Archive for the ‘horror’ category

Nightmare Cinema

July 7, 2019

Nightmare-cinema-The-thing-in-the-woods Only about three percent of you will be with me on this, but the uneven horror anthology Nightmare Cinema made me sad. Why? It’s the first movie that director Joe Dante has made since 1976 in which busy character actor Dick Miller does not appear — Miller passed on earlier this year at age 90. Belinda Balaski, another Dante semi-regular, does turn up here, but it’s not quite the same. Anyway, Dante is one of five directors who provide the movies-within-the-movie shown in a mysterious theater presided over by “The Projectionist” (Mickey Rourke).

We lead with “The Thing in the Woods” (by writer/director Alejandro Brugues), which starts off as a slasher yarn and gradually flips the script; what seems as though it’s going to be yet another case of an incel gone psycho breaks from that path amusingly. It’s fun, though possibly only fun for horror junkies, who may not mind that this segment — setting the tone for the other four — is surprisingly gory and graphic for a movie with the once-restrictive R rating. There are many slasher flicks from the ‘80s that would have loved the latitude given to this film’s mutilations and exploding heads and flying body parts.

Dante’s “Mirari” is next up, about a young woman (Zarah Mahler) who agrees to plastic surgery to remove her facial scars before her wedding to a rich dude. Dante keeps the shocks and suspense popping, and Richard Christian Matheson’s script has a certain malevolent wit, but something’s missing — maybe an explanation of why the story ends up where it does. The segment seems like more of a paranoid riff than anything else. It, too, is fun, though. Again, I missed the avuncular presence of the great Dick Miller, unless he’s in a photo somewhere I didn’t spot.

And that’s about it for Creepshow-esque fun. Story number three, named “Mashit” (ma-sheet) after its central demon, is kind of awful. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train), it takes place inside a religious boarding school whose young students soon become hosts to abomination. Other than a ludicrous desktop tryst between the (otherwise heroic) priest and nun in charge of the school, the segment takes itself brutally seriously, with rather chintzy music that made me think this was supposed to be a tribute to the demonic cinema of Lamberto Bava. It’s certainly colorful enough, but if I want bright hues, demons, sacrilege, and fun, I’ll go to Richard Griffin.

We proceed to the black-and-white “This Way to Egress,” directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night) from a script by him and Lawrence Connolly based on Connolly’s short story. It’s not fun, but it’s effective, with a top-drawer performance by Elizabeth Reaser as a mother who may be going insane. Cinematographer Jo Willems does sharp, detailed work, and I admired the craft of the piece without ultimately finding it very satisfying; as with most of the other tales here, its ending is something of a fizzle.

Last and least interesting is “Dead,” helmed by Mick Garris, that terminally uninspired journeyman who hitched his wagon to Stephen King 27 years ago and has coasted since. Garris has always been more of a fan and arranger of projects anyway — Nightmare Cinema is more or less his baby, and he produced the Masters of Horror series back in the mid-oughts. This story, like the one before it, is buoyed by a strong lead performance, by  Faly Rakotohavana as a boy who nearly dies and finds himself able to see the spirits of the recently dead in the hospital where he’s recuperating. Its debt to The Sixth Sense aside, it’s predictable especially when the psycho who put the kid in the hospital comes looking for him. Annabeth Gish scores some creepy moments as the boy’s mom.

The problem with the stories in most horror anthologies is that they can’t all be gems — not on the level of Creepshow or even Trick ‘R Treat, and certainly not Dead of Night. However much we want Nightmare Cinema to be a rollicking slice of throwback horror, it only lands sporadic punches. It was a pleasure to see Dante working again (he’s kept his hand in on TV since his last feature, Burying the Ex, five years ago), and there are enjoyable bits throughout, but by and large this is the sort of mildly entertaining thing that’s best for a slow, rainy Sunday. And the unifying figure of The Projectionist is so sketchily drawn (and wearily enacted by a bored Rourke), I wouldn’t hold my breath for a Nightmare Cinema 2.

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Us

June 16, 2019

us Jordan Peele has proven himself one of the most fascinating writer-directors working today — not just in the horror genre, but in general. His presence behind the camera now guarantees my interest. Us, Peele’s mesmerizing, terrifying follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit Get Out, shows that the social-horror sensibility that animated that film was no fluke. This is, among other things, a thriller that (like last week’s The Perfection) is powered by surprise and its willingness to cross genre boundaries, so it’s another one whose plot is difficult to write about — though the plot isn’t the main reason Us gets under our skin, in any case. It’s the primal punch of the images and moods that the plot makes possible. For instance, how can I explain how hilarious and horrific the use of NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” is here? It’s a joke at the expense of Siri/Alexa-type virtual assistants, but it’s also a grim warning: For real, fuck the police, they’re not going to help you here, not in this weird new world informed as much by Hands Across America and Michael Jackson as by Kubrick’s The Shining.

