Friday, 16 December 2011

Save the Night of The Living Dead Chapel

The chapel in Evan's City Cemetary that features in the famous opening scene of Night Of The Living Dead (1968) is under threat of demolition, sparking a campaign headed by Gary Streiner (one of Romero's associates in the film) to raise funds to fix it up. 

NOLTD fans with a few pennies to spare at Christmas can check out the campaign here Fix the Chapel.

The campaign has gone global, helped partly by a email from George Romero pledging his support.  Here's the message from George:

In 1967, the citizens of Evans City, Pennsylvania permitted us to use their community cemetery for a very unusual purpose... to make a movie.

      At the time, nobody in the Pittsburgh area was making movies, certainly not feature-length movies, but that's what we had set out to do.  We hoped to someday complete a film which might actually be worthy of distribution.  We were young and reaching for the stars.  We had no reason to believe that anyone would support us in our aspirations.  But the people of Evans City did.  They welcomed us, in some cases fed us, and occasionally even agreed to play small roles in the film.  They gave us all their support and then some.  In this way, they became the first people to not only approve but endorse what we were attempting to do.
George A. Romero - Night of the Living Dead
      The people of Evans City in effect 'teamed-up' with us, subscribed to our hopes and dreams as if they were their own.  It was as if, in accepting us, they were willing to accept the far-fetched idea that a film made by what could only be called 'amateurs' might just possibly have a chance at success.  The film,Night of the Living Dead, was as its title suggests, a horror film, which further prejudiced its chance at any sort of lasting attention.  But the people of Evans City knew nothing about box-office shares or audience-response polls.  We believed, so they believed.  And, in a hundred ways, they enabled us to complete the film.

      In the end, our litte movie was distributed worldwide, was invited into the permanent collection at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and was selected by the American Film Institute as one of the top 100 films of all time.  We have all gotten careers out of its success.  The film has somehow remained a favorite of audiences ever since its release in 1968, and a cult has formed around it.  Hard as it is to believe, people travel from all over the world just to visit the place where the film was photographed.

Only the people of Evans City have the ability to say, "Oh, yes, Night of the Living Dead was filmed right here in town."  I'm sure this hasn't created an economic 'boom' for the town, but to some minor extent, it has given Evans City a permanent place in some people's hearts.  Not the more important, though mournful place occupied by men and women who perished in service to community and country, but a happier place born out of success, a sense of accomplishment against very long odds.

      Our first day of filming in Evans City was spent in tne cemetery.  There seems to be a 'Zombie' craze sweeping the nation right now, and indeed the world.  I was in Strasbourg, France last week where more than 3000 people turned out in make-up and costume for a 'Zombie Walk' through town.  Next week, I'm going to Mexico City, where upwards of 5000 are expected to attend.  Well, the very first Zombie (not your grandfather's vintage Caribbean-style Zombie, but one of the 'New Order') made his premiere appearance on a cloudy afternoon in 1967 in the graveyard at Evans City.  I'll never forget the day.  I was fulfilling a lifelong dream: directing a motion picture.  My long-time friends and partners were there with me (Russ, Jack, Gary, Vince, Bill...) and the people of Evans City played a big part in making it all possible.

      I'm writing this as a way of thanking Evans City and voicing my strong vote for the preservation of the chapel at the cemetery there.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

We Are What We Are (2010)

They say Christmas is a time for families, so in the next few posts I will be looking at some recent horror films with particularly degenerate families, starting with this 2010 Mexican cannibal shocker from director Jorge Michel Grau (whom I understand is no relation to the director of the classic zombie flick The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, 1974).
Mexican cinema has come into its own in the last decade or so with films like Amores Perros (2000) that depict the brutal reality of life in modern Mexico City, a place where life is cheap and survival often calls for desperate measures. At first glance, We Are What We Are seems to follow in this school of ‘poverty cinema’ and it shares the same languid pace and formal asceticism as other celebrated Mexican offerings as Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), but as we get further into the film it becomes apparent that We Are What We Are is closer in theme to schlockers like Frightmare (1974) and Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1974) in its use of the cannibalism motif to explore degenerate families.

