Horror Book Review: Night of the Living Dead: Behind The Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever

Where would modern horror be without George Romero’s 1968 masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead?

Well, it’s hard to say.  Perhaps another film would have come along and influenced thousands of future directors and writers.  Maybe another film would have popularized zombies or mixed social commentary with horror.  Perhaps another film would have popularized the concept of body horror.  You never know.

Still, it’s hard not to think that modern horror would be a lot different if not for Romero’s low-budget, independent film.  So many movies have been influenced by Romero’s Dead films that it’s difficult to keep track of them all.  Even if you could discount the influence of Romero, what about the Living Dead films that were later made by John Russo?  Even if they don’t get as much attention as Romero’s films, their combination of comedy and horror continues to be influential to this day.

The 2010 book, Night of the Living Dead: Behind The Scenes Of The Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever, not only tells the behind-the-scenes story of Night of the Living Dead but it also examines the film’s lasting influence.  While the majority of the book is taken up with the production and reception of Night, it also discusses Romero’s subsequent Dead films, Russo’s Living Dead films, and all of the unofficial sequels and remakes as well.  Author Joe Kane interviews not only several of the people who worked on Romero’s film but also filmmakers like Danny Boyle, who discuss how Romero’s vision influenced their own.

Finally, the book also contains the original script of Night of the Living Dead!  Written by John Russo, the script makes for an interesting read.  Night of the Living Dead is often described as being some sort of “accidental” masterpiece but the script reveals that many of the film’s themes were there from the beginning.  At the same time, it also makes you appreciate not only the directorial skill of George Romero but also the performances of Judith O’Dea, Duane C. Jones, and even Karl Hardmann.  (If you thought Harry was bad in Night, reading the script will show you just how much Hardmann actually humanized an inherently unlikable character.)

This book is must have for horror fans like you and me.

Book Review: Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna

It’s been a few months since I read Room to Dream and I’m still thinking about it.  It’s definitely one of the most fascinating and frustrating Hollywood memoirs that I’ve ever read.

It’s fascinating because the book is not only about David Lynch but it’s also by him.  Lynch, in his own words, tells us about his childhood, his time as an art student, his struggle to complete Eraserhead, and all the rest.  He tells us about directing some of the greatest British thespians of all time in The Elephant Man and also shares with us the frustrations of directing Dune.  He tells us about Twin Peaks and how Mulholland Drive went from being a rejected pilot to being an award-winning film.

All of the familiar stories are here.  He tells us about the time when he was a child and he saw a naked and bloodied woman stumbling down the street.  (This image would later reappear in Blue Velvet.)  We hear about how he was essentially homeless while directing Eraserhead and how, during the casting of Blue Velvet, Dennis Hopper called him up and announced that he was Frank Booth.  Not surprisingly, Lynch writes extensively about the importance of meditation in both his life and his art.

At the same time, there’s also a lot of new stuff in this book.  Did you ever want to know who Lynch believes to have been behind the Kennedy assassination?  Well, it’s right there in the first chapter.  Want to know how Lynch actually feels about using drugs as a creative aide?  It’s in there.  Did you know that among the films that David Lynch has been offered (and turned down) were Return of the Jedi, American Beauty, Tender Mercies, and The Ring?  You do now.  He writes about his occasionally difficult but very real friendship with actor Jack Nance.  He writes about some of the legendary actors and producers that he’s met and what’s interesting is that he rarely has a bad word to say about anyone.  Even when he writes about how difficult Anthony Hopkins was on the set of the The Elephant Man, Lynch still allows that Hopkins may have just been dealing with stuff in his own life.  Lynch comes across as being as generous, artistic, and eccentric as you would hope that he would.

Clocking in at over 600 pages, the book has an interesting format.  The book is divided into sections, each one dealing with a different period of Lynch’s life.  Each section opens with Kristine McKenna discussing what was happening in Lynch’s life at the time and interviewing Lynch’s friends and collaborators.  It’s only after McKenna has given us the facts of what was going on in Lynch’s life that Lynch then gives us his interpretation and recollections of the facts.  It makes for a challenging but often interesting read.  One thing that immediately becomes clear is that Lynch is far more comfortable talking about his art than talking about his relationships with other people.  Lynch comes across as being the epitome of the artist who spend almost of all of his time in his own head.  Room to Dream gives us a chance to see the world through Lynch’s eyes and he tends to remember most of the events of his life as if they were just another atmospheric scene in one of his movies.