Has Jordan Peele ever read the snippet that Harlan Ellison once published from his unproduced The Whimper of Whipped Dogs script? There’s an image near the beginning that makes me think he has — a girl drops her candy apple in the sand of a beach, where it sticks up as ominous night rain begins to patter onto it. I recalled Ellison’s image of a knife in the sand dappled by raindrops. Even if Peele wasn’t influenced by this specific bit, it seems clear that he’s drinking from the same intoxicating and frightening well of brutal visuals that filled/fueled Ellison’s imagination. Those visuals can help an artist try to make sense of violence, and in Us Peele summons hints and whispers of the uncanny in order to make sense of, and ultimately elicit sympathy for, its mostly inarticulate monsters.

The narrative begins simply, with a well-to-do family off to kick back in their summer house. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), the mother/wife of the family, seems to be the main protagonist by virtue of her introduction in the opening extended flashback as a little girl. She is grown now, and a bit skittish due to her experience in a strange beach funhouse, but essentially normal. So are her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They all hang out at the Santa Cruz beach with their also-wealthy friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenage daughters, and the subtext of familial violence expressed in ironic jokes begins to surface. One night, the Wilsons are trying to relax back at their summer house, and a quartet of menacingly silent figures appear outside.

If Peele’s subversive narrative style has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that after Get Out we know to notice, and file away for future scrutiny, any number of visual, aural, or thematic Easter eggs. When a character turns up holding a sign referring to Jeremiah 11:11, and when another character not only notices that a clock reads 11:11 but calls attention to it, we know we’re meant to look up the Biblical quote on our phones in the parking lot after the movie. (Amusingly, when you google the line now, you get back a bunch of images from Us.) I’ll let you have fun with the passage, with its intimations of evil and the wrath of the Old Testament God, and what it could possibly have to do with a story that makes room for paper people chains, Minnie Riperton, rabbits, Lucas/Spielberg nods, and the discontents of what used to be called (and in the context of this movie is a perfectly appropriate descriptor) “the underclass.”

The wounded-seeming Nyong’o plays victim and victimizer with equal conviction and facility, and Winston Duke, whom I’d only seen before as the sardonic, intimidating warrior M’Baku in Black Panther, is something of a revelation here as the much less at-ease-with-violence Gabe, whom Peele almost seems to have molded in his literal image. (When Gabe is forced to grab a baseball bat and warn the interlopers away, Duke gives us the attitude with a subtle undercurrent of self-doubt.) There’s twinning all over the movie, including a real spider crawling out from underneath a toy spider, and there’s Elisabeth Moss at her stark raving scariest, staring in a mirror and rendering her face incarnadine in more ways than one (she seems ready for a David Lynch movie). The movie is spooky as hell, dealing hard and fast from a thick deck of symbolist cards, and ultimately Peele offers it as a suggestion to think about what society and prosperity are built on. It is brilliant and timely and more than a little insane in its everything-ties-together narrative sanity, which the movie also comments on. I have no idea where the actual hell Peele intends to go from here, but wherever it is, he has my eager permission to go there and report on his findings.

The Perfection

June 9, 2019

perfection Netflix’s new thriller The Perfection (with its impossible-to-remember title) relies on the type of screaming twists and turns on a dime that can stymie a reviewer. How can you talk about a movie like this to people who may not have seen it without nuking its surprises? You can’t, so I am obliged to sketch and suggest. The Perfection is about two cello prodigies, Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning). The menacing artsiness and female trauma that inform the movie’s tone put it in the same small folder as Suspiria (either version) and Black Swan. It seems to switch not just gears but genres, several times. I would recommend going into it completely cold, and not even watching the trailer, which prankishly sets a viewer up to expect a vastly different film than it turns out to be.

