Monday, July 24, 2017

Night of the Living Dead

     Is reviewing the National Film Registry right? Well... the television said it was the right thing to do.

     So... Night of the Living Dead. I've been putting this one off, because to my ever-lasting nerd shame, I really, really hate zombie movies. Even though what we now call zombies are more properly termed "ghouls" (like they're called in this film) or "revenants". But the term zombie stuck, and now we've got a bonanza of the damn things chowing down on grizzled survivors, shrieking women, or trying their luck on eating wacky character types in the Zom-Rom-Com. But it really all started here, since the only earlier zombie film I know of is the obscure Bela Lugosi flick "Zombies on Broadway" (highly disappointing - while there are traditional Voudon zombies, they only show up on Broadway in the last scene). And this film didn't just make zombies a mainstream scare factory, it ushered in just how graphic a horror movie could get with its content!

     The film stars Duane Jones, Bill Cardille, and contains various other people. Duane Jones is really the only one to turn in anything resembling a performance, while Bill Cardille had actually been a reporter. The others... well, they help show just how low the budget was! They kind of lurch through the picture like extras in a high school play, occasionally reaching the level of first-time community theater performers. The camera effects are generally amateurish, with cuts especially being handled generally badly, and the camera choosing weird things to focus on (my favorite being the mincing zombie with the bob cut - she looks more concerned about dirtying her shoes than finding brains). But there is a certain effectiveness in the general lot of the film being amateur hour... especially since it was mixed with some very well-thought out practical effects and some amazing make-up work. The generally bad acting can feel a lot like random people facing this completely beyond the pale situation, and when the camera is focusing on the practical effects, it gives loving detail to the guts and gore.

     There's also the revolutionary casting of Duane Jones as the hero in a horror picture, and interestingly, the last to die. While everyone involved in the picture swears it was just because Duane Jones gave a really good audition, a black man keeping his head in a horrible supernatural situation, let alone being generally heroic, was pretty much unheard of. Here I'm thinking of the myriad of media from the era showing various black people being terrified of "haints", as an extra little nail of them being inferior to whites because they're so full of silly superstition! Ha! I take George Romero's word that he wasn't trying to do anything revolutionary with racial politics in film, but unconsciously achieving something is still an achievement. Even if that revolution was short-lived enough that "The Black Guy Dies First" is a standard horror trope.

     As you might surmise, my feelings on this film are mixed. It ushered in the era of everything I hate about horror films. I hate bloodfests and gore. I hate zombies. As a piece of entertainment that I was expected to find pleasing in some way, I hated this movie. But from the detached portion of me that is trying to engage these films on the level of "cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance", I have to admit this movie had all three.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


Sometimes people don't know when I'm reviewing. It's not important for them to know. It's important for me to know.

In other words, sorry for the hiatus.

In other other words, let's get right into Patton.

Patton functions well as a straight war picture, with some great battle shots and a good general sense of history. But it primarily functions as a character study of General George S. Patton - a man who seemingly lived his life as if he was a character written for a movie. Equal parts bombastic and sentimental, foul-mouthed and strangely delicate about particular matters, if Patton hadn't been a real person, you could probably confuse him with a character who wandered off the set of Catch-22. How can a man who has just given his men a vulgar speech full of fire, brimstone, and curses, then insist on being driven out to an ancient battlefield and quote his own poetry with misty-eyed rapture? Especially poetry that is actually rather good. The Roger Ebert review from 1970 points out that George C. Scott as Patton in the opening scene is wearing perhaps two fewer medals than Groucho Marx would have worn to play the parody of the character. Yet the medals are worn in all seriousness, without even a hint that they might be considered excessive. The whole movie functions on that level. It is undeniably the Patton Show, and when the camera goes off to focus on someone else - whether Americans, British, or German, Patton is still the subject of conversation.

Even many other biopics allow the subject a little more room, maybe some discussion solely of events that we know will affect the subject, but that they have no knowledge about. Yet here, if Patton is not directly involved, he is the subject of conversation. The Germans admire him as a romantic throwback, the British despair of him as a glory hound, and the Americans go between adoring him as a plain-spoken warrior and despising him for being a blunt old bastard. The thing that keeps him being likable as a character is that he is all of these things, and is fully aware of it. The problem comes in that he has to exist in the world with other people. He doesn't understand people who are not like him, and makes no real effort to try.

We've all known people like this, and they are generally exhausting in real life. But on the screen, especially as a central figure in a mesmerizing biopic, they can become irresistible. As a film, this functions as one of the truly great biopics, both by completely centering its subject, and by not attempting to whitewash any flaws. Lawrence of Arabia is another of the great biopics, and is also a Registry film, which I will get to eventually. But the difference between the two is that Lawrence of Arabia makes sure that the viewer never fully forgets that T.E. Lawrence is playing a part between two great dramas: WWI and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. In Patton, WWII might as well have just been fought to give old George something to do in his twilight years. But judging by the characters of the two men, that's precisely how both of them saw themselves in relation to their conflict. And that's what makes Patton memorable as a war epic and as a biopic.