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There’s Something in the Fog!

First of all: I’m severely tempted to reference Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog” over and over again throughout this post. I just thought you should know this. The lack of puns on “little cat feet” is only because I’m a master of self-restraint. Second of all: Why in the name of zombies didn’t anyone force me to watch The Fog (1980) before last week??! It’s a brilliantly told, old-fashioned ghost story, with nary a structural missteps and a premium on likeable, intelligent characters. It may well be one of director John Carpenter’s 2-3 crowning achievements.

It’s also a very smart meta-horror movie, as it deals with the scary stories we tell ourselves, and how those interact with the other myths our lives are based on. (Cf. Bernard Rose’s Candyman [1992].) The coastal town of Antonio Bay, California is about to turn 100 years old, and the town elders, like Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) are planning a big celebration, complete with the unveiling of a commemorative statue. But there’s eerie doin’s a-transpiring, as the residents of Shelbyville would say, and a thick, glowing fog rolling in. Namely, the kind of thick, glowing fog that contains hook-and-sword-wielding ghosts out for blood…

But Carpenter makes this into so much more than your typical thriller about hook-wielding ghosts. Yes, the movie’s plot, with its build-and-release model of suspense, is rooted in the Hitchcock-influenced slasher formula that Carpenter had pioneered with Halloween. But The Fog‘s greatest priority is establishing Antonio Bay as a tangible place with an embattled community of diverse citizens, each of whom is affected by the town’s troubled nautical heritage. (Many of Carpenter’s films, including The Thing and Prince of Darkness, have claustrophobic premises based on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which Carpenter himself remade; The Fog bears a similar, but less obvious, debt.)

We’ve got Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), the drunken priest who discovers his ancestor’s secret-laden diary; Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), the DJ whose sultry voice stretches across the town, not unlike the fog itself; Nick Castle (Tom Atkins), an intrepid seaman who’s investigating the town’s mysteries; and Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), an itinerant artist who tags along with Nick. We spend the majority of the film getting to know these characters, learning about their relationships to Antonio Bay and to each other. Each of their stories is intercut, and each character gains new insights into the mystery that they must slowly piece together with the others’ help. It’s kind of like a small-town horror version of Nashville.

The terror of The Fog comes less from the occasional impalements, and more from the sense of dread as the fog bank approaches, determined to exact revenge for the sins of the fathers. The plot’s focus on old, scary stories, like the one that Father Malone accidentally uncovers, or the one told during the film’s prologue by guest star John Houseman, is what allows Carpenter to engage in some clever meta-commentary. This is a “cursed small town” story about cursed small town stories. It reminds me of a less mechanical, more ludic version of Jaws; it too is about civic responsibility, but with a greater curiosity about the directions a story can turn, and how viewers react to them.

Stevie’s son Andy, for example, lets his imagination run wild after he finds a piece of driftwood carved with the name of the ghost ship, the Elizabeth Dane. Andy’s enthusiasm here and throughout the film, as when he sees the danger he’s in and laughs, “I think it’s kinda neat!”, reflects our eagerness as audience members for the film’s approaching climax. Carpenter is a resolute classicist, devoted to retelling old stories in new, fun ways. Like his idol Hitchcock (whose film The Birds gets a shout-out when a character mentions Bodega Bay), he wants to tantalize and play with his audience. The Fog does an admirable job of giving its viewers the chills.

Of course, I have to touch on The Fog‘s Lovecraft connections: although Antonio Bay is on the west coast, the way Carpenter treats its haunted history resembles that of certain New England towns, Innsmouth among them, and Antonio Bay isn’t far from a spot called Arkham Reef. But The Fog is definitely less downbeat than most of Lovecraft, and espouses a worldview of qualified optimism through the fates of its characters: stick together and you’ll pull through, but somebody still has to pay (and with their life, not just a giant gold cross).

The Fog brings together all manner of horror legends under the auspices of solid writing, crafty editing, and Carpenter’s always reliable synthesizer score. It’s a movie that merges old and new in the mother/daughter pairing of Leigh and Curtis; in the confrontation between the town’s not-so-buried past and its living present; and in its telling of the oldest kind of horror story through the newest techniques. With its angry, shadow-shrouded ghosts, The Fog is a very scary movie, yet it’s also good-natured and thematically deep. It’s just the kind of entertainment we need as Halloween grows closer, sweeping across the calendar like a fluorescent cloud of fog.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, I’m not done yet! Well, OK, first: isn’t it cool how Adrienne Barbeau never physically interacts with any of the other characters? I love subtle tricks like that. Second and most importantly: totally by coincidence, I recently saw Barbeau and Holbrook in a movie together – that is, George Romero’s Creepshow. As a whole, I found it pretty uneven and only occasionally successful (note: Ed Harris used to be hot, and Leslie Nielsen makes a good psychopath); the Barbeau/Holbrook episode, “The Crate,” was probably the movie’s peak. (Either that or the last one, “They’re Creeping Up On You!”, where E.G. Marshall is plagued by some icky cockroaches.)