Lynch discusses his work with such enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to get carried away with him.  At that same time, this is not the book to read if you’re expecting Lynch to explain what’s going on underneath the surface of some of his more surrealistic films.  If you’re expecting Lynch to explain why Bill Pullman turns into Balthazar Getty in Lost Highway, you’ll be disappointed.  If you’re expecting Lynch to explain what’s real and what isn’t in Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, it’s not going to happen.  And if you’re expecting to understand the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return after reading Room to Dream, you’re out of luck.  If anything, Lynch seems like even more of an enigma, albeit an incredibly likable enigma, after you read Room To Dream than before.

And yes, it can be frustrating but you know what?  That’s okay.  In fact, it seems appropriate.  The brilliance of David Lynch lies in the mystery.  When I first heard about Room to Dream, I feared that Lynch would reveal too much and the mystery would be lost.  Instead, it’s even more fascinating than ever.

Book Review: Eaten Alive, edited by Jay Slater

If you were to ask me to recommend one book to someone who is looking for an introduction to the world of Italian horror, Eaten Alive is the book that I would recommend.

That’s largely because this book was my introduction.  Way back in 2006, I came across a copy at Recycled Books in Denton, Texas and I bought it.  I bought it because, at the time, I was already into horror movies.  However, after reading the reviews and the essays in this book, I discovered that I wanted to learn much more about Italian horror.  Outside of Suspiria and a few giallos like Blade in The Dark, the first Italian horror movies that I specifically tracked down and watched were the movies that I read about in this book.  If not for Eaten Alive, I would never have seen the wonderfully macabre and disturbing Beyond the Darkness.  This was book was also my first real exposure to Lucio Fulci.  If not for this book, I never would have seen Zombi 2.  I never would have discovered the Beyond trilogy.

In fact, considering that Arleigh and I first bonded over Italian horror, it’s doubtful that I would be writing for this site if I had not made that decision to buy Eaten Alive.

As for the book itself, it’s a comprehensive overview of Italian cannibal and zombie cinema.  Along with containing information about every Italian cannibal and zombie film released in the 20th Century, it also features interviews with stars like Ian McCullough, Catriona MacColl, and GIovanni Lombardo Radice.  (Radice even reviews one of the films himself.)  The majority of the films are reviewed by Jay Slater but there are also contributions from writers like Ramsey Campbell and Lloyd Kaufman.  (In fact, Kaufman writes a rather stirring defense of one of the more controversial films to be found in Eaten Alive, Cannibal Holocaust.  Campbell, meanwhile, thoroughly destroys Nights of Terror.)

Seriously, if you’re interested in learning more about Italian horror or if you’re already a fan, this book is a must!

Book Review: The Beast Within by Edward Levy

Way back at the end of August, in anticipation of the TSL’s Horrorthon, I went down to my local Half-Price Books and I explored their collection of old horror paperbacks.  Among the books that I pulled off the shelf was the 1981 horror novel, The Beast Within by Edward Levy.

The book opens, in the 1920s, on the Arkansas farm of Henry Scruggs.  Henry is a cruel religious fanatic, one who views fornication as being such a sin that he refuses to even have sex with much younger wife, Sarah.  (Sarah, for her part, was practically sold to Henry by her father.)  One day, an Englishman named Connors shows up at the farm.  He’s a traveling bible salesman who specializes in seducing farm girls.  When he attempts to do just that to Sarah, they both end up getting caught by Henry.  Henry sets his wife on fire and then chains up Connors in the basement.  That’s where Connors spends the next 20 years, while Henry prays for his soul.

By the time Henry dies and Connors manages to escape, Connors is no longer human.  He’s been turned into a savage beast, who lives in the woods and eats anything that he comes across.  The beast eventually attempts to catch a snake and ends up getting a poisonous bite as a result.  However, before it dies, the Beast rapes Carolyn McCleary.

