibly attempts at covering for missing or damaged footage. (Several of the chapters show damage or wear that has not been restored, digitally or otherwise. There’s a least one collector’s 16mm print that has a better copy of Chapter One.)
The film has run into trouble in recent decades due to its blatant wartime anti-Japanese fervor, but it’s still interesting viewing, and J. Carroll Naish’s gleefully depraved faux-Japanese Prince/Dr. Daka is a delight for fans of hammy screen villainy. At one time the only commercially available version of the serial had been redubbed to remove the many racial slurs, with announcer Gary Owens (Laugh-In) redoing the original narration by sportscaster Knox Manning. The Sony/Columbia DVD release restores the original, warts and all.
In 1949, after the success of their Superman serial, Columbia released BATMAN AND ROBIN (also as New Adventures of Batman and Robin) . This 15-chapter serial is not nearly as good as the ’43 version and is a poor successor to 48’s Superman, though director Spencer Gordon Bennett directed both. Much of the chapterplay’s failure is likely due to the low budget producer Sam Katzman allowed. Columbia would give serial producers a flat rate, how much of that wound up onscreen is another matter. The film seems rushed and haphazard, and its lead actors worn out by the frantic pace.
Actor Robert Lowery (The Mummy’s Ghost) was reportedly (in accounts by co-star Duncan) not too thrilled to be playing the tights-wearing comic book character. Johnny Duncan, who was in his twenties (and looked it) when he portrayed Robin the Boy Wonder, also related that he had to secretly help Lowery lace up a girdle in order to fit in his leotard. The eyes in the cowled mask were too small and didn’t line up well for Lowery; you can see him adjust the cowl several times onscreen. The ‘bat-ears/devil’s horns’ were floppy, leading Lowery to stuff them with cotton. Batman’s gloves give out early in the serial, and heavy work gloves are substituted –not matching the much darker finned gauntlets.
Robin wears a dark colored cape, possibly influenced by the green cape the character sported on the cover of Batman #1 (or not, it’s anybody’s guess). Lowery and Duncan gamely did their best to enliven the proceedings, and there are a few good moments, but the results are still pretty dire from today’s standpoint.
One pathetically amusing bit is that Batman and Robin usually drive around in Bruce Wayne’s gray `49 Mercury convertible, which is noted and draws a barbed on-screen comment by the comic book’s press photographer Vicki Vale, played by Jane Adams (House of Dracula). “Does Bruce Wayne know you’re driving his car?” This and other obvious tip-offs only make her mildly suspicious of her nominal boyfriend’s dual identity. Perhaps she was distracted by her never before seen brother Jimmy Vale (George Offerman, Jr.), a pilot with feet of clay who gets mixed up with the villains.
Hollywood veteran Lyle Talbot introduced the part of Commissioner Gordon to the screen, and a partially disassembled television set in his office was used as a “high-tech” electronic Bat Signal that could miraculously project out the window a bat insignia onto the clouds… in broad daylight.
In later years, Bob Kane reported visiting the production, when he asked to see the Batmobile (apparently in the script), had the convertible pointed out to him. His heart sank; apparently the producer had made a deal with the auto manufacturer, and they supplied the car for free — several times. John Duncan said the cars were used roughly by the actors and stunt men, and the local Ford dealer would just give them a new (or repaired) one to use when they broke down.
Showing the rushed and seemingly lackadaisical nature of the film, despite there being a Batcave set, Batman and Robin are shown at least once getting into the car in Bruce Wayne’s driveway. No Wayne Manor, the place looks like a junior exec’s nicely appointed but unpretentious suburban home, complete with neighbors walking by on the sidewalk. Instead, the wheel-chair bound inventor suspect gets the mansion.
With its reliance on the masked mystery villain The Wizard’s super-science Remote Control Ray, and other gadgetry, the film has something of the feel of Batman’s 1950’s daylight sci-fi adventures. On that basis, or for low-budget laughs, the serial can be enjoyed. Completists should be aware that Chapter One of the Sony/Columbia VHS tape is incomplete by several minutes, due to the tape being assembled from 16mm prints edited to make Super 8mm reduction prints for sale to collectors. I’m told the DVD release continues this omission, though I have not viewed it myself.
