Halloween Havoc!: ZOMBIE (Variety Film 1979)

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I’ll admit, I’m a latecomer to the Lucio Fulci bandwagon. I viewed my first film by The Maestro, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY , earlier this year, and absolutely loved it! I’ve been looking for more Fulci films to discover ever since, and recently recorded his most famous, ZOMBIE, off the El Rey Network (which I highly recommend to Grindhouse fans out there). ZOMBIE goes by many names, but this is the title I watched it under, so we’ll stick with that.

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From that opening shot of a gun pointed at the camera, then blasting the head of a rising corpse, I knew I was in for a good time! After the credits roll, we see a derelict ship floating in New York harbor. The harbor patrol boards it, and find it deserted, with rotting food and supplies strewn everywhere. One of the cops investigates further, and is killed by a zombie, who jumps overboard. The boat is owned by Dr. Bowles, and his daughter Anne is questioned by the police. Anne is played by Tisa Farrow, who looks like her sister Mia but isn’t quite as talented. Later that night, Anne sneaks onboard to look for clues, when she’s startled by reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch), who has found a letter from her dad to her, telling of contracting a “strange disease” on the Caribbean island of Matul. West’s paper pays for the pair to fly to St. Thomas and make their way to the mysterious, unchartered island.

Meanwhile on Matul, we’re introduced to Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson of THE HAUNTING ) and his alcoholic wife Paola (Olga Karlatos). Menard’s the guy behind the gun in the prolog, and Paola is pretty bitter about what’s going on. It’s seems the good doctor’s experiments involve native voodoo, and she wants to leave this island of terror, but Menard insists on staying. Paola rants and raves at him, earning herself a punch in the face!

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Peter and Anne meet a couple, Brad and Susan (Al Cliver, Auretta Gay) about to embark on a two-month fishing vacation. Peter tells them his and Anne’s destination, and Brad responds that Matul is “not a cool place to head, natives claim it’s cursed, avoid it like the plague”, but reluctantly agrees to drop them off. Susan decides to take some underwater pictures while out at sea, and strips down to a thong before putting on her scuba gear. Topless scuba diving… sure, why not! While below, Susan encounters a shark, and then an underwater zombie, and now comes my favorite scene- Zombie vs Shark in the deep blue sea! I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s handled well, and I got a big kick out of it.

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Meanwhile back on Matul, the zombies are running rampant. Paola, alone in the house, tries to fend one off, struggling mightily to KEEP THAT DOOR SHUT as the undead thing attempts to break on through to the other side. Smashing the door panel, the beast grabs her hair and pulls Paola closer, hungry for some flesh. As it pulls her closer and closer, we see a large splinter of wood heading straight for her eyeball… then get jammed right through it in a terrifyingly gruesome scene that’s as gross as it sounds!

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Our intrepid quartet has finally made it to Matul, where Menard informs them of “the disease” ravaging the isle. The natives call it voodoo, but the doctor believes there must be some kind of scientific explanation, and is determined to find it. He lends them his Jeep to go check on Paola, where they find the living dead feasting on her corpse. They hightail it out in the Jeep and hit a zombie in the road, knocking them off the road and wrecking it. Making their way through the jungle, they stop to rest in what turns out to be an old Spanish Conquistador graveyard, where the rotting corpses begin to rise from the dead. A worm-eye-filled zombie snatches Susan and rips her throat out. Our remaining heroes have no choice but to leave her dead body in the graveyard and flee for their lives.

The zombies have now overrun Matul, and everyone holes up in Menard’s makeshift hospital, a former church. Now the gorefest truly begins, as the zombies keep coming in droves, the heroes battle back with guns and Molotov cocktails, and things escalate to epic proportions. Zombified Susan takes a chunk out of Brian’s arm before the whole enchilada goes up in flames, and Peter, Anne, and Brian make it back to the boat. They lock him below and head for New York to warn the populace, but it seems they’re a bit too late, as a radio broadcast alerts them the zombies have taken over The Big Apple: “They’ve entered the building… they’re at the door… ARRRGGGHHH!!”

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ZOMBIE is beautifully shot and framed by Fulci and DP Sergio Salvati, with some breathtaking photography amidst all the carnage. The pace is frantic and exciting, and you’ll be glued to your seats following all the action. Fabio Frizzi’s score sets the tone, and those incessant voodoo drumbeats add to the overall mood. Anyone new to Lucio Fulci should start with ZOMBIE, which many claim is his masterpiece. But I wouldn’t know, being fairly new to him myself. I’ve got much more Fulci to discover… CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is sitting in my DVR even as we speak!

Halloween Havoc!: THE HAUNTING (MGM 1963)

“No one will come in the night… in the dark!”

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There’s nothing like a good haunted house movie, and 1963’s THE HAUNTING is one of the best ever. Producer/director Robert Wise cut his filmic teeth on Val Lewton shockers like THE BODY SNATCHER  and noirs such as BORN TO KILL  before graduating to mainstream movies like I WANT TO LIVE! and WEST SIDE STORY. In THE HAUNTING he returns to his dark roots to create a nightmarish vision of Shirley Jackson’s eerie novel The Haunting of Hill House.

