Zombie Omissions: Thoughts on Episode 1 of Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Roll out the talking heads and the walking dead. “Zombies”–the inaugural installment of Eli Roth’s History of Horror–ironically begins in the modern moment, with “the monster of the 21st Century” (as the undead flesh-eater is dubbed here by John Landis). I have to admit, I was a bit thrown by the outset of the series. First, because the decision to proceed via theme episodes portends an abridged history, and the exclusion of various facets of horror that don’t fall within clear categories. Second, the skeptic in me found this primary focus on zombies suspiciously self-serving, considering that AMC is the network that also airs The Walking Dead (which had its season premiere just last week). I’d call last night’s episode of the documentary series a crypto-commercial for the sagging drama, except for the fact that there’s little subtlety involved: Greg Nicotero literally has a seat at the table right next to Eli Roth!

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to be entertained by here. The myriad of film clips are aptly chosen, and the show presents a slew of genre luminaries as commentators. A lot of the discussion likely will fail to be groundbreaking (this just in: Romero’s zombie films feature socio-political subtext) for the veteran fan. Nevertheless, intriguing points are made throughout: Edgar Wright’s account of the impact of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video on the zombie subgenre; Stephen King’s thoughts on the mob mentality on display in such films; Max Brooks’s philosophizing about what makes the slow zombie so much more frightening than its faster counterpart.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Roth’s resumé as a horror director, the show adopts a Fangorial approach, emphasizing more recent, and more graphic, titles (films such as White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie, and Frankenstein are treated cursorily). While I understand that only so much can be covered within 42 minutes of run time, I wish more attention had been given to films/TV shows that provide fresh perspectives on zombies and the post-apocalypse. My biggest disappointment, though, is that this History of Horror appears to posit a strictly visual, aliterate audience: zero exploration is made of the zombie in horror fiction. For the love of all that is unholy at the Micmac burial ground, couldn’t Roth have asked King about the author’s foray into zombie territory in Pet Sematary?

Watching horror is great, but sometimes (having) read is better.

 

Fourteen Ways of Looking at Fall Foliage

Here on the fourteenth day of October, I present “Fourteen Ways of Looking at Fall Foliage.” This autumnal one-upping of Wallace Stevens was first published in my collection Autumn Lauds: Poems for the Halloween Season (available on Amazon).

 

Fourteen Ways of Looking at Fall Foliage

By Joe Nazare

 

I.
Nature emblazoned.
An unguttering, golden-orange torch
Mitigating the lengthening nights.

II.
Beacon to New England.
A regional tourist trap
Sprung by the shortage of chlorophyll.

III.
The outdoors brought online.
Photographic alchemy uploaded,
The transient rendered eternal.

IV.
Splendid deciduous calendars.
October oaks counting down
The days remaining until Halloween.

V.
Gloriously performative.
Furnishing a synonym for the season
In silent, scattershot descent.

VI.
Unabashed divesting.
The methodically discarded apparel
Of exhibitionist boughs.

VII.
Democratic in downfall.
Rolling out a red carpet
That anyone can walk.

VIII.
Cemetery lethargy.
Leaves lying like scratchy blankets
Drawn over cold sleepers.

IX.
Rain-pasted to windshields.
Clinging to the hope of mobility,
Driven by autumnal wanderlust.

X.
Dead but wind-borne.
Brittle skittering across macadam:
Shucked insect husks activated.

XI.
Absent yet manifest.
Colorful trefoil ghost-prints
Recorded on concrete.

XII.
Omnipresent models.
Originals of the plastic facsimiles
Decoratively strewn across harvest tables.

XIII.
Late-season heaps.
Sizable shapes suggesting fairy mounds.
Front lawns given an eldritch hint.

XIV.
Fiery piles ignited.
Like proleptic pyres
For the waning year.

 

Hill House Revisited

Unsurprisingly, Mike Flanagan’s new series The Haunting of Hill House (now streaming on Netflix) has rekindled interest in the classic Shirley Jackson source novel. Two noteworthy recent articles are Anna Green’s “11 Chilling Facts About Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Alison Flood’s “‘Textbook Terror’: How The Haunting of Hill House Rewrote Horror’s Rules.”

