Richard Matheson was a legend to many readers and writers because of his novel I Am Legend.
Whenever Hollywood has tried to film that seminal book about survival and how myths come to be created, they gutted the book. They slaughtered it and feasted on it like zombies finding fresh innards.
George Romero was the first filmmaker to capture the fierce isolation and terror of a world succumbing to forces that would threaten all human existence on the face of the planet in his film Night of the Living Dead.
Replace Matheson’s vampires with Romero’s zombies, and the night the zombies began to shamble towards carnage and consequence, this film sought to capture that portion of Richard Matheson’s beloved novel. Night of the Living Dead does not explore that added level in I Am Legend, it does not have the added resonance of detailing how myths and legends are created out of history and reality.
I’m sure not even Romero had the remotest thought that his low-budget black-and-white film would spawn an entire sub-genre, thriving today, with the most successful cable TV series on the air in 2013, The Walking Dead.
I first saw Night at a drive-in movie theater in Rhode Island, when it was running a dusk-to-dawn horror marathon. I really wanted to see the film version of Fritz Leiber’s Burn Witch Burn! which was one of the four features. Somewhere about two in the morning, Night came on as the last movie.
Night lasted until about Rhode Island dawn, as I drove out with the cars that had stayed for the entire marathon. Night was raw and crude. It broke so many of the rules for genre movies of that time period that I suspect it took years for it to gain its proper respect, for what it did when, and for some it never would get its cinematic due because of its gore. This was no clean horror. This was no bloodless atrocity.
I always liked Dawn of the Dead the best of Romero’s zombie films. I loved the setting in a shopping mall, of the zombies coming to the mall as they would a shrine, made by Romero at a time when malls were spreading across the United States as a singular consumerist heaven.
As Dawn waited for Day to come, no one still had any idea how zombies would take a huge chunk out of the entertainment market, and the backers of zombie merchandising would gorge on green, the green of huge profits Romero did not see.
Day of the Dead has been released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory. The transfer is sharp and clear. There are some debates among some fans of the film as to minor differences in image quality, but I can’t see any radically disturbing approaches that would persuade me that there is any large divisive issue. For completists, it should be noted that this new release of Day does not have all of the extras that were on the Anchor Bay DVD version in 2003; however, Shout!’s Blu-ray also has a number of new extras, some of them pretty extensive, on the behind the scenes productions and difficulties of getting this third entry in George Romero’s series finally into film reality.
The bottom line on this is if you want all the features, then selling the old edition and making shelf space is not an option. If space is at a premium for you, then you know, that sucks. It’s the collector’s curse!
One of the extras features on Shout!’s Day has Tom Savini discussing all the practical gore effects done in the last half of the film. There are no CGI blood spurts here, and if you are one of those whose fondest desire is to see what a body looks like when its insides come tumbling out, intestines and all, just gushing from torn-apart flesh, then Tom Savini had made your fondest wish real.
I get a kick out of seeing Tom Savini, one of the best of the gore-effects special effects gurus, as a young guy showing off how he made the effects look so realistic. Well, I’ve seen something close to this in Army training films, so Tom does have it pretty damn close, but here’s why I get a kick out of him drenched in red innards.
Tom, surrounded by sausage guts and dark blood colored syrup, looks so delighted at his achievement. Savini, is a kid in gorish glee. A kid making good. Right there, you can see a man making his dreams of years come true.
Day of the Dead did not have an immediate acceptance from film critics, from the general audience or from gore hounds. A reassessment of Romero’s claustrophobic “zombies in mammoth caverns captivity” would come about when the video tape revolution gave new life to films that were abandoned and thought gone until VHS gave home to the lost and the rise of a new life for films, that one could easily rent or buy them and have them in their own homes.
On top of that, video meant, especially for horror and adult films, that they often could be released as they were originally meant to be seen, most of time without subjective editorial cutting of anything someone thought offensive to the general populace.
Now the gore tumbling from mutilated flesh stayed intact, if you found and bought the right version.
Thus, Tom Savini’s moment of triumph, of achieving his dream of being one of the best in horror — one who would influence many special effects wannabes who became their own successes eventually — inspired by the breakthrough effects of a film like Romero’s Day of the Dead.
Still, as we entered the new millennium, zombies were still on the fringe of pop culture.
Inferior movies of Matheson’s I Am Legend were still being made, albeit with much larger budgets, but also radically castrating the thematic material, losing both vampires and zombies at the same time.
There would be few people, if asked, who would have predicted The Walking Dead would become the most successful, most watched cable endeavor by 2013.
Zombies shambling about, looking for nourishment among a group of divided human beings.
Flesh torn from faces?