When Carolyn subsequently gives birth to a son named Michael, both she and her husband, Eli, convince themselves that Michael is Eli’s child, even though there’s no physical resemblance.  As a child, Michael has a terrible temper and is sometimes violent.  He has terrible dreams and sometimes wakes up covered in the blood of other animals.  After Eli and Carolyn are forced to resort to extreme measures to control Michael’s impulses, it seems as if Michael has recovered.  He grows up to be a relatively normal boy.

But then puberty hits….

The Beast Within is a grim, dark, and occasionally depressing little book.  It’s also compulsively readable.  Though many of the scenes between Henry, Sarah, and Conners verge a bit too much towards the cartoonish side, the book picks up once Henry’s out of the way and the focus shifts to the McClearys.  You find yourself hoping the best for Eli, Carolyn, and Michael, even though you know it’s doubtful that this story is going to have a happy ending.  The Best Within is short, sordid, pulpy as can be, and undeniably effective.

Book Review: Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th by Peter M. Bracke

A few years ago, when I reviewed the entire Friday the 13th film franchise for this site, one of the main resources that I used in my research was the 2006 book, Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th.

As you can probably guess from the title, the book is a nearly complete history of the Friday the 13th franchise.  (I say nearly complete because the book was published to coincide with the release of Freddy vs. Jason so there’s no information about the later reboot.  That’s okay, though, because the reboot sucks and deserves to be forgotten.)  What sets this book apart is that it’s an oral history so you’re learning about the history of the Friday the 13th films from the people who were actually involved.

It makes for compelling and interesting reading, providing a portrait not just of the franchise but also of what it was like to be involved in the world of low-budget, genre film making.  Friday the 13th may have started out as an independent American giallo just to then become a studio slasher franchise but the one thing that remained consistent was that, no matter how much money the films made, they weren’t ever given much respect.  One of the recurring themes in the book is that the actors who were cast in the films were often happy for the work but it was rare that getting killed in a Friday the 13th film ever led to stardom.  (Kevin Bacon, of course, is the exception to that rule.  Though Bacon isn’t interviewed in the book, everyone who worked on the first film seems to agree that he was fun to work with.)  Some of the actors interviewed are just happy to have been a part of an iconic franchise.  Some of them display a commendable sense of humor while other seem rather annoyed to know that they’ll be forever associated with Friday the 13th.  Some, like New Beginning‘s Jerry Pavlon, worry about the franchise’s subtext while actress Barbara Howard jokes that she calls her annual Final Chapter residual check her “blood money.”

Another recurring theme in Crystal Lake Memories is that of the bitter screenwriter.  For the most part, the people assigned to write the scripts for these films come across as being a uniformly bitter lot.  It’s actually understandable, as the majority of them attempted to add a new twist to the franchise just to be told that the studio just wanted more scenes of Jason killing camp counselors.  That gets at a larger frustration shared by almost everyone interviewed.  How do you add your own personal touch to a set of films that are specifically designed to be as impersonal as possible?  That’s the question that everyone involved with the franchise had to answer for themselves and it makes for an interesting and relatable read.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book deals with the lengthy development of the Freddy vs. Jason film.  We’re told that one of the executives involved with the film believed that, if she added an environmental subtext to the story, Freddy vs. Jason would be the first slasher film to win an Academy Award.  As for the films themselves, it sounds like Friday The 13th: A New Beginning had the most out-of-control set while Friday the 13th Part 2 was the fun set.  The set I would have wanted to avoid would have been Friday the 13th 3D, where everyone was apparently too stressed out over the special effects to actually have any fun.

This book is a must not just for Friday the 13th fans but for movie lovers in general.

Book Review: ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

The town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine has two new arrivals.

One is Ben Mears, a successful writer who, we’re told, even has his own FBI file.  (Apparently, it only consists of a report that he once attended an anti-war rally.)  Ben spent part of his childhood is Jerusalem’s Lot and, upon returning, he discovers a small but friendly town.  Sure, there’s some drama going on behind closed doors.  There’s the sleazy real estate agent, for instance.  And then there’s the Catholic priest who, naturally, has lost his faith.  And then there’s the unhappy teenage mother and, of course, there’s the usual collection of alcoholics, adulterers, and cranky bus drivers.  Maybe Jerusalem’s Lot isn’t that friendly after all….