If the BATMAN AND ROBIN chapterplay might have been a disappointment to comic book fans, it appears to have done fairly well at the box office. Perhaps this is why another attempt at a Batman Radio show was made in1950.
The Batman Mystery Club was an audition disc made in September of that year. The story was called The Monster of Dumphrey’s Hall, and was written by Don Cameron, who wrote for the comics and the Batman newspaper strip. It was rediscovered by Fred Shay, of the National Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame. The series’ premise reflected Cameron’s interest in disproving superstitions, and opened with Robin addressing a group of kids, and introducing Bruce Wayne, the Batman to show them that the seemingly supernatural adventures they would encounter had purely natural explanations. Writer Cameron had been researching and writing a book about occultism, which might explain his motivations somewhat.
However, it’s kind of an odd and dry idea for an kid’s superhero show (hey kids, this whole spooky story we made you sit through is pure bunk), and it’s not too surprising that the pilot did not become a series. Ronald Liss reprised his role of Robin (just Robin, not Dick Grayson) from the Adventures of Superman, and Batman was played by John Emery, who had also portrayed Philo Vance on radio.
Reportedly, there was a Batman radio series in Argentina in the 1950’s starring Carlos Carella as the caped crusader. They only documentation I’ve found of this is an intriguing publicity still.
Though it might have seemed a natural spin-off, there was no Batman series to mirror the 1950’s Adventures of Superman TV show (although former Batman Robert Lowery would guest star in an episode, The Deadly Rock). Batman would have to wait until the 1960’s to hit the airwaves again.
And when he did, it would be a tidal wave.
This short subject has been available online for a while now, but we wanted to offer it to those of you who have not been fortunate enough to see it yet. CARGO (a Tropfest Australia 2013 Finalist) depicts a rather dire situation with a father trying to get his baby to safety – after he has been bitten by zombie and knows he is inevitably fated to transform before he can reach help. It is, quite simply, ne of the best short subjects we have ever seen – as good as the best of anything we have seen in the past two seasons of THE WALKING DEAD.
See a larger version of the video below.
This video tour of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood showcases the bloody mayhem of two walk-through attractions inspired by recent horror films: Evil Dead: Book of the Dead and the eerie shudders of Insidious: Into the Further.
Even if you did not care for the films themselves, you may get a kick out of the walk-through versions. Universal Studios’s annual Halloween attraction is known for meticulously recreating sets, scenes, and characters from the films, and the live aspect allows for an in-your-face approach you simply cannot get on the big screen. Thrill to the ghostly apparition appearing from behind a mirror! Shiver at the sound of chainsaws! Gag at the geysers of blood!
Check out a larger version below:
Ever since WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) introduced movie audiences to the classic image of the zombie (a mindless revived corpse, directed by a Voodoo houngan [priest]), the restless dead have been shambling across the silver screen in various shapes and sizes, eventually throwing off the shackles of their masters and developing strange new appetites (first for human flesh, then for brains). Here is a representative sample.
WHITE ZOMBIE (1932): Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi, left) directs his mindless minions. The corpses have no will of their own; the film’s true monster is their master.
REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (1936): This week follow-up to WHITE ZOMBIE posits the idea of an unstoppable undead army in WWI – offering the first suggestion of zombies as a worldwide threat.
THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940): This is probably the first zombie film to mix horror and comedy. Although the zombie (Noble Johnson) is revealed to be a fake planted to scare away Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, his scenes are played for scares more than laughs.
KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941): Comic actor Mantan Moreland gets some laughs from his reaction to traditional-looking zombies, who turn out to be under the direction of a Nazi scientist.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943): Darby Jones as the zombie Carrefour, in the classic produced by Val Lewton. The Voodoo element is strongly represented here. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, this is probably the greatest film every made using the traditional zombie theme.
ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957): This low-budget effort is memorably only for the novel concept of water-logged zombies guarding a sunken treasure.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968): Though the word “zombie” is never mentioned, George A. Romero’s film changed the genre forever, reinventing the walking dead as cannibal corpses, driven by instinct to consume the living. Romero wrote but did not direct the 1990 color remake – a worthwhile film, but not classic.
TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971): Amando de Ossorio’s film introduced the zombie-like Knights Templar, who would return in three sequels. Despite their desiccated appearance, the Templars were more of an undead cult than mindless corpses.
LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE (a.k.a., THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, 1974): This Spanish film, obviously inspired by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, is the first to show zombie cannibal carnage in color.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978): George A. Romero’s sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers cinema’s first vision of the zombie apocalypse, which plays out in the microcosm of a shopping mall. Tom Savini’s graphic makeup effects, including exploding heads and disemboweled intestines, set the standard for all zombie films to follow.
ZOMBIE (a.k.a., ZOMBIE 2, 1979): Directed by Lucio Fulci, this Italian film combines the graphic splatter approach of DAWN OF THE DEAD with the zombies’ more traditional roots in Voodoo. The result, presented as an ersatz sequel to DAWN OF THE DEAD (which was released as ZOMBIE in Europe) launched an army of Italian zombie gorefests.
THE BEYOND (1981): Director Lucio Fulci offers two kinds of living dead: corporeal walking corpses and a more magical variety, able to appear and disappear at will.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981): Sam Raimi’s sleeper hit features human bodies possessed and sometimes resurrected by evil spirits. The grim, low-budget intensity echoes THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The 2013 remake emphasized the possession angle, so that there were few if any walking corpses on screen.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985): Dan O’Bannon’s black-comedy pseudo-sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD re-imagines zombies as unkillable brain-eaters.
RE-ANIMATOR (1985): Stuart Gordon’s unrated gore film offered a more energetic species of living dead, resurrected by Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs)’ formula.
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985): Romero’s third living dead film presents us with the world’s first “domesticated” zombie, Bub (Sherman Howard), capable of some primitive human thought. Romero would continue to explore the zombie apocalypse in LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.
EVIL DEAD 2 (1987): Sam Raimi’s sequel to THE EVIL DEAD (1981) pushes the unrated gore to comic levels.
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988): Wes Craven’s film, based on a non-fiction book, returned zombies to their West Indies roots, suggesting a realistic explanation: drugs to induce mindless catatonia.
BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. “Dead Alive,” 1992): A pre-Tolkein Peter Jackson tries to outdo Sam Raimi in the gleeful gore department, and almost succeeds.
RESIDENT EVIL (2002): based on the popular vidoegame, writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson’s film offered an amped-up version of zombie violence. Several sequels followed, the best being RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION (2012)
28 DAYS LATER (2002): Instead of traditional zombies, director Danny Boyle’s film featured living people infected by a virus that drives them to mindless homicidal rage – an idea used by George A. Romero way back in THE CRAZIES (1973). The sequel 28 WEEKS LATER expands upon and surpasses the original.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004): This remake of Romero’s classic substitutes speedy zombies in place of the familiar shambling walkers. It’s entertaining in a slick professional way, with some good characterization, but it lacks the social satire of the original.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004): Riffing off Romero’s films, this comedy combines the zombie apocalypse with a love story; the end offers another glimpse of a domesticated zombie.
FIDO (2006): Billy Connolly plays a literally domesticated zombie, serving a human household as combination butler-pet.
[REC] [ (2007): This Spanish film filtered zombies through the lens of a hand-held shaky-cam, in the style of “found footage” films. The explanation for the zombies is a combination of virus and supernatural evil, an idea explored in the first of two sequels. There was also an American remake, QUARANTINE.
I AM LEGEND (2007): Are they vampires or zombies? It’s not clear, but thanks to the star power of Will Smith, this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel reached a wider audience than any zombie movie before.
DEAD SNOW (2009): Nazis-had been done before but never better than in this somewhat comic horror film from Norway
ZOMBIELAND (2009): This took the 28 DAYS LATER concept of zombies as virus-infected-humans, and mainstreamed it for the masses with a comedic approach, achieving blockbuster success.
THE CRAZIES (2010): This remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 film offers another version of viral zombies – not the living dead, but infected humans.
THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2013): This AMC series, based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel, hews close to the zombie concept laid down by Romero but appealed to non-genre fans with its characterization and story-telling. The graphic make up and effects are courtesy of Greg Nicotero, who had assisted Tom Savini on DAY OF THE DEAD.
WARM BODIES (2013): This comedy-romance gives us zombies with a heart as “R” (Nicholas Hoult) finds his human emotions revived when he falls in love with Julie (Teresa Palmer).
WORLD WAR Z (2013): This big-budget blockbuster played out the zombie apocalypse on a bigger scale than ever before.
