The Alpine tradition of the Krampus – the Christmas devil who punishes naughty children – has been gaining ground internationally in recent years. Recently, I talked to the people responsible for bringing him to British shores, via the Whitby Krampus Run. Read the full feature here…
The following is something of blast from the past, revisiting something I wrote for a horror site exactly four years ago reviewing an ancient BBC TV series entitled SUPERNATURAL, just then released on DVD for the first time. The site’s rebranded since, and all of my contributions cast into oblivion in the process. But this piece came to mind today, so I excavated the depths of my old hard drives and found a copy. I can’t vouch for its quality – I’m a very poor judge of my own work – but it did seem pertinent again for some odd reasons.
One reason is that Christmas is almost upon us, and I’m keen to support the Yuletide ghost story tradition. Perhaps my favourite manifestation of this are the BBC’s GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS. At one point broadcast every year in the seventies, they have become increasingly intermittent. For those who’ve practically worn out their BBC GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS discs, SUPERNATURAL offers a possible alternative, as another Gothic season from the BBC in the same era. But is it a worthy alternative?
Another, less obvious, reason for resurrecting my SUPERNATURAL piece is STAR WARS. The new STAR WARS movie, THE LAST JEDI, is currently causing the now obligatory cycle of hype, hysteria, backlash, and backlash to the backlash. I can’t comment on the virtues of the film itself, having not seen it, but was curious enough to watch its predecessor THE FORCE AWAKENS when it surfaced on Netflix a couple of nights back. I think I’d characterise my reaction as underwhelmed. It wasn’t terrible, just seriously cheesy and predictable.
In fairness though, I’m not the target audience – it’s a family-friendly franchise and I’m only a lukewarn sci-fi fan – and am more interested in the fan phenomenon surrounding it. Because nothing about THE FORCE AWAKENS, or indeed any of the other films, seems to me to justify the frenzy of excitement – even obsession – they engender these days. And I don’t just mean among strangers, but friends and acquiantances whose opinions I generally value. But the STAR WARS hysteria genuinely baffles me.
Having said which, I have very much enjoyed a STAR WARS film. That one being STAR WARS itself. I thought it was great. But I was ten. So this hysteria can’t just be a generational thing. Many of the STAR WARS obsessives weren’t even born when the franchise debuted in 1977. And I don’t remember being that struck by it. A good illustration of this is that I collected the set of STAR WARS bubblegum cards, then sold them to a friend to finance collecting a Hammer horror set instead. I clearly had my priorities right back then.
And while STAR WARS faded from my imagination fairly fast, something else I watched that year which left an abiding mark on my young imagination. That was the BBC’s SUPERNATURAL. It probably helped that after being screened once, the series seemed to vanish. Only a tatty copy of the novelisation remained to confirm me to me that I hadn’t simply dreamed it. By comparison, of course, while STAR WARS may have faded from the spotlight for most of the eighties and nineties, it’s become absurdly ubiquitous in the twenty-first century.
But there are parallels between the two beyond the coincidence of first airing on the same year. Specifically, relating to fan reaction. I had been sat in front of THE FORCE AWAKENS a couple of nights ago, one eyebrow raised smugly at its sundry shortcomings. The acting was largely adequate at best, the plot a confection of the absurdly improbable and cheesily predictable, glued together with clumsy winks to the gallery over laboured in-jokes. I just didn’t get it.
But that feeling was not unlike the one I experienced when watching THE SUPERNATURAL for the first time in nearly 40 years. But in this case I was a fan. Looking at it through the reviewer’s eye it was difficult to justify my deep affection for the series. If the script of THE FORCE AWAKENS had a surfeit of cheese, then the acting in THE SUPERNATURAL was a feast of ham. In terms of absurd improbability and predictability SUPERNATURAL certainly gives any of the STAR WARS films a good run for their money. I guess it all comes down to personal proclivities.
Which is hardly an earth-shattering notion, but one which I guess it’s easy for us all to forget. Which is part of what I explored in this fragment from the archives. That and how everyone should like SUPERNATURAL because it’s obviously way better than dreary old STAR WARS. So there!…
THE BBC’S SUPERNATURAL AND THE SIREN SONG OF
Watching the recent BFI release of the vintage BBC series SUPERNATURAL, and seeing
the widely varied reception it experienced from other reviewers, inspired a few
thoughts on broader topics. Hence I beg the indulgence of the Brutal as Hell faithful
as I open my review of this long-lost Gothic TV show with a few thoughts on the way
we all watch the genre screen entertainment we enjoy, and how even the most
scrupulous of reviewers can find their judgement swayed by ineffable bias. In the
noble quest for objectivity, it can be easy to forget how subjective an experience
watching a film or television episode can be.