Stomachs ripped open in homage to Romero and Savini?
CGI and practical special effects showing grotesquely mutilated zombies with no legs and only entrails dangling as they crawl to reach a human banquet?
FX and AMC are advertising the fact that cable stations can push the boundaries of what could appear on basic cable TV. We’re not talking HBO or Starz here, where Boardwalk Empire or Spartacus can tear asunder the boundaries of violence and sexuality that even films could not approach. If a major Hollywood film did what these shows do, it certainly could not release it as anything but an NC-17 film, and finding funding for an NC-17 film is a rarity that would leave even zombies starving.
Yet the zombies and the success of The Walking Dead have clobbered the competition and proven that large audiences will accept horror and gore, along with solid suspense story-telling and well written human stories of people struggling to survive or accept a world not with subtle threat but immediate, visceral, stomach-turning affect.
The question always is: Who decides what you can see and what you can’t see?
Who decides where the demarcation points lie?
And then, as I consider all this, I find myself bemused by how crazy some of this all gets. I’ve faced it as a writer in pop culture all my life.
Believe me, it is often not the violence that’s going to be a problem in much of pop culture, the craziness and subjective edicts of what can and can’t be seen is… sex.
Now you can view a neck being chewed open, watch flesh stretched like blood-taffy from a throat. A few decades ago television deaths were bloodless. If someone was shot, there was maybe a spot of blood on a shirt. Maybe. No writhing, no pain, done and gone, cleanly.
And yet, there is something a little askew when the boundaries of violence expand, when the human body can be torn, ripped, decayed and rotted away, but the demarcation point is still a whole naked human body.
If the gore is accepted (and apparently the “suits” are asking for the spurting blood and eroded flesh), then apparently a woman’s nipples are still verboten.
Women’s nipples are still one of the pop culture demarcation points.
Before any of you get the wrong idea, I’m not advocating censorship here, I’m just observing the crazy juxtaposition of fetishistic gore against the idea that turning the audience on is apparently more harshly judged by those who make those decisions.
And in the end, really, if it is really thought about, who knows what turns one individual on and not another?
Just a quick last note on TV writer/director/producer Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story on FX), who, I’m sure, has to contend with committees that decide what his shows can and can’t do. It strikes me when watching Ryan’s series that he relentlessly pushes the envelope.
I bring Ryan Murphy into the midst of this discussion because he captured the craziness of this singularity of what can be shown on a commercial cable station.
He has a series concept and ideas for stories for about two seasons. When the show becomes a hit and goes beyond a couple of seasons. I have the impression that whatever ideas comes up first gets done. Characters do contortions on who and what they do not just through a season, but within one episode.
But Ryan Murphy perhaps captured the craziness of this singularity of what can be shown on a commercial cable station.
In a late season Nip/Tuck (when the series about plastic surgeons seemed to me to become a flesh-and-blood version of South Park, with absolute lunacy abounding), Ryan strikes right at the heart of the visual issue.
A woman comes to see McNamara and Troy to replace her nipples which she apparently lost while in an act of bestiality. (Hey! Don’t come for the messenger, this IS the plotline.)
Where Ryan Murphy visually puts this into place is that when the camera shows the surgery, where normal breasts could never be shown fully, the camera looks straight on the woman’s ruined breasts. If her nipples are gone, left with ruined gore, that can be done.
Again, I’m just observing here, and I am not advocating what should or should not be shown. I just find there is something askew here. But hey! Maybe that’s just me.
If pop culture does reflect where we are as a culture in the present (as it continually does) then I have no idea what we learn from this.
Maybe the zombies have a better idea than we do.
Oh, and don’t anybody tell me about Season Four of The Walking Dead. I’m waiting for the Blu-ray, without the commercials.
The Walking Dead examines both kinds of suspense storytelling that Alfred Hitchcock so often discussed. The two approaches are: One, the audience knows there is a bomb and the people in the film don’t; or Two, the audience and the characters don’t know there’s a bomb. In one, the explosion is a shocking surprise, while in the other we don’t know how it will come out, and there is the endurance level of suspense, who lives or who dies, will the bomb go off or be discovered in time.
In The Walking Dead, the show does both approaches superbly.
And like George Romero in his zombie films, and in Day of the Dead, they explore polarized personalities with radically different worldviews.
In Day, Romero has his cast of volatile characters at odds.
Sarah: Maybe if we tried working together we could ease some of the tensions. We’re all pulling in different directions.
John: That’s the trouble, Sarah, darling, people got different ideas concerning what they want out of life.
You can find the Shout! Blu-ray edition of Day of the Dead on Amazon.
Copyright © 2013 Don McGregor