Making of the Living Dead

To mark the UK release of Criterion’s remastered, definitive Blu-ray edition of George A. Romero’s seminal subgenre-starting zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, I finally got round to watching two related feature-length documentaries that, er, aren’t included on that release. Never mind, eh?

Anyway, here are my thoughts on One for the Fire and Birth of the Living Dead.

One for the Fire:
The Legacy of “Night of the Living Dead”


2018 #29
Robert L. Lucas & Chris Roe | 84 mins | Blu-ray (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English

One for the Fire Italian DVD

Made to mark the film’s 40th anniversary, this documentary interviews many of the surviving creators of Night of the Living Dead to tell the full story of the project’s genesis, making, release, and legacy.

After an opening segment that imitates Night’s own beginning and interviews the graveyard scene’s stars, One for the Fire goes for a chronological telling of events. It starts with Romero’s college days, when he met most of the gang who would eventually create Night. There are some great tales of him as a flamboyant student, swishing around in a cape or dressing up as a Mexican bandit for no particular reason — if you put it in a biopic it’d look like an OTT sitcom-ish affectation. After that they set up a production company, The Latent Image, making local TV ads. The expertise (and equipment) gained there would eventually embolden them to make a feature film, choosing the horror genre because it would be a relatively easy sell.

“We were just a bunch of guys out to make a movie,” says Romero, which kind of sums up the whole shoot — they basically winged it, making up the process of moviemaking as they went along. Any one of them could’ve done each other’s jobs because they all knew about as much as each other did; if someone knew slightly more about something, they were assigned that role. Everyone mucked in, doing what was necessary, be that zombie make-up or running to the shop for lunch. But they were canny, reaching out to local TV personalities, police, and helicopter pilots to lend a sense of scale to some sequences, or popping to Washington D.C. on a quiet Sunday to shoot a scene guerrilla-style, all to make it look like the film had some budget.

Making Night of the Living Dead

Interestingly, Romero says that Night is not only his scariest film, it’s in fact his only scary film. Not what you expect from a renowned horror director. But he says a specific part of the impetus while making Night was to try to scare the viewer, which hasn’t been his goal on any film he’s made since, despite the genre.

The documentary’s general narrative is interspersed with short asides that focus on minor-seeming individuals and the contributions they made to the film, which is a nice way of giving people credit. One who merits a longer discussion is Duane Jones, the actor who played the heroic role of Ben. He died in 1988 and they all pay quite moving tribute to him — he was clearly very well liked; admired, even. His part was written as colourless… well, so they say — I’m sure they assumed he’d be white. But they were young, hip guys, and so they happily cast Jones because he was the best actor they knew. They proudly didn’t change a single thing about the script to accommodate the race change. Romero thought they were being hip, treating him exactly the same as if he were white, but Jones disagreed, arguing they should acknowledge his race at least a bit. Speaking now, Romero thinks Jones was right — they were so busy being cool about it that they didn’t really understand that, in those days, it really was different him being black.

One for the Fire doesn’t get too far into that kind of analysis, mind. It’s really an oral history of how the film was made, by many of the people who were there doing it. How much that interests you will dictate how much this film does. Movie buffs may prefer the next documentary…

3 out of 5

Birth of the Living Dead

2018 #30
Rob Kuhns | 76 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15

Birth of the Living Dead

As Birth of the Living Dead got underway, I was worried I’d made a mistake watching it so soon after One for the Fire: it seemed to be telling the same making-of story (though starting later: it jumps straight to the Latent Image days), but with only one interviewee who was there (at least that interviewee is Romero himself) and some slick animations to illustrate events. However, it moves very quickly on to commenting on and analysing the film’s construction, effect, and influence, and puts both the finished film itself and its production methods into wider social and historical contexts.

There are some familiar stories and anecdotes here, unsurprisingly, but there’s actually not that much overlap with One for the Fire, and Romero even tells some new behind-the-scenes stories. Much more of the film is about commentary from knowledgeable individuals — other people in the industry, journalists, movie experts, and so on. What the film lacks in not having other voices from the production, it makes up for with this outside analysis. This is all good stuff for those interested in the movie’s effect more than its production. Some of the discussion is obvious or reiterates well-known perspectives, but there’s a good variety of voices. It’s the kind of commentary that can enhance your appreciation of the film itself.