Hollywood Reporter tells us that Paramount Pictures is reactivating their plan to turn WORLD WAR Z into a franchise, thanks to the strong box office opening: $66-million domestically and over $111-million worldwide. WORLD WAR Z had been conceived as the first entry in a trilogy, but after post-production trouble, the studio and the filmmakers had backed off making any promises for sequels. That changed as soon as the film earned star Brad Pitt his biggest opening weekend box office ever.
The rocky road from script to screen, including expensive additional shooting, suggested that WORLD WAR Z might emerge as an epic failure; instead, the film has been embraced by critics and audiences. The mix of male and female viewers is almost equal, and two-thirds of ticket-buyers have been over 25; in short, WORLD WAR Z is reaching viewers who do not necessarily go to zombie movies.
The Hollywood Reporter article offers no details on where the franchise will go, noting only that “Paramount actively will turn to developing a sequel.” While promoting WORLD WAR Z’s opening, Pitt (who is also a producer) noted that the film had only scratched the surface of Max Brooks’s novel, suggesting that future films would delve deeper into the source material
The familiar zombie routine has never been realized on such an epic scale, but that is the film’s only claim to novelty.
WORLD WAR Z is not merely a movie about zombies; it is a bit of a zombie itself: shot and re-shot, cut to pieces, bloody and battered, it nevertheless refuses to die, staggering to the finish line and beyond with remarkable resiliency, though bearing only a superficial similarity to its former self, its higher brain functions faded. Which is to say that, in spite of extensive rewriting, re-shooting, and re-editing, the finished film does not resemble a Frankenstein-monster stitched together from disparate pieces. It looks like a healthy human being – until you get up close and stare into the empty eyes, devoid of personality, and realize that its movements are the force of habit, not spontaneous actions initiated by intelligent thought. Fortunately, the familiar zombie routine has its appeal, and never before has it been realized on such epic scale. Big-budget horror blockbusters are few and far between; therein lies the film’s only claim to novelty. If worldwide mayhem, wrapped up in a globe-trotting thriller scenario, is enough to animate your interest, WORLD WAR Z is not a bad way to kill a couple hours.
After a moment of domestic calm before the storm, introducing us to Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family, WORLD WAR Z quickly dives into the zombie apocalypse with an outbreak, with effectively convincing chaos spilling onto city streets with alarming speed. Gerry turns out to be a former U.N. investigator, with experience getting in and out of hot spots around the globe; he is pressed back into service in exchange for room and board for his family aboard a battleship, safe from the death and destruction on shore. With the countdown to human extinction ticking, the goal is to trace the viral outbreak to its source in the hope of finding a cure. This proves to be easier said than done, with most of the world in flames, able to offer assistance but no useful answers.
The first weird thing you notice about WORLD WAR Z is that, despite the impressive long shots with virtual armies of the living dead overwhelming helpless victims, the film as a whole never truly captures a sense of impending doom as well as its own trailer. What should be the motivating force behind the narrative is instead soft-pedaled – not eclipsed but definitely subordinated to what really matters: family values. Gerry, you see, is less interested in saving the world than in saving his family – a point emphasized when he refuses the mission, changing his mind only when the military commander informs him that there is no room for non-essential personnel aboard ship (translation: if he doesn’t go, he and his family will be kicked off).
Consequently, Gerry’s quest is less about completing his mission than it is about getting back to the wife and kids. Which might be okay if they were not such a generic, forgettable lot. The cutaways to the wife and kids awaiting Gerry’s return, and the occasional phone call, are meant to lend an emotional foundation to the story; instead, they are mere distractions. You get the feeling that, as far as the filmmakers are concerned, the world can go to hell as long as the family is reunited at the end. It’s not exactly the best way to generate a sense of apocalyptic horror.
Horror of any sort is in relatively short supply, perhaps due to the studio-mandated PG-13 rating, which leaves the film not only bloodless but generally scare-less. Producer-star Pitt reportedly wanted to push the rating to the limit, but there is little evidence of this on screen, although there is a nice decisive moment when his character (bloodlessly) severs a victim’s hand to prevent infection from spreading.
