Guess What’s Back From the Grave? ‘Night of the Living Dead’

Glenn Kenny

10/27/2016 12:00:00 AM

When “Night of the Living Dead” opened in 1968, mostly in grindhouse theaters, Vincent Canby of The New York Times dismissed it in a three-sentence review as “a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farmhouse by some other nonprofessional actors who stagger around, stiff-legged, pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls.” He said the filmmakers were “some people in Pittsburgh.”

As it happened, “Living Dead” followed a trajectory rare in American film: Partly fueled by other, more scandalized reviews (including one by a young Roger Ebert, in Reader’s Digest), it went on to cult success, and two years later was recognized as being sufficiently artful to be placed in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Its influence, particularly on the now nearly ubiquitous subgenre of zombie horror (“The Walking Dead” on TV, and the movies “28 Days Later,” “World War Z” and “Shaun of the Dead”) is broadly recognized.

But the filmmakers themselves — the “people from Pittsburgh” who formed a company they called Image Ten to make the low-budget movie — have been able to gain from their groundbreaking work only in a limited way. The film’s original distributor, the Walter Reade Organization (named for its founder, a pioneer of art-house distribution), did not file for a new copyright after changing the title from the original “Night of the Flesh Eaters” to “Night of the Living Dead.” That meant the movie went into the public domain almost immediately. As was once the case with Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the movie has been subjected to many unofficial, though legal, iterations.

The paradox of the situation has not been lost on its director, George A. Romero. “The fact that people were able to show it for free, that anybody was able to distribute it, did result in lots of people seeing it, and keeping the film alive,” he said in a phone interview. But viewers were too often watching inferior versions. That will change — dramatically, the moviemakers hope — on Saturday, Nov. 5, when the Museum of Modern Art screens a new, and copyrightable, restoration of “Living Dead” as part of its annual restoration and preservation festival, “To Save and Project.”

Tony Pantanella, who worked on “Living Dead” special effects, rigging up a zombie buddy.CreditNight of the Living Dead LLC, via Image Ten 

“We got our baby back,” Gary Streiner, one of the film’s producers, said in a phone interview.

The process, Mr. Streiner said, began in earnest last year, when he; his brother, Russ (who co-produced and also played Johnny in the movie); and the screenwriter John Russo resolved to make a proper inventory of the film’s surviving elements, going through their own archives and the archive of the lab that originally worked on the film.

They turned to MoMA for help, partly because of its history with the film and partly for a practical reason. “Our vaults are in Pennsylvania,” said Katie Trainor, the MoMA’s film collections manager. “Once they had the materials together, they did not want to risk shipping them; they drove them from Pittsburgh. They were literally looking over my shoulder as I was inspecting the materials.”

Mr. Streiner recalled his relief at finding the negative in decent shape: “We could have opened the cans and found dust!”

The restoration was backed by, among others, the Film Foundation, the preservation nonprofit started by the director Martin Scorsese. In an interview, its executive director, Margaret Bodde, said, “The movie had been on a wish list of ours for some time,” and it helped “that we had the director around to consult with, which is too rare in film restoration.”

Mr. Romero said that it had been years since he had seen the film presented in its proper aspect ratio, a squarelike 1.37 to 1; many versions had been cropped to wide-screen proportions. “The restoration is very beautiful, and of course the movie’s pimples do show,” he said. “There’s a copy of the script visible in one of the frames! I won’t tell where. It will be a little challenge for fans to spot it.”

What a cute little zombie: Kyra Schon in “Night of the Living Dead.”CreditNight of the Living Dead LLC, via Image Ten/Photofest 

As Ms. Trainor toiled with the filmmakers, she learned what a shoestring Image Ten had worked on. “The car in the opening scene belonged to the Streiners’ mother,” she said. “They borrowed it from her, and she didn’t realize they’d smashed the windshield because they replaced it before returning it to her. The dent they show in the car after it rolls into the tree was there to begin with, though.”

Josh Siegel, curator of film at MoMA, said in an interview, “It’s an unfortunate turn of historical fate that Image Ten created one of the most successful horror films of all time and didn’t reap the benefits of it.”

Over the years, members of the original filmmaking team have tried to mine some profit from their vision, creating alternate cuts, even a colorized version. Because restoration at a certain level has been deemed to create new intellectual property, this is the first time the film as they wanted it seen will, to an extent, belong to them.