What you get for your trouble is a handsomely photographed (by Vanja Černjul, who also shot Crazy Rich Asians), feverishly written (by director Richard Shepard with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) thriller that gets you hating one character, then another, then someone else, until finally balance is bloodily, poetically, and somewhat ludicrously restored. The Perfection is therefore not the nicest movie or experience. It exists to pull the rug out from under you, repeatedly, until you mistrust the rug and the floor under it. Is it pleasurable? Here and there. It’s more gripping than entertaining; it squeezes us, it pulls on the short hairs of our temples. It establishes and maintains control — bullying control. Like most thrillers great and poor, it essentially takes a rapist’s attitude toward the audience. It gets you alone and has its way with you.

The redeeming factor here is that, ultimately, The Perfection shakes out as a #MeToo revenge thriller. Its brutality and manipulations come to seem necessary in order to convey the wounding tone required to get us, in the end, on the side of victims who at first seem like aggressors. We may feel betrayed at certain points, but so have its characters. The movie also ladles equal amounts of beauty and rancid ugliness into its hermetic aesthetic, breaking away from that only during a cold roadside scene that packs the most painful violence, which comes to be seen as an act of mercy. The events leading up to the scene — like much else in the movie, and indeed in most thrillers — won’t stand up to harsh scrutiny. The plot depends on a hostile bus driver behaving as a character secretly wants him to. I imagine there’s a deleted scene involving the close study of bus routes so as to guarantee winding up in a desolate area.

The Perfection also contains the following: a tender same-sex lovemaking scene; a few lovely if stressful music performances; a performance by Steven Weber that confirms my longstanding suspicion that he’s aging into William Fichtner; a laughable flashback (or rewind, really) that explains how a cooking instrument comes into a character’s possession (almost as funny as the preceding scene in which the character just randomly seems to produce said instrument — the movie is firmly in the tradition of thrillers that can’t possibly take themselves seriously and don’t want us to, either); a bit that had me thinking we were in Romeo Is Bleeding territory and on the exit into Long Jeanne Silver turf; a quaint confidence in various medications to have exactly the effect on someone that one hopes they will have.

There’s more, but I grow tired of avoiding writing about the story. I can finish by praising the intense performances of Williams and Browning, or the way a cello performance that must proceed without error elicits more sympathetic wincing than does the sometimes graphic violence, or the film’s nearly Cronenbergian reliance on body horror and disfigurement. The Perfection is strongly made, scene for scene, and it ends on a note of serene unity of soul through music in the face of ghastly oppression. But I can’t say I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when it was done squeezing my soft bits. I won’t claim it doesn’t have the right to play with sensitive themes and elements to get its effects; I think, ultimately, it earns that right and shows itself to be compassionate. You do have to navigate a whole lot of bear traps to get there, though, and you may not agree that it’s worth the journey, with all its hurt and vomit and maggoty visions of sickness. I can raise a glass to the skill of all involved but I’m in no hurry to feel all those things, see all those things, again any time soon.

The House That Jack Built

December 16, 2018

the-house-that-jack-builtIn Lars von Trier’s traumatizing serial-killer epic The House That Jack Built, the murders have a rough clumsiness, preceded by something that’s almost worse — the awkward chasm of build-up before the killing, when our protagonist Jack (Matt Dillon) is trying to relate to his prey, if only to keep up appearances. A textbook sociopath, Jack has photos of various facial expressions pasted around a mirror, so he can practice looking human. He is human, though; the moments when he’s trying to manipulate his way into a house, or holding forth before the mutilation begins, show us the cracks in his mask of insanity. Somewhere in there, seen only in fragments, is someone capable of compassion, staring out in horror.

The point of the film, I gather, is to draw a connection between Jack the fictional ripper and von Trier the supposedly amoral artist — and, by extension, between the acts of destruction and creation. Both leave a mark on the world, even if a mark of erasure, and Jack takes it a step further by trying to transform murder into art — sculpting corpses into tableaux of ruin and decay. Of all the atrocities we witness, possibly the ghastliest is what Jack does to the face of a frowning little boy who, in life, was nicknamed Grumpy. I’ll never forget that sight, and moments like it are why horror fans have gravitated eagerly to The House That Jack Built — von Trier finds a new way to shock, to show us fear in a handful of meat. But for the most part what they’re going to get is a sermon on art and morality before they get the gory donut.

The version of the film most Americans will see (until the director’s cut is allowed to be released in America sometime next year) is R-rated, and missing a minute or so of footage involving the shooting of children and a nonconsensual mastectomy.¹ Whether we think we or anyone need to see these things is beside the point; this muted version removes taboos that had strengthened the film’s punch as a work of Juvenalian satire. The House That Jack Built turns out to be a movie very much of this fraught, bifurcated moment. The wearing of red baseball caps in a key scene may provide a clue. Anyway, the trimmed version is mainly intact, though I recommend it for the most part only to von Trier fans, who seem to have greater tolerance for the Danish maestro’s games than do most Western critics.