On this occasion, I would also like to call attention to my own essay. “Haunting Anniversary: A Half-Century of Hill House” was published by The Internet Review of Science Fiction back in February 2010. The piece attempts to correct reigning critical misinterpretations of Jackson’s novel, and works to identify the specific ghost haunting Hill House. It also traces the literary legacy of Jackson’s novel over the five decades since its first publication. To this day, the essay remains one of the pieces of my own writing of which I am the proudest. The Internet Review Of Science Fiction‘s website is no longer operating, but I have just added the full text of my essay to the Publications/Free Reads page here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic.

 

Amazing Creations

I think I’m in love…

…with Netflix’s new series, The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, and its gorgeous, October-spirited star.

Think Nigella by way of Elvira; a bizarro Martha Stewart; The Muppet Show meets The Munsters. This clever variation on a cooking show features instructional segments mixed with bits of comedic narrative. When I first heard the premise of the show, I feared the creature puppets would be a juvenile intrusion, but these characters actually prove rich additions. They spice up the proceedings with some hysterically-funny adult humor (that never becomes tasteless). Perhaps most darkly delightful of all is Rankle, the ever-sarcastic mummified Eqyptian cat who looks like some feline Crypt-Keeper.

The ultra-talented Christine McConnell is to baking (and sculpting and sewing) what Ray Villafane is to pumpkin carving. Her treats (viewers with a yen for the Gothic and monstrous can feast their eyes on wolf’s paw donuts, spirit board cookies, a haunted gingerbread house, and edible shrunken head ornaments) are works of art that literally look too good to eat.

These curious creations of holiday fare are stunning to behold (it’s like watching Halloween Wars, but without all the manufactured ” reality” drama and annoying contestants). The show’s most enchanting element, though, is McConnell herself; putting the boo in beautiful, she manages to make co-star Dita Von Teese seem like the plain one here. Christine McConnell is the dream hostess for any Halloween party in the Macabre Republic, and her new steaming series is an irresistible binge-watch this High Holiday season.

 

Gamechanger (flash fiction)

This is the first publication of the following piece of flash fiction, which attempts to give another turn of the thumbscrew to one of Ray Bradbury’s most macabre stories, “The October Game.”

 

Gamechanger

By Joe Nazare

 

“These are the witch’s eyes,” Nathan intones, for the benefit of all those circularly assembled in the October dark. “The source of her baleful glare.” The pair of orbs he circulates is warm and gummy to the touch, suggesting the yolks of insufficiently-boiled eggs.

While the denounced organs are still making their round, Nathan takes hold of another piece. “This is the witch’s gut. The cauldron of her poisonous spirit.” Noses wrinkle at the offal smell as Nathan passes along what feels just like chicken innards.

“This is the witch’s hair,” Nathan continues his litany. “Filthy as the pelt of a wild beast.” The horrid crop he proceeds to share with the group has the texture of rotted corn silk.

“These are the witch’s dugs,” Nathan offers next, his voice devoid of adolescent titter. “Which only the devil himself would suckle.” Two leathery, slacken purses are groped in turn by the gathered males.

Meantime, Nathan seizes and lofts the foremost portion. “This,” he proudly recites, reveling in his oratorical role, “is the witch’s head–”

“And this is the witch’s curse,” the at-once-animate head mouths, its rasping sentence punctuated by a derisive cackle.

Nathan and his brethren gasp in unison, relinquishing their terrible trophies as if scalded. But the unhanding doesn’t come soon enough. Assorted splats and thuds are succeeded by the crackle of deadfalling sticks, the rattle of pelleting stones.