Reflecting on what “Living Dead” spawned, Mr. Romero said: “They aren’t really zombie movies; ‘Night’ wasn’t really a zombie movie. I always understood zombies as living beings put under a kind of spell, as in ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ or ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow,’ that kind of thing. Our creatures, and the ones in movies such as ‘28 Days Later’ and ‘World War Z,’ are the dead returning to life.”

Now 76, Mr. Romero has mostly stayed in indie film, creating a big body of work, including five more film variations on the “Living Dead” theme. “I recently realized that I couldn’t get financing for an inexpensive zombie film anymore, because of Brad Pitt,” Mr. Romero said with a chuckle, referring to the actor and producer of “World War Z.” He added, “I’m hoping to get back into the playground, though.”


Sex as a Weapon: Revisiting Lino Brocka’s ‘Insiang,’ 40 years later

Don Jaucian

9/27/2016 12:00:00 AM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Cinematheque Centre Manila recently held a five-day retrospective on the National Artist for Film Lino Brocka, called “Lino Brocka: Citizen with a Movie Camera.” Aside from screenings of three restored films, "Insiang," "Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag," and "White Slavery," an exhibit was also held featuring photographs of the director, a talk given by Martial Law survivors, and a culminating symposium with the director’s brother, Danilo.

Brocka is known for his gripping takes on the lives of the overlooked and marginalized sectors of society: blue collar workers, prostitutes, bar dancers, security guards, and slum dwellers. During the Martial Law era, Brocka was actively depicting the state of the nation in his films, working on both commercial and arthouse films that spark conversations about what being a Filipino is. Here, we spotlight “Insiang,” which has the distinction of being the first Filipino film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978. It was later restored in 2015 and was screened at the Cannes Classics section of the film festival in the same year, along with other restored classics such as Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” and Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows.” The restoration was done in partnership with the National Film Archives of the Philippines, the Film Development Council of the Philippines, and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project/The Film Foundation.

The world of “Insiang” is as much bewildering as it is suffocating: the makeshift shelters of the slums are put together in a claustrophobic and inescapable fashion. What unfolds before our eyes is an environment too unhindered — a wild beast that grows limbs on its own and swallows the weakest. Houses are stacked beside each other; drunks pass the time in storefronts, beaten down by their own economic constraints; and noise is a constant presence, a reminder that hell can be a place on earth as it is a mythical afterlife full of torture and misery.

And yet, “Insiang” almost plays like a macabre fairy tale: a supposed victim learns how to stand up on her own using cunning tricks to bring the downfall of her oppressors. It helps that Insiang (a gripping performance by Hilda Koronel) appears saint-like: toiling every day to make ends meet, defending her relatives against her mother’s frequent verbal abuse, a virginal lover to Bebot (a cherubic Rez Cortez), her only hope to having a life outside the four walls of her home. Insiang’s fate is a dead-end street, this she knows as much as the miserable existence she has been consigned to, and in time, she realizes that the only way to survive is to become a monster herself.

The film’s lone tyrant is Insiang’s mother, the customary evil witch, with a predatory macho man as her right hand. Brocka’s distrust of the regime is apparent in the film’s setting. The police, counting a brief appearance in the film, is useless. There is no sense of order around these parts, no semblance of a country being governed. No wonder then First Lady Imelda Marcos was against sending the film to the 1978 Cannes Film Festival since it didn’t depict her idea of “the true and the beautiful” Philippines. The film’s producer, Ruby Tiong Tan, recalled to the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) the struggle to bring “Insiang” out of the country in time for the film festival’s deadline. “Because of the social realities depicted in the film, they [the Board of Censors] did not want it to go to Cannes. It was banned because it wasn’t showing the beautiful parts of Manila. They delayed the censoring process just so that it wouldn’t make it for the Cannes deadline.”

The much-talked about opening scene is a thinly veiled depiction of the plight of the Filipinos under the Martial Law regime: a line of pigs waiting to be slaughtered by the butcher, thrown into boiling water so they can easily be skinned, their squeals of pain echoing inside the theater. Insiang is almost always framed against a window, a prisoner tightly guarded by her crone of a mother, Tonya (the superb Mona Lisa) who only wants her to stay at home, do the laundry, and not lock eyes with any guy on the street. Her mother treats her like a disgraceful reminder of her father, who left them for another woman. “Pareho kayo ng tatay mo! Mahilig!” she yells at Insiang. Tonya tells her daughter it is her duty to serve and work for her because she fed and raised her. And when Insiang buys a new pair of slippers because her old ones are worn out, her mother berates her “Nakakahiya! Ang sabihin mo nagpapaganda ka para mapansin ka ng mga lalake!