We all know, of course, that assessing a film’s value is almost definitively a matter of
opinion. But I’m thinking here of other subtler, more ephemeral factors that can have
a heavy impact on our appreciation of something like a film, without us really
noticing. The mood you’re in, for example. A crabby mood can turn a good movie
into a piece of crap: a sunny demeanour transform a mediocre production into a
personal favourite. I’ve known genre devotees dismiss classics, then fall in love upon
rewatching them, before casting their memory back and recalling unrelated clouds on
their horizon which blighted the experience of viewing the innocent production first
All sorts of other external factors that have nothing to do with the film per se –
company, health, personal prejudice, etc., etc. – but can play a pivotal role in what
impression the production leaves upon you. The one I’m focusing on here is age.
Somebody once said something along the lines of ‘You never see your favourite film
over the age of 25’. While I fear the exact origin and wording of this quote eludes me,
I think there’s much virtue in the sentiment. That for a movie to really get under your
skin to the point where you adore it with that almost irrational fervour, it pays for it to
hit you young, when you still possess at least a little of that wide-eyed sense of
wonder that life conspires to slowly beat out of us.
It’s possible to see manifestations of this phenomenon in all manner of media. Only
the rosy-tinted spectacles of cherished childhood memory can explain the hold shows,
films and franchises originally aimed primarily at kids – such as Dr Who, Lego, or
Marvel superheroes – still exert over so many well into middle age. Indeed, if
anything, that grip gets stronger, as fans devote skills and resources accrued in
adulthood to analyse, criticise and obsess over works of fiction only ever designed to
withstand the less rigorous scrutiny of children. Part of the visceral hatred many fans
feel for the incessant stream of Hollywood remakes comes from a wholly reasonable
dismay at the turgid lack of imagination and vision they represent. But it also comes
from a more irrational, ineffable fear that remaking the treasured cultural artefacts of
our youth might somehow dilute or even destroy them.
To return to horror, there’s a monthly genre film night hosted in a nightclub near
where I live. It’s great fun, but I’ve noticed that everything screened has come from
the 1980s. When I drew the organisers’ attention to this and suggested they dig further
into the vaults, or considered more recent favourites, they were unenthusiastic,
explaining that they had to show ‘the classics’ in order to draw a crowd. It dawned on
me that it was a generational thing. They weren’t seriously suggesting that every
classic horror film was made between 1980 and 1990. But as thirty-somethings, never
thought to question the assumption that 80s horror films, as the ones that they grew up
with, were also the ones that automatically commanded the most affection among
fans, the movies which seem most magical, for which they’re most willing to forgive
failings and celebrate clichés.
The reason for this very lengthy, tangential preamble is that, as a somewhat more
vintage genre devotee, I feel much the same about 1970s horror. So, the past few
hundred words are in part my mea culpa, a confession that in reviewing THE SUPERNATURAL I am incapable of giving an opinion devoid of chronological baggage. This bias is further weighted by the obscurity of the series. I saw it as a child when it first
screened way back on BBC1, on eight successive Saturday nights in the summer of
1977. SUPERNATURAL then, in true Gothic style, effectively disappeared without
trace. Soon, only the fact that I’d been sufficiently impressed to buy the paperback
novelisation remained as proof that it had been anything more than a childhood
nightmare. That, and a series of potent images that remained seared into my
impressionable imagination thereafter…
SUPERNATURAL was never screened again, didn’t appear on tape with the advent of the
video boom of the 1980s, and with the arrival of the internet revolution in the
following decade, remained elusive, early searches yielding little to confirm its
existence. In TEN YEARS OF TERROR, Harvey Fenton and David Flint’s exemplary and
exhaustive 2001 study of 70s Brit screen horror, SUPERNATURAL enjoys only the briefest
of coverage, illustrated by a scan from the cover of the same paperback tie-in I
possessed. Inevitably, perhaps, the show’s elusiveness leant it an almost mythic aura
among dedicated devotees of vintage horror. Some years back I finally tracked down a
copy of the show via grey dealers on eBay, some three decades after it first frightened
me, but the quality of the recordings were too poor to really give an accurate
assessment of the series.
