ALWAYS KEEPING AN EYE ON HOLLYWOOD!!!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

JER'S POINT: THE ORIGINS OF ZOMBIES INCLUDING GEORGE A. ROMERO, TOM SAVINI & GREG NICOTERO

 
Although this publication is technically a September entry, it is definitely meant and delivered with the intention of an October reading. Aside for the love of the macabre and things that go bump in the night, my Godchild “Jax” and I also share a common interest for the month of October and the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve. Beginning on that note, I began to construct the possible option of topics for our favorite month. In previous years, I had shared recommendations on a collection of creepy treats that may not be as popular as others. My thoughts this month were a mixed bag of incomplete notes and scribbles… what to write about to help ring in Halloween properly with some originality? My mind detoured into the off- ramp of that illuminating light bulb of an idea! Why not write about the origins of the most popular and continued frenzied fascination the world has repeatedly shown towards the undead and introduce an arsenal of those responsible including the Godfather of Zombies himself, Mr George A Romero, and how he redefined both the definition and rules of the walking dead universe and the artists that have worked with him and their contributions to the lore. Let’s begin from where it all started from…
ORIGINS
Actual Haitian voodou followers
zom· bie {noun} a corpse said to be revived by witchcraft, especially in certain African and Caribbean religions. synonyms: living dead, undead, walking dead, soulless corpse. The definition can still be looked upon with a certain kind of vagueness, although, pop culture and entertainment exposure has clearly taken away any doubt as to what becomes relatable to the understanding of the word: zombie. This century’s re-defined version is completely different from its original.
The original folklore of ‘zombie’ dates back to its first representation in 1819 in the writings of the history of Brazil appearing as “zombi.” As mentioned within the definition, the acts of “zombie-like” trances are infamous within the Haitian community and are referred to as spells performed by voodou sorcerers called a bokor. The word and folklore was said to have been brought to Haiti from slaves that were traded within that region. Later, the New World slavery market brought Haitian slaves to America, where the word and its religious beliefs found home in the Western culture.
Self Portrait of Bartolome Murillo
In time, the earliest reference to the word ‘zombi” – which was originally spelled without the ‘e’ for many years- first appeared in an American newspaper within a reprinted short story entitled “The Unknown Painter” in 1838. The story was about a young slave owned by a Spanish painter named Bartolome Esteban Murillo, who claimed the artist had a ‘zombi’ appear in the art studio at night to continue the works of Murillo’s apprentices. The American audiences must have enjoyed the fictional story of Murillo and the slave’s account, as various interpreted versions were published many times throughout the 1800s. By the mid-century, it had come to be known that ‘zombi’, for many, “came to be associated with a creature of African ‘origin’ that willingly performed services for whites.”
William Seabrook
The Murillo story would serve as a basis of inspiration to authors, in particular to travel writer William Seabrook, who published a book on Haiti and voodoo entitled “The Magic Island.” Seabrook wrote about his personal accounts of the voodoo cults in Haiti and introduced the word ‘zombi’ to its readers. Film experts claim that the book served as the basis for the 1932 horror film WHITE ZOMBIE.
ZOMBIES’ ORIGINS IN FILM
WHITE ZOMBIE, starring Bela Lugosi (DRACULA), referred to white, as opposed to African zombies, that inhabited a Haitian plantation. The film focused on a zombie potion rather than enlist a voodoo priest or other similar incantations. The embodiment of the victimized individual showed a zombie- like trance that included a slow- moving and uncoordinated pace and the wiliness to do its master’s biddings. The film was not very well received in its time but has now definitely taken on a huge cult following today that include fans like musician/ director Rob Zombie (HOUSE OF A THOUSAND CORPSES) and musician Kirk Hammett from Metallica.
Soon after, other ‘zombie- themed’ films were made that didn’t deal or take place in Haiti or the Haitian voodoo belief either. Fast- forwarding to the late 1960s, an independent film maker from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania would come out of obscurity and define the characteristics, operations and structure of the modern- day zombie and set the bar for all interpretations to follow. The film maker was George A. Romero.
THE GODFATHER OF ZOMBIES: GEORGE A. ROMERO
George A. Romero circa 1982
