Tag Archives: Night of the Living Dead

The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 3

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS IN THE FIRST GRADE
by Nick Cato

In June, 1975, my grandfather took me (who at the time was seven years old and in the first grade), my brother (who was two years younger and hence not yet in school), and my cousin (who was two years older) to see Jaws. Gramps was a fisherman and used to pick us up early every Sunday morning to go see what was biting. We always had a great time, and for a few months before the film’s release we had asked him if he would take us to see it. In the glorious 70s, without an Internet to ruin things, gramps picked us up one Saturday morning for a 1:00 PM screening. He picked us up at 10:30, but any good fisherman knows to get places early.

The two hour wait in front of the theater would’ve been boring, but my late gramps was a funny guy. He cracked jokes the whole time and eventually had a small audience as the line grew. I believe the film had been out three weeks by then, and we took our seats not knowing what to expect. I vaguely remember reviews from TV saying the film was causing people to stay out of the water, and as far as my parents were concerned, we were going to a movie with our fisherman grandfather to see a movie about a big fish.

Besides the initial sort-of shock this first grader had of seeing a naked woman run down the beach, it was quickly forgotten when an unseen creature gobbled her up within the film’s opening minutes. I had seen Night of the Living Dead on late night TV about a year before this, but Jaws was the very first time I saw a genuinely scary film in a theater. And by the time Hooper went scuba diving and found that decapitated head in the sunken boat, we were all glued to the screen, and the sight of that decapitated head caused my five year-old brother to hop onto my grandfather’s lap, where he remained for the rest of the film.

While, as kids, we loved seeing the shark attack sequences and were traumatized by them for years, it was the amazing performances by the main cast that made the film work so damn well. To this day, whenever I see Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, or Richard Dreyfuss in another film, I simply can’t accept them outside of their Jaws characters (although I kind-of came close to liking Dreyfuss’ role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) almost as much). But he’ll always be the wise-cracking Hooper to me when push comes to shove. I actually went to see Blue Thunder in 1983, but seeing Scheider flying around in a helicopter without blowing a shark to pieces left me feeling cheated. Same for the several older films I afterwards saw with Robert Shaw. I still think they should’ve had him somehow kill a shark in Battle of the Bulge. Okay, that was ten years before Jaws, but work with me here…

I tend to think that my love for gory films came from this screening of Jaws at such an early age. Two sequences in particular (a shot of a man’s leg sinking to the ocean floor, and Quint’s nasty demise as shark chow during the film’s epic finale) really did something to my psyche. As I had been doing for about a year after my late night viewing of Night of the Living Dead, where I obsessively thought about the film, drew pictures of it, and desired nothing more in life than getting to see it again, so I did the same thing with Jaws. It consumed me. I couldn’t get those creepy images out of my mind no matter how hard I tried. And when I finally got to see the film two or three years later on my aunt’s Betamax (anyone remember those?), I enjoyed it as much as my initial screening.

I was fortunate enough to have my own Quint: my grandfather. No, he wasn’t a shark hunter and as far as I know didn’t survive a military sunken ship shark attack, but he was a life-long fisherman who took me, my brother, and my cousin to see one of the greatest films of the 70s, if not of all time. Seeing the film with him made it more special, especially when I caught him nodding in agreement every time Quint spoke about fishing or what they had to do to catch this shark. It almost made the whole experience “3-D.”

Jaws scared the crap out of everyone back then, regardless of age. But seeing it with my gramps made it a little less scary for this (then) first grader, and he made an unforgettable film even more memorable. I watch the film at least once a year to this day and can’t help thinking about him whenever Quint comes on the screen.

And I still find Quint’s demise incredibly hard to watch…

Nick Cato is the author of one novel, five novellas, and a forthcoming book on grindhouse cinema.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 2

CLOSE THE BEACHES, LEST THAT SHARK TEACH US SOMETHING
by Stephen Graham Jones

What the fifties gave the horror movie was a crop of radiation-grown monsters come to punish us for our sins. Pretty much, they were our sins, given monstrous form. They were there to teach us a lesson, just, all they that had to do that with were claws and teeth, wings and fire. These monsters were impossible, unlikely creatures simply because exaggeration was the only thing that could shake the self-satisfied fifties from its smug recliner, scare it out onto its well-kept lawns.

But by Jaws 1975 (a year before for the Peter Benchley novel), heedless scientific progress wasn’t the cautionary tale we needed to be taught anymore. Was it?