George Romero interviewed in Birth of the Living Dead

The only seemingly pointless thread follows a school teacher as he shows Night to a bunch of elementary school kids. No, that’s not a typo — they’re surely far too young for it! But they seem to delight in it. Nonetheless, it seems like a needless addition to the film, until quite late on. When the documentary gets on to discussing Night’s release, it talks about how horror had become a genre mainly marketed to kids — it was seen as colourful campy fun, with only the occasional hint of slight scariness. But then it was that audience that saw Night of the Living Dead, and they were fucking terrified (see: Roger Ebert’s contemporary article about watching it with an audience of children). I thought the documentary wouldn’t dare to revisit the modern teacher after that, but it does — and they still seem to love it. I don’t know what that says about our society now, if anything.

Aside from traumatising small children, Night of the Living Dead was initially dismissed by American critics as trash; but when it was re-released the next year, it was seen by a writer for Andy Warhol’s magazine, who called it art and said it should be playing in art houses. When it reached Europe in 1970, the French had a similar reaction. That fed back to the US: the Museum of Modern Art played it to a standing-room-only crowd. I guess that’s how we get to where we are today, with it acknowledged as a solid classic.

Now THAT's a triple bill

As I said earlier, when I decided to watch these two documentaries basically back to back I thought it would probably turn out to be a stupid idea. Fortunately, the overlap is minimal, meaning they actually compliment each other pretty well. Fans would surely benefit from seeing both. Alternatively, the fact that they offer distinctly different things means a viewer could pick the topic that particularly interests them. In that regard, I’d err towards recommending Birth of the Living Dead, for its critical appreciation and historical analysis that furnishes viewers with wider perspectives with which to appreciate one of the most significant horror movies — arguably, one of the most significant movies full stop — ever made.

4 out of 5

One for the Fire is available as a special feature on certain releases of Night of the Living Dead: the Australian and US 40th anniversary DVDs, the Japanese 40th anniversary Blu-ray, and Optimum’s UK Blu-ray (not the one released by Network). It seems it’s also available on an Italian DVD and Blu-ray, which provided the cover art above.

Birth of the Living Dead is available by itself on DVD in the US and on Blu-ray in the UK, as well as bundled with Network’s UK Blu-ray of Night. It’s also streaming free to Amazon Prime members in the US, and I’m sure available to rent and/or purchase from other digital providers.


The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

2017 #28
Colm McCarthy | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

The Girl with All the Gifts

When George A. Romero invented the zombie subgenre in the ’60s, he was more concerned with allegory than blood ‘n’ guts. The latter has come to dominate, as it has with so much of the broader horror genre, but from time to time there’s still room for thoughtful contributions more befitting Romero’s legacy. This low-budget British film, adapted from a young adult novel, is one such effort.

As the film opens we’re introduced to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who sits in a concrete bedroom treasuring her photo of a kitten. Then soldiers enter and, at gunpoint, strap her to a chair, before wheeling her to a classroom with similarly restrained children. It’s just the beginning of a fantastic first act, full of atmosphere and intrigue as this world is rolled out before us. The less you know the better, though the chances of going in so cold that it’s a total mystery are sadly slim. If you’re intrigued enough already to check out the movie on my recommendation alone, stop reading now! Go watch it! If not…

So, as it turns out, we’re in the near future and a fungal disease has turned most of humanity into zombie-like creatures known as ‘hungries’. They spend most of their time in a dormant trance, but the smell of uninfected blood sends them wild and chompy. Melanie and her classmates are children who are infected but ‘normal’ — unless provoked, when they too turn into ravenous fiends — and they may hold the key to a cure. They live on an army base, but, when it’s overrun by hungries, Melanie and a ragtag group of survivors — including Paddy Considine’s sergeant, teacher Gemma Arterton, and scientist Glenn Close, who’s obsessed with finding a cure at any cost — hit the road in search of safe haven.

On the road

In the A.V. Club’s review, Katie Rife asserts that “once this initial premise is revealed and The Girl With All The Gifts leaves the base… this intriguing twist on zombie lore becomes subsumed by postapocalyptic road-trip cliché.” Well, yes and no. There are certainly some familiar beats, but I felt like those just gave a narrative shape to contain otherwise interesting ideas. I haven’t seen enough zombie movies to vouch for The Girl With All The Gifts being 100% original, but I’d certainly not come across some of its ideas before. That goes for both the way it handles the zombie action (though, of course, there are only so many ways you can depict the monstrous undead) and the social commentary, which, as much as anything, tackles the way children and adults interrelate.

The eponymous girl is fantastic — Melanie is an interesting character, and an interesting type of character too. She’s fantastically played by Sennia Nanua, who may be a talent to watch out for in future (I say ‘may’ because, per IMDb, she’s not got anything else coming up). The more familiar supporting cast are as superb as you’d expect. Glenn Close brings plausibility to what could’ve just been an Evil Scientist role, while Gemma Arterton provides the film’s heart as a motherly teacher. Paddy Considine’s role is best appreciated once all is said and done — he seems to be just the gruff soldier type, but snippets of his backstory are revealed right up until the end, revealing new layers to his character.