The movie is literarily structured into five “incidents” and an epilogue (“Katabasis”). The “incidents” almost all feature Jack singling out some woman — he usually happens on them randomly — and bringing the pain. He’s not especially slick at it; he bumbles through the first killings we see, stashing the remains in his walk-in freezer. He takes on the nom de meutre “Mr. Sophistication,” mailing the newspapers photos of his work as David Bowie’s “Fame” comments somewhat obviously on his ambitions. He talks to an unseen man, known as Verge (Bruno Ganz), who listens to Jack’s self-justifying monologues half-heartedly, having heard speeches like them many times before. Jack is being led to Hell, and feels the need to explain himself on the way.

The House That Jack Built — immaculately acted, by the way, especially by cold-eyed Dillon and by Siobhan Fallon Hogan in the film’s most wounding but least gruesome “incident” — is enough of an evocative art-house exhibit to be about whatever you want it to be about. Jack’s hobbies and trophies could sensibly be read as the horrific logical extension of white male privilege, and its ultimate destination might make this von Trier’s most cheerful film in quite a while. Maybe Jack can kill with impunity — though not forever — and maybe, as he shouts, “nobody wants to help,” but that doesn’t mean no consequences. By the end, when we see the end result of Jack’s hoarding of his victims, we understand that we have left the realm of the literal — if we were ever in it — and entered the twistier dreamland of metaphor, icon, myth. We recall the sorrowful, stinging tone of von Trier’s previous fables about America, and we understand we all live in Jack’s house.

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¹This sequence, in the R-rated version, becomes darkly hilarious for its glimpse into what the MPAA finds beyond the limits of an R rating (showing a breast being cut off), and what is apparently acceptable (showing a disembodied breast being prankishly tucked under someone’s windshield wiper, and the other one used as Jack’s wallet). I leave it to the reader to determine which is worse.

Suspiria (2018)

December 2, 2018

When director Luca Guadagnino says that his film Suspiria is less a remake of than an homage to Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, I believe him. The new Suspiria takes the preceding movie’s basic premise — a young American woman (Dakota Johnson) arrives at a German ballet school, and supernatural shenanigans follow — and goes very much its own way. Guadagnino doesn’t attempt Argento’s virtuosic reveries of over-the-top bloodletting. His film is gory — Suspiria ’18 pushes the boundaries of an R rating ever further — but he doesn’t try to replicate Argento’s specific showstoppers. Instead, he gives us violence rooted in pain and fear. I suppose Argento’s Suspiria is a sanguinary art bauble, high on its own color and soundtrack and ominous mood, not built to evoke more than spooky fun; Guadagnino’s Suspiria, with a straight face, works nothing less than the Holocaust into its dark fable.

This will irritate some, no doubt, but Guadagnino is using the language of cinematic horror to inquire into the horrors real humans are capable of. I could go on in this vein, but I’m doomed to be honest and say that this Suspiria has so much under its hood the vehicle barely moves. It idles for two hours and change before ramping up to Vin Diesel extremes in its last act (there are six, plus an epilogue), at which point the art-house crowd may bolt for the exit and the horror-flick crowd may have followed Morpheus into the land of dreams. Guadagnino and his screenwriter David Kajganich meditate on the Germany of 1977, a country afraid of its own shadow and scarred with the wall that abuts the ballet school. What this has to do with witches (who are rumored to run the school) isn’t clear, though I think the witches take power from collective shame and guilt.

Dakota Johnson continues to be a tabula rasa who could, in theory, be a canvas for art in an art-soaked movie like this, but isn’t. As a dancer she’s up there among a bunch of professional dancers; as an actress, she shares a lot of scenes with Tilda Swinton as the school’s matriarch (and, swathed in latex, a couple of other roles). Swinton, as always, keeps her cool, though as the movie ratchets up to a pitch of hysteria not unlike that of Hereditary, Swinton meets a fate similar to Toni Collette’s in that film. The movie is flooded with images of bodily mutilation, and after a while one stops charitably seeking subtext in the agonies of the flesh and begins to find it all just … ugly. Guadagnino’s horrors are aggressively grotesque, but also easy to shake off; when Argento at his peak used violence, the set pieces tended to leave us a bit dazed, wondering what had hit us, and it had a pop-art pizzazz. It becomes clear that Argento’s occult dread came from a different, purer section of the horror playbook than Guadagnino’s does — it isn’t tied to historical atrocities in a way that commands us to make the connection.