Well. It might very well have been radiation from the Venus Probe that got corpses climbing from their graves in Night of the Living Dead just a few years before. And in 1974, the acoustic properties of cutting-edge “scientific” farming equipment had done the same in The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. And? Is it really any coincidence that the USS Indianapolis Quint’s the survivor of, it had been delivering Little Boy, the first atomic bomb humans had ever used on humans?

Think about it. Quint says there might have been a thousand sharks there for that feeding frenzy. A thousand sharks getting the taste for human blood. A thousand sharks cutting through the waters a ship had just gone down in. A ship that had secretly been carrying the world’s atomic bomb. Now, imagine if you will that, in 1945, we might not have completely known about radiation shielding. Imagine a loose rivet if you will, one that leaks radiation into the belly of the Indianapolis.

Now picture that irradiated portion of the hull sharing its pulsing green glow with one or two of those sharks come in to feed on the lower halves of all these sailors—that is, sharks getting a distinct taste for human flesh—and add that with what Brody researches up, about how we don’t even really know how long sharks live. Which is to say, we don’t even know if they die at all.

Then take into account that this particular shark that’s come to Amity Island for the Fourth of July (that is, when America celebrates in gruesome fashion, with mock-bombs in the air . . .), it isn’t really acting very sharky at all, is it? Granted, the initial kill we see—the drunk night-swimmer out by the buoy—that’s just a shark being a shark. Also, the shark coming up for the kid on the raft: that raft could have been a seal from the shark’s angle, right? By the time the shark knew any different, it was too late.

But we, and Amity Island, soon come to figure out that this shark isn’t any normal shark. No, this is a monster shark. This is a shark behaving in a fashion not at all in keeping with its kind.

First it sneaks into the ‘pond’—the estuary that’s supposed to be safe. Particularly, it sneaks there when there’s such better feeding out on the proper beach. And, once there in the pond, the only thing stopping it from getting to the police chief’s son is one unlucky guy in a rowboat, who quickly gets chewed through. That the son is the target is pretty obvious, from what I guess we’d have to call the point-of-view of the giant dorsal fin, as the shark pulls its first swim-by, its mouth momentarily too full for a second chomp. And, granted, there’s a way to read the story that this shark going for Brody’s son, that’s just to focus the story down to the people who matter—it’s dramatic economy. But another way to look at it is that this shark, it knows who it needs to take out, up on the land: the main authority figure. The one who wants to close the beaches.

As far as the beaches and their closing go, this shark, it’s right in line with the mayor. Which is to say, it’s aligned against Brody. And, like the mayor, it’s working events and situations in order to neutralize Brody—just, unlike the mayor, this shark has row after row of teeth, and no voting body to answer to.

This shark, it’s thinking. It’s got strategy. It can imagine a goal ahead of itself in time, and then work methodically towards that goal—unlike any of its shark brethren, all locked in the perpetual moment, as it were, operating on mere stimulus-response.

Monsters aren’t stimulus-response. Justice is so more complicated than that.

Next? Off-screen, this massive thinking shark, it takes out one of the boatful of hunters out chumming the waters—kind of a little dumbshow, illustrating again how unsharky this shark is behaving: instead of running from danger, it eliminates that danger. Understand that, in the open sea, when mating or territory or the current meal isn’t at stake, a regular shark has no reason to stick around when things get hot. No reason to go after a boatful of hunters. Unless that boatful of hunters has, say, insulted it.

Meaning? This is a shark that might have feelings.

Very unsharky. Matt Hooper should have said something about this. Or, he does, to Quint, with “You ever have one do this before?” which is followed up nearly immediately by Brody asking Hooper, “Have you ever had a great white—” but Hooper, frustrated, cuts him off with a flat, hard “No!”

No, this is not how typical sharks act.

This shark, it’s special. “Mr. White,” Quint calls it, even, lending his opposition a proper name, not just a species.

It’s getting personal, yes. Which we see when the shark, insulted by not one, not two, but three barrels being harpooned to it, proceeds to resist its own survival instinct and turn the predators into the prey. And not just in a single attack, either, but through a steadily mounting warfare of terror, as if—get this—as if maybe this shark, it’s aware that these people on the boat have interiors as well. Thoughts and feelings that can be manipulated to the shark’s advantage.

For the whole movie, this shark has been swimming closer and closer to a different identity, a different status. When it focuses all its attention on the Orca, essentially Ahab’ing Quint, it becomes a legitimate monster—a creature of monstrous proportions, acting outside its typical behavior patterns. More or less, it’s doing stuff for what we would call ‘human’ reasons, not shark reasons.