There are plenty of thrills, but for the most part they are presented in the action idiom, with chase, gunshots, and explosions that keep you on the edge of your seat but seldom have you squirming with dread. The exception is an expertly staged, extended set-piece near the end, in which Gerry and a few others must negotiate the corridors of a World Health Organization building, relying on stealth to prevent detection by the roaming zombies. Director Marc Forster (who helmed the excellent STRANGER THAN FICTION and the not so excellent QUANTUM OF SOLACE) does his best work here; the 3D imagery (a post-production conversion that looks great throughout) seems to put you inside the hallways, shoulder to shoulder with the humans, so close you almost feel as if the zombies could reach out and grab you (though, sadly, such a nifty 3D shot as an arm shooting out of the screen is never attempted).
The zombies themselves are a not particularly imaginative variation on the creatures we have been seeing on screen for decades. There is a certain spastic nature to their movements that is unnerving, and some of the makeups are good, though not particularly innovative. As in 28 DAYS LATER (2002), they are victims of a virus, and they run like Olympic sprinters. This made more sense in the previous film, in which the zombies were not really zombies at all but living humans infected with a “rage virus.” Here, we have humans who die within seconds but remain healthy enough to outrun the living, swarm up walls like overactive insects, and overwhelm well-equipped soldiers.
Speaking of the living dead, the characters seldom do. There is some initial scoffing at the use of the word “zombie,” and Gerry later asks someone how Jerusalem managed to prepare for the zombie menace that no one else believed was coming. But no one even tries to come to grips with what must be a tremendous psychological shock, a complete overturning of our fundamental reality – the inviolable demarcation between the living and the dead. Beside a brief snippet on the soundtrack, there is no “end of times” rhetoric, no reference to the religious implications of the resurrection of the dead, no acknowledgement that the threat being faced is not merely a rampaging virus but something totally unprecedented in human history.
Consequently, the metaphorical force of the zombie is diminished. The walking dead have stood for conformity, consumerism, slavery, and many other concepts; here, they are just really fast dangerous people who are very hard to kill. (Yes, a bullet to the brain will do the trick, just as in George A. Romero’s films). Apparently, Pitt’s original intent was to examine sociopolitical ideas (what would this outbreak do to society? which countries would fare best), but that got lost in the effort to create a blockbuster that would launch an action-oriented franchise.
This leads to the inevitable open ending, primed for sequels – though not quite as blatantly open and unsatisfying as the director’s cut is reported to have been. The post-production revisions reunited Gerry with his family and deleted a major battle sequence in Russian, which showed the protagonist morphing from Everyman to Action Hero.* You have to admire the filmmakers for switching to a more small-scale, suspenseful conclusion, although this winds up feeling rather anti-climactic (Pitt’s closing narration tells us it’s not the end, or even the beginning of the end, just the end of this movie, with more expected to follow).
Should there be more? The productions values and the star performance, the lavish locations and epic scale – all show signs of potential, even if that potential was hampered by a studio eager for a family-friendly blockbuster rather than a horrifying vision of the apocalypse. Hopefully, a sequel could explore some ideas left unrealized here. Perhaps we should be grateful that Gerry gets back with his family at the end of WORLD WAR Z – a plot thread left dangling in the first director’s cut – at least that will not be the basis for a sequel.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention the film’s one interesting concept: The Tenth Man, which is basically a variation on the Devil’s Advocate. This idea is offered up as the explanation for why Israel was prepared for the zombie onslaught: after decades of dismissing early warning signs, the country adopted the concept of “The Tenth Man”: if ten people hear the same evidence, and nine of them come to the same conclusion, the tenth is obligated to assume the opposite is correct, and explore the possibility rigorously. Fortunately for Israel, the Tenth Man was able to prove the truth of the zombie threat in time to make preparations.
On the CFQ Review scale of zero to five stars, a moderate non-recommendation, though there are redeeming features
- In case you have not kept up with WORLD WAR Z’s production saga, you can learn a little bit here. Essentially, the ending of the director’s cut pleased no one, so Damon Lindelof was brought in to revamp the conclusion; he and Drew Goddard wrote 60 new pages that changed not only the ending, but also most of the film’s second half – basically, everything after Gerry leaves Jerusalem, including the in-flight zombie attack.
WORLD WAR Z (Paramount Pictures: July 21, 2013). Rated PG-13. 116 minutes. Directed by Marc Forster. Screen story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski; screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof; based on the novel by Max Brooks. Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Elyes Gabel, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga.
