Sunday, December 23, 2007

09/03/07: Schlock Of The Living Dead triple!

I Walked With A Zombie

USA 1943 b&w

Director Jacques Tourneur Producer Val Lewton Writers Inez Wallace, Curt Siodmak

Cast James Ellison (Wesley Rand), Frances Dee (Betsy Connell), Tom Conway (Paul Holland), Edith Barrett (Mrs Rand)

Good evening and welcome to Schlock Treatment’s special “Schlock Of The Living Dead” zombie triple bill, and a trio of zombie films that are all in black and white, rely on atmosphere over gore, and are considered the classic horrors films of their respective decades.

“Everything good dies here - even the stars.” So says James Ellison’s character Wesley Rand in the 1943 film I Walked With A Zombie as he and Betsy Connell, played by Frances Dee, sail into the port of the tiny Caribbean island of St Sebastian. Connell is the new nurse employed by Rand’s brother Paul Holland (played by Tom Conway) to look after his catatonic yet eerily beautiful and still-walking wife Jennifer. Although she doesn’t pay heed to the local tales of voodoo and zombies, the nurse takes Jennifer deep into the sugar cane and jungle drums to the witch doctor to retrieve her mind, and soon becomes immersed in the island’s deeply superstitous customs and rituals, including those of the sugar plantation-owning brothers. And thus begins a bizarre romantic quadrangle: brother fancies nurse, nurse falls for brother, brother loves zombie.

What sets this film apart from the other creaky tinpot spookshows of the Fourties is the sure hand of RKO Pictures producer Val Lewton, renowned for his atmospheric horrors such as Bedlam, Isle Of The Dead and The Body Snatcher. Here in his second horror film after 1942’s The Cat People, he gathers an incredible team - genre specialist Jacques Tourneur (who also helmed Cat People and later directed the brilliant Curse Of The Demon) and writer Curt Siodmak who reworks the story of Jane Eyre into an incredibly literate script which maintains the story’s central mystery to the end. Is the wife suffering from insanity? Or is she truly the living dead?

Simultaneously subtle and complex, dreamlike and deeply moral, this is one zombie film here you’re actually glad they don’t pile on the gore. Acknowledged as one of the greatest horror films of the 1940s, Schlock Treatment proudly presents the 1943 classic I Walked With A Zombie.

Night Of The Living Dead

USA 1968 b&w

aka Night Of The Flesh Eaters

Director George A. Romero Writers John A. Russo, George A. Romero

Cast Duane Jones (Ben), Judith O'Dea (Barbra), Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper), Marilyn Eastman (Helen Cooper)

It’s part of horror folklore that a film as hugely influential as Night Of The Living Dead started life as a part time venture for George A. Romero and his film team who usually made TV commercials. A miniscule production filmed in black and white out of necessity and made for a pittance, it languished before it hit big on the midnight movie circuit in the early 70s, thanks to a counter-culture audience of pot-smoking campus crawlers hooked on Pink Flamingos and the mystic spaghetti westerns of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Although hugely influential, it would be 10 years before Romero returned to the zombie genre with the 1978 splatter masterpiece Dawn Of The Dead and continued with Day Of The Dead, Land Of The Dead, and the soon to be released Diary Of The Dead. It warms the heart to know the King of the Zombies still reigns... in blood.

Night Of The Living Dead is in essense a seige film like Rio Bravo or Assault On Precinct 13: in a country house next to a cemetery are a group of survivors of an unspecified event that causes the dead to rise and consume the flesh of the living. Surrounding them are a legion of the undead - lumbering, soulless, seemingly unstoppable creatures still in their funereal best with white contorted faces, raccoon eyes and an insatiable hunger.

The importance of this film cannot be understated. Night Of The Living Dead defined a genre and, along with a small handful of films from the 60s such as Psycho, reinvented horror as a genre worthy of attention. Post-modern critics will wax endlessly about the film’s multi-racial cast (including the poor man’s Sidney Poitier, Duane Jones), and its allusions to Vietnam War; semantics aside, it’s a genuinely creepy film, tightly edited and well-acted by a cast of relative unknowns, and intensely claustrophobic, from the line “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” to the ending’s personalized apocalypse.

The terror is not the result of voodoo ritual but rather something more portentious. Stripped of a supernatural context, the story has a more tangible sense of doom, entropy and decay. It suggests this is the natural order of things - from light into dark, from life unto death. And we the living are to be consumed by what we are destined to become.

And on that positive note, we present the first great horror film of the modern age: George A Romero’s 1968 Night Of The Living Dead.

White Zombie

USA 1932 b&w

Director Victor Halperin Writer Garnett Weston

Cast Bela Lugosi ('Murder' Legendre), Madge Bellamy (Madeleine Short Parker), Joseph Cawthorn (Dr Bruner), Robert Frazer (Charles Beaumont)

From the time when the names Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi was sufficient to sell any horror film comes the early genre classic from 1932, White Zombie.

A young couple travel to Haiti for their wedding. On the ride through the Carribean countryside they catch their first glimpse of zombies: wretched creatures with claws for hands and blank eyes, corpses resurrected by voodoo to work as slave labour at the sugar mill run by ‘Murder’ Legendre (played by Bela Lugosi). Their happiness soon turns to despair when the local landowner Beaumont covets Neil’s new bride Madeline, and sells his soul to Legendre in return for Madeline’s. Once she pricks her thumb on a rose dusted with Legendre’s zombie powder, she becomes the walking dead completely under the control of Legendre’s hypnotic gaze.

The title says it all: White Zombie, a stark contrast between the dark mysteries of the Caribbean and our so-called civilization, as is the contrast implicit in the story between black slave and white slave master. Bela Lugosi as the French plantation owner is perfect in a characterization not so far from his role as Dracula: wide-eyed but slightly more restrained and even more malevolent.

The script and staging may be primitive by today’s standards but the visuals are stunning, considering they were concocted on a shoestring budget at a time horror was in its infancy. Hills dotted with white crosses and dead brides, the vulture as the omnipresent harbinger of doom, and Lugosi’s intense eyes superimposed onto the Haitian countryside, make this a must-see for any serious horror fans. From 1932 we present Bela Lugosi at his intense best in White Zombie.

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