Halloween Havoc!: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (The Walter Read Organization1968)

The late, great George A. Romero’s first feature, NIGHT OF THE LVING DEAD, was shot in the wilds of Pittsburgh, PA on a budget of $114,000. This unheralded,  gruesome little indie became a landmark in horror, influencing and inspiring generations of moviemakers to come. Better scribes than your humble correspondent have written countless analyses on the film, so I’m going to give you my perspective from my first viewing of the film… at the impressionable age of 13!

My cousin and I, both horror buffs, first saw it as the bottom half of a double feature in 1970. The main attraction was EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Forrest J Ackerman , editor of the Monster Kid’s Bible, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. As we eagerly awaited the main attraction, we sat through the warm-up, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. At first, we thought it was an older rerelease, because no one would dare make a black & white film in this modern day and age! But as things unfolded, we were treated to the scariest movie we’d ever seen (and much better than EQUINOX, which was a huge letdown after watching NOTLD!).

The movie opened in a creepily stark white cemetery, always a good sign. Johnny and Barbara are there to put flowers on their dead father’s grave, when Barbara spots a figure approaching from afar. Barbara, who’s already creeped out, is mercilessly teased by her brother, who intones in his best Karloff impression, “There’re coming to get you, Barbara!”. More cool points scored for the Boris reference! But the zombie thing attacks her, and Johnny is forced to defend against it, getting overpowered and cracking his head open on a headstone. Barbara flees for her life, making it to the car, but the zombie catches up, and soon she’s frantically running down a deserted road, her destination a lone farmhouse…

After the unrelenting terror of that first scene, we were hooked, black & white be damned!! More ghouls descend on the house, when suddenly a savior appears. His name is Ben, and he’s a black man! This was unheard of, as blacks in horror were usually relegated to comedy relief a’la Mantan Moreland , or Carribbean-type voodoo priests . But this guy was the star, the main good guy, and the one who keeps his cool amidst all the mayhem. There are other people inside, including the Cooper family, whose daughter has been bitten by one of the zombies, and young couple later shows up, but there’s no doubt Ben’s in charge of keeping this zombie apocalypse at bay.

As if all these shocks to the system weren’t enough, we find out these zombies are flesh-eating ghouls. Not only that, we’re SHOWN the undead terrors chowing down on raw flesh and guts, munching human entrails with gusto! Even Herschell Gordon Lewis was never this gross! Loud, audible cries of “EWWW!” and girlish pre-teen screams (not me, of course!) echoed throughout the theater at the sight of this cannibalistic flesh feast. Then a treat of a different kind… Bill Cardille, the voice of TV’s CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING, popped up on the screen playing a reporter! He was the only recognizable actor in the film, and we wondered if Bruno Sammartino would appear next!

The tension and the shocks kept piling higher and higher, and those old theater armrests took a hell of a beating. The final shock came when Ben, hearing shots outside, came up from the basement and was shot in the head, mistaken for a zombie. His dead body, after all he did to avert the carnage, was tossed onto a pile of dead zombies, as a redneck cop quipped, “That’s another one for the fire”. Ben, the hero of the movie, died – again, unheard of in this genre!

You can see why EQUINOX was such a washout with us after viewing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I could write a whole other post using my critical eye, underscoring Romero’s cinematic influences, from Hitchcock to Corman , from Hawks’ RIO BRAVO to Kramer’s THE DEFIANT ONES, from the DIY films of Ed Wood to Herk Harvey’s chilling CARNIVAL OF SOULS. But I prefer to watch NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD through the lens of that 13-year-old boy I once was, on the edge of my seat and mesmerized by the ghastly tableaux unfolding before me. My VHS copy of NOTLD is grainy as hell, well worn from repeated viewings, yet still manages to scare the beejeezus out of me. This movie is required viewing for all Cracked Rear Viewers, especially during the Halloween season. Rest in peace, George Romero.

Halloween Havoc!: SUGAR HILL (AIP 1974)

The worlds of Horror and Blaxploitation intersected frequently during the 70’s, beginning with American-International’s BLACULA . The vampire tale spawned a subgenre of black oriented riffs on familiar themes: BLACKENSTEIN (man-made monsters), DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE (Stevenson’s classic novel updated), ABBY (demonic possession), and SUGAR HILL, a crazy voodoo-zombie revenge tale that’s creepy, outrageous, and entertaining as… well, as hell!

Foxy lady Marki Bey plays foxy lady Diana “Sugar” Hill, whose boyfriend Langston runs the voodoo-themed Club Haiti. Southern-fried gangster Morgan (Robert Quarry) wants to take over the club, and sends his goons to ‘persuade’ Langston. When he refuses, they stomp him to death in the parking lot, leaving Sugar no recourse but to return to her ancestral home and ask ancient voodoo queen Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully of THE JEFFERSONS) for help. Mama conjures up voodoo god of the dead Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who gives Sugar control over an army of zombies to enact her revenge on Morgan and his cohorts.

A series of weird set pieces follows, as Sugar and her zombies kill off the gangsters one by one. The machete-wielding zombies mutilate and decapitate one, feed another to hungry pigs (!), lock a goon in a snake-filled coffin, and give a zombie massage to lead goon Fabulous (Charles Robinson, NIGHT COURT). Sugar’s ex-boyfriend, police detective Valentine (Richard Lawson) suspects Sugar’s doing that voodoo that she do so well, but can’t prove it, and winds up hospitalized when he gets too close to the truth. Sugar saves the best for last as Morgan and his racist ho Celeste (Betty Ann Rees) get their just desserts.