Sex is a valuable weapon in this film, a lethal ammunition that Insiang learns to wield on her own. Tonya’s younger lover Dado (Ruel Vernal), the town thug, keeps her on a leash by habitually satisfying her sexual appetite, even flirting and canoodling in front of Insiang as if to tease her of something she can never have.

Men in this film justify their libidinal tendencies frequently, that part of being a man is submitting, seemingly against their will, to their carnal desires every time they see a girl walking past. “Lalake ako eh? Ano magagawa ko?” Bebot tells Insiang after she refused to have sex with him. Later, after Insiang repeatedly brushed off his advances, Dado rapes her. When Insiang tells her mother, Dado turns things around and tells Tonya that Insiang was the one who seduced her. He tells Tonya, “Alam mo ba kung ano ang ginagawa ng anak mo kapag wala ka dito? Naliligo ng nakahubad! Nakatihaya sa kwarto! Lalake lang ako Tonya, sinong hindi ma-de-demonyo?

A drum spilling with water mirrors the pent up emotions inside Insiang. The sexual maladies, the torment of living, and the Machiavellian manipulations of her own mother lead her to a path that is both self-actualizing and self-destructive. In the end, Insiang triumphs, yet she is transformed, overwrought by her own infernal machinations. The innocent, like a lamb to the slaughter, is a prey easily corrupted. “Insiang” is allegorical in many ways, something that still rings true today, almost 40 years later, as our own society is still plagued by tyrannical forces bent on overpowering the weak and the poor.


Critic's Notebook: Curtis Hanson, a Late Bloomer Worth Waiting For

Stephen Dalton

9/21/2016 12:00:00 AM

Hitting his stride in the late '90s, 25 years into his career, the director of 'L.A. Confidential,' 'Wonder Boys' and '8 Mile' was an unpretentious all-rounder touched by occasional genius.

A late bloomer by fate, an all-rounder by necessity, Curtis Hanson (who died Tuesday at age 71) began his filmmaking career as a high-school dropout and Venice Beach surf bum. The future director of L.A. Confidential never went to film school, finding his way into Hollywood by a more scenic route that included decades of false starts and dead ends. But Hanson was persistent, and his dogged dedication finally paid him back. It makes a poetic kind of sense that he was drawn to stories about people "trying to find better versions of themselves," as he's been widely quoted as saying.

He first entered the outer fringes of the film industry by writing and editing his own movie magazine, Cinema. This brought him into personal contact with his directing heroes, single-minded American mavericks from an earlier age like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Don Siegel. "They had an independence about them," he once explained in an interview for The New York Times. "They weren't pretentious. They survived."

READ MORECurtis Hanson, Director and Oscar-Winning Writer on 'L.A. Confidential,' Dies at 71

Resilience was certainly key to Hanson's early career, which was hobbled by setbacks and scandals. Like so many of his generation, he started in movies by writing and directing pulpy quickies for Roger Corman's legendary low-budget outfit AIP. Greater opportunities seemed to knock when Roman Polanski, hot from his success with Chinatown, signed on to direct Hanson's adaptation of French novelist Romain Gary's anti-racist allegory White Dog. But the film fell apart when Polanski was charged with statutory rape and fled the country.

Paramount later revived White Dog as a collaboration between Hanson and his directing hero, the legendary Sam Fuller. However, the studio got cold feet again, suppressing the film's U.S. release in 1982 over fears it could be misinterpreted as racist. White Dog finished off Fuller's American career, though it later earned a cult following, and he remained on good terms with Hanson until his death in 1997.

Hanson's juvenile writing and directing efforts are mostly faceless genre exercises, but one early pointer to future greatness is his screenplay to Daryl Duke's The Silent Partner (1978), a Canadian heist thriller starring Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer and Susannah York. Reviewers likened this taut crime caper to vintage Hitchcock and, indeed, Gould later screened it privately for the master of suspense himself. Hanson was aggrieved not to be invited, but placated when he heard that Hitch loved the movie.

Notable solely for launching Tom Cruise's career as a leading man, the lame sex comedy Losin' It (1982) was one of Hanson's handful of journeyman directing credits in the 1980s. But as before, he stoically persisted until his career-making break finally arrived with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), a roaring rampage of female revenge starring Rebecca DeMornay, Annabella Sciorra and Julianne Moore.