In which the approaching release of WORLD WAR Z prompts me to ruminate on the history of cinematic “zombies” and point interested readers to some worthwhile articles in the Cinefantastique archives.
With WORLD WAR Z about to open nationwide, we all seem to have zombies on the brain this week. A handful of outlets (Johnny-come-lately’s, every one) have presented their lists of Top Ten Zombie Films, five years after I presented the definitive list here (well, maybe not definitive but at least I know what a zombie is). The irony of this mainstream media attention – indeed the irony of a star such as Brad Pitt appearing in a big-budget zombie summer blockbuster – is that for decades zombies were the poor man of the horror movie pantheon, consigned eternally (or so it seemed) to low-budget B-films and indie flicks.
The reason for this is obvious enough: zombies came cheap. They were basically just people shuffling around as if in a trance; traditional voodoo zombies do not even decay, so relatively little makeup was required. Sure, the same thing could almost be said about vampires, but those cinematic creatures of the night usually required fancy costumes and lavish ancestral castles; zombies just didn’t require the same production values.
The other problem is that zombies were seldom scary, except in the abstract sense: their mere existence called into question notions of the clear demarcation between life and death; their mindless state foreshadowed by decades the debate over keeping a body artifically animated after brain death had occurred. These elements, along with intimations of the strange supernatural powers that resurrected the dead, could yield unnerving, atmospheric films (WHITE ZOMBIE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE), but there was little visceral threat in the shambling zombies.
All that changed when George A. Romero and company unleashed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) on an unsuspecting public. For the first time, the walking dead consumed the living. And they were no longer under the control of some houngan (voodoo priest); they came back from the dead because…. er, radiation, or something.
Please note my shift in vocabulary when discussing Romero’s seminal film: “those things,” as they were termed in the dialogue, were sometimes called “ghouls” but never “zombies.” Outside of the fact that they continued to perambulate after death, they had little in common with their traditional antecedents. (Voodoo zombies, for example, cannot eat meat – or salt for that matter – because they would regain their self-awareness and return to the peace of the grave.)
The new cannibalistic tendencies were coupled with another significant change – one more assumed than stated – which goes to the question of just what defines a “zombie.” If zombies are the “walking dead,” in what sense is something that can walk “dead”? The assumption underlying the traditional zombie is that the body is alive but the soul is gone. By ditching any reference to the supernatural and resorting to a science fiction explanation about reactivating the brain, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD blurs the line between the living and the dead (a point Romero emphasized in 1985’s DAY OF DEAD, in which we are told that the zombies are just humans functioning less perfectly). The implication is that, if a zombie is a soulless walking body, then all of us are zombies; some of us are just a little higher-functioning than others.
Regardless of the terminology, the rules laid down in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (e.g., kill the brain) became a modern movie mythology. Almost everything that came after was influenced one way or another, either directly or indirectly.
Exactly when the confusion between traditional zombies and Romero’s flesh-eaters took place, is hard to say. The earliest reference (that I can find) to “zombies” in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is in Alan G. Frank’s 1974 book Horror Movies. Romero himself picked up on the idea in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), which abandons the radiation theory of NIGHT and references the the word “zombie” in dialogue voiced by Peter (Ken Foree), whose grandfather was a voodoo practitioner, leading to the famous sentence: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth.” Perhaps tellingly, DAWN OF THE DEAD was retitled ZOMBI for release in Italy.
In its own way, DAWN OF THE DEAD was every bit as radical a reinvention of the zombie genre as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had been a decade earlier. Whereas NIGHT had introduced the concept of cannibalism, DAWN gave us the first Zombie Apocalypse (an idea transfigured from Richad Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, in which vampires bring about the demise of human society). NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had been zombies a visceral threat to individual victims; DAWN OF THE DEAD made them an existential threat to life as we know it.
The conflation of cannibal corpses and zombies took another shambling step forward with ZOMBIE (a.k.a., ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS, 1979), in which director Lucio Fulci transposed the graphic gore and gut-crunching mayhem of the Romero film into a West Indies setting, blaming the resurrection of the dead on an off-screen houngan. ZOMBIE was known as ZOMBI 2 in Italy – a misleading suggestion that the film was a sequel to Romero’s. Curiously, the ending of ZOMBIE actually works better as a prequel to DAWN OF THE DEAD, suggesting the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse in America, which would segue rather smoothly into the opening scene of the Romero movie.
