By Kristin Battestella
What's the next best thing to watching horror? Watching other people talk about zombies, scary classics, and the history of frightful film!
Birth of the Living Dead – This 2013 frank and colorful conversation with George A. Romero recounts his early start with Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, beer commercials, and stalled productions before establishing the zombie onscreen as we know it today and using horror to make social statements on Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement with Night of the Living Dead. Romero and his associates wore numerous hats for the organic filming and bare minimum $100,000 production, leading to a necessary ingenuity shaping the realistic horror and self aware fears onscreen as they fought against studio demands, difficult cinema distribution, and copyright issues. Contemporary filmmakers and students also provide detailed scene by scene analysis and discuss the groundbreaking racial impacts of the film, early uses of the inaccuracy of television and radio media to parallel 1968 news coverage, and erroneous law enforcement implications of the time – topics still very relevant today. It's interesting to hear how the script did not mention race and went unchanged once Duane Jones was cast in the lead – the focus of the film was primarily a cynical denouement on the large mistakes or small differences that would unravel mid century middle America in the face of unexplained, non-supernatural horror but nonetheless inadvertently addresses racial issues of the era. The villain isn't made clear and no one actually wins, and these frightening concepts influenced numerous political films to come. It's a real treat to have an entire 76 minutes dedicated to discussing Night of the Living Dead, and this documentary is perfect for horror fans or sociology classrooms looking to dissect horror onscreen and off.
Nightmare Factory – John Carpenter, George A. Romero, John Landis, Elijah Wood, Norman Reedus, Tom Savini, Robert Rodriguez, and more discuss the difficulty of makeup designs, prosthetic effects, and bringing scares to life in this 94 minute 2011 special. There are warehouse tours, historical horror props, early talk of Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce, gore in progress limbs, macabre sculptures, and body casts alongside animatronics and puppetry secrets. However, the primary focus here is not on the history of horror effects but rather Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and their KNB Effects company. Primitive childhood films, behind the scenes footage from Day of the Dead to The Walking Dead, and interviews with the Nicotero family help shape the personal rise and artistic camaraderie as the late seventies horror wave brought the effects industry into mainstream films. Remember, in the past it wasn't cool to be into creepy gross stuff like it is now! Of course, Robert Kurtzman – the K in KNB Effects – is only briefly mentioned amid this rock n roll makeup fraternity, and the presentation is uneven, meandering vainly over KNB's monopoly on the effects business and wasting time on funny anecdotes. Though diva aspects, perfectionism, and CGI competition are addressed, these counter topics are too swift and the absence of a narrator to balance the chronology or transition segments further contributes to the seemingly random structure. I might have preferred to see a more linear, practical behind the scenes instead – use this fake blood mix, rubber mask mold that. However, there are some neat insights into the special effects evolution, with debates on the practicality of making one small piece versus an entire monstrosity, what you can do with little money compared to a big budget, and ultimately how tedious a production can truly be. The conversation may be somewhat rocky, but this remains an informative treat for behind the scenes enthusiasts and scary die hards.
Universal Horror – Kenneth Branagh narrates this 1998 documentary previously available on other Universal DVD videos and now accenting the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection blu-ray set. These 95 minutes are packed with interviews from Ray Bradbury, Gloria Stuart, Fay Wray, Carla Laemmle, Sara Karloff, Forrest J. Ackerman, and yet more actors, actresses, authors, filmmakers, and historians discussing the Hollywood Gothic and European design trends begun by Universal after their early start in silents and westerns before The Hunchback of Notre Dame. From foundings with Carl Laemmle, the famed Stage 28, and The Phantom of the Opera to The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs, and London After Midnight, time here is also well spent on directors Tod Browning and James Whale and their talkie success with Dracula and Frankenstein. Due time focuses on Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff, too, before King King nostalgia, more Depression era horror, and The Black Cat. Yes, this is a lot of stuff to cover, but the orderly progression moves at a nice pace on each leg of the journey thanks to film clips, rare footage and photos, and family anecdotes. Highlights on German Expressionism, earlier silent inspirations, and the beginnings of censorship battles help frame Universal’s place in the budding horror glory, but the time here only covers up to Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. Intriguing topics such as bankruptcy and the end of the Laemmle era, World War II parallels in horror, the forties second wave of sequels, and Abbott and Costello mash ups are quickly squished in the final fifteen minutes. One could do an entire mini series on the history of this studio, indeed. However, this extended retrospective has more than enough to delight movie history buffs and horror fans old and new.
Doc of the Dead – This 80 minute 2014 special tackles the zombie rise on film from the medium's infancy to Romero's work and beyond with spoof newscasts, zombie town hall meetings, film clips from White Zombie to World War Z, and quips from Simon Pegg, Bruce Campbell, and more. Early film racism, voodoo metaphors, biological scares, and science fiction undead mixes create an interesting conversation alongside Black Friday irony, capitalism fears, and social commentary. Retrospective sit downs discuss how new disasters both natural and manmade have created a millennial zombie resurgence with video games and all things The Walking Dead. Unfortunately, many zombie films go unmentioned in favor of more pop than cinema. Real life voodoo practitioners and global undead history are pushed aside in favor of a lengthy fast versus slow zombie debate. Obvious metaphors are nothing new to hardcore fans, and the 98% white male experts end up repeating the same pretentious things. The ironic hipster tunes and geek humor is a bit much, too – on the street funny people and music montages are unnecessary and off the mark. Scientific perspectives are dropped in favor of zombie commercials, zombie weddings, and kid zombie movies followed by onscreen experts saying we haven't jumped the zombie shark just yet. This counter productive approach at once tells us how mainstream zombies have become whilst also presenting bizarre aspects such as undead rape fantasy and zombie porn – which of course is where the few female commentators get to look foolish. Time is padded with double talk on why zombies are so big but how such popularity is baffling, and panelists say they would leave their kids behind and jump off buildings in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Ultimately, this embracing fandom hug feels more like a cultural mockery complete with homophobic comedy, and I stopped caring before the last forty minutes.