Tony Williams in his book, Hearths of Darkness, wrote of the family as an instrument of repression, a way of turning out docile members of society willing to conform to social norms. We Are What We Are manages to explore this idea pretty neatly within its brief (80 mins) running time. We are firmly in Freudian territory here; what is described as the ‘Oedipal Trajectory’ forms the thesis of the film: the process by which male family members are socialised to take on patriarchal roles within the family, and by extension, wider society, thus ensuring the continuance of male power structures.

In We Are What We Are, when the father of a poor Mexican family dies unexpectedly, it falls to his sensitive son, Alfredo, as the eldest, to take on the role of patriarch. This family, however, survive by eating human meat and Alfredo seems ill-equipped temperamentally to take on the responsibility of hunting down victims.  While his mother, Patricia, sits in judgement waiting for Alfredo to prove his metal; his younger, more vicious brother, Julian eyes the father role for himself, while his sister Sabine manipulates them both behind-the-scenes like Lady MacBeth, finally goading them into action.
Logically in the film cannibalism as the family ‘ritual’ is presented as the social norm – not a deviation from the social norm: and although poverty may be a contributory factor, cannibalism is seen as a monstrous extension of patriarchal family values and a way of holding the family unit together in the face of social change. An image in Bunuel’s Los Olvidados comes to mind: in a nightmare, the child sees his mother coming towards him holding a dripping hunk of dead flesh. This image – with its evocation of the child’s fear of the mother – resonates throughout We Are What We Are.
In We Are What We Are the women in the family work towards perpetuating the patriarchal power structure. The Oedipal Trajectory, according to Freud, works by dissuading the male child from identifying with the mother through the fear of castration – both literal and symbolically through the denial of power within the family structure, a demotion, if you will, within the pecking order – so that the male child becomes like his father. The ‘successful’ completion of the trajectory results in the male child taking on the characteristics of heterosexual masculinity to become the virile, aggressive patriarch.  Unfortunately, Alfredo falls short somewhat, harbouring homosexual feelings and suffering ‘Oedipal guilt’ because he is unable to live up to his mother’s expectations. During one of his hunts he brings home a victim from a gay nightclub that he has ‘picked up’. We have seen him wrestling with his sexual desires and for a brief moment, think that he might liberate himself from the repression of his family life by breaking with 'social norms’, but his repression is too great for him to take that step.
Although the women in the film maintain their gender roles within the family structure– the men bring home the meat; the women prepare it – both mother and daughter act out their ‘power envy’ (or penis envy) in their treatment of Alfredo.  Although they devote their frustrated energies to the perpetuation of patriarchy within the family, they are excluded from the wider world of money, power and politics. Their resentment at this exclusion shows itself in their secret despising of Alfredo and his ‘privileged’ position within the family. Patricia forbids him to bring home a prostitute for them to eat because her husband enjoyed the privilege – as befits the patriarch - of consorting with prostitutes. Later, Patricia brings home a man for herself, on the pretext of providing a ‘meal’ for her family, whom she is then forced to kill. The film shows that in the patriarchal family ‘hate’ masquerades as ‘love’: the only priority, as Patricia points out, is that in time of crisis at least one family member survives, so that the ‘ritual’ can be preserved and continued. This plays itself out in the final scenes as the police close in on the cannibal house and a shoot-out ensues. As Patricia flees, leaving her children to their fate, the family finally implodes: Alfredo attacks Sabine and is shot by Julian, who is himself shot and killed by the police.
Interestingly, Grau posits the prostitutes – in their deviation from the social ‘norm’ – as another potentially positive alternative to the patriarchal family. This is of course another reason for Patricia’s antagonism towards them: they pose an ideological threat to ‘family values’.  Grau depicts them as a social collective, ‘a sisterhood’ with their own moral code (which is more honourable than Patricia’s). Similar to Tod Browning’s Freaks, the prostitutes hold the policy of ‘offend one and you offend them all’. As Patricia rests after fleeing the police shoot out, the whores converge on her, en-masse, and beat her to death.
Now with the cannibal family wiped out – and only Sabine left alive – is the ‘ritual’ over? I will not reveal the film’s conclusion but suffice it to say that in the patriarchal society of We Are What We Are indoctrination runs deep and old ways are hard to change.
We Are What We Are is pretty strong meat. It will provide you with food for thought on Christmas Day when, as head of the family, you prepare to carve the turkey.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Ambiguities in Suspiria

I'm not an expert on Argento like James at Behind The Couch who has published a book on the director LINK but I love Suspiria and when I watched it again recently I was struck by its ambiguities: that the events in the film might not be supernatural at all but (para)psychological. Of course,  Argento pretty much signals this in the scene where Udo Keir gives the famous ‘broken mirrors, broken minds’ speech but it’s intriguing to watch the film with these ambiguities in mind. 