George Andrew Romero was born on February 4, 1940 in New York City. At a young age, as was the case with many who became film directors, Romero was introduced to film when given an 8 mm camera by his parents on one of his birthdays. The gift served as a basis to understand the mechanics of film making which led him to direct homemade movies exhibited for friends and family. After graduating Carnegie- Mellon University in Pittsburg, Romero found steady work shooting local commercials, industrial segments and sequences for the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood television series. He quickly was introduced to a small independent film company that would finally allow Romero the independent flexibility he needed to work on his first major full- length venture.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) would be a film project riddled with difficult circumstances and a very limited budget and resources. Determined, Romero chose to shoot the film in and around Pittsburg and involve a cast and crew of inexperienced individuals who performed multiple tasks both in front of and behind the camera.
THE CREATION OF “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD”
Romero with camera filming NIGHT
Romero would step out of the box completely by basing his film away from Haitian trances or voodoo and place the unfortunate zombie ‘rise’ on unknown sources. According to later conversations with the filmmakers, it was theorized that radiation from a detonated satellite returning back from Venus was the cause for the zombies’ reanimation. That storyline, however, never is mentioned at any point in the final version of the film.
William Hinzman: the Cemetery Zombie
Actor Samuel William Hinzman appears as the first ‘zombie’ seen in the opening of the film. The scene involves his character chasing brother and sister duo Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O’Dea) within the cemetery and introduces us to the first ‘undead’ characterization presented by Romero. Hinzman created the zombie- like saunter that would become the trademark movements for zombies thereafter. Although he admitted he based the uncoordinated approach from a film with Boris Karloff, he couldn’t remember the film’s title. Research will likely point out the 1936 film, THE WALKING DEAD, in which Karloff is raised from the dead and walks with an ungainly saunter.
After all was said and done, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was shot in black and white with a budgeted $114,000. The storyline, consisting of a troubled and confused plaque of reanimated corpses attacking and eating its living victims, also found its place in delivering a very social and political view of Middle America sandwiching ideals of pre- Vietnam and racism. Ironically, the word “zombie” is never used at any point throughout the film. One of the original working titles was NIGHT OF THE ANUBIS. Anubis is the ancient Egyptian god of embalming and mummifying. Romero ultimately changed the titles when he discovered how little anyone understood the reference.
THE LIVING DEAD AFTERMATH
Ben (Duane Jones) decks Harry (Karl Hardman)
Upon its initial release, it was very hard to define how audiences would receive a film of this kind of magnitude. On one hand, many were appalled by the violence and visible scenes of cannibalism and peril. Often times, it was reported that many audience members would literally stand up from their theater seats and exit with discuss, while others were nauseated and vomiting at some point throughout the film. On the other hand, were zombies just merely a metaphor to help visualize the troubled state our country was facing? Could the representation of the character of Ben (Duane Jones), a black man, pitted against not only the dealings of the undead but also having to face- off with a middle- class bigoted family man named Harry (Karl Hardman) be a very prominent view of the tensions amounting in the late 60s? The ‘invasion’ or apposing threat of something we couldn’t control or contain was reflected on the mindless zombies destined with one main intended goal: destroy the living. The same could be said of what Americans thought about the enemy’s intent prior to the war. Many film historians, as well as fans of the film, have expressed both sides of this speculation whereas Romero will tell you that it is mere coincidence but may contain a bit of subconscious undertones.
Co-Producer and "Johnny": Russell Streiner
Russell Streiner, co- producer of the film, stated in an interview: "I think that, in setting out to make a general entertainment film, if some critics were entertained to the point that they began reading all these fantastic social implications into it, fine, if that's how they're entertained. But I can't say that there were any overriding social ramifications in the original design of the film. I mean, that is just not true." Fans of the film will also recognize Streiner for his brief role as Johnny, Barbara’s brother during the cemetery sequence in the beginning.