Special school

Director Colm McCarthy, a veteran of copious amounts of British TV (Spooks, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, and much, much more), keeps the focus on the characters while also giving their world a fantastic sense of scale. The film was made for a pittance (for comparison, it cost about half as much as a single episode of Game of Thrones) but looks incredible. There may be some blurry edges on green screen shots and things like that, but I’ve seen less convincing effects work in movies that cost 50 times as much. Some of the footage was captured by flying over the remains of a town left to rot after Chernobyl, which lends a veracity to the post-apocalyptic vistas (and presumably saved a tonne on CGI). In terms of places you can actually take actors, it was partly filmed in Birmingham, which seems to be becoming a go-to location for dystopian / post-apocalyptic cityscapes (Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One also shot there last year).

The zombie genre is an overcrowded one nowadays, even if you exclude the innumerable direct-to-DVD knock-offs, but there’s still space for well-made movies that can put the familiar tropes to greater use. The Girl with All the Gifts is an impressively mounted and performed production, and is worth watching if just for that horror-thriller kick. However, it also has something to say. I imagine Romero would be pleased.

5 out of 5

The Girl with All the Gifts is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Before Dawn (2012)

2015 #86
Dominic Brunt | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

Before DawnDirected by Emmerdale actor and zombie aficionado Dominic Brunt (who also stars), from a screenplay by Emmerdale writer Mark Illis based on a story by Brunt’s wife, Joanne Mitchell (who also co-stars), Before Dawn is a mash-up between remote-farmhouse zombie horror and kitchen-sink relationship drama.

The story sees struggling couple Alex (Brunt) and Meg (Mitchell) leaving their kids with her mother and heading off to the aforementioned remote farmhouse for a reconciliatory weekend. As they clash and argue, we see the signs around them that All Is Not Right… until suddenly they’re being chased by the undead.

Unfortunately, Brunt and Illis aren’t quite up to pulling off the film’s original concept. The relationship drama is lightweight, with nothing strikingly new or engaging about it, just rote “couple argue but maybe love each other really”-type shenanigans. It also takes way too long to get going. The scene saying goodbye to the kids is interminable, with nothing to add to the narrative or characters. I guess it’s trying to establish a rapport between the parents and their kids, designed to pay off later, but it offers nothing you wouldn’t get from literally showing that they have kids. If you want us to have an emotional investment, give us some emotion, not just instructions about bedtime and requests for hugs. Then there’s the wannabe-artsy shots of driving, and… just get a wriggle on, yeah?

Cross countryAmateurish production values often let the side down. I don’t think Brunt’s direction would be too bad were it not for the cheap camerawork, although the action scenes are overrun with ShakyCam. There are some very good bits late on: the developments that come as a result of a stranger’s arrival; a phone call with the kids; perhaps even the very end, which is a bold climax.

Incidentally, no part of the plot has anything to do with something occurring “before dawn”, so I presume the title is a riff on Before Sunrise (relationship two-hander) and Dawn of the Dead (zombie movie) — in which case, the title goes from being oddly meaningless to quite neat. In that respect, it might be the best thing about the film.

The inherent idea of cross-pollinating these two genres isn’t without merit, so it’s a shame it’s come to pass in this fairly weak film. Maybe someone else will try it again someday.

2 out of 5

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

2015 #22
Ruairí Robinson | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Ireland / English | 15 / R

The Last Days on MarsThe first manned mission to Mars is reaching the end of its six-month tour. As they count down the final hours, battling a dust storm and its attendant power outages and communications blackouts, one of the team secretly discovers bacterial life on the surface. Attempting to recover further samples, a sink hole opens beneath him. When the rest of the crew try to recover his body, it’s not there. Then he arrives back at base… only, he’s not quite himself anymore…

Starting as a sophisticated, plausible vision of what a manned Mars mission might look like in the relatively-near future, The Last Days on Mars attempts an awkward transition into schlocky B-movie horror when Space Zombies turn up about half-an-hour in. Unfortunately, it’s not really trashy enough to work on that level, but equally, it’s not classily written enough to transcend the genre limitations the undead bring. The attempts at a kind of realist sci-fi are to be appreciated, particularly by genre fans who might fancy a change (though in the wake of Gravity, near-future realism may be in vogue), but it doesn’t gel with the often-rote zombie elements. To really succeed it needs a more original threat. These may not be zombies in the “magically brought back to life” sense, but having a semi-scientific explanation for their existence doesn’t negate their storytelling function, which is very trad.

