Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert

February 10, 2019

Richard Pryor - Live in Concert (1979)In Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, the eponymous great comedian drops what has become euphemistically known as “the N-word” forty-two times. The word, in Pryor’s hands, becomes a rueful acknowledgment of fellowship, of shared indignity and terror and general craziness connected with being black in a racist white society. Occasionally he puts it in the mouth of a white person, but most often Pryor uses it interchangeably with “brother.” (As a man in the ‘70s, Pryor was not especially enlightened on matters of feminism — but that doesn’t mean he was unconcerned with women’s struggles, either.)

Eventually, in his later concert film Live on the Sunset Strip, Pryor talked about his trip to Africa, and said “I ain’t gonna never call another black man a n——. You know, ‘cause we never was no n——s. That’s a word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness.” In the 1979 film, though, Pryor is (and would later remain) conversant with his own wretchedness — his embarrassing, screwed-up humanity, the ways in which he was down in the dirt with the rest of us. He was the first to call himself out, and he fashioned his foibles into poetry. Live in Concert is not art as filmmaking — director Jeff Margolis, who has helmed TV specials and awards shows for decades, basically just keeps Pryor in focus. It’s the text, the material, that I value as art, as literature, as hilarious and heartbreaking memoir.

Pryor flits from subject to subject, but the jewel in the crown of Live in Concert is his account of his heart attack, in which Pryor famously gives voice to himself and to his own aggrieved heart (“You thinkin’ about dyin’ now, ain’t you?” the organ growls as it goes into cardiac arrest; “You didn’t think about it when you was eatin’ all that pork”). Pryor will occasionally lapse into a truism — “The hospital ain’t no place to get well” — and then chase it with “You can die in there and nobody give a fuck,” something so bleak and blunt it forges its own hilarity. In reviewing Sunset Strip, Pauline Kael — a big fan of Pryor — somewhat uncharitably noted that his routine about his self-immolating suicide attempt (which he passed off then as an accident) couldn’t help but be a pale echo of the earlier heart-attack bit. But Pryor so often abused his own body, as if in twisted solidarity with his abusers from his childhood, that it was inevitable that he should work up comedy about his own physical self-disrespect.

When Pryor hops from being Pryor to being his heart to being an indifferent phone-operator angel in heaven, he’s firing on all cylinders and doing what he did better than anyone — breathing life into people and things, animate and inanimate, raising monkeys and dogs and deer and car tires to his own level of awareness — sharp, paranoid, lowdown and unsentimental. Pryor, especially here, doesn’t do anything so mundane as tell jokes. He embodies; he inhabits. Sometimes, not to get offensively voodoo-mystical about it, he seems to channel alien consciousness and reinterpret it through his own wounded yet tickled human experience.

Pryor creates for us an entire world, in seventy-some minutes, with just a microphone — a world of danger and rage, yes, but also one of mitigating ironies. “I woke up in an ambulance, right,” he says after his heart punks out on him. “And there wasn’t nothing but white people staring at me. I said, Ain’t this a bitch. I done died and wound up in the wrong motherfuckin’ heaven.” For Pryor, whose art and viewpoint were so snugly connected to his experience as a black man, ending up in white heaven (“Now I got to listen to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days”) would have been the ultimate indignity and joke. Pryor’s comedy draws on deep African and African-American traditions of folklore, storytelling, playing the dozens, anthropomorphism. He was an original, a visionary, a crowded house of voices — an American sangoma, healing with visions and laughter and empathy, divining by throwing his own bones.

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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.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 18, 2018

buster If the movie studios no longer want to handle wonderful sketchbook exercises like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s good that Netflix is stepping up. It wasn’t very long ago that you stood a fair-to-decent chance of catching something like this in the theater, but the theater is increasingly inhospitable to the audience for something like this. Ballad is structured as an anthology of six unconnected stories “of the American frontier,” as follows:

– “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” appears to be a nod and wink to the singing-cowboy subgenre, which is about as dusty now as the American frontier, except that its titular hero (Tim Blake Nelson) is both a crack shot and a cheerful sociopath who likes to start and bloodily finish trouble wherever he goes. Despite Buster’s body count, his name only precedes him as mockery, which he enjoys silencing. This story — which, like the five that follow, is immaculately shot by Bruno Delbonnel and scored by Carter Burwell — seems to interrogate the lone gunslinger from a crazily farcical perspective. It also creates the impression that the rest of the movie will share this existentially goofy tone, which it doesn’t.