Hence, it was with great excitement that I recently received the two SUPERNATURAL
DVDs. So, the big question – was it worth the wait? (Or, indeed, for you patient
reader, worth wading through such a protracted prelude?) The series consists of seven
tales on classic Gothic themes – ghosts, werewolves, doppelgangers, split
personalities, sentient mannequins, Frankenstein, vampires – in eight 50 minute
episodes (one story is in two parts). The cast boasts a cast of distinguished Brit
character actors – Robert Hardy, Billie Whitelaw, Jeremy Brett, Denholm Elliot – who
match the rich material with highly theatrical, even melodramatic performances which
often makes many of the tales feel more like stage plays than TV shows.
The unifying thread that bookends each episode centres on the Club of the Damned,
an exclusive Victorian London gentleman’s institution. Perhaps the most exclusive, as
aspirant candidates must tell a tale of dread to established members – if it should fail
to terrify the assembled company, then they must pay the ultimate penalty, and are
never seen again. It’s an intriguing idea, and little details – such as a Satanic
baphomet symbol on a table – suggest an urbane infernal fellowship along the lines of
a latterday Hellfire Club. But it’s never really explored, the threat of extinction for
failed candidates not delved into, as what we see of the members hardly smacks of the
tension of the omnipresence of death. Indeed the Club members never really seem
frightened at the end of any of the stories, from which the viewer can only conclude
that all of the hopeful candidates got the chop once the final credits had rolled.
Of course, the Club of the Damned represents only the entrance and exit to the main
event, but the failure to exploit this tantalising angle is somewhat characteristic of
SUPERNATURAL overall, of promising ideas wasted and evocative paths uncovered but
not travelled. This is also, perhaps, the show’s strength. For – from its opening of
eerie organ music and gargoyles, to the peels of maniacal laughter that frequently
presage the final credits – SUPERNATURAL is full-on, industrial-strength Gothic. And
much pure Gothic is about unexplored roads and decayed ideologies, seldom fully
explained or resolved. Connoisseurs of the aesthetic will find a feast to relish in
SUPERNATURAL, from the lushly stifling Victoriana of the sets and costumes, to the florid
dialogue and overwrought acting.
Casual viewers will likely yawn at the verbose scripts and occasionally snigger at
some of the fruitier lines and camper delivery. Jeremy Brett’s descent into madness in
the episode ‘Mr Nightingale’ – complete with gurning at breakfast, black seagull
impersonations, and animated omelette debates – is hard to take seriously. Some DIY
standard visual effects don’t help either, suggesting a budget and level of
sophistication comparable with the less-than-special-effects of DR WHO of the day.
Though, just as some sci-fi devotees can see past the effects to enjoy the substance of
Pertwee/Baker era DR WHO, so aficionados of small screen Gothic should forgive
many of the more dated elements in SUPERNATURAL. In SUPERNATURAL’s stronger episodes, such as in the final part ‘Dorabella’ – a clever amalgam of CARMILLA and DRACULA – the subtler effects can be highly effective.
It was images from ‘Dorabella’ in particular – of a fly-flecked corpse, a monstrous
wedding ring, an eyeless curse – that stuck with me long after I’d watched the series
as a child, its atmosphere of dread and decay lingering strongly enough to keep me
looking for the series decades later. Despite my nostalgic enthusiasm for the show, in
all honesty, in the cold light of day, it’s not too hard to see why the BBC never
repeated or previously released SUPERNATURAL on other formats. It’s short on shocks,
and over-heavy on Freudian overtones, with little to titillate or terrify the typical
modern horror fan. It isn’t as satisfying or accessible as the BBC’s GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS – rightly still seen as setting the standard for vintage TV horror – but taken on its own merits, as a camp, creepy curio, SUPERNATURAL still has much to offer the authentic gourmet of Gothic entertainment.