Since then, the word “zombie” has become fairly interchangeable with “walking dead,” “living dead,” and any other variation thereof. In fact, the definition has expanded to include the brain-eating zombies of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) and also people who are not dead at all but merely infected by some virus that turns them into homicidal maniacs. Since these “zombies” are a good deal healthier (i.e., alive) than their predecessors, they are also much faster, making them difficult to outrun. The mounting fear of slowly approaching but inevitable death has been replaced by the more immediate fear of being caught, but in the end it makes little difference. Slow or fast, the zombies will get you eventually – or at least claim enough victims to destroy society at large. Think of 28 DAY LATER and 28 WEEKS LATER, not to mention the horror-comedy ZOMBIELAND.
The success of some of these films, along with AMC’s excellent series THE WALKING DEAD, has helped mainstream the zombie concept. Romero himself kept the apocalypse going with the relatively big-budget LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), which was given a high-profile release by Universal Studios. The RESIDENT EVIL films quickly left the confines of the Umbrella Corporation and Racoon City behind, to focus on worldwide destruction, earning big box office rewards in the process. Other films, such as FIDO (2008) and WARM BODIES (2013) have even suggested that zombies are not all bad; a glimmer of humanity may remain inside, waiting to be nurtured back to life.
Whatever their differences, what these films and television shows have in common is the threat of global annihilation. Our world is going down the tubes, although we may be able to keep up appearances within a tightly confined and well-guarded city – an exaggerated, satirical take-off on today’s gated communities.
WORLD WAR Z, based on Max Brooks’ fictional oral history of a zombie war, follows directly in this line – offering the by-now familiar apocalyptic scenario on a larger scale than ever before. The fear invoked is not so much the fear of being eaten alive but of staring into an empty black abyss, from which nothing stares back – not God, not the Devil, just an empty void. When we lost our souls, we lost the key distinction between us and zombies. Now it all boils down to a simple question of survival, and the odds are not in our favor. How can they be, for a species apparently so hellbent on self-destruction?
As the ailing, one-legged priest in DAWN OF THE DEAD says, “When the dead walk, we must stop the killing, or lose the war.”
By the way, I thought this photo from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 4 would suit my headline rather well, but I didn’t have anything to say about the film, so I tucked the image down here.
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
- Top Ten Zombie Films
- Anatomy of a Horror Film: Night of the Living Dead
- Night of the Living Dead and the Riddle of Racism
- Night of the Living Dead – a Retrospective
- Dawn of the Dead – a Retrospective
- George Romero Documents the Dead
ZOMBIE FILMS WORTH CHECKING OUT
- Automaton Transfusion
- Return of the Living Dead
- Evil Dead 2
- 28 Weeks Later
- I Walked with a Zombie
- The Beyond
- Dead Snow
If you are starting to feel as if WORLD WAR Z has been advertised for ever, you are not far wrong. Trailers first started to appear last year in anticipation of a December 2012 release, which was then delayed for six months to allow for extensive re-shoots that involved scrapping much of the original movie in favor of a new approach.
The film had been in development a long time before going in front of the cameras; nevertheless, the green light apparently came before all the story issues had been ironed out. J. Michael Straczynski’s first draft reportedly stuck close to the novel by Max Brooks, which presents its story as an oral history of the zombie war; later versions moved the film toward a more traditional blockbuster action approach.
After a studio screening of the director’s cut, a consensus quickly emerged that the ending did not work. Screenwriter Damon Lindelof was called in to revamp the conclusion – a process that involved radically revising the movie, as he explained in a Vanity Fair interview:
“I said to them, There are two roads to go down here,” says Lindelof. “Is there material that can be written to make that stuff work better? To have it make sense? To have it have emotional stakes? And plot logic and all that? And Road Two, which I think is the long-shot road, is that everything changes after Brad leaves Israel.” That meant throwing out the entire Russian battle scene—or about 12 minutes of footage—and crafting a new ending. “I didn’t think anyone was going to say, ‘Let’s throw it out and try something else,’ ” Lindelof recalls. “So when I gave them those two roads and they sounded more interested in Road B”—which meant shooting an additional 30 to 40 minutes of the movie—“I was like, ‘To be honest with you, good luck selling that to Paramount.’ ”