To start with, Argento’s positioning of the main character is interesting: Suzy is neutral – she neither believes nor disbelieves in witchcraft. Instead, like so many Argento characters, she is unwittingly drawn into a mystery that she feels compelled to resolve through rational means. She is a contrast to the neurotic Sara and the hysterical Pat – whose histories of mental breakdown make them ripe for suggestion. She is un-sentimental and, as Tanner remarks, ‘strong-willed’ (Jessica Harper played similar no-nonsense women in ‘Phantom of the Paradise’ and the little-seen ‘Inserts’); she provides a strong backbone for the film in terms of exploring its rational/supernatural ambiguities.

Suzy enters a world of the uncanny...

Her arrival in to a world of the uncanny - symbolised by the opening storm as she leaves the airport at Friburg – can be read as her entering a ‘collective mental state’ of hysteria and superstition.  Argento shows this hysteria to be contagious – all the ballet dancers in the school seem to be affected by it – even the hard-headed Olga, who first offers Suzy lodgings ‘at a price’, seems to be on the edge of sanity (Freud would doubtless say that all this hysteria was down to the sexual frustrations of all these women cooped up together). Suzy, despite her rational mindedness, succumbs to it briefly when she becomes suggestible to psychic attack in the corridor (it is interesting that Argento keeps her incapacitated for some sections of the film) but it is because of her rational nature that Suzy recovers from this and it is really her friendship with Sara that draws her deeper into the mystery - into uncovering the ‘secret of the iris’ - than any firm belief in ‘witches’.

...and succumbs to mass hysteria

Indeed there is maybe very little in Suspiria that might not have a rational or (para)psychological explanation.  Understanding Argento’s idea of ‘broken minds’ even helps to explain some of the ‘arbitrary’ episodes in the film that seem to have no purpose within the plot: such as the maggot invasion and the bat attack. Once you believe in the supernatural, then all natural phenomenon might be the work of occult forces: bad weather (the storm at the beginning), strange animal behaviour (Daniel's dog attack), inexplicable accidents. These incidents in the film explore this mind-set.

....that gives strange natural events - like the bat attack - a 'supernatural' meaning

Argento is also careful to maintain ambiguity in the murder sequences: we see only the killer’s arms. They are strange, hairy and freakish – they may be the arms of a demon, but then again maybe not. The eyes that Pat sees through the window glinting in the darkness might be those of a cat, not related to the killer at all. Argento never presents us with something that is indisputably supernatural, unlike, say Polanski  in ‘The Ninth Gate’, who shows us Emmanuelle Seigner doing the physically impossible by floating down steps. In Suspiria, the killers might be demons or 'familiars' conjured up by the witches; or they might be human acolytes, 'brainwashed' into doing the witches' bidding. There is a moment when we briefly see the back of Sara's killer, dressed in a cape, walking away from us:  it might even be Richard, the young penniless dancer who has a crush on Suzy and who also works for Miss Tanner and Miss Blanc.

Sara's killer is glimpsed briefly from behind

Once it is accepted that witchcraft has a (para)psychological explanation even ‘necromancy’ – the raising of the dead – can be explained rationally: the result of hypnosis/suggestion/hallucination. When Sara seemingly rises from her slab to confront Suzy, it may only be that Suzy ‘hallucinates’ this under the suggestion of Elena Markos (as is implied by Sara’s apparition ‘fading away’ when Suzy stabs the old witch to death). And the final destruction of the Tanz academy with its exploding lightbulbs and self-destructing walls might also be Suzy’s hallucination or telekinesis. Certainly her enigmatic smile at the end suggests that, having escaped the academy, she is already mentally shrugging off the ‘hysteria’ to which she and Sara and the others might have succumbed.

Sara's apparation fades ...Suzy emerges from her madness.
Either way, the ambiguities in Suspiria only add to the enjoyment of a great film that is already rich in allusions to everything from Freud to early German Expressionist horror films, to the writings of Poe and DeQuincey.