Aside from critiques being split down the middle, other groups were all too quick to jump on the morale train. Readers Digest stated a warning against their subscribers watching the film because it would inspire cannibalism. An amusing publicity stunt came from the film’s distribution company, the Walter Reade Organization, which placed a $50,000 insurance policy against anyone dying from a heart attack during the watching of the film.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD opened in theaters on October 1, 1968 at the Fulton Theatre in Pittsburgh. The film ended with a standing ovation. It is one of the first films to be added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. It is considered one of the most successful independent films of its time.
SPECIAL EFFECTS MAKE-UP MAESTRO: TOM SAVINI
Romero (l) & Savini (r)
A key relationship between director and make- up artist was about to be forged right from the very beginning. A struggling actor/ stunt man/ make- up artist by the name of Tom Savini was originally hired by Romero to do the make- up effects for NIGHT. The two just happen to meet when Savini had auditioned for an acting role in an earlier Romero film that never got made. The director had remembered Savini was also a make- up artist and had brought his effects portfolio to show to Romero at the time of the audition. He thought about how impressed he was with his work and reached out to him. Savini, however, was unable to do the effects because he was called to duty to serve as a combat photographer in Vietnam by the U.S. Army. Romero would not soon forget Tom Savini…

The Master of Splatter: Tom Savini

Savini's Vietnam photo
Thomas “Tom” Vincent Savini is a pioneer of the special effects make- up, dating back to his early days within the 1970s and rising to recognition within the 80s. A native Pittsburg, like director George Romero, Savini became fascinated with make- up and the illusion of film when he saw the 1957 film THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, a film based on the life of actor and make- up artist Lon Chaney. Like Chaney’s origins, he too took it upon himself to create his own effects using practical household products and his mother’s make- up. After arriving to Vietnam as a combat photographer, Savini was able to witness firsthand what actual corpses and severed limbs looked like… it was from reality that art would be created from. After returning back from his tour of duty, he began creating and applying his works on film.
Savini working on CREEPSHOW
His reputation was steadily climbing as he would work on such classic horror films like the vampire thriller, MARTIN (directed by George Romero in 1976), the original FRIDAY THE 13th (1980), CREEPSHOW (also directed by Romero in 1982), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986) and the midnight cult classic original MANIAC (1980). To the fans of both zombies and the origins of the DEAD series created by George Romero, Savini has gone into the annals of horror history as the creator of the classic look of the flesh- eating living dead in both DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD.
A SEQUAL RISES: DAWN OF THE DEAD
Released in 1979, almost 10 years after its originator, DAWN OF THE DEAD is the second chapter to Romero’s horror saga that continued the tale of the ever- growing, ever- spreading invasion of the living dead. Considered by some critics to be a “satirical film about consumerism”, Romero had a new band of survivors finding refuge in an abandoned American shopping mall, now that zombies had begun to overrun the country. Let us remember and highlight the time that this film was made and the date it takes place in. The frame is the late 70s and consumerism, within the American audience, is at an all- time high. Commercials and advertising have rotted the publics’ mind and inadvertently assisted in the selection and choice of which products were right for all to buy and use. Based on the times and the birth of the shopping mall, it would only be natural for Romero to elect this site in which every type of commercialism and consumerism could be housed under one roof as his general setting:  the choice to film within a shopping center as the location in which 2/3 of the storyline would take place within helped expose the mall as the modern day ‘hangout’ for the basic family unit to spend its time in.
Moving out of the 60s and into the 1970s in a post- Vietnam era, the next wave of threats was also manmade and came in a canister, mouthwash or drive- thru meal: commercialism. Romero seems to have a knack of spotting and recognizing the plaques of modern society and disguising them in a thin veil behind the threating zombies in his horror films. Maybe that is why it took nine years to follow up NIGHT with. A decade would nearly have to come into full circle before a newly created setting could be the cause to serve as the backdrop for the perilous dangers surrounding our band of survivors to face.
Savini's cameo in DAWN OF THE  DEAD
As pre- production was coming together for the highly- anticipated DAWN OF THE DEAD, Romero was finally able to bring Tom Savini into the fold with his special effects make- up. It would now befall upon the artist to create a more refined version of the zombie (or living dead) and not just merely re-create the effects used in NIGHT. Several challenges were faced by Savini: DAWN was to be shot in color, so details would be required and there would be a larger budget to help create numerous zombies, severed body parts and imagined zombie kills never before seen, which also meant that serious man- hours would need to be put in for the best results. A rag- tag team of teens and interns helped Savini create some very powerful and foreboding sequences that would remained burned in the heads of fans for generations to come.
Budgeted at a strong $650,000, the film opened on April 20, 1979 (though its original release date is slated as a 1978 film since it premiered in Italy that year) with a box office take of a whopping $900,000. The film would go on to gross over $55 million worldwide. Yes, zombies were literally taking over the globe thanks to the visionary eye and guiding hand of George A Romero.
ANOTHER CHAPTER RISES: DAY OF THE DEAD
With the ever- increasing awareness of zombies and the love for horror and splatter films, the genre could not have been embraced at a better time than in the 1980s! This was the decade of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, Leatherface and Michael Myers’ sequels…and it also served as the birthdate of the third chapter in Romero’s series: 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD.
Now budged at an astounding $3.5 million, Romero would call upon Savini to yet again dive deeper into the realms of creativity and construct a new series of more realistic and better detailed array of walking dead corpses and elaborate demises for the unfortunate humans facing their untimely fates. Bringing in his team of talented, upcoming and young artists, one in particular would find himself receiving the brake he would need to not only become one of the industry’s great artists within his own right, but also have a creative hand in the growth of the continuing evolution of the zombie folklore. His name is Greg Nicotero.