Colley’s over-the-top Baron Samedi makes a great supernatural villain (Geoffrey Holder played the Baron in the James Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE). Miss Bey, if not the greatest of thespians, sure does looks sweet as Sugar. In the middle of the film, there’s a wild cat fight between Sugar and Celeste that serves no purpose but is a lot of fun! The zombies are appropriately eerie-looking,  and the murders are done well, though not as gory as later zombie flicks.

SUGAR HILL was filmed in Houston, standing in for New Orleans. The backlot swamp is peppered with stock footage of gators, crawling snakes, and assorted swamp critters, and some familiar film sound effects, including that classic kookaburra that pops up in every jungle pic:

Too bad the kookaburra is only indigineous to the wilds of Australia! This was Quarry’s final AIP film; the studio had tried to build him into the next Vincent Price in COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE, RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN , and DEATHMASTER without much success. Director Paul Maslansky shows a steady if unspectacular hand; he went on to produce the POLICE ACADEMY movies, which were a horror of another kind! And we can’t have a Blaxploitation flick without a funky theme song, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” by Motown’s The Originals:

SUGAR HILL is a sweet (sorry) entry in the Horror/Blaxploitation  field, and it’s overblown insanity, sense of fun, and downright spooky atmosphere makes it a worthy Halloween treat for lovers of both genres.

 

 

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 LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (Hallmark Releasing 1974)

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While doing some background research on actor Arthur Kennedy for my post about DESPERATE JOURNEY  back in June, I came across an IMDb entry for a movie titled THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE. It’s description is as follows: “A cop chases two hippies suspected of a series of Manson-family like murders; unbeknownst to him, the real culprits are the living dead, brought to life with a thirst for human flesh by chemical pesticides being used by area farmers”. Sounded right up my alley, and a perfect candidate for this year’s ‘Halloween Havoc!’ horrorthon!

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Though the description isn’t 100% accurate, THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE is a surprisingly good Italian-Spanish made chiller with elements of giallo movies, as our lead George is traveler who stumbles into murder. His motorcycle (a nice looking vintage Norton) is backed into by Edna on his way to Wyndhamere. She gives him a lift, and get lost, stopping for directions at farm where a new “sonic radiation” pesticide is being used. It’s there Edna encounters the first zombie, which is explained away as being a tramp looking for a handout. Edna persuades George to bring her to her sister’s place in South Gate and take the car to his destination, as sister Katie’s a junkie she’s trying to persuade to go to rehab.

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Katie and husband Martin are attacked by a zombie just as George and Edna show up. Martin’s brutally killed, and the police are called in, led by a dour, hard assed sergeant (Kennedy, complete with Irish brogue!) who suspects them all of being some kind of hippie death cult. This leads to conflict between young, long-haired George and the establishment sergeant, who’s convinced the young folks are guilty, while the experimental pesticide radiation causes more and more of the dead to rise and feast on the flesh of the living!

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Director Jorge Grau keeps things tense and suspenseful, and there’s plenty of gore for horror lovers, as the zombies chow down on human innards. Ray Lovelock (George) spends a lot of time with his shirt half-buttoned exposing his hairy 70’s chest (hey, it was the style at the time!!). Lovelock’s noted for his roles in poliziotteschi flicks like LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN, Spaghetti Westerns (DJANGO KILL… IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT! with Tomas Milian)   , and Eurohorror (LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH). He’s also been in more mainstream movies like Norman Jewison’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and 1976’s THE CASSANDRA CROSSING. Christina Galbo (Edna) made a name for herself in the Eurohorrors THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, and THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN. An actress named Anita Colby has a bit as a nurse; this is NOT the same Anita Colby famous as a model and Hollywood actress (BRUTE FORCE)    as is sometimes erroneously claimed.

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As for Arthur Kennedy, he chews the scenery with relish as the ornery policeman. By this time, the five-time Oscar nominated actor was working mostly in Europe due to his alcoholism and, though the part of the tough, conservative cop is a pretty stereotypical one, Kennedy gives it his all, and proves his acting prowess hadn’t waned despite his issues. THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MANOR was first released in the U.S as DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW, the bottom half of a double feature bill with LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT that toured the Grindhouse and drive-in circuits. Its original title translates into DO NOT PROFANE THE SLEEP OF THE DEAD, and is also known as LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE. But by any name, it’s a good, atmospheric zombie movie that I recommend you watch this Halloween season. Or any season you’re in the mood for some Eurohorror fun!

 

 

Moon Madness: INVISIBLE INVADERS (1959)

invade1 Edward L. Cahn (1899-1963) was one of those unsung Hollywood minions who had long careers. Beginning as an editor in the waning days of the silent era, Cahn steadily worked his way up to director, helming 26 of MGM’s later Our Gang shorts. Moving from the majors to the seedy world of low-budget filmmaking, Cahn’s feature film output found him at poverty stricken studios like PRC and for a number of years American International Pictures. He worked mainly in the science-fiction realm, but labored on everything from teen delinquency pics (DRAGSTRIP GIRL) to war dramas (SUICIDE BATTALION) to westerns (FLESH AND THE SPUR) and noir (WHEN THE CLOCK STRIKES). Cahn’s features were interesting. Not very good mind you, but interesting.

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Unfunny Business: Bela Lugosi in ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945)

wally-brown-mainBela Lugosi has always been one of my favorite actors. The master of the macabre sent shivers down my spine in such classics as DRACULA, WHITE ZOMBIE, and THE RAVEN.  But by the 1940s, morphine addicted and desperate for work, Lugosi took acting jobs wherever he could find them. He always gave his best in whatever he did, even in low budget nonsense like THE DEVIL BAT (a personal favorite of mine). In fact, if it wasn’t for Lugosi’s presence, most of these films wouldn’t be worth watching today. ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY is one of them.

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