Further box-office success came with The River Wild (1994), a kinetic backwoods thriller starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon. Grossing around $90 million each, these two films gave Hanson the financial leverage to move into more mainstream Hollywood fare, though both still stand on their own merits as superior and rare female-driven action vehicles.

The stars finally aligned for Hanson in his early fifties when he co-wrote, co-produced and directed his magisterial adaptation of James Ellroy's sprawling retro-noir novel L.A. Confidential (1997). Featuring an all-star ensemble cast, this sumptuous symphony of sleaze takes place in a meticulously recreated 1950s Los Angeles of treacherous fantasies and thwarted dreams.

Shooting in 45 locations, Hanson was obsessively keen to capture the precise texture of the post-war Los Angeles he remembered from childhood, a city of rapid urbanization and rampant corruption, where detectives were not Hollywood pretty boys but hard-drinking, chain-smoking, big-shouldered World War II veterans. He inspired his cast and crew by screening noir-era classics including Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, and Don Siegel'sThe Line-Up. He later called L.A. Confidential "my most personal movie."

A major critical and commercial success, L.A. Confidential won two Oscars, one for Hanson's joint screenplay with Brian Helgeland and another for Kim Basinger's indelible supporting role as the emotionally wounded femme fatale. The film also put Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce on the Hollywood map. Hanson brought these relative unknowns on board without informing producer Arnon Milchan that they were Australian.

Inundated with juicy offers after L.A. Confidential, Hanson's next project was Wonder Boys (2000), another all-star novel adaptation, this time Michael Chabon's bittersweet portrait of a washed-up English professor in a small New England college town. Michael Douglas gained weight and took a hefty pay cut to play the lead role alongside a stellar supporting cast including Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes and Tobey Maguire.

Wonder Boys performed poorly at the box office, but the reviews were almost universally positive, and Bob Dylan's theme song won an Oscar. It remains a classy piece of work, wise and compassionate, with the same exacting eye for character and location as L.A. Confidential. At the very least, it proved Hanson was no one-hit wonder boy himself.

In an incongruous career swerve, Hanson then tested his lucrative flexibility once more by helming 8 Mile (2002), a lightly dramatized Eminem biopic which scored both critical and commercial success. With Eminem at the peak of his infamy, directorial input was largely incidental to the film's box-office haul of over $240 million. Even so, Hanson elevates a rote rags-to-riches plot with high levels of artistry, capturing the urban fabric of Detroit in typically forensic detail. It is a rare kind of hip-hop movie, after all, that opens with a quote from John Updike. 

Hanson's later films became steadily less sure-footed, effectively returning him to his roots as a versatile but faceless journeyman for hire. In Her Shoes (2005) is a formulaic but enjoyable dramedy starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Colette as squabbling siblings. But the strained Las Vegas gambling drama Lucky You (2007) was panned by critics and died at the box office.

Produced for HBO, Hanson's financial crisis drama Too Big to Fail (2011) is a solid and serious effort that picked up multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. But his final directing credit, the teenage surfing drama Chasing Mavericks (2012), is an indifferent swan song that was overshadowed by bad luck and bad timing. The veteran British director Michael Apted was forced to finish the film when Hanson bowed out for health reasons.

A single-minded director for more than 40 years, Hanson's best work is full of heart, humanity and fine-grained Americana. He leaves us with at least one certified masterpiece, a few excellent dramas and a handful of superior experiments in genre. A late bloomer, yes, but when he finally bloomed it was worth the wait. 

READ MOREHollywood Remembers Writer-Director Curtis Hanson


Remembering Curtis Hanson

Martin Scorsese

9/20/2016 12:00:00 AM

"I'm deeply saddened by the passing of my friend Curtis Hanson. He was such a gifted filmmaker and writer, his knowledge and deep love of film history, including his passionate involvement in film preservation, was extraordinary. Back in the days when we were fighting for the legitimacy of preservation, Curtis was always right there and ready to help in any way he could. He was an active member of the board of The Film Foundation. He taught film at UCLA, where he was chair of the department. Anyone that had Curtis as a teacher should consider him or herself lucky."

"I first became aware of Curtis in the 1970s when he was the editor of an excellent magazine called Cinema. He was so knowledgeable, so insightful, and had so much love for the art of cinema. You could feel it in his writing, interviews with great directors, and in his own pictures, particularly L.A. Confidential, where he was able to deal with his other great love, the city of Los Angeles. Curtis's dedication to film never wavered. His passing is a great loss to us all."

- Martin Scorsese



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