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Part 1: "Matinee of Terror" double feature, plus cartoon! Our reviewer watches Casper, the Friendly Ghost in "There's Good Boos Tonight" and George Romero's zombie classic: "Night of the Living Dead". Part 2 continues later with Vincent Price in "The Last Man on Earth".
Matinee of Terror (1 of 2)
B movie can mean a lot of different things. Usually, it's
talking about a low budget genre movie. But the connotations of such can either
mean a cheaply made, underappreciated classic to something so bad it doesn't
even deserve MST3K treatment.
There have only been a few movies so bad even I couldn't appreciate them, even from a sarcastic/ironic perspective. This is one. It is my personal low-water mark for badness in cinema. Other than that, I have very little in the way of personal standards when it comes to movies. I like good films, but there's a special place in my heart for the bad ones, as long as they don't primarily feature a romance beset with humourous obstacles.
Therefore, it was with great excitement that I received my latest care package from my dad. It contained 5 different double feature DVDs, with some great horror/sci-fi B-movie titles. Yesterday I flipped through my choices and settled on download & watch it for yourself from the Internet Archive. It's kind of hard to seriously review a film that's been critically covered so much as this classic, but here were my impressions. (Warning: long review ahead with full spoilers.)
First, of course (since this is a matinee) we got a cartoon! I have spent
many childhood hours watching Casper, the Friendly Ghost reruns, and I do seem
to vaguely remember watching
There's Good Boos Tonight. This episode of
Casper's adventures was pretty typical. While other ghosts were out making a
night of scaring folks, Casper just wants to find some friends. He tries a cow
and a skunk without any luck. They just run away in fright when they see a
ghost. But as Casper sobs on a log that no one likes him, a little fox peeps
out his head and nudges Casper. Casper names his new friend Ferdie, and all is
happy until a hunter with some dogs shows up. They chase poor Ferdie while
Casper is still counting up to 100 for hide 'n seek, but Casper soon catches on
to the problem. He scares off the dogs and the hunter, but it's too late.
Ferdie's dead. A heartbroken Casper buries his little fox friend next to his
own grave. But of course, then we see that Ferdie turns into a ghost too, and
the pair can spend eternity together frolicking ectoplasmically. Morbidly
cute. I always felt like I connected with Casper's outsider loneliness.
Next, on to the feature. As a horror film,
Night of the Living Dead
definitely delivered, even for someone jaded by the conventions of horror, and
despite the outdated and low budget effects. The film takes advantage of what
it has, focusing on the confusion and terror of its living protagonists and the
psychological struggles between seven strangers trying to stay alive in a
bizarre and horrifying situation. The zombies were less terrifying than what
the living did to each other and themselves in their own minds. And I'm also a
bit of a sucker for freak out moments and sudden cuts to half-suggested icky
things. Me, I did jump at all the right moments.
Our story starts in a cemetary, fittingly, with a brother and sister performing their filial duty to leave a wreath at their father's grave. Johnny is cynical and complaining, Barbara is meeker but dislikes Johnny's disrespect for the dead. The cemetary seems pretty empty at first, but then we get a glimpse of a lone man walking slowly in the background. Another mourner, perhaps? We find out he's something else entirely when Barbara, being teased by Johnny for being creeped out in a cemetary, bumps into the man and is inexplicably attacked. A lightning storm has started, and Johnny wrestles with the man only to knock his head on a stone. Barbara flees, but without the keys to the car she can't get far.
She finds a seemingly empty farm house and locks herself inside. We can already tell by Barbara's strange behavior that she's quite shaken by everything she's experienced, but I was pretty disappointed that she succumbed so easily and utterly to the typical female hysteric stereotype so often found in horror. After trying the telephone to call for help, Barbara begins to search upstairs, only to be confronted by the eaten-off face of the house's former owner. At this point, she loses it and runs outside (where more zombies are waiting), and is propitiously saved by Ben, who drives up to the farm house also in search of shelter.
Ben demonstrates that the zombies are relatively weak when you know what you are up against and kills three of them with a tire iron. We also see that he's resourceful and pragmatic; despite his fear he begins boarding up the house for safety, and uses fire, which he knows the zombies are afraid of, to keep them away from the doors. He turns on the radio to reveal that the phenomenon is occurring all across the country— with no explanation other than a wave of mass murders where the murderers eat their victims.
Ben browbeats the frantic and near catatonic Barbara into helping him, but ends up having to knock her unconscious when she flips out again, remembering the events at the beginning of the film and insisting that the pair of them go back to the cemetary for Johnny. As she regains consciousness, he's upstairs cleaning up the bodies of the house's former residents, and the cellar door unexpectedly opens. I was sure this was going to be a bunch of zombies who had somehow found an outside entrance into the basement, but it was actually two living men: Harry and Tom, who have been hiding in the cellar for hours, well before Barbara first arrived. Harry's wife and daughter, and Tom's girlfriend are in the cellar as well.
You gonna let them get her too, huh?Harry objects to anyone leaving the cellar.