Greg Nicotero's cameo in DAY OF THE DEAD
Yet another fellow native Pittsberg-ian, Gregory Nicotero grew up watching and admiring his all- time favorite film, Steven Spielberg’s JAWS. He would spend his curious days wondering how those effects were created. As he grew older, the realization of make- up and special effects as a career would definitely serve as his destiny. As a youngster, Nicotero created home movies involving his brother and friends in an assortment of stories that included practical stunts, fireworks for explosions and creating homemade special effects. Moving onto young adulthood, he chanced an opportunity to work with Savini on DAY and learned first- hand the quick and steady pace of the industry.

Kurtzman, Nicotero, Romero, Savini & Berger
It was while working on the film that he would meet fellow artists Howard Berger and Bob Kurtzman and collectively create a business relationship that would take the trio of young effects men to begin their make- up effects company: KNB- EFX Group. The team would work on numerous films from EVIL DEAD II, ARMY OF DARKNESS, DANCES WITH WOLVES, SCREAM, THE GREEN MILE and many others.
ONE MORE FOR TOM SAVINI
Savini as "Sex Machine: FROM DUSK TIL DAWN
Savini’s career would expand beyond more than just a make- up effects artist. His work as a stuntman was still steady but cult classic acting cameos in such films like CREEPSHOW and KNIGHTRIDERS (both directed by George Romero), FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, GRINDHOUSE and MACHETE brought forth another avenue for the talented man.
Savini's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990)
The greatest opportunity to pay back the genre he helped forged came about some time in the late 1980s when he was approached to direct the remake for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The film would mark his directorial debut and he took on the project with full vigor. Savini’s original conceptual idea was to start the film in black and white (like the original 1968 version) then have it slowly adjust to color. Traditional to Romero’s films, the word ‘zombie’ is never used in dialog throughout the film. The filming took less than two months with an estimated budget of $4.2 million and was based on an earlier re-visioned screenplay by George Romero. It opened in theaters on October 19, 1990.
THE ZOMBIE EVOLUTION TAKES A NEW STEP: GREG NICOTERO AND THE WALKING DEAD
It seems as if the zombie baton would be passed on to a new generation of the undead enthusiasts as the demand for the living dead would steadily rise over the next few decades. Film writers and directors would take their various avenues in interpretation by trying to create their own twist on the genre.
Some of the more recognized editions have included comedic turns with the releases of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992), SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and ZOMBIELAND (2009). Others took a more serious approach and expanded the typical zombie scenario in films like PET SEMATARY (1989), RESIDENT EVIL (2002) and I AM LEGEND (2007).
Director Danny Boyle offered a critically- acclaimed take on the zombie lore with his film, 28 DAYS LATER (2002). The film storyline offered an incurable viral infection as the cause for the UK-based spread for the reanimated effect. Director Zac Snyder remade DAWN OF THE DEAD in 2004 and tried re-vamping the slow- paced saunter of the zombie by replacing the pace with a fast, almost sprint-like chase in his version. Many people opposed the idea…including Romero himself!
Nicotero (l) & Frank Darabount (r)
Through it all, Greg Nicotero was continually working hard and steady with his KNB- EFX Group when he began talking to director Frank Darabount (THE GREEN MILE, THE MIST) before working on THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. In those conversations, a union was forged as both men shared their common respects for the classic zombies in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and for George Romero. At that point, talks about a zombie project occurred about when Darabount presented the idea of bringing the graphic novels of THE WALKING DEAD to life. (No pun intended!)