The people at Shortlist Magazine wanted to know just what your average devil’s disciple gets up to over Christmas. So I answered a few questions, and if you’re curious, all is revealed here
What connects Harry Lime from THE THIRD MAN, the Etruscan death god Charun, and the murder of the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro? If you’re curious to find out, then why not join me on my annual pilgrimage to the Abertoir Horror Festival in Aberystwyth, where I’ll be revealing all next Thursday (16th November) at a presentation entitled ‘Spaghetti & Splatter’? Of course, the six day event has plenty of other diversions to tempt horror aficionados, including talks and theatre performances, as well as a packed schedule of new genre films and retro classic screenings.
I hear that full passes may now have sold out, but tickets are still available for individual events. For further details, click here.
Doctor Pretorius: Do you know who Henry Frankenstein is, and who you are?
The Monster: Yes, I know. Made me from dead. I love dead… hate living.
Doctor Pretorius: You are wise in your generation…
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
I was initially reluctant to write this. In the wake of the much-loved director’s recent death, I’m pretty confident the web currently has quite enough George A. Romero retrospectives to be getting along with. But once the dust had settled I figured the web could handle one more – and this was for me more than anybody else – about exploring something that had a profound impact on my inner life. Though obviously if anyone else is interested in my thoughts on the matter then I’m delighted and flattered to share them here. The following is a personal rumination, not a scholarly treatise but an opinionated take on Romero’s work and its place in horror history and modern mythology.
As I’ve already suggested, there is no shortage of other commentators memorialising Romero – some surely substantially better qualified to do so than myself, others perhaps rather less so… Among the former are numerous people lucky enough to have known the director personally. They provide ample testimony to what an intelligent, big-hearted and generous human being George was, particularly when approached by starstruck fans. (I suspect however this may have ultimately have proven a mixed blessing – something I touched on in a previous blog, which you can read here…) The latter, less illuminating eulogists, if nothing else, serving to underline Romero’s understated, yet monolithic cultural significance. His influence stretches well beyond the horror genre, leading to numerous mainstream journalists being obliged to pen rushed appreciations, pieces that rather too evidently took them far outside their comfort zones.
Few imaginary creations enjoy the same cult status on the cutting-edge of mainstream culture as Romero’s zombie world. Perhaps only H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos can compete for sheer contagious ubiquity across numerous formats and media. Though while Lovecraft’s mad gods and alien demons may have crossed as many media boundaries as Romero’s cannibal cadavers, they’ve never enjoyed the same high profile recognition factor. Within the realms of the horror genre, most of the monsters that haunt our collective subconscious – vampires, werewolves, and such – were drawn from arcane European folklore and Gothic literature, refracted through a Hollywood lens in the early Twentieth Century.
The past fifty years have arguably only seen two significant additions to our universally-recognised pantheon of pop culture monsters – both all-American and conspicuously modern. The first is the quasi-supernatural serial killer, introduced in films like HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980). The second, of course, is the flesh-eating ghoul Romero introduced in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), and developed in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). How many individuals can lay claim to have effectively given birth to a bona fide contemporary myth? For, make no mistake, modern congregations of cinema-goers look upon their idols in the modern cathedral of the multiplex in just the same way that our distant ancestors revered the likes of Wotan or Zeus in the temples of the pre-Christian world.
George’s mythology of a world overrun by shambling ghouls has thrown a shadow that stretches way beyond his numerous cinematic imitators, and the record-breaking WALKING DEAD TV show, and indeed beyond the horror genre itself. Everyone under a certain age knows that zombies are rotting dead people that eat brains. In a surreal recent evolution, many affiliated products are now comical or even cuddly in tone, with an increasing number marketed to a younger demographic, typified perhaps by the hit PLANTS VERSUS ZOMBIES computer game and its numerous spin-offs – it’s also possible to buy zombie slippers, zombie candy, ad infinitum – as Romero’s zombies evolved from cult figures to corporate mascot.
While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, if there was one topic inclined to make the otherwise affable George spit blood in interview, it’s the way so many of his imitators have made so much exploiting something he created. He has a point. His legendary debut NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been cited as the most profitable indie picture ever made, but after some dodgy dealing in distribution, Romero barely saw a cent. It set something of a pattern for George, whose career was cursed to be one where his colossal creative contribution to culture was never quite reflected in career or commercial terms. Some have even suggested that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s most important innovation wasn’t creative, but in demonstrating how much money a very modestly-budgeted horror picture could make.
