“My blurry vision saw nothing wrong”
How I Came To Horror (1 of 4)
by Pablo D’Stair
I am a lover of Horror Cinema, there is no question, but considering my sober, serious—even I dare say snootishly-hoity—attitudes and opinions on the genre, I find it somewhat surprising how I came to be. My aesthetic stands hard and fast against any sort of fan-boyish, fun-times ideology (and good God, even my geeky meta-analysis of ‘what horror films are,’ ‘what they do,’ ‘what they are for’ is far more Funny Games than Scream based) and it seems to me it has always been such.
So with Halloween nearly upon us, I thought that rather than add to the clutter of ‘Best Of’ lists or give yet another set of appraisals/recommendations of which films are Classic, which Cult, which “truly scare” which had the most influential impact on those that followed etc., I would take some time to track my inception into the Horror Lover group by way of sharing how I so curiously came to be the sort of snot I am today.
I here present the first in my four part series detailing just how and to what end Horror got its filthy clutches around me.
Return of the Living Dead is a film that doesn’t need a formal introduction—from the punk-rockers to the moon-stompers to the gore-fans to the schlock-jocks to even the Zombie-come-lately-crowd AMC has turned the formerly unconcerned masses into, Dan O’Bannon’s offering is a touchstone of horror, general and subgenre. And for me, it is an unassailable part of the larger mythos and iconography of my own horror-persona, indeed without it I may never (and certainly not with the same fervent awe) have come to my so crystallized tastes.
What must be understood is that I saw the thing first neither in the cinema (if it ever played in the cinema, perhaps it didn’t—Fun-Fact nerd I am not and never would I desire to be) nor on VHS—no, I was in middle-school and had gotten into the habit of reading the TV Week which came free every Sunday with the Washington Post cover-to-cover, relishing the two line descriptions of the episodes-of-note and the films, especially those films airing from 2AM to dawn. Return was, I will always recall, to be shown at 3 in the morning and though I had every intention of being up to see it, I had passed out just a tad before it aired–having forgotten to hit Record before doing so, I groggily cursed as I stirred and slapped the button, the film already in progress.
For me—and it was years until I discovered how far into the movie it was—the opening moment of Return was the punks barreling down the road in their car to arrive at the cemetery—that was it, cold start. Now, I must say that one of the first and lasting impressions of this as start-point was that I already looked at the film as edgy, new, a thing beginning ex nihilo, indeed a film completely unconcerned with traditional dicking about in expository set-up. We are with these people, and here we go.
Then (equally in medias res) we have Freddy and Ernie down in the cellar of the medical-storage facility where they are employed (many would say ‘bumblingly-employed, but I had no call to see things that way) and obviously something has gone wrong, the two of them gasping, crawling, choking in horror. Ernie seems especially upset and I get the idea (again, what wondrous, abstract, and impactful storytelling to just dive in here) that whatever gas they released is some bad, bad shit–and yes it must be, for moments later we have a bisected dog panting, pinned butterflies flapping behind glass and the door to Cold Storage where the medical cadavers are stored is humping like a horny bulldog.
Now, blessedly I was at the young age that logic need not apply to these introductions of The Dead Living, it was just, flat-fact, dead things are fucking alive, now, which is clearly not good news. And no, the ham-fisted, over-the-top acting (from Ernie especially) was not something I was concerned about, there was too much going on and too grimy a feel to the camerawork for this to be taken anything but gravely—this was all visceral, immediate and, to me, incredibly original.
The punks are shown for awhile lounging in their jagged malaise, vignette, snap shots–a very interesting style of film-making I thought, nothing rushed, nothing heavy-handed or particularly meant to entice, these were just people hanging out. Note, of course, that this was a film redacted for network televisions, so it wasn’t until years later I got to view Linnea Quigley’s quite heavenly gothed-out nudity, instead I just got her speech about how the worst way to die, for her, would be being devoured alive alive by a bunch of old people—which, yeah, that’s fucked up and, no, I had never seen a film that showed people getting eaten, so this script just worked on me, deep brained, no idea of the obvious foreshadowing, no images of other cinema to supplement the words, just my internal reaction to this evocative suggestion.