The other new arrival is Kurt Barlow.  Barlow’s from Austria and he’s moved into the old Marsten House.  (The Marsten House, like most old houses that you come across in Stephen King novels, used to belong to a notorious gangster.)  Barlow’s going to be opening up an antique store.  Interestingly enough, hardly anyone ever seems to see Barlow.  His business partner, Richard Straker, claims that Barlow is often away on buying trips.

Anyway, the townspeople have a lot more to worry about than what’s going on with Kurt Barlow.  For instance, a lot of people are disappearing.  And even those who aren’t vanishing are growing ill and having a bad reaction to sunlight.  Hmmm …. what could possibly be going on?

First published in 1975, ‘Salem’s Lot was Stephen King’s second published novel and it actually holds up better than most of his recent work.  It’s interesting to read ‘Salem’s Lot after Carrie, just to see how much King grew as a writer in between the two books.  Whereas King often seemed uncomfortable with the plot of his first novel and tended to hold Carrie White at a distance, he dives right into ‘Salem’s Lot.  It’s not just that King is obviously more comfortable writing about a male writer than a teenage girl.  It’s also that King creates a town that seems so real that we feel as if we could find it on a map.  King tells his story with such enthusiasm and confidence that it doesn’t matter that ‘Salem’s Lot is a fairly predictable and traditional vampire story.

Clocking in at a briskly paced 440 pages, ‘Salem’s Lot is quite a bit longer and more detailed than Carrie without, at the same time, getting bogged down in the type of stylistic self-indulgence that has come to typify a lot of King’s recent work.  (One gets the feeling that if King wrote ‘Salem’s Lot today, it would be a 1,200 page novel and that Barlow wouldn’t show up until page 900.)  King does a good job of offering up little snippets of life in Jerusalem’s Lot, just enough to make sure we have enough knowledge to mourn the eventual death of the town.  ‘Salem’s Lot takes Dracula, drops him in the middle of a small town melodrama, and the results are still entertaining to this very day.

Book Review: Baal by Robert R. McCammon

Baal begins with an act of violence.

In the late 60s, a woman is raped in an alley by a stranger whose touch burns her skin.  Nine months later, Jeffrey Harper Raines is born.  The woman’s husband fears the baby and tries to drown him, just to be stopped and murdered by Jeffrey’s mother.

Jeffrey is sent to a Catholic orphanage, where he proves himself to be an intelligent and troubled child, the type who can not only mentally control all of the other children but also inspire them to go on a rebellious and destructive rampage.

Years later, a mysterious cult leader named Baal has emerged, first in California and then eventually in Kuwait.  His followers come from all walks of life and they include some of the wealthiest men on the planet.  A researcher tries to gain access to Baal’s cult and promptly disappears.  The researcher’s mentor, an elderly theologian named Dr. Virga, goes to Kuwait in search of his protegé.

What he discovers is that Baal is not only extremely dangerous but that his followers are willing to do anything that he orders them to do.  Fortunately, Virga does find one ally out in the desert — a mysterious man named Michael….

(I guess it was Gabriel’s week off.)

Baal was first published way back in 1978 and reading it, it’s obvious that the novel was heavily influenced by films like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby.  In fact, it’s so derivative of those films that it’s impossible not to get kinda annoyed at not only how predictable the story is but also at the fact that it takes the people in the book so much longer to figure out what the reader realizes immediately.  You really do have to wonder if a cult leader couldn’t have perhaps come up with a name other than Baal.  I mean, that’s kind of like naming yourself Lou C. Ifer or something like that.  You’re just giving the game away.

Today, Baal is best known for being the debut novel of Robert R. McCammon.  McCammon was only 25 years old when he wrote and published Baal and most of the book’s problems — the lack of focus, the occasionally clumsy plot twists– are problems that many debut novels seem to have in common.  For quite some time, McCammon refused to allow Baal to be republished, saying that he felt it was inferior to his later historical and crime novels.  For the record, McCammon’s correct about that but Baal still has enough trashy and sordid moments to be occasionally entertaining.  I guess my point here is that Baal isn’t great and, at times, it’s barely good but it’s still better than Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.