– “Near Algodones” kind of sustains a similar tone, though. It’s the narratively skimpy tale of a bank robber (James Franco) who picks the wrong bank to rob, then finds himself on the wrong end of a noose not once but twice. At this point I started to think the Coens were using the muddy, racist, violent birth of our nation as a way to comment mordantly on the human condition in general. It’s funny but not funny.

– “Meal Ticket” is a hard, pointy thing to swallow. In it, an impresario (Liam Neeson) drives from town to town, carting around a man with no arms or legs (Harry Potter’s Harry Melling, who in life has all his limbs, thus denying an actor with tetra-amelia syndrome this role) who recites poetry and famous passages from plays, speeches, and the Bible. The impresario looks at the decreasing number of coins dropped into his hat at the end of each performance. What is he to do? The story’s ruthless logic shows the Coens’ continuing love-hate relationship with the movie business. Despite considerable competition, Neeson probably does the film’s best turn.

– “All Gold Canyon,” based faithfully on a Jack London story: How has Tom Waits never been in a Coen film until now? Anyway, here he is as a prospector on the lookout for “Mr. Pocket,” a large gold deposit he suspects lies buried near a stream. For whatever reason I enjoyed this episode most freely and purely, maybe because it’s such a perfect marriage of performer and material (you should look up the London story, too).

– “The Gal Who Got Rattled” — that’s a title that seems to mock its subject but actually says a lot about the abrupt, pitiless language of the American Old West and the concepts that language struggled to describe. The gal in question (Zoe Kazan) has a hard time of it as part of a wagon train heading inexorably towards Oregon. This segment has the most old-Hollywood and thus problematic treatment of Indians As Marauding Savages, though all of that is simply to set up the sick-joke tragedy of the ending.

– “The Mortal Remains” finds the Coens visibly jealous of how much time Quentin Tarantino spent inside a moving stagecoach in The Hateful Eight. The story itself feels the most as though it unfolds inside Tarantino’s particular version of the Western, and not within the same Coen reality from which sprang their crack at True Grit. It involves big honking stereotypes (Saul Rubinek’s Frenchman may as well twirl his mustache and blurt “Aw, oui”) telling stories while trying to avoid consciousness of literal looming death. It’s also cast (Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Chelcie Ross) pretty much like a Tarantino movie might be.

I enjoyed leafing through this volume, though my watch beckoned a couple of times. The stories that involve the least efflorescent Coen dialogue — the ones driven by stark silences or old coots talking to their mules — come off the best; they remind the viewer that the Coens excel as directors, makers of pure cinema, as well as writers. We know the Coens love words and love characters who love to hear themselves talk; that’s why the movie kicks off with, and is named after, the loquacious Buster, and ends with a mystifying enclosed-space chin-wag that feels almost like a ghost story. The meat in the middle of this sandwich, though, is the unforgiving soil, the blood spatters that warm it, and the folks who live on both. No words required.

BlacKkKlansman

November 3, 2018

blackkkIn a way, Spike Lee’s filmmaking career from the beginning has been a rebuke and retort to the infamous Birth of a Nation, the movie credited with sparking the comeback of the Ku Klux Klan in America. In 1980, in film school at NYU, a 23-year-old Lee made the short film The Answer, in which a black screenwriter is hired to write a remake of the D.W. Griffith film. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee stages a screening of Birth of a Nation for an audience of hooting white supremacists, including Klan grand wizard David Duke, and intercuts it with an account of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, during which account a witness (played by Harry Belafonte) links the atrocity to the release of Birth of a Nation the year before.

Lee knows the power of cinema to influence and change. Will BlacKkKlansman do likewise? As a work of (somewhat fictionalized) protest, it’s a piece of the past (the early 1970s) passing trenchant comment on the present; time will tell if it will have much sway in the future. What it is right now is an attempt to unify rather than to divide — the movie shows black and white people working together to shut down the racists. It may begin and end with blasts at racism, but most of BlacKkKlansman is an object lesson in cooperation between different races, colors and creeds. It does this in a half-satirical way that’s as much about acting as about reality.

Black men have to pretend to be racist white men; Jewish white men have to pretend to be anti-Semitic white men. Based loosely on the adventures of a real cop, BlacKkKlansman shows rookie detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) posing, over the phone, as a white man interested in joining the local Klan chapter, so that Stallworth can infiltrate and learn about possible terrorist plans. Stallworth is black, so he can’t carry out his disguise in person; enter white Jewish cop “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who “plays” Ron in the flesh.  In a spooky basement meeting with a virulent Holocaust denier, Flip-as-Ron makes an equally Jew-hating case for the Holocaust having happened. Whichever one of the four credited writers (Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott) is responsible for this scene, it’s a masterpiece of rhetoric.