So, to wrap up already: how to make this monster?

Irradiate a long-lived shark in 1945, give it a taste for human flesh, plant a seed of human awareness in it, and then set it on a decades-long quest to finish the feeding frenzy that got cut short by rescue in 1945.

Yes, Quint is on a revenge-arc. Most definitely. He hates all sharks.

This shark, though, it just wants to finish its meal.

Can you see this shark as Quint’s pulled from the water, into his lifeboat? Can you see those doll eyes taking a snapshot or two? This is when the shark’s a “mere” three meters, say. But, thanks to the radiation, it’s already growing at an accelerated rate. Over the next thirty years, it’ll be eight times as big.

To understand this, look at Quint’s story from another angle. The Final Destination angle: sailor escapes what should have been his death, and then, a neat three decades later, that death swims up to his boat, bites him in half.

Kind of fits, yes?

And, the shark itself, it has a story as well. A typical shark, it pretty much needs two basic things: water and food. So, this shark, when it goes atypical and foregoes food in favor of revenge, it’s very much asking for justice to pay it a visit as well (for stepping outside its prescribed boundaries), and it’s only fitting that the thing that finally explodes its head, it’s the opposite of the water it so desperately needs: air (-tank).

And, note that for this read of Jaws to actually apply in a way that makes sense, it’s not at all necessary for Quint to ‘recognize’ this shark at the last moment—a tell-tale scar, say, or a missing eye, a notched dorsal fin. Really, Quint’s estimation of all sharks as pretty much just “sharks he hasn’t got around to killing yet,” that almost requires that he not distinguish one shark from the next. His own need for revenge has made him blind, has denied him the ability to discern one shark from the next. Could he, then he might elect not to smash the radio, thus severing all ties with the land and ensuring his own doom.

However, that this might be his particular monster come to chomp him, that gives the story a certain elegance, doesn’t it? It’s closing a circle that opened in 1945.

No, it’s no accident that the Hiroshima bomb the Indianapolis was smuggling across the Pacific was “Little Boy,” and that the first time we actually see actual blood in the water in this story, it’s from a “little boy.”

Neither is it any accident the “monster” in Jaws, it’s only name—aside from the Latinate—is “Mr. White”—which is a color America never actually calls itself, expect in contradistinction, when referring to all the “other” people of the world by colors.

“Mr. White” indeed.

But that comes back to bite us, doesn’t it?

That comes back to bite us in half.

Jaws is finally, and fundamentally, a story about heedless scientific progress. Specifically, it’s a story about using that “progress” against others. Jaws is a warning of what happens when we do. A bomb was dropped thirty years before the movie came out, but we’re all still living in the fallout, even now.

America, it drags an ugly, ugly past behind it.

We’re going to need a bigger boat.

Stephen Graham Jones
14 May 2016
Boulder, Colorado

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels, six story collections, more than 250 stories, and has some comic books in the works. His current book is the werewolf novel Mongrels (William Morrow). Stephen’s been the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Fiction, the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Awards for Multicultural Fiction, three This is Horror awards, and he’s made Bloody Disgusting’s Top Ten Novels of the Year. Stephen teaches in the MFA programs at University of Colorado at Boulder and University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two children, and too many old trucks.

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Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine

The Horror Zine’s latest short story anthology, Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine, edited by Jeani Rector and printed by Post Mortem Press, is allegedly also their final one. Listed as “the scariest book that [they have] ever produced” on the Zine’s website, there are some big-name authors to be found here, including Elizabeth Massie, P.D. Cacek, Tom Piccirilli, Ray Garton, and Joe McKinney, alongside many other, newer and lesser-known authors.

There were stories in this anthology that particularly stood out. Martin Rose’s opener, “Tapeworm,” had me squirming with its subdued, suggested-but-not-seen horrors. Eric J. Guignard’s “One Last Tweet” was a delightfully disorienting second-person story-cum-postmodern social commentary about our Internet age. Elizabeth Massie’s “Squatters” was a solid, old-fashioned tale of a vile man getting his just desserts. P.D. Cacek’s “Somniphobia” was a fun, hallucinatory ride through night (and day) terrors. At first glance, Nathan Robinson’s “Old Haunts” was a typically gory zombie apocalypse tale, until it cleverly asks the reader to wonder just who is narrating the story. And let’s just say that Ray Garton’s “Parasites” is NOT a story to be read in the bathroom.