Barbeau and Holbrook play a dysfunctional couple living in academia. The story is pretty much Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets Monster on the Campus (with, as usual, a little Lovecraft thrown in), as Holbrook’s colleague pries open the titular object… and finds a very hungry, very toothed beastie inside. Can you guess who tries to use the monster to kill who? I’ll give you a hint: Holbrook is a hen-pecked, fed-up husband while Barbeau is his verbally abusive, drunken, uncensored wife. She gives a fantastic performance, by the way. So there! A little tangentially related bonus review to tide you over.

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My Favorite Movies: Night of the Living Dead

The ghouls march together in George Romero's influential classic

I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968, viewable here) on Halloween morning during my freshman year of college, but the gruesome image you see above had already been in my head for years, since it adorned the empty VHS case my family once possessed. This illustrates the staying power and the measured gore of Romero’s imagery: shot in grainy black and white, it’s not shocking enough to make you jump (at least, not most of the time). But it can creep into the back of your head like a zombie encroaching on your personal space, until next thing you know you’re waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares of those infected teeth clamping down on your naked shoulder. The lasting fear its visuals create is but one side of this scary, clever film.

The plot of Night of the Living Dead is as simple and as bold as its title: the dead rise to eat the living. News reports peppered throughout the film (giving the crisis an air of authenticity) suggest that the problem is regional and spreading; however, the movie’s own little microcosm is a house in rural Pennsylvania whose occupants (seven, and dwindling) are besieged by a ghoulish horde – at first only one lumbering cannibal, but more and more as night falls upon them, growing into a hungry swarm. Under this set-up, Romero tells of human altruism (and selfishness) under extreme pressures, and the horrors of facing an enemy with a human face who doesn’t think or feel.

The first 5-10 minutes of Night focus on two characters, Barbra and Johnny, a brother and sister who visit their father’s grave site out in the country once a year to lay down flowers. The reason, then, for the film’s first action is death, and its remembrance. This theme continues throughout the film – while Johnny speaks dismissively of his father’s memory, it’s the memory of Johnny that paralyzes Barbra through the remaining hour and a half. And inherent in the film’s governing conceit is the fact that the dead are not buried and forgotten; they’re up and about, ready to terrorize the still-living. This casts some irony on Johnny’s arrogance toward the dead, as well as toward his sister’s (vindicated) fear.

The silent figure of destruction looming over Barbra

The opening scene, right up to the introduction of the film’s driving conflict (who appears as a tiny figure stumbling through the background), also goes from a mundane family outing full of sibling patter – albeit an outing to a cemetery, a location marked for horror – to a scene of sudden, blunt danger, where the normal world is intruded upon by violence and chaos.

It’s especially effective because all extraneous elements are discarded until we’re down to brother, sister, graveyard, ghoul. After some brief foreshadowing – Johnny’s oft-repeated line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”, delivered in a haunting voice worthy of Karloff – the ghoul attacks, Barbra flees, Johnny is killed, and it all happens quickly and unmomentously, an initial volley out of nowhere in a war that will expand over the course of the film.

In this way, Night of the Living Dead is a horror movie that’s also kind of a rural war movie – a Battle of the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand against an unexplained, inhuman Other. Humanity, embodied in three men, three women, and a sick young girl, is pitted against a remorseless, single-minded foe it does not understand, and its back is quite literally against the wall. Herein lies much of the situation’s horror: we have the fact that the monsters are superficially human, yet fundamentally different; they are unwilling to reason and seek only to destroy.

The iconically terrifying Karen Cooper: dehumanization and pubescent aggression

Then there’s the gradually implied apocalyptic scale of the disaster which, although somewhat remedied in the end, still throws a pall over hopes for escape by suggesting maybe there is no escape when our own dead can turn on us. It’s a surprisingly bleak movie that throws open the flood gates of mortality and doesn’t really leave a ray of hope, regardless of whether or not the ghouls are eventually exterminated.

This all-consuming fear and hopelessness is especially stark in light of the fact that Night was originally plotted to be a “horror comedy,” in addition to the satirical elements in Romero’s subsequent work, and the spoofs the film has inspired (including a whole series from co-writer John Russo).