Eventually, Stallworth talks his way up to the top, securing himself (or Flip) a meeting with David Duke his own bad self (Topher Grace, teaching a master class in mealy-mouthed corporatized racism). The filmmaking heats up, changing from fluent coolness to a hot thriller mode, charging towards a climax fabricated for the movie but no less dramatically and thematically sound. Lee’s inventions don’t offend much, because even if some events didn’t happen to Stallworth, they’ve happened elsewhere, and Ron comes to stand not for himself but for the disenfranchised who have tried to negotiate a hostile territory through defensive imposture. Blacks passing as white, Jews passing as gentiles, gays passing as straight (this last doesn’t get much play in the movie, except maybe through amusing subtext).

Undercover cops have to understand the banality of evil in order to assume it as cover, which often means understanding their own self-hatred or potential for bigotry. Actors and artists do much the same, and the movie finds Lee wearing both entertainer and artist hat. BlacKkKlansman argues for a world where no one has to pretend to be anything. I think Lee would even rather racists were open about it, sunlight being the best disinfectant and all, instead of hiding behind the hypocrisy of dog whistles and three-piece suits. Lee has taken the opportunity to deliver an existentially crazy police procedural that ends up saying more about society’s disease than many a sober-sided Oscar-chaser. Not that the movie doesn’t deserve it — c’mon, Academy, can you acknowledge Spike now, please?

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. 

Code Name: Dynastud

October 22, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 4.50.29 PM “My penis was a lethal weapon,” narrates the titular hero of Code Name: Dynastud, “and I had a license to thrill.” This is the sort of freewheeling dialogue you can expect from this movie and from many of Richard Griffin’s movies in general. Griffin is the Rhode Island bad boy responsible for making serious films (Long Night in a Dead City, Flesh for the Inferno) and queer-positive farces (last year’s Strapped for Danger and definitely this movie). Sometimes the sharpest response to a repressive situation is laughter, and in Dynastud Griffin gays it up bigly in the face of a regime that just announced they’re looking to redefine transgender out of existence, and whose vice-president gladly speaks at the anti-LGBT hate gathering Values Voter Summit.

Griffin’s comedic grab-bag approach, with nods to everything from James Bond opening-credits sequences to Dune to Moby Dick, probably won’t win over any more bigots than a more sober-sided Oscar-season appeal to tolerance would, but it’s a lot more fun. (Some may recall that Strapped for Danger was supposed to be Griffin’s swan song; fortunately for us, he changed his mind.) Griffin’s story here (cowritten with frequent giggling collaborators Duncan Pflaster and Lenny Schwartz) involves a scrawny farm-raised lad who receives superpowers and becomes Dynastud (Anthony Gaudette), both blessed with fabulous good looks and cursed with the tendency to make his sexual partners’ heads explode when he achieves orgasm. Dynastud’s new partner in crimefighting — the Robin to his Batman, if you will — is Bart (Derek Laurendeau), a bespectacled dude punished for the crime of being gay in 2024 by being married off to the avidly horny daughter of the senator being groomed as the next president.

Despite the intentional clownishness (the bad dubbing in tribute to Enter the Ninja) and the continued thirst for vibrant colors (courtesy of cinematographer John Mosetich), Griffin’s radicalism here makes Bruce LaBruce’s callow outrages look like a kid’s armpit farts. Code Name: Dynastud imagines an America left incredibly worse post-Trump — this may come to be recognized as the first post-America film. It’s a cheerfully nihilistic work, with the emphasis on “cheerfully.” The performers come to party, with the most vivid fun-makers being Bruce Church as the gun-toting, hateful senator and Candace Sampson as his randy spawn. I’m always happy to see Aaron Andrade barge into a Griffin shindig, and here he busts in as a MAGA agent and puts on a hilariously lofty accent. He cracked me up every time.

It’s probably no accident that Griffin is hijacking traditionally macho genres (and movies by typically macho studios like Cannon) to tell lasciviously gay stories. By the same token, gay lust and affection are about the only things that don’t come in for ridicule here; by rewriting/rewiring hetero fantasies, Griffin is showing the hetero audience what their unquestioned hetero entertainment looks like to everyone else. I sometimes wonder what Griffin’s wilder films will look like in thirty years (assuming anyone will be around to watch them) — whether their method of flipping the script will be viewed as something that was sadly necessary in the dark ages of 2018. There may be a future in which films like Code Name: Dynastud will be seen not as gay parodies but as parodies. Part of Griffin believes in that future and works towards it. And part of him laughs in rage at the present. There’s the soul of an artist in these schlock homages Griffin does, with all their jokes about schlongs and jizz.

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.