Guadagnino’s fixation on the supposed horrors of aged, deformed female flesh starts to make Suspiria look schlocky and reactionary. The hero of the movie is not the bland Johnson’s Susie Bannion, who in any case isn’t what she seems to be; it’s the ancient psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer, a man wounded by the Holocaust and dedicated to finding out why his patient (Chloe Grace Moretz; the movie sorely needed more of her), after speaking of witches at the ballet school, disappeared. Klemperer, as whoever cares knows by now, is also played by Swinton, who under the cloak of make-up allows Klemperer a quiet decency. The rest of it is chaos. Some will engage with it strongly enough to revisit it several times; I found it a chore to get through once, and not just because of its distended running time. It’s unpleasant; it’s not entertainment, but its art is mostly on loan.

Halloween (2018)

October 28, 2018

halloween-new-photo-h47lk753b8 Funny how the new Halloween seems to unfold in a present trapped in the past. Old Haddonfield, the site of the original 1978 Halloween’s horrors, looks pretty much the same now as then. The movie’s lead character, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), looks plausibly like a woman the original film’s Laurie would have grown to become in forty years. (This wasn’t true of Laurie’s appearance in 1998’s Halloween: H20, where she rocked a tres ‘90s pixie cut.¹) Laurie is so haunted by her past she’s destroyed any relationships she’s had, including with her grown daughter Karen (Judy Greer), although her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) keeps in tentative touch with Laurie.

Funny, too, how I should lead with this stuff about the past and family and not, say, how scary the new Halloween is. That’s because it isn’t, particularly, but in this case that’s not necessarily a demerit (it does pack a few good wallops for those who came for a horror movie). Halloween 2018 is a far different animal than Halloween 1978 — not better, not worse, but different. At times, the sad sight of the gray-haired Laurie wielding a shotgun in readiness for the violence she can never escape makes this feel very weirdly like a slasher version of Unforgiven. In writing the first Halloween, John Carpenter and Debra Hill didn’t put anything under the hood except what was needed to make the thing go. (And it went like a rocket.) This one seems to have all kinds of stuff under the hood. And that may be partly because something like this, a forty-years-later sequel that’s in tight continuity with the original while denying any other sequels happened, hasn’t quite been done before. It’s unique and strange — certainly the oddest duck to top $125 million at the box office in ten days.

While being transferred from one facility to another, the franchise’s Boogeyman, Michael Myers, causes the asylum bus to crash, and he escapes. Laurie has been waiting for this to happen — longing for it. In the new canon, Laurie is no longer Michael’s estranged sister (as was revealed in 1981’s now-nonexistent Halloween II). She was just a high-school girl who happened to catch Michael’s notice. Maybe she reminded him of the sister, Judith, he’d killed as a boy. The new Halloween doesn’t assume or require any knowledge outside of the first film; you don’t need to have seen Halloween 4 or 5 or Halloween: Resurrection (all equally consigned to canonical oblivion now, and good riddance) to understand this film. I wonder if you even need to have seen the first film (although of course you should), because its story is such a part of the shared American cultural fabric by now. Carpenter’s film may have become one of those touchstones everyone knows the story of even if they haven’t seen them, a foggily remembered Grimm fairy tale.

And what about the new characters? There’s a “new Dr. Loomis” who demonstrates what can happen if you become obsessed with one patient without having Loomis’s rock-solid morality. (I guess that’s why he’s there. His character is more intriguing to think about later than to watch; his actions resonate more as subtext than as text.) There’s Laurie’s family, three generations of strong, smart women trying to pull violence out of their DNA by the roots. Aside from a hilarious young actor named Jibrail Nantambu as a kid being babysat by one of Allyson’s friends, Jamie Lee Curtis owns the movie. She doesn’t make the mistake of playing a PTSD sufferer realistically; she gives Laurie a rigid righteousness that comes from years of dealing with having been singled out by the Boogeyman for no reason that makes sense to her. She thinks the shadows are full of predators and ghouls, and in this case — and not just about Michael — she’s right. (The movie begins with two dumb-ass podcasters whose presence in a plot sense seems boringly utilitarian, but they work as another kind of parasite on Laurie’s pain.)