People who aren’t normally in sci-fi moviesThese faults persist despite the best efforts of a quality cast, particularly Romola Garai as (in functional terms) the capable sidekick, and Olivia Williams as the bitch whose heartless practicality becomes an asset when the going gets tough. First-time feature director Ruairí Robinson assembled his cast on the principle of “people who aren’t normally in sci-fi movies”, and that does feed in to the sense of realism. It also looks great, the production, costume and effects designs gelling to create a believable Mars mission, all in spite of a tiny budget (funded by the BFI and the Irish Film Board, it had about a tenth of Gravity’s budget, for example). Credit, too, to cinematographer Robbie Ryan for lensing the Martian surface convincingly (it’s actually the Jordanian desert). The editing may descend into fast-cut blurriness during action scenes — only emphasised by Max Richter’s predictably derivative horror movie score — but during calmer moments the film looks very good.

All things considered, it plays a bit like an R-rated, traditional-zombie-emphasised remake of Doctor Who adventure The Waters of Mars (it’s actually adapted from a 1975 short story, but hey-ho). From the tail end of David Tennant’s time in the role, the award-winning Who episode concerns the first manned mission to Mars battling a previously-undiscovered alien menace that mysteriously turns them into zombie-like creatures and prevents them leaving the planet. And the similarities go further than that, including sequences involving a hydroponic dome, a race down the tunnel that links said dome to the main base, and fears about bringing the deadly virus back to Earth. Thinking through the comparison perhaps enlightens some of where the film goes wrong, as the Who episode had a more effective and original enemy, had more thematic weight to explore (in fairness, concerning Who-specific time travel issues), had characters who were better drawn than the repeated “I’d like to see my kids again” simplicity of the ones here, There's a storm comingand was more sure of its tone. There may be elements to commend The Last Days of Mars in this comparison (the much bigger budget pays off in the scope of the visuals, of course), but as a story and viewing experience, The Waters of Mars wins hands down.

It’s not just Doctor Who — despite the film’s plus points, most of what The Last Days on Mars has to offer has been done better elsewhere. There are certainly superior zombie thrills to be found. The well-realised plausible Mars mission makes the movie more enticing for sci-fi fans, though your mileage will vary on how much that justifies the investment.

3 out of 5

The Last Days on Mars debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 10am and 9pm.

Cockneys vs Zombies (2012)

2014 #107
Matthias Hoene | 87 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

Cockneys vs ZombiesScreenwriter James Moran doesn’t like it when people compare Cockneys vs Zombies to Shaun of the Dead, which is unfortunate because the “British zombie comedy” subgenre doesn’t offer many alternatives. Despite following in eight-year-old footsteps, however, Cockneys vs Zombies does enough right to commend itself as much more than a belated wannabe.

A dual storyline follows a gang of young heart-of-gold wannabe-bank-robbers and a home full of OAPs as they try to fend off a zombie apocalypse. Silliness ensues, though it’s clearly made by genre fans who know their stuff — much like Shaun, then. It’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny in places, buoyed by a quality cast that includes the likes of Honor Blackman and Richard Briers, the latter of whom stars in a genius “why has no one thought of this before?!” moment… that you’ve probably seen in a trailer or something. And if you haven’t, I’ve gone and included a picture.

On the horror side, there’s some pretty good practical and CGI effects, considering the budget it must’ve had. Some reviews take time out to criticise the film for this, which gets my goat — why do so many people seem to expect blockbuster-level effects from very-low-budget indie movies? Genius.And why is their imagination so stunted that they can’t accept them anyway?

Leaving morons aside, Cockneys vs Zombies transcends its trashy title to be a downright entertaining comedy-horror. Not as groundbreaking or cinematically literate as Shaun, but a silver medal shouldn’t be sniffed at.

4 out of 5

World War Z: Extended Action Cut (2013)

2014 #14
Marc Forster | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Malta / English | 15

World War ZIn the weeks leading up to its theatrical release, it was already known that World War Z was going to be an almighty flop. An unscrupulous movie studio had taken a cult novel and thrown away everything but the title, alienating its existing fanbase. They’d spent a fortune making a movie in a traditionally R-rated genre that, if released at R, could never make its money back, and if released at PG-13 would never attract an audience. Then they reshot the entire third act, pushing the budget through the roof and ensuring the resultant film would get critically mauled. A fanbase snubbed, an impossibly huge budget, a genre/rating disconnect, and unavoidably poor reviews to come — World War Z was going to flop, and it was going to flop hard.