As we finally get our full cast of characters, the film gets more chaotic. Initially, we had the quiet focus and intensity of Barbara running away from her lone zombie attacker. With seven people, the danger is not only that the zombies will attack, but the power struggles and other problems in the group will implode it before anyone has a chance of rescue. Fairly quickly, we see a power struggle begin between Ben's cool, collected, pro-active approach to crisis and Harry's "go to ground and wait it out" conservatism that approaches cowardice. Tom comes across as rather wishy-washy, going along with whomever seems to be the strongest personality. He wants co-operation between everyone, but changes from answering to Harry to agreeing with Ben, exacerbating their pissing match. Helen, Harry's wife, clearly and actively dislikes him and it's pretty apparent that their marriage has been on the rocks a while. Barbara remains her usual loopy self, while Judy, Tom's girlfriend, seems to be in an active state of denial. Karen, the young daughter of Harry and Helen, is injured and remains relatively inactive, but she is the impetus for Harry & Helen's behaviour.
Don't worry mommy. I won't kill you... yet.Rick Geerling at Dark, But Shining reckons Karen Cooper is #3 in the top five monsters of all time.
After the group find a television upstairs, they learn that the strange people are actually the recently dead, reanimated by weird radiation brought back to earth by a "satellite" that had been sent to Venus. Emergency broadcasts advise people to find local shelters being set up by the National Guard with food, medical attention, and armed protection. Ben and Tom strongly support this idea, and form a plan to fill up Ben's truck with gas so they can drive to Willard, the closest shelter.
Harry throws molotov cocktails from the upper window, to drive back the now large crowd of zombies stumbling around outside. Tom, Ben, and at the last minute, Judy, fight off zombies and climb into the truck, which they drive to a locked gas pump next to the farm. However, Tom panics and sprays gasoline everywhere, which catches on the giant torch Ben had been using to ward off the undead. The truck catches on fire and Tom & Judy blow up inside. Ben makes it back to the house as the zombies feast on the charred remains of the young couple.
Mmm... barbecue.Tom and Judy get munched on by flesh-hungry zombies.
Without Tom as a buffer, the conflict between Ben and Harry reaches a boiling point. The electricity goes out, and no longer warded off by the light, zombies begin breaking through the boards on the windows and doors. Ben shoots Harry during an argument and, still barely alive, he stumbles down the cellar stairs to see that his daughter, who had been hurt from a zombie bite, has now become one of them. Helen goes downstairs soon after to find her chewing on his remains. This, finally, proves too much for her and she barely resists as zombie Karen— apparently hungry for fresher meat— goes after her with a garden spade.
Thanks for the snack, Daddy.Zombie Karen begins eating her father's remains.
Upstairs, Barbara, trying to hold the door closed against the mob of the hungry undead, fails, and is dragged away by zombie Johnny. Ben locks himself in the cellar, after dealing with the newly risen corpses of Karen, Harry, and Helen. There he waits the night out, and when the cavalry arrives, we think he will be rescued and taken to shelter. However, he doesn't cry out to the zombie hunters, and is summarily shot and cremated along with the other undead still shuffling around the house, assumed to be one of their number.
Two things of interest stood out for me in this film. One already mentioned
was the way the interactions of the living tore them apart as they fought for
survival. Each person (with the exception of Karen) seemed to represent a
different way of dealing with fear. Ben was the ultimate survivalist, needing
to do something in order to deal with the situation, and not allowing
his fear to interfere with his decisions. Poor old Barbara was the classic
hysteric, and just broke down and mentally went someplace else. If not for Ben
she wouldn't have survived long. Harry was a survivalist too, but one who let
fear rule— he wanted to wait the situation out underground for as long as
possible and not face the zombies. His wife Helen seemed to represent bitter
acceptance— of her marriage, of the zombies, of everything. When her main
reason for living, her daughter, became a zombie, she just gave up and allowed
herself to be killed. Tom was the type to just go along with whatever or
whoever seemed most authoritative, and Judy seemed to be in denial for most of
the movie. In a telling (and humourous) moment, Judy asks Tom,
Do you think
we're doing the right thing? questioning the decision to take the truck to
the shelter in Willard. Tom replies,
Well, the television said it was the
right thing to do. Ironically they might have been ultimately better off if
they'd taken some food down into the cellar and waited out the night.
The ending was the other intriguing part of the film for me. Why didn't Ben cry out or do something to give himself away to the police? On the Wikipedia page for the film the plot summary suggests that Ben was hoarse from a stressful night of no sleep and no water, and was physically unable to speak. It makes sense, but I didn't really pick up on that when I watched the film. My initial interpretation was something more sinister. Zombies are scary because they take human form but they are utterly beastial. They only want to feed and can't be reasoned with. Worse, they also represent our fear of death. They carry the appearance of corpses and violate the taboo of cannibalism. After brutally beating zombies to death, killing Harry, and having to shoot the reanimated corpses of Harry and Helen and then spend the night with their remains, Ben would be a changed person. Perhaps he was sinking to the level of a zombie at that point anyway. Operating on another level at the same time was the issue of race. Ben was the only black character in the film (well, alive anyway). Perhaps he feared rescue more than surviving on his own, since he had essentially murdered a white man during the night.
Night of the Living Dead and can see why it has reached
cult status. Although there are other horror movies that I find truly more
horrifying, this one is well done despite its low budget and follows the rule
that many good horror movies do: that people are the scariest monsters of