The director/cowriter here is David Gordon Green, who has had one of the more peripatetic careers in recent cinema — he started off eighteen years ago as a Terrence Malick acolyte with George Washington, and has done various dramas (Joe) and thrillers (Undertow) and stoner comedies (Pineapple Express) and biopics (Stronger, Our Brand Is Crisis). Now this. Green, who wrote the script with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, has been circling the idea of bell-bottom-horror remakes for a while; he almost made the current Suspiria redo. Green’s Halloween (some jagoff will probably nickname this Hallogreen the way Rob Zombie’s two entries are known in derisive quarters as Zombieween) comes off as one fine director’s tip of the hat — of respect, of appreciation — to another. The images have an autumnal fullness and richness that recall Dean Cundey’s cinematography on Halloween ’78, though the editing here is much antsier, the compositions more jumpy. I felt that this is what the miserable Laurie’s Halloween would look like forty years on. It’s full of betrayal (even Allyson gets cheated on and then almost macked on by a drunk guy friend) and men who go off and die stupidly while the womenfolk hole up with their guns; it’s full of bashing violence. It all expresses Laurie’s worldview of death-filled shadows, but those shadows can be lit up, and the evil inside them turned to ashes — by women.

¹Not to dwell too much on Jamie Lee Curtis’s hair, but the way Laurie’s hairstyle in ’18 looks pretty much the same as it did in ’78 suggests that in some ways Laurie was stunted forever on that Halloween night. 

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

October 14, 2018

notld Fifty years ago this past October 1, George A. Romero invented what we know today as the modern zombie — not the previous voodoo kind, but a reanimated, cannibalistic corpse. Throughout Night of the Living Dead, though, the word “zombie” is never spoken. The mysterious aggressors are referred to as “ghouls” or, at one point, “flesh eaters.” Romero also laid down the first rule of zombie stories: The danger lies just as much with your fellow human survivors as with the zombies. This dictum has served zombie cinema well in the subsequent half-century, from Romero’s own five sequels to The Walking Dead.

In Romero’s later zombie films, especially 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, he used the genre as a Trojan horse for social satire and commentary. Here, though, any commentary is more or less incidental. The hero, Ben (Duane Jones), is African-American, because Jones was the best actor for the part — Romero never intended to be subversive, even when Ben is slapping hysterical white woman Barbra (Judith O’Dea) or beating up jerkwad white man Harry (Karl Hardman). Nobody really seems to take notice of Ben’s race; he’s simply a smart, resourceful man who has the better survival instincts. (The depiction of Barbra as a useless, frightened girl is another story; in the 1990 remake, written by Romero, Barbra is far braver and tougher, and is played by stuntwoman Patricia Tallman.)

The movie remains unsettling after all these years because of its bleak simplicity. Everything is distilled down to these people’s struggles to survive in a remote house Ben, Barbra, Harry, Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their sickly daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who has been bitten by a zombie, and a young couple who seem to be there as an afterthought. It’s the ultimate Z-budget bottle-episode movie, and it has a chiaroscuro ghastliness the more expensive color sequels lack, as engaging as they often are. The seething black-and-white grain of the images makes the horrors seem caught almost on the fly; sometimes the action is artfully composed, sometimes the camera eye seems dead, as if we were watching through zombievision.

The most gruesome moments, when the zombies have a midnight snack on two of the more expendable characters, have a casual nightmarishness backed by a doomy electronic pulse on the soundtrack. The 28-year-old Romero, already a veteran of local TV commercials (and short films for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!), threw a lot of stuff at the wall, and fortunately most of it stuck. The mood is dark and near despair, but there’s a spirit of play in the filmmaking, a spark of on-the-cheap expertise. Romero’s first Dead trilogy (rounded out by 1985’s Day of the Dead) were all claustrophobic, isolated affairs, but his second trilogy (2005’s Land of the Dead, 2007’s Diary of the Dead, and particularly 2009’s Survival of the Dead, Romero’s swan song) got out into the air and the world a bit more.

Here, though, we have a haunted house haunted from within by distrust and hostility, and threatened from without by ghouls that can’t be reasoned with or appealed to. Once a dead person becomes a zombie, that’s it, there’s nothing personal, they’re going to eat you whether you’re a stranger or their relative. Social norms become meaningless. Some of them come in suits, some naked. All are bodies interrupted en route from life to dirt or flame, and become the Nightmare Life-in-Death, the neither-nor, death devouring life. Romero wasn’t thinking about any of this, though; he was just riffing on I Am Legend. Subtext gathers around this stark, pure story; analyses leech onto it; but in the end it is a classical horror film that seems to exist above what we say about it.