I have to admit that going into this anthology I was fairly stoked, but ultimately, I was a bit disappointed. A number of the stories just didn’t groove with me, often suffering from the common storytelling problem of “too much tell, not enough show.” Others were too heavy-handed with their horror delivery. Now, every multiple-author story anthology runs the risk of having some stories that don’t work for every reader; it’s a given evil in any art field. In this case, however, the sheer number of weaker stories hurt my overall opinion of the anthology.

Bentley Little’s introduction, in which he all but literally admits that he’s only included for cosmetic purposes, didn’t help. “I haven’t read any of the stories in this anthology,” he states in his opening paragraph. “I don’t even know the names of the authors contributing to this volume.” His admission left me desiring a more dedicated introduction, be it by Little or someone else. His lack of enthusiasm didn’t help my overall opinion of the stories and my feelings of their quality.

Furthermore, the book’s early inclusion of an essay by John Russo, co-scribe of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), was another touch that didn’t quite work. Russo rambles about zombies, and how they’ve changed over the years, yet not once does he mention the following stories, nor Jeani Rector, nor anything else to do with this anthology. Beyond being another big name, its inclusion is not clearly justified.

For all of its content (over 30 stories in all), Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine felt like it was assembled with quantity in mind, rather than a strong sense of overall quality. Here’s to hoping that it isn’t truly The Horror Zine’s final anthology, if nothing else than for the hopes of a more proper send-off.

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Night of the Living Dead

Arguably the scariest offering from the 1960’s, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is more than the average zombie flick. For starters, it is the original zombie movie, and its original incarnation has served as inspiration for the myriad of humans-eating-humans in media for the last decade, most notably with television/graphic novel series The Walking Dead. In fact, at New York Comic Con in 2012, the creator of the series said his show was to Romero “What Fifty Shades of Grey is to Twilight.” Epic fan fiction. Even Roger Ebert, a budding critic for the Chicago Sun-Times regarded the film as “…something else.” At the time there was no rating system, and often children would show for the monster movies. No one expected the Romero film to elicit such a visceral reaction.

Though Romero’s zombies were the stuff of nightmares, the film has a very political and social focal point. It plays on many of the themes from the 1960’s—a time of civil unrest and dissension among the masses, and was one of the first horror films to feature an African American lead. Much of the dialogue from the film was ad-libbed, and though there was a script, it was Romero’s intention to capture as much surprise and candor from the actors, often telling them to “explain” a situation with no further notes than that. In many of these cases, there were only one or two takes before Romero moved on.

In a time when cinematography and film were in their prepubescent age, Romero brought a very new—and very dark—insight into what a horror film could be, and how it could touch upon the nerves of an already turbid and volatile apex in a societal realm. Though initially intended to be a dull-witted truck driver, the character of Ben was restructured by the actor Duane Jones. Jones, well-educated and mannerly, decided that if he were to play the character, the character should also be a reflection of the kind of people he knew. He once said he feared that if Ben appeared a lack-wit, that the audience would have a hard time liking him as a hero and respecting him as a leader.

The grainy black and white of 60’s era cinematography adds an additional haunting aspect to the film, the focal point of the movie is not the monsters themselves, nor the fear of them. The true core of the film is the fear of the unknown. In a world where the dead stalk the earth, they are a known fear. But the unknown fear of other people is in finding that, when faced with our own mortality, most people become monsters and would commit horrifying acts to save their own lives or the lives of their loved ones, and the moral codes that act as a cornerstone of our society and civility dissolve in that. The film seeks to explore what constitutes “moral” and “immoral” in a world verging on apocalyptic chaos.

As a movie, the acting is brilliant and the film itself pits strangers in a truly life or death situation to determine what manifests “good.” In a world where the dead come back to life as shambling monsters of their former selves, Romero executes a level of fear—not only from the dead rising, but from those of the living—rendering seven strangers struggling to survive in a world of the sick, the dying, and the dead, proving that the scariest monsters are not creatures of the imagination, but rather are people caught between the fear of death and the fear of the unknown.

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Patient Zero: White Zombie and Where the Dead Walk on Screen

If one were to examine pop-culture today and determine where exactly zombies and the undead stand, it would sort of feel as though they really do walk among us. In recent years, AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, with now three seasons under its belt, has left zombies with an undeniable stamp on the medium of the screen.

Already in 2013, two films, Warm Bodies and World War Z, have graced audiences with two very different perspectives on, but nevertheless feature, beings that are neither dead nor alive. Countless upon countless horror films centering on zombies have been released over the decades that they, in fact, have spawned their own genre. The ‘Zombie Horror Film’ is now an immortalized subgenre of the horror flick but it goes even deeper than that as the folklore of zombies in North American culture is always being spun into more complex and varying webs of subgenre upon sub-subgenre.