Then it came out, and became the highest-grossing film to star Movie Star™ Brad Pitt, and the highest-grossing original film of Summer 2013, and made nearly triple its budget worldwide, and even got fairly good reviews. Maybe I was reading the wrong sources in the run up to its release, or maybe it really was that rarest of things, perhaps even unique: a movie hype-resurrection that was less zombie and more phoenix.

The film sees Pitt’s retired UN investigator called back to duty when a rapidly-spreading plague, which turns people into zombie-like rabid creatures, breaks out around the globe. With his family in tow, he escapes an over-run Philadelphia and ends up with what’s left of the US population on a small fleet of ships, before jetting off around the world on a hunt for answers and, hopefully, a vaccine. Cue large-scale action sequences as director Marc Forster aims for an apocalyptic sci-fi/action epic rather than the zombie genre’s usual stomping ground of claustrophobic supernatural scares.

Panic in the streetsThat, at least, is something different. The first half-hour races through stuff we’ve seen time and again: zombie attacks, humans turning on humans as they loot supermarkets, etc. Here the zombies are of the 28 Days Later-style speedy variety, all the better for creating blockbuster action sequences, such as a huge chase through crowded streets, or a running fight up the stairways of an apartment building. This is where the PG-13 certificate shows through (even though this cut is technically unrated in the US, the fact both versions received a 15 over here is telling): there’s little focus on violence or gore; which is fine, but won’t satisfy the more blood-hungry genre fans.

It’s after this that things, as noted, turn from claustrophobic to post-apocalyptic. The storyline feels moderately fresh, showing us the global scope of such an outbreak, rather than how a global event impacts a small group of people. I believe this is the closest the film gets to the spirit of the novel (which I’ve not read, so take that comparison with a pinch of salt). However, what’s new to the zombie genre isn’t necessarily new in any other respect, and by the time we get to Jerusalem and the characters are again being chased through crowded streets, it begins to feel a tad repetitive. Some of the sequences work well though, particularly a zombie outbreak on a passenger plane.

The re-shot final act is a breath of fresh air. Apparently the originally-filmed version was yet another epic battle, which has been switched for a more tense creep around a semi-abandoned research facility in… Wales. Yep, a big budget Hollywood action movie climaxes in the middle-of-nowhere in Wales. I quite like that. The original ending was axedIt’s a Wales populated by a Londoner, a Scotsman and a Spaniard, but still. I say “more tense” because this is far from the most nail-biting zombie film you could see. The finale is a nice change of pace, and does work as a climax in spite of the bombast that precedes it, but these are zombies as teen-friendly action movie menace, not adult scare-inducers, so don’t except to feel much fear or surprise.

As to the extended cut, it adds only about seven minutes… but there are 121 differences. I can’t even be bothered to read that properly, never mind recount it. There seem to be myriad tiny extensions to all the action sequences, many of them literally lasting a fraction of a second — someone watched this really closely! I can only presume this is actually the original cut, which was then trimmed for the sake of the MPAA to create a theatrical version, because who would consciously go back to add so many little bits? Some are even described as “very unnecessary extension”s by that summary. Other moments do expand on character, though in a subtle fashion (looks like the attempted rape of our hero’s wife, and the murder of one of the wannabe rapists, previously got the snip), or do add to the gore — clearly, it’s too much for a PG-13, but certainly within the realms of a 15. I can’t imagine any of it makes a great deal of difference to the overall experience, however.

Generally, World War Z is a competently entertaining blockbuster. It moves pleasingly fast, with characters quickly and lightly sketched rather than lingered on — not to everyone’s taste, and I imagine some will find it emotionally cold in the way so many recent spectacle movies are. There’s perhaps room for more, particularly from Daniella Kertesz’s Israeli soldier, who is nonetheless somehow the film’s most appealing character; Daniella Kertesz’s Israeli soldierbut I don’t think it was the filmmakers’ aim to make us feel the characters’ plight, but instead to show the scope of a worldwide disaster. It does that pretty well, even if the occasionally-CGI zombies prove to be an I Am Legend-style plasticky distraction, especially when coupled with impossible swooping camera shots — it’s better and more effective in the sections where there’s a grittier feel to the camerawork and practical zombie make-up.

As it lacks the social subtext or extreme gore that the two branches of zombie fandom most value, I don’t think WWZ will find an enduring place in genre-fans’ hearts. As an epic summer action blockbuster, however, it largely passes muster.

4 out of 5

World War Z is on Sky Movies Premiere this week, starting today at 4pm and 8pm. It’s also available on Now TV, where the running time suggests it’s the extended cut.