Decry as they might, these overzealous defenders of Salem won’t be pointing fingers of blame ever again.

 

Whoa, Check Out “The Body” on Hulu

I’m not waxing lecherous when I write that the inaugural installment of Into The Dark, Hulu’s new monthly anthology series, has a killer body. October’s holiday-themed film centers on a British hitman in Los Angeles who carries out an annual assassination on October 31st: the costumed revelry all around on All Hallow’s Eve provides the perfect cover as the deadly Wilkes works to transport and dispose of (in a strategic location, where the discovery of the corpse will have the greatest impact) his latest victim. On this particular night, though, Wilkes is bound for mishap with his plastic-mummified package; complications–and macabre comedy–ensue.

Make no mistake, the humor here is blacker than a vampire’s cape, yet also never batty. The laugh-out-loud moments (hardly few and far between) are not the product of mere slapstick. Thankfully, The Body does not resort to an endless array of silly sight gags. Halloween Weekend at Bernie’s this is not.

Not a mindless romp, the film shows itself to be quite conscious of its horror heritage, starting with an I-camera opening sequence that recalls Michael Myers’s first kills in the original Halloween. Early on, one character jibes at the nattily clad body-dragger (played, somewhat serendipitously, by Tom Bateman): “Are you like the British American Psycho or something?” The references range from the overt (such as when Jack Baker–his very name an echo of another monster maker, Rick Baker–makes an ostentatious entrance to his own Halloween party dressed as a straight-jacketed Hannibal Lecter) to the more subtle (the climactic scene in the “Angus & Sons” funeral home, a nod towards Phantasm‘s Angus Scrimm).

The Body is distinguished by some strong performances. Bateman’s Wilkes is no laconic automaton: this killing machine finds joy in his grim work, and frequently flashes a wicked sense of humor. Another side of his personality is expressed as a philosophical bent; this thinking-man hitman is prone to deliver lines like “Halloween is the closest we come to admitting that we are defined by death.” It’s the gorgeous Rebecca Rittenhouse, however, who steals the show as the smitten Maggie, Wilkes’s willing accomplice in the effort to retrieve the wayward cadavar. She makes a difficult role look easy, whereas a lesser portrayal could have resulted in a ridiculously unconvincing Maggie.

Credit, too, goes to the screenwriters, who take the time to develop the characters so that their curious motives are never mystifying. At the same time, the film is fast-moving (aided by the ticking-clock device, as Wilkes struggles to meet his deadline for delivery of the body). If I had one criticism of the plot, it’s that the climactic twist (unlike the stealthy Wilkes) can be seen coming from a long ways away.

Post mortem: the toe tag for The Body should read “Good Mean Fun.” This entertaining first entry in the anthology series has left me eager to see what Into the Dark will cook up next month for its Thanksgiving-related edition.

 

Seasonal Salute

Happy 66th birthday to Clive Barker!

It’s only appropriate that this celebrated creator of the dark fantastic was born in October. Time and again, his scare fare has featured an autumnal holiday seasoning. “The Forbidden” in Barker’s The Books of Blood stretches from late October to Bonfire Night, and features the worship of the urban-legendary Candyman via chocolates and bloody razor blades. Every night is Halloween at the magical Holiday House in The Thief of Always; alas, the house-haunting/-embodying monster Mr. Hood plays a “terrible trick” on visitors, as the price of each day spent there is the passage of an entire year out in the real world. The opening of Sacrament is set on Halloween in a remote community near the shores of Hudson Bay, and a pair of masked/costumed half-Inuit children–“two mournful spirits, posed in the twilight”–form symbolic stand-ins for the novel’s joint antagonists, Jacob Steep and Rosa McGee. In “The Departed,” Barker’s most Halloween-centric narrative, a phantom mother longing to see the son she left behind dons a physical costume and lovingly intercepts her trick-or-treating decedent.