Romero can surely be forgiven for some sour grapes at the number of people who profited in his creative wake, particularly those unwilling to even acknowledge their inspiration. One of the more interesting examples is RESIDENT EVIL. It began as a 1996 hit big budget horror computer game, featuring Romero-style zombies, which now boasts six sequels. The game’s success led to a 2002 film adaptation, followed by a franchise which currently has five sequels of its own under its belt. For once, it looked like George might actually enjoy a little of the lucrative action, as he was commissioned to helm a trailer for the second RESIDENT EVIL game, then approached to write and direct the movie version. He would later describe the experience as ‘the biggest damn shame’ of his career.
‘We busted balls writing drafts of that screenplay’, the director later reflected. ‘I’m talkin’ marathons, seventy-two hours straight. I really wanted this project… I was hooked. Deep in my heart, I felt that ResEv was a rip-off of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I had no legal case, but I was resentful. And torn… because I liked the video game. I wanted to do the film partly because I wanted to say, “Look here! This is how you do this shit!”’ The official version was that Romero was dropped because they didn’t like how he did that shit – specifically his script. Studio bosses favoured a version that focused on action rather than horror. Hollywood gossip had it that senior studio noses were out of joint over George being too frank in interviews about how much he thought RESIDENT EVIL owed to his own work.
This is, of course, all history now. Romero’s script, now it’s become available, certainly reads far better than the Paul W. S. Anderson version the studio ultimately went with. Yet that doesn’t mean that studio heads were necessarily wrong. Even if the critics dismissed the Anderson film as a vapid turkey, it was a very popular turkey, and the resultant franchise continues to be a huge money-spinner. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD might’ve made a lot of money relative to its poverty row budget, but these were sums that would barely register on the balance sheets of Capcom and Sony, the corporations behind RESIDENT EVIL in its various incarnations. And they clearly concluded that Anderson’s action approach had a broader commercial appeal than Romero’s horror, whatever the critics might say.
Whether by accident, temperament or design – George’s lack of reverence for studio bigwigs was the stuff of legend – Romero was destined to spend most of his career outside of the Hollywood system, as a big fish in the cult cinema pond. A few of the obituaries bewailed this, wondering why he never troubled the Oscar selection committees, but I think they’re missing the point. Good horror is unsettling, troubling, and tests taboos – hence not inclined to please committees. It is a place for mavericks and misfits. Horror is all but alone as a genre in having so many of its landmark films being the product of independent filmmakers on low budgets. To return to the thread we abandoned a few paragraphs back, Romero’s Dead Trilogy isn’t unique, even within the horror genre, as a film made on a shoestring that went on to become a critical and cultural phenomenon, though it is a definitive example.
Perhaps it was the explicit, bloody brutality featured in Romero’s debut that made it so influential, or maybe its raw, almost documentary feel, or even employing an African American actor as its hero way back in the Sixties? Perhaps… Though there are other contenders for the majority of these innovations. Most notably director Herschell Gordon Lewis, who’d already been selling low-rent gore to cinema-goers for five years when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD debuted. Surely the film’s most obvious invention is the likeliest contender, namely the zombies themselves. Certainly there had been zombie films before, but these had been the undead of Haitian voodoo tradition – effectively post mortem slave labour – not the cannibalistic cadavers Romero introduced in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Indeed, the word ‘zombie’ is conspicuous by its absence in the film (and largely used sparsely in Romero’s other ‘Dead’ films), with the more accurate term ‘ghoul’ being preferred. More accurate as ghouls, unlike zombies, did traditionally feast on human flesh.
(As an aside, the first time I remember reading anyone taking Romero remotely seriously was in David Pirie’s pioneering 1977 study THE VAMPIRE CINEMA. Interestingly, Pirie doesn’t foretell a new zombie (or ghoul) subgenre, instead predicting that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offered a new direction for future vampire films. I have some time for this off-target prediction, as in many respects Romero’s walking dead resemble the original vampires of medieval European folklore more closely than the cloaked cliché we are familiar with courtesy of Hollywood. Revenants, as historians often refer to our prototypical vampires, were not dapper aristocrats, but like Romero’s undead were malodorous and mindless walking corpses that menaced their former friends, family and neighbours.)
