Dawn of The Dead
The original Dawn of the Dead from ’78 is still best viewed at a midnight show in an afterhours crappy mall multiplex, the way most people saw it in the pre-VHS domination era. George Romero’s first and best sequel to his seminal, groundbreaking zombie flick Night of The Living Dead came out ten years later, with a much larger budget and an even grander eye for detail. (Hereafter the film will be referred to on this page in its shortened form, the way most Romeroites refer to it, as just Dawn.) Dawn owes more to 1970s post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man and No Blade of Grass than the old school setup of victims trapped in a house waiting to be picked off one after the other, which the first film employed. Much of Dawn’s well earned reputation among gore-aficionados comes from the film's opening prelude, which is truly nasty, with many head explosions (Romero exploring an FX path he first ventured into earlier in the decade with his under-appreciated shot-gun-to-the-head epic The Crazies). The beauty of Dawn is though the draw may be the zombies (now in glorious color!), unlike the wave of imitations to follow, this is actually an existential, character-driven drama where the threat of the undead becomes secondary and humans prove to be much more dangerous (a concept finally realized again years later in the too-talky TV series The Walking Dead).
It was Night that gave us the zombie movie rules that have been followed like a bible ever since: the dead, now lumbering mummy-like bores, have come back to life to eat the living. The only way to stop them and send them back to a bag-of-bones state is to destroy their one-track brain. Apparently pretty soon after the first film ended, Dawn picks up. The world has plunged into anarchy. Two SWAT team officers, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree ) become fast friends while trying to clear a zombie-and-resident-filled Philadelphia apartment building. (One guy is black, the other white--without vocalizing it--it continues some racial themes brought up most credibly in the first film.) Again the majority of the film’s gore content really does happen in that first scene. (The film was released without a rating to avoid the X it was threatened with.) Roger invites his new pal to join up with his buddy Stephen (David Emge, who later popped up in the under-seen horror masterpiece Hellmaster) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross), two television station employees who have a plan to escape town in the station’s helicopter--after all, Stephen is known as “flyboy.” As pandemonium takes over the ground, the foursome take to the sky, eventually landing on the top of a suburban mall. Easily breaking in through the roof, they do a little exploring of the huge shopping mall to look for supplies; the place has been untouched so it’s complete with all supplies needed, including gun store and an ice rink!Continue Reading
No Blade of Grass
For hardcore moviephiles the Warners Archive Collection has been a godsend. Instead of mass producing everything the company owns, many titles have been released as VOD (Video On Demand) and, because of the lower demand, these are titles that may not have otherwise ever seen the light of day. These are DVDs that include no extras and usually haven’t been remastered, but are still very watchable and often have never been available in any form in the home viewing marketplace. Titles range from Hollywood classics (Tea and Sympathy) to both live action (Sheena) and animated television series (Pac Man the TV show!). But where they have really excelled is in films from the golden period of the '60s and '70s that have never had much home viewing distribution, ranging from the great (Dark of the Sun), the bad (Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze), and the weird (Brewster McCloud) to the culty (You’re a Big Boy Now), the gritty (The Outfit), and the forgotten hits (Freebie and the Bean, The Fish that Saved Pittsburg). Many of these have been films I saw and even obsessed over as a kid (I was dreaming for the Dark Of The Sun release). Most excitingly I’ve finally been given a chance to catch up with a post-apocalypse flick I vaguely remember from an old grainy bootleg VHS copy I saw many years ago. (My memories of No Blade of Grass have haunted me). This most recent viewing reconfirmed the scary power this movie still carries.
Hungarian born Cornel Wilde was a long time pretty boy jock actor. He got an Oscar nomination early in his career for playing Frederic Chopin in A Song to Remember in 1945, but besides a nice supporting turn in The Greatest Show On Earth most of his career was awash in B-swashbuckling adventure flicks. He had dabbled in directing throughout the '50s but it wasn’t until 1965 when he fully connected the dots with his survival action masterpiece, The Naked Prey (a film that has gotten the full bells and whistles treatment from the high-end DVD distributors Criterion). Five years later No Blade of Grass, continues on much of those same themes of man vs. his savage impulses, going even further with the violence and throwing in deeper groovy environmental paranoia.Continue Reading
Panic in Year Zero!
Actor Ray Milland is best known for his Oscar-winning performance as the tragic drunk hero in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (and as Grace Kelly’s unlikely murderous husband in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder) plus about 100 other flicks going back to the end of the silent era up until his death in ’84. But surprisingly to many, he also did some directing -- mostly television -- and also five cheapie features in the '50s & '60s. His ’62 entry, Panic in Year Zero!, is the one still of some note today. What was just a low-budget, obviously economical, double bill throwaway then, now feels weirdly powerful and very influential. It was the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, when America and the Soviet Union were as close to nuclear war as we’ve ever gotten and the world was on edge. So this was a timely, life-after-Armageddon movie. It’s stagey and sometimes awkward, but it’s so cold and vicious that it actually often feels too authentic. It’s almost as if it were a '50s sitcom family (though completely devoid of humor) written by Rod Serling and produced by the NRA. (Yes, when the bombs drop, this movie makes it clear you want to be armed to the tee).
The Baldwins are (I suppose) a typical suburban Los Angeles family, headed by the bossy, gruff dad, Harry (Milland), and his minion wife Ann (Jean Hagen, brilliant as movie star Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain). Harry’s second-in-command seems to be his teenage son, Rick (Frankie Avalon, a year before he would break though and become a big star in a number of beach blanket bikini movies) and rounding out the family is his useless teeny-bopper sister, Karen, played by Mary Mitchell. (She went to school with Francis Ford Coppola and a year later would appear in his Dementia 13. She would be done acting by the end of the decade, but would later compile a long list of credits as a script supervisor). While the family sets out pulling their camper for a little fishing vacation, nukes torch LA and suddenly their trip becomes a fight to survive. Harry goes all in. The film plays like a real how-to, as Harry and son take to the road, robbing for guns, gas and groceries, before setting up a makeshift home in an abandoned cave. Along the way they are forced to confront some James Dean mannered-creeps and rescue the creeps’ sex slave (Joan Freeman), though sister Karen does get raped. And if all of this does not sound grim enough, the film ends on a title card that reads "There must be no end – only a new beginning."Continue Reading