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Copycats followed in quick succession, but by the mid-Seventies the sub-genre had basically died out. But if the cinema of the last half century has taught us anything, it’s that zombies always return. By 1980, the master had returned for the third in his Dead trilogy, but more importantly, his one-time colleague took the horde in a comedic direction – a decision that fit so well it would in itself become epidemic.
By ’85, there were already scads of zombie movies, most of which used Romero’s ‘Night’ as a groundwork. Some (Lucio Fulci’s ‘Zombie,’ Dan O’Bannon’s ‘Return of the Living Dead’) served as their own, unofficial sequels. But Romero had his own trajectory in mind, and a brainless gut muncher (‘Zombie’) or a splatter comedy (‘Return’) were not part of his vision.
Romero takes us to the next, logical step in the cataclysm he set off. ‘Night’ showed us the genesis of the catastrophe. ‘Dawn’ opened the scope up to show us what happens when the world first tries to grapple with the epidemic. ‘Day’ is the obvious conclusion: the end of civilization.
Romero unleashes his cynicism – at our fragile humanity, at military impotence. He seems to be saying that maybe it’s best if the world starts over with an entirely different alpha population. Like, say, zombies.
Believe it or not, the guy who wrote the Ridley Scott masterpiece ‘Alien’ also penned and directed the horror comedy that put words – at least one – into the mouths of zombies: brains! Yes, Dan O’Bannon teamed up with ‘Night of the Living Dead’ producer Russell Streiner and co-scribe John Russo to spin a campier yarn based on the same premise.
It turns out, according to UNEEDA Medical Supplier worker Frank (James Karen), the movie Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story, and what remains of those old zombies is stored in tanks down the warehouse basement. When old Frank takes trainee Freddy down to show off these tanks, he horses around and releases a gas that reanimates the cadaver up in cold storage – as well as those resting in the cemetery across the road.
No, there are two things the film is most remembered for. One is that it is the first film in which zombies hunger exclusively for brains. The second is scream queen Linnea Quigley’s cemetery striptease.
O’Bannon broke some rules put into place by the Romero originator. These zombies can’t be killed with a blow to the head. They move quickly, conspire, use tools, and talk. But by far the greatest contribution this film made to the genre was in directing the undead’s insatiable hunger for – that’s right – Brrraaaaiiiinnnns.
Stuart Gordon’s ‘Re-Animator’ reinvigorated the Frankenstein storyline in a decade glutted with vampire films. Based, as so many fantasy/horror films are, on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, ‘Re-Animator’ boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain.
Jeffrey Combs, with his intense gaze and pout, his ability to mix comic timing with epic self-righteousness without turning to caricature, carries the film beginning to end. His Dr. Herbert West has developed a day-glo serum that reanimates dead tissue, but a minor foul up with his experimentations – some might call it murder – sees him taking his studies to the New England medical school Miskatonic University. There he rents a room and basement laboratory from handsome med student Dan Caine (Bruce Abbott).
They’re not just evil scientists. They’re also really bad doctors.
Playing second fiddle baddie to Combs’s West is the equally self-righteous, potentially more villainous Dr. Carl Hill, played with just enough perversity by David Gale.
First-time director Gordon’s effort is superb. He glories in the macabre fun of his scenes, pushing envelopes and dumping gallons of blood and gore. He balances anxiety with comedy, mines scenes for all they have to give, and takes you places you haven’t been.
This gory, nonsensical nightmare is set in New Orleans, where a hotel is built above the gateway to hell. Forget that whole Dunwich thing – totally wrong address. This one, this is the actual gateway. Totally sure this time. No need to stop and ask directions.
The film is overdubbed from beginning to end, and the mismatch between the lip synch and soundtrack is wild enough, but hearing these voice actors – most of them foreign – try to sound not only American but Southern is outstanding. Fulci makes it seem intentional by dubbing in other sounds to an unnatural degree – footfalls, breathing, door squeaks. It makes the entire effort seem dreamlike, an approach that matches the film’s loosely constructed (at best) content well.
Liza (Katherine McColl) – an absolutely unconvincing New Yorker – inherits an old New Orleans hotel and decides to reopen it. This is her big chance. But her staff is meager and super weird, the basement is flooded, this blind lady and her dog keep showing up, and then there’s the whole gateway to hell thing. Basically, the property is probably not flippable. Not in this economy anyway.
The film’s carnage is particularly viscous – just a sloppy, messy affair – and Fulci continues his streak as the ommetaphobic’s enemy. (The eye gouging. He’s very big on it. Ask Joe the bearded plumber who comes to do something about the 4 feet of standing water in the basement. By himself. With a hammer. That’s just poor plumbing, Joe).
Sam Raimi’s low rent debut featured budding B-movie god Bruce Campbell as the beleaguered camper Ash. Innocently vacationing with his girlfriend, another couple, and his bitchy sister Cheryl (oh how the forest hates Cheryl!), Ash finds himself battling for his life.
The bare bones: they read from the book of the dead, the incantations awaken something evil in the forest, and one by one that forest evil possesses those around Ash, who must hack and trap and gut and kill to survive.
The combination of budget constraints, silliness and over-the-top dismemberment draw your attention away from the real genius at work here. The film is astonishingly well crafted technically, especially given the lack of experience and cash on hand.
The film uses wild point of view shots and oozes red, green, and white gunk depending on who’s doing the seeping. It’s classic Raimi spattertastic cinema: lowbrow – some would even say idiotic – gross-out humor at its best.
Zombie films took a turn to the humorous in the early Eighties, and there they would stay. Over the next few decades we’d see even the rise of the Zom Rom Com – who’d have seen that coming when Johnny first tells his sister, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…”
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