The multi-talented Barker has also lent his artistic hand to the Dark Bazaar series of Halloween masks (see video above), and has designed haunted attractions (“Harvest,” “Freakz”) for Universal Studios Hollywood. Unfortunately, what might have been the greatest holiday endeavor of all–the rumored Michael Myers vs. Pinhead monster mash (with Barker writing the script and John Carpenter directing)–never came about. But at least we’ll always have Nightbreed, where a masked slasher squares off against a group of underworldly (here more demonized than demonic) creatures.

Wishing many more Octobers to Clive Barker, who hopefully who keep producing works that thrill audiences not just during Halloween season but all year round.

 

Mob Scene: Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Director Frank De Felitta’s Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) is not only one of the all-time-great made-for-TV horror films; it is also a leading example of a Halloween-related movie whose plot centers on an angry mob scene. A quartet of overzealous rednecks–led by the malevolent mailman Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning–veer off into vigilantism following the sheriff’s call for a posse of volunteers. With rifles in hand and bloodhounds on leash, Otis’s splinter group tracks down the mentally-challenged gentle giant Bubba Ritter, who has been mistakenly accused of murdering his young playmate Marylee (turns out, her non-mortal wounds were inflicted by a neighbor’s dog). This is not the first time the foursome has harassed Bubba, but it will be the last, as the innocent man suffers a firing-squad-style execution after his hiding as a scarecrow in an open field proves an inadequate disguise.

The scapegoating and hasty persecution of a perceived Other is a basic enough premise. What makes Dark Night of the Scarecrow so noteworthy is its transplanting of a Universal monster movie into a rural Southern setting. The “death” of Marylee hearkens back to the creature’s accidental drowning of the girl Maria in Frankenstein, an act that sets the local villagers off on a torch-and-pitchfork-wielding warpath. The creature and Maria had been tossing flowers in a lake; in Scarecrow, Bubba and Marylee are first seen picking flowers in a field. Bubba’s carrying of Marylee in his arms following the mauling also recalls the image of the creature in Frankenstein sweeping the unfortunate Maria up into its arms (and the subsequent image of Maria’s father toting her lifeless body).

Dark Night of the Scarecrow forms an intriguing variant on the slasher film, complete with inventive death scenes (involving a wood chipper, a grain silo, and a plow in a pumpkin patch) and crafted ambiguity regarding the identity of the killer (e.g., Bubba’s grieving mother? Bubba himself, returned as a revenant hellbent on vengeance?). The film ostensibly inaugurates the killer-scarecrow subgenre of horror. It also sports a creepy autumnal atmosphere that has not dissipated after nearly four decades, and makes the film a worthy inclusion on annual Halloween season watch lists.

 

October Overview

Strictly speaking, autumn began a week and a half ago, but it’s the calendar’s turn to October that really inaugurates the High Holiday season. This is the most wonderful time of year of denizens of the Macabre Republic, as the month-long lead-up to Halloween delivers an incredible assortment of dark entertainment. Some of the film, TV, and streaming-service items that belong at the top of must-watch lists during this season of the witch:

 

*Halloween (in theaters October 19)

 

*Eli Roth’s History of Horror (premieres October 14 on AMC)

 

*The Haunting of Hill House (available October 12 on Netflix)

 

*The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell (available October 12 on Netflix)

 

*The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (available October 26 on Netflix)

 

*Lore (Season 2 available October 19 on Amazon Prime)

 

Some of the best Halloween-themed blogs to follow all October long: The Skeleton Key, the Horror Writers Association’s Halloween Haunts 2018, and Pumpkinrot: What’s Brewing. And, of course, there will be various articles on pop cultural horror published online this month; just today I came across a fun one titled “The Horror Oscars: The Best Scary Movies of Every Year Since 1978’s Halloween.”

Finally, as you can see from the header image to my website, the Macabre Republic leads straight into October Country. So be sure to keep an eye out for the special posts I have planned for this Halloween season…