Needless to say, by the time events in the film had advanced to Freddy et al. taking the bagged corpse of a medical cadaver that had attacked them, they had chopped up (the individual pieces still trying to attack them) to the crematorium, and by the time the burning of said corpse has risen the dead in the cemetery by spreading chemicals into the clouds, the clouds bursting open with rain, and by the time the punks had been forced to flee the cemetery (again, some of the progression was abbreviated due to television having to cut Quigley’s performance out, pretty much full-stop, for her lack of dress) I was immersed in a sort of film that defied ready explanation—and I was horrified, well and truly. This Right-to-It set-up, this organic exploration of wider implications of the horror with each step of the rising, immediate dilemma—it was all so affecting, so gritty and gorgeous (I would, let me add, build monuments out of adoration to the film quality of movies from the mid/late eighties). And moreso, it was so unconcerned with any recognizable scenario aesthetics, even those of masterful films I had seen (I’d been through Lumet, from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon, had a love for Kubrick, relished in Hitchcock’s Rope and Strangers on a Train) was so brazen that the thing was like a pistol firing off, interior my brain to out. Goddamn, even the 45 Grave song ‘It’s Party Time’ playing over the images of corpses digging themselves out of their graves and later ‘The Surfin’ Dead’ by The Cramps blaring during a sequence of intense violence and suspense, none of this smacked of camp or of pandering to a highly particular audience—I didn’t like it because I dug punk or dug gore, no no, it was just different, bold, like Number Six machine-gunning people to the strains of ‘All You Need Is Love’ in the finale of McGoohan’s The Prisoner.
“Horror movies are motherfucking incredible, end of story,” I remember deciding, belly flat on my bed, wide-eyed, glued to the small screen through poor tracking I had to keep pressing buttons on the VCR to adjust.
My little adolescent self watching a zombie saying “Send…more…paramedics” wasn’t what most any other viewer was seeing or had seen; the idea of calling the number stenciled on the side of the barrel containing the original zombie, military officers answering the call, explaining they had a plan in place, a General referring to the barrel as a ‘lost Easter Egg,’ this was nothing that had been foreshadowed or earlier introduced, this was just sudden-but-instinctively-correct pacing and reveal, it was just terrific, a well played, subtly timed set of ideas.
And the ending—the ending, sweet Jesus, the ending:
Freddy now a rabid zombie with acid-burned face, yowling that if his girl Gina loved him she’d let him eat her brain, all while Gina and Frank huddled in the attic space, Frank with gun in hand ready to do Gina in dead-bang if Freddy does pound his way up…
…Images of the missiles being readied…
…The character Burt hushing the surviving punks, waiting for the military to come back on the phone, asking “Do you hear that?” as a subtle whistle fills the soundtrack…
…The attic door bursting open with Freddy almost flirtatiously growling “Gina!”…
But no—no—I was not watching Return of the Living Dead.
Even as a kid, I could have left off as unnecessary the fact that the bombing makes the zombies spread even further, the rain washing the surrounding area with the chemicals that had animated them—I mean, that was a cool addition, such gloom, but after the kick of that attic door opening I might as well have just sat through Dogville for the wash of sensations, intellectual and guttural that flooded me, no need for hinted-at aftermath.
I must have watched that film (no hyperbole added) at least forty times by the end of that school year. And no other horror film I found down at Hollywood Video could match it, as fantastic as many I found were.