However you like to imagine them, though, the proliferation of vampires dating back to the dawn of horror cinema prove that our fear of the re-animated dead wasn’t what made George’s ghouls special. Similarly, the cannibalism taboo, while clearly key to the Romero recipe, was hardly anything new in 1968, featuring in numerous previous horror films. It’s central to the plot of the Sweeney Todd story, which was first filmed in 1926, for example, and figures in most werewolf films. Romero’s’ flesh-eating scenes were notably graphic, but no more so than Herschell Gordon Lewis’s debut gore film BLOOD FEAST, also a cannibal movie of sorts. Yet while BLOOD FEAST was camp and cartoonish in its gleeful ineptitude, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD exploited its minimal production values to attain a grim newsreel quality that contributed to its impact on unsuspecting audiences.
This unsettling sense of reality – of a film that felt uncomfortably reminiscent of local news reports – has been cited as the factor that distinguished Romero’s debut feature. Maybe, though it isn’t true of the two succeeding sequels, without which his Dead World would never have become so iconic. In truth, an idea needs to work on several levels in order to burrow as deeply into our collective subconscious as this. Some of these will have a more profound resonance with some than others, and it is the ability to touch a lot of people in a lot of subtly different ways – on different levels and wavelengths – that transforms something from a cult favourite to a cultural phenomenon.
My own take on what makes the Romero Dead universe so powerful was most perfectly expressed in DAY OF THE DEAD, the most chillingly bleak of the Trilogy. It is the dread of being torn apart by idiots. If zombies ever gave me nightmares – and they did – it was this dread of being literally ripped asunder by countless grasping hands and teeth. If I analyse it, I think for me, zombies function as a political horror of sorts – a manifestation of the sense that we are surrounded by drones who look and behave much like us, but are slower, more instinct-driven, and destined to overwhelm us by sheer weight of numbers. It is the taboo fear that democracy is inherently-flawed, because most people are too stupid and self-interested to be trusted. In my subconscious, Romero’s dead were the mindless majority who refused to stay silent, the softly moaning mob driving us towards the precipice with their stubborn idiocy.
It’s a pessimism also manifest in the living characters of Romero’s dystopia – almost every disaster and fatality results from the selfishness and stupidity of the survivors themselves. Romero’s world gives plenty for pessimists to get their teeth into. If God isn’t dead, then He has abandoned humanity in disgust. You cannot trust the military, the media, medicine or politicians and scientists. Even family and lovers can no longer be relied upon. In this grim future, only a sense of honour, dogged determination, and the virtues of friendship offer any kind of support. It is, I believe, very much a Generation X dystopia, fed by those who saw the optimism of the Sixties swept away in a wave of building violence, replaced only by cynicism and world-weary misanthropy. In Romero’s world, humans are often little better than zombies, but we’re all we’ve got.
Of course there are numerous other interpretations of the subtexts that helped make George’s zombies so iconic. DAWN OF THE DEAD, for example, is easy to interpret as a gory parody of the rampant 80s consumerism on the horizon when the film debuted (many horror fans still hear the film’s classic Goblin soundtrack whenever they find themselves in a shopping mall). A lot of critics see the influence of the building violence of the civil rights clashes that began to dominate news bulletins in the Sixties as key to the tone and themes informing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. However, when VANITY FAIR’s Eric Spitznagel asked Romero about the symbolism of the living dead in 2010, the director was sceptical. ‘To paraphrase Freud’, began the journalist, ‘sometimes things have symbolism and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Are the zombies in your movies always a metaphor, or are they sometimes just bloodthirsty walking corpses?’
‘To me, the zombies have always just been zombies,’ responded Romero. ‘They’ve always been a cigar. When I first made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it got analyzed and overanalyzed way out of proportion. The zombies were written about as if they represented Nixon’s Silent Majority or whatever. But I never thought about it that way. My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I’m pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible.’ George’s perspective appears to rather contradict my own interpretation of what makes his Dead films so effective. But, as I’ve emphasised before, this is a personal view, and, more importantly, perhaps the essence of the potency of his mythology is in its adaptability and origins in the subconscious. Romero was just going for what felt effective. Good horror comes from the subconscious – addresses contemporary fears obliquely – lending it that universal quality open to multiple interpretations.