Before one delves into the legend that continually grows, it is important to discover where the dead first began to walk the earth on screen. When we think of the origins of the ‘zombie,’ George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, is certainly a movie that comes to mind and although this is partly true, it being the origin for zombies as we know today, the source goes back a bit farther than that, in fact, over 30 years back whilst in the midst of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The term ‘zombie’ has roots reaching back into Haitian and African religion, where a zombie is someone who is an animated corpse or hypnotized into doing one’s bidding. Through voodoo and witchcraft it was believed to be possible to turn someone into a zombie. The living dead as we know them today, who rise from graves, is a little more of a recent concept. Rarely nowadays do movies that contain zombie subject matter actually depict them as traditional victims of witchcraft or voodoo; however, this was not always the case. Known to be the first ever full-length feature zombie-horror film, White Zombie is the motion picture which sparked the rise of what was to be a zombie take-over in North American horror.

White Zombie was directed by brothers Victor and Edward Halperin in 1932. The film stars the infamous horror virtuoso Bela Lugosi as well as Madge Bellamy, John Harron, and Robert Frazer. The setting of the plot actually takes place in Haiti and pits Lugosi’s character, Murder Legendre, as the voodoo master with a sugar mill full of his very own zombie slaves. Lugosi puts on a fantastically creepy  performance as the antagonist. His signature stare that garnered him so much respect in 1931’s Dracula curdles your blood and is ever present in this film. The atmosphere that the film evokes is undeniably scary and the blank expressions given off by Lugosi’s zombies are eccentrically eerie and truly void of any signs of human existence. Although at times the film is a little goofy (but are not all horror films from that time a little bit so?) and the acting also sometimes cringe worthy, there is a certain amount of charm that this independent horror gem carries along with itself.

Filmed in only 11 days, White Zombie was first released to the public in 1932 in New York City, where it faced less than positive reviews. Critically, the film was seen as a joke and as a laughable parody of what ‘true horror’ could accomplish. In retrospect, though, the film is seen as a pivotal piece in the growth of horror and is seen as the first film to introduce the term ‘zombie’ into mainstream media. For that alone it is certainly worth a watch, if not for Lugosi’s stellar performance.

After White Zombie, not many other zombie films saw zombies from the Haitian perspective and after the huge success of Night of the Living Dead, it would seem that for now, that perspective of zombie has all but been lost and forgotten. The hypnotism and voodoo magic is gone and in its place now stands bloodthirsty, flesh-eating, usually repulsively gory undead. However, after White Zombie there were still several zombie films that came out before George Romero ever got his start, and these included: The Ghost Breakers (1940), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). None of them were hugely successful but each had their own little role in expanding and building upon zombie mythology in film.

With zombie-horror as an entire subgenre, it now appears as though sub-subgenres are expanding out of that as well. When you first want to create some sort of zombie-related flick, you have to ask yourself, what sort of zombies are we dealing with? Will the zombies simply rise from the dead or is there a virus involved? Do you need to be bit or is being scratched good enough to turn? Do the zombies specifically need to be shot in the head to be killed? Are they fast, jumping, and sprinting or are they slow, cumbersome, and lumbering? These questions and many, many more have to be answered and determined before one creates anything zombie related nowadays. When talking about zombies and zombie films, I will find myself asking questions like, “Are we dealing with 28 Days Later zombies or Dawn of the Dead zombies?” The list of characteristics that go into creating your own version of the undead is just so expansive, almost overwhelming now, that depending on which sort of zombie you wish to take on, chances are it will be very similar to some films while also very different to others, thus, the creation of a zombie sub-subgenre is created.

Infesting more than just the big screen, zombies are everywhere. Books, videogames (especially videogames), and television all host very successful zombie-related material and although some see the zombie genre as redundant and repetitive, it has been going on for roughly 80 years now and I am sure that zombies are here to stay. You can now have zombies attacking your garden on your iPhone in Plants vs. Zombies, watch Brad Pitt fend for his life against hordes of zombies in World War Z, and even read up and prepare yourself for the impending zombie apocalypse in Max Brooks’ best-selling book The Zombie Survival Guide, but just remember where it all came from; from a little Haitian plantation at the hands of a devious voodoo master practicing witchcraft and a spellbinding Bela Lugosi back in 1932.

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