From Return of the Living Dead, a deep and permanent part of my aesthetic taste in horror cinema (in Cinema, period) was formed. Horror was a genre to be immediate, to explain itself only as it went along and only as much as was necessary, the way a nightmare reveals itself and a dreamer never questions—to do anything other than that with horror films seemed…stupid. Because, in Horror, what else do you need except the people, the idea, the wind up and the pitch? Return made me appreciate a barebones, tap-that-death-nerve-directly approach to a genre, whether films of said genre be lofty Art House stuff or the direct-to-video schlock (which so often is not schlock) or anything in between. And this was all compounded by the fact that the only people I ever talked to about Return had also only seen my recorded-from-late-night-television version, all agreeing about how and why it was magnificent, all loving it, heralding it for its brass-balled, unrelenting, unforgiving approach.
But none of us had really watched Return of the Living Dead–not by a damn sight, we hadn’t.
To say that I was disappointed when, years and years later, I bought a secondhand copy of the film proper and popped it in the VCR to ‘get that old feeling’ would be more than an understatement. As a film-lover, as one with reels always moving, rewinding, refocusing, being poured over behind my eyes, I would never imagine myself actually coming to to say that the restrictions of what network television could legally show, combined with my randomly timed, half-awake tapping the Record button, had not only improved a film but fundamentally changed it for the better—had taken a middling-at-best-cheese-ball-kitsch-for-lovers-of-cult-only film and turned it into genius—but here that is just exactly what happened.
Now, I didn’t mind the actual opening, Freddy and Ernie chatting and the “Did you ever see Night of the Living Dead?” wink-wink hokey-ness and all—I didn’t even mind the barrels being explained a little bit (just a little bit) or actually seeing the slap and the gas spewing forth. That’s fine. Not as cool as my version but, to be fair, adding that and then cutting right to the punks driving wasn’t egregious.
But a three minute sequence of a military Colonel talking to his wife about being worried that they still hadn’t found one of the zombie barrels? What in Christ’s was I watching here? This abhorrently obvious, protracted, cliché set-up was the literal antithesis of what I’d for years been extolling as the key virtue of the film to anyone who would listen. And multiple sequences of Quigley frolicking around and lounging, striking this or that posture, nude for no reason, none at all, except to show off some tits and ass…what was this lowest-common-denominator shit (no offense to Quigley’s physique, let me be clear) doing in Return of the Living Dead?
See, I’d been made sick-to-my-aesthetic-stomach already by Return of the Living Dead Part II, had no love for it at all, detested it for its injection of idiot comedy into something I held dear, spoiling the way Freddy and Ernie were written in the original (as I then saw it) by making them half-witted cartoons, the film just making so many mistakes. I mean, a Horror/Comedy? Fine and good, in abstracto, but why sully the brazen art-flick that was Return with it?
But in many ways, the actual Return of the Living Dead was even worse for me—at least Part II had the decency to be a lame sequel, something that could (like Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, for example) be looked at as a stand-alone folly, in no way soiling its predecessor. But to see what Return actually always was? This was like re-watching Duel to discover it really ended with the truck driver stepping out, explaining himself, then chasing down Dennis Weaver with an axe—fuck, it was like having Steven Weber star in The Shining!
None of this affected my love of Horror, as a genre, a style, an entity, but Return of the Living Dead was the first casualty of my awareness of Art, my understanding of the fact that the expurgated version I’d seen (and what I’d seen in it) is what many filmmakers actually do on purpose, and that filmmakers who do not do this…are pandering, playing cute for cheap kicks.
Maybe it’s sad or maybe it’s just dickish, but I cannot watch Return of the Living Dead, anymore, cannot stand to hear people say they love it, not people who, as far as I am concerned, have never even seen it. A mention of the film has become a warning flag in conversations, to hear “I love Return of the Living Dead” means I am dealing with a person of questionable taste, someone in it for popcorn screams and paying lip service to Horror, no interest in what the genre can do.
But I will always love Return, at least my own special, accidental-cut, and thank the film-proper for inadvertently reinforcing what Horror Cinema, no matter the source material, can actually be, what is always kind-of-there, and for helping me to so much discover my own eyes for the genre.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing late in 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.