On another minor tangent, I wonder if truly iconic horror also needs to mix a little guilty yearning in with the overt dread. The sexual overtones of the modern vampire are widely accepted, werewolves allow us to fantasise ourselves supernaturally powerful and unfettered by the dictates of law and morality, and so forth. But what faint silver lining can the zombie myth offer? One obvious fantasy explored in DAWN OF THE DEAD is the retail nirvana of a free shopping spree in a state-of-the-art mall. While many focus on the film’s undertone that suggests that the zombies are a metaphor for blind consumers, the sequences where the film’s protagonists enjoy the mall’s bounty gratis are the most tranquil – even happy – in a movie otherwise dominated by unrelenting stress and trauma. A world where law has broken down does have its advantages.
Which leads us onto an even more morally troubling wish-fulfilment fantasy which Romero’s dystopian future promises. Romero definitely encourages his audience to condemn rather than identify with the gun-happy red-neck vigilantes and nomadic biker gangs in his films that actually seem to be enjoying the lawless zombie apocalypse. But there’s no denying that much of the zombie media that’s followed in the wake of Romero’s Dead Trilogy panders to the adrenaline rush of hunting humans, a taboo pastime legitimised (and made easier) by the post mortem nature of the quarry. It’s a tempting but disturbing fantasy – that once dehumanised by death, we can simply kill the mindless hordes who frustrate and threaten us, without moral qualms or fear of legal repercussions. In light of the increasing number of mass shootings plaguing the USA, it isn’t difficult to see how this notion quickly takes us into very dark, contraversial territory. How you deal with that essentially pivots on whether you see horror cinema as a harmless pressure valve for forbidden fantasies, or a problematic trigger for taboo behaviour. (I, of course, am very much of the former opinion.)
It’s probably worth addressing the undead elephant in the room right now. While I’ve been repeatedly referring to Romero’s Dead Trilogy, he’s actually made six zombie films – and most of the comments from the director I’ve referenced or quoted come from the period while he was making these three subsequent films. There’s a tendency to overlook these later movies among many horror veterans – mostly due to a conviction that they aren’t nearly as good as the first three. After a twenty year hiatus from directing the dead, Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD debuted in 2005 to great anticipation (perhaps too much). It was a commercial and critical success, but alienated many diehard fans of the original Trilogy. Very much a studio picture, it felt too slick and commercial, too forced – as if Romero was self-consciously trying to cram the social satire into the script, which had once been a wholly organic component of his film-making. Most damningly, it wasn’t as good as the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake that had come out the year before.
If it had one undoubted virtue, then it was at least better than his 2007 follow-up DIARY OF THE DEAD. DIARY… felt as if George was reacting to fan criticism of LAND… by returning to his roots with a low budget picture that referenced cutting-edge culture. The result – stuffed with awkward nods to social media and found footage style filming – was embarrassingly close to watching your ageing uncle trying to get hip with the kids. In 2009 he released SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, a film which in turn had little in its favour beyond making DIARY OF THE DEAD seem good by comparison. Just prior to his death, Romero announced that he was preparing a script entitled ROAD OF THE DEAD (the announcement prompted me to wonder if CAR CRASH OF THE DEAD might be more apt) inspired by one of the worst ideas from his worst film (zombies driving cars in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD). It seemed depressingly plausible that Romero had seen how George Miller had revamped his 80s MAD MAX trilogy with FURY ROAD in 2015, and wondered if he could follow suit.
It’s painful to see somebody you admire so much struggle to rediscover their creative mojo, but there’s no denying that the final decade of George Romero’s career saw him make a succession of films that made many dedicated admirers wince. He’s certainly created the Dead World which the likes of THE WALKING DEAD and Brad Pitt’s 2013 big-budget blockbuster WORLD WAR Z exploited so lucratively and, in some views, mined to extinction. ‘Because of WORLD WAR Z and THE WALKING DEAD, I can’t pitch a modest little zombie film, which is meant to be sociopolitical,’ he told Indiewire in 2016. ‘I used to be able to pitch them on the basis of the zombie action, and I could hide the message inside that. Now, you can’t. The moment you mention the word “zombie,” it’s got to be, “Hey, Brad Pitt paid $400 million to do that.”’