But there’s no mistaking the lack of humor, the characters’ increasing levels of panic and anxiety, and the somber aftertaste left by the finale. This is a horror film that embraces the fundamentals of a nightmare: an internal world where agonizing changes can come swiftly and irrevocably, upheaving the previous sociocultural and even physical landscape.

Wartime disaster amidst supernatural horror

And so, like many great horror premises, Night‘s undead onslaught can be read on numerous levels. The film’s low budget and unrefined aesthetic have frequently led it to be compared to Vietnam War reportage, forming an analogy with the aggressive self-preservation and similarly brutal tactics (napalm, guerilla warfare?) present in the human/zombie conflict. And the beauty of the film is that this reading is pretty legitimate, but the viewer can also dip into several other moral and political cross-currents.

For example, while watching it tonight, I started pondering the zombie: driven but uncreative, ignorant of change, prioritizing its hunger over all logic or ethics, it demolishes whatever’s in its path and breaks down human constructions, but can be warded off through well-crafted barriers or especially crafty killing techniques, like Ben’s Molotov cocktails. The zombies do not appear to communicate, feel, or remember – they all simply share a common goal, namely to eat living humans. They’re an enemy without any real ideology, without any strategy, with nothing but an unstoppable desire to break into the house and kill those inside.

One question that repeatedly popped into my head was the relationship between zombies and fascism. They appear to be entropic creatures, with their bodies as well as any organizational structures around them perpetually falling apart. The zombie threat tears into any kinship between their human opponents, splintering what could have been a cooperative team into a group of (mostly) frightened individuals staring down the amorphous menace outside. But they move as one, with dozens of necrotic hands groping at Barbra through the window as if they belonged to one giant organism. In any case, perhaps this could be compared to my deep fear of swarming insects – locusts, flies, etc. – which are motivated more by biological pre-programming than by conscious solidarity.

A militia, humanity's televised organizational reaction to the epidemic

Regardless of how you view the zombies – as a politicized enemy or cultural/biological foreigner – they not only act as the obvious threat, but also instigate the pressures and anxieties within the human group. A majority of screen time, after all, is devoted not to the zombies, but to the humans. And while the zombies act as one, they are split across several axes: racially, Ben (the most proactive of them) is visibly different, although this tension goes entirely unspoken; in terms of gender, Judy and Helen are largely nonfactors (outside of Helen’s role as a mother), while Barbra’s presence is significant mostly due to her inaction and emotional collapse. Harry, the elder of the white males, asserts himself as the patriarch of the cellar, and is incensed by Tom’s (ultimately fatal) decision to follow Ben outside.

Maybe the easiest moral to draw from this situation is the absurdity of division along petty differences when a much more relevant difference (human vs. zombie) is available; this is akin to the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers-type science fiction films of the ’50s, where national boundaries grow blurry when an extraterrestrial threat appears. But the film is far from moralistic, couching its story in the morally ambiguous iconography of Vietnam-era current events (not just war footage, but school and religious protests, assassinations earlier in 1968, etc.).

So this is the genius of Romero’s film: on the surface, it’s just a cheap monster movie, but dig around and it becomes a multivalent hotbed of political and social discourses. And I think the cheapness contributes to its appeal and influence. With just over $100,000, a few guys with some experience making commercials managed to put together a very scary movie with a compelling story. The zombies don’t have Jack Pierce makeup or anything, but they’re nonetheless genuinely frightening, and their ripped shirts and pustule-ridden faces photograph well in black and white.

Race and systems of power in the face of a zombie apocalypse

Zombies (as a number of films have shown) innately lie on the edge between horror and comedy – the gaping faces and moaning probably contribute – but Romero places his securely in the domain of horror. He never studied under Roger Corman, and his lack of Hollywood roots do significantly differentiate his style from the Corman grads’ early films, but nonetheless there is a shared fondness for fear at minimal cost. In Romero, though, it’s married to a penchant for social observation which I think is lacking in Corman’s grandstanding, happily schlocky films (just compare the acting style of Vincent Price to Duane Jones to John Amplas).

In case my discussion has left any doubt, Night of the Living Dead is never really overtly political. It sticks to its title’s drive-in horror roots. But it’s never dumb, nor does it allow its conflict to overwhelm its characters or ideas. I see it as a great Halloween movie, potent at inspiring fear both from its monsters and from its ambiguities. So lie back, watch it, get sucked into the nervous tension, and remember: they’re coming to get you… Barbra. With its gritty, quasi-realistic style, its frightening end-of-days scenario, and its bottomless pool of ideas about humanity and violence, Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies.

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