Once THE WALKING DEAD was green- lit with a ‘go’, Executive Producer Darabount brought Nicotero on as a special effects make- up artist and consultant. Nicotero had to then help create and design a new zombie feel that would differ than those he helped create for DAY OF THE DEAD. Nicotero began by closely examining the designs that appeared in the graphic novels themselves. The make- up should be both realistic and practical, to help articulate the real- life peril effect that the show embodies. After its premiere on the television cable channel AMC (American Movie Channel), THE WALKING DEAD had not only become an over- night success, but helped in creating a new direction for the folklore and also brought awareness of zombies to a whole new heightened level never before seen!
Nicotero (l) directs Andrew Lincoln (r): WALKING DEAD
Soon thereafter, Nicotero slowly moved up the ranks from make- up artist, to consultant, then onto Executive Producer and even as a Director for several episodes. THE WALKING DEAD has always had a “mini- movie” approach to it and has steered away from just an ordinary television series. THE WALKING DEAD will begin its fifth season on October 12, 2014.
THE AFTERMATH FROM THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
Like every fad that comes and goes, the zombies have suffered a worse fate than getting a bullet or a stake through the brain! Images have appeared on everything from posters, shirts, mugs, party favors and practically anything else left to the imagination. Zombies have somewhat lost the lure of fear and are now looked upon with a level of affection in most cases. Two sides of the admiration coin has led some to say that they wish they could become zombies themselves while others feel they are prepared for the zombie apocalypse… should it ever present itself.
Novelists, like Max Brooks (son of comedian/ writer/ director Mel Brooks) who wrote WORLD WAR Z, saw his writings "flesh out" as a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt in 2013. Today, Brooks actually holds seminars on how to survive a zombie invasion, based on his other novel, THE ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE.
Present day George A. Romero
But what about George Romero? The Godfather of Zombies, what has become of him? Aside from unrelated zombie films that he directed like MONKEY SHINES (1988) and Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF (1993), Romero went ahead and continued adding more chapters into his DEAD series. 2005 brought forth LAND OF THE DEAD, where the numbers are turned and humans are now the minority in numbers as the population of zombies has basically consumed the existing country. Romero tried a different approach to his films with DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007) as he shot it in a “docu-style” fashion like THE BLAIRWITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Finally, the latest entry surfaced in 2009 with SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, ringing with similarities to its island location, very reminiscent of the plantation from Lugosi’s WHITE ZOMBIE and the original story of “The Unknown Painter” from 1838.
What’s old is new again? Possibly. It doesn’t seem as if the zombie crazy has ‘died’ off just yet… one thing is for sure: Romero is taking a well- deserved hiatus from his DEAD films. Seeing that there are too many stories, comic and graphic novels and movies being made these days, he just doesn’t feel like being a part of the over- saturation presently taking place. He might just rise up, unexpectedly, as does his undead creations, with something new that will saunter into our nightmares again.
 
What are your thoughts on zombies? Are they here to stay or just another genre fad? Which is your favorite DEAD film or zombie- themed film?
 
Feel free to share your thoughts and comments and watch them get posted with a personal reply from me!
 
I hope you enjoyed this delectable morsel and that you will tune in for next month's entry scheduled for Thursday October 30th, 2014!
 
HAVE A SAFE AND HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!!
TRICK OR TREAT, JAX!!!