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“Scandal, murder, insanity, suicide” have plagued Hill House for close to 100 years. The cursed Crain family were its original inhabitants, designed by eccentric Hugh Crain. The house is a darkly foreboding Gothic structure with oddly tilted angles both inside and out. Dr. John Markham, a paranormal investigator, visits proper Bostonian matron Mrs. Sanderson, the house’s current owner, asking to take a lease on Hill House to conduct his research. She consents but only if her nephew Luke, a callow young slacker, accompanies him.

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Markham puts together a team that includes Theodora (“Just Theodora.”), a beautiful bohemian with ESP, and Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance, a fragile recluse who’s had ghostly experiences in the past. Markham believes Hill House is a gateway to the supernatural, though skeptical Luke is only interested in what the house will bring on the market. It’s implied (though not overtly stated, this being 1963) Theodora is a lesbian or bisexual with an attraction to Nell. This subplot is well handled by Wise, with Nell becoming more attracted to Markham as the film goes on, much to Theodora’s annoyance.

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Nell and Theo are the first to experience supernatural activity, hearing a constant pounding, groans, heavy breathing, and feeling a terrible coldness. Markham and Luke return from chasing what they assume was “a dog” when they encounter the frightened girls. The quartet goes downstairs, and all doubts are erased: a message is written on the wall saying, “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME”.

The following day a ‘cold spot’ is discovered in front of the nursery, where Abigail Crain lived from birth to death. Nell is beginning to doubt her sanity, and relying more and more on Markham. Her hopes are dashed when the doctor’s wife Grace arrives with news that reporters are asking about what he’s doing at Hill House. Grace insists on staying with them, and in the nursery to boot, despite her husbands protestations. That night, they hear the disembodied noises creeping closer and closer to the nursery. Nell runs into the room only to find Grace has vanished.

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Nell is becoming more unstable with each passing minute. We see her alone in front of the grotesque statuary dancing with (what she believes is) the ghost of Hugh Crain. Seeming to be possessed by the house itself, she climbs the rickety spiral staircase where a suicide once took place. Markham goes up to try to save her, but not before Nell is horrified when Grace pops out from a trapdoor above her. Nell’s mental state convinces Markham to send her away from Hill House, but she insists she belongs there. “I’m the one it really wants, can’t you feel it?”, she tells the doctor. “It’s alive, watching, waiting… waiting for me”. She reluctantly drives away from the house- but never leaves, in a truly frightening ending I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen it.

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Julie Harris (Nell) was one of the most acclaimed actresses of the 20th Century, winner of five Tony Awards, an Emmy, a Grammy, the Kennedy Center Honor, and Oscar-nominated for MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. Her Nell has a tenuous relationship with reality at best, as we find out through her interior monologues. Harris has a broken quality to her that makes the audience care despite her seeming descent into madness. She can also be seen in the films EAST OF EDEN with James Dean, I AM A CAMERA (which was later turned into the musical CABARET), Rod Serling’s REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, and THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR.

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Clair Bloom (Theo) is also outstanding in a tricky role for the era. Dressed in pop designer Mary Quant’s outfits to emphasize her bohemian status, Bloom shows great restraint in creating a portrait of a woman outside the mainstream.  When Nell calls Theo “one of nature’s mistakes”, she’s more than likely talking about her sexuality rather than her clairvoyant powers. Bloom was another stage star, who made her film debut in Charlie Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT. Other movie roles include LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Laurence Olivier’s RICHARD III, and Ray Bradbury’s THE ILLUSTRATED MAN with then-husband Rod Steiger. More recently she appeared in THE KING’S ENGLISH; the 85-year-old actress will be featured in the upcoming MAX ROSE, co-starring with screen legend Jerry Lewis.

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Richard Johnson (Markham) once turned down the role of 007 James Bond. THE HAUNTING is perhaps his best known film role, but genre fans will recognize him from THE MONSTER CLUB and Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE. Russ Tamblyn (Luke) was a former child actor who starred in Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY. He later popped up in the cult TV series TWIN PEAKS. Lois Maxwell, 007’s Miss Moneypenny, plays Markham’s wife Grace. Behind the cameras, DP Davis Boulton’s shadowplay is reminiscent of Wise’s early RKO work, editor Ernest Walter puts things together smoothly, Humphrey Searle’s score is appropriately eerie, and Tom Howard’s special effects are spot on. Special note must be made to the sound department, again evoking the Val Lewton films, down to the overlapping dialog. THE HAUNTING was remade in 1999, and despite technological advances was a critical and box office dud. Just goes to show when it comes to haunted houses, the old ways are always best, especially when they’re in the hands of a master craftsman like Robert Wise. Those of you who haven’t seen this classic need to put it on your Halloween watch list this season. You won’t be disappointed… but I guarantee you WILL be frightened!

 

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