Yet George’s conviction that there was still life in the zombie movie may have been a triumph of nostalgia over experience. While zombie films can still be made cheaply enough to practically guarantee a profit regardless of quality, most serious horror fans greet the advent of a new zombie movie with a mixture of suspicion and dismay. There are good zombie films being released, but increasingly it has become the subject of preference for lazy film-makers with little imagination, a tiny budget, and an even more scant respect for their audience. It is to Romero’s credit that, before horror started to enjoy some degree of critical respect (due in no small part to his own efforts), he didn’t disown the genre, but remained faithful to the zombies that had made his career, though his loyalty may have blinded him to the rot setting in to the subgenre he’d created.
It’s probably worth noting at this stage that, though he will always be remembered as ‘the Father of the Zombie film’, that George also directed ten other films, all of which are worth seeing, and most of which share that distinctive Generation X pessimism that characterises his Dead World. THE CRAZIES (1973) takes his dystopian view of a world menaced by apocalyptic plague and arguably makes it even darker by removing the undead. MARTIN (1978) is a pitch-perfect blend of Gothic horror and post-modern arthouse cinema that revives vampirism for a cynical age. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) reinvents Arthurian mythology in Romero’s own unique style. CREEPSHOW (1982) proved George could do lurid old-school scares aimed at the monster kid generation…
Perhaps George Romero should have tried to revisit one of these projects in order to rediscover his mojo? Or, better still, have chanced his arm on something wholly original? Of course, it’s possible that if he was struggling to raise the finance for a Dead picture with his name attached, finding the funds for anything else would’ve been impossible. Regardless, even if you share my scepticism over his recent output, Romero has left cinema – and hence modern mythology – with a unique and powerful legacy. And even if zombie movies are increasingly passé, the idea behind them seems more relevant to me every year. If, as I suggest, that zombies are the democratic nightmare – of humanity dragged down by a morass of lumpen selfishness and raw stupidity – then could there be a better metaphor for a world menaced by Trump and Brexit?…
While this is the very definition of last minute, I thought it would be remiss of me not to give a heads up of a talk I’ll be giving this weekend. It’s for the second annual Fear in the Fens festival in the quaint Norfolk town of Downham Market on Sunday (1st October). Last year, I held forth on ‘The Mid-Life Crisis of Dracula’, while this year’s talk also has a vampiric theme. It’s entitled ‘The Undead Kingdom’, and in it, I’ll be exploring ‘The Unnatural History of the British Vampire’.
There are of course numerous other events at this year’s festival to delight horror devotees. Other talks include Robert Lloyd Parry on ‘M.R. James and the East Anglian Landscape’, Michael Clarke giving ‘An introduction to Jewish Folk Magick and the Qabalah’, and Jim Peters with an introduction to folk horror. The days screenings include NIGHT OF THE DEMON, DER GOLEM, and PSYCHOMANIA, complimented by a selection of locally made horror shorts. Rounding things out is the Frightful Things market, where specialist stalls will be purveying a selection of macabre treasures and trinkets.
For further details, check out the Fear in the Fens site here. While it is now too late to book tickets online, I’m assured there are still a few available on the door. Hope to see some of you there…
Those poor lost souls that frequent this blog may remember a piece I wrote last year about one of the coolest emporiums that stocks my books – a York shop named Pandora’s Box – click here if you missed it. The big news is that they’re expanding, opening up the back of the shop into what they’re describing as a Micro Museum and Sideshow. In order to do fully realise their vision, Pandora’s Box need to raise more capital for the display cases and other equipment necessary, so have started a Kickstarter campaign, offering a range of suitably weird and wonderful rewards for investors. For more details of how to get involved in this exciting project, including a video giving a glimpse behind the scenes of York’s strangest attraction, check out their Kickstarter page here.
I was interviewed for a feature on America’s ‘black pope’, arch-Satanist Anton LaVey, in the new edition of the excellent horror magazine RUE MORGUE. I was in good company, with the current high priest of the Church of Satan Peter Gilmore, and occult author Carl Abrahamsson also giving their perspectives on LaVey’s life and legacy. (Carl’s book on the Church of Satan in the 60s – CALIFORNIA INFERNAL – is also well worth seeking out.) For more information on RUE MORGUE and to lay your hands on a copy, click here.
I somehow felt compelled to write something on this. As, on April 11th last year, the Madam Tussauds Chamber of Horrors closed down, and nobody seemed to care. There was no fanfare, no protest, no indication in the media that I can find that this had happened at all. I have a special passion for waxwork museums (which I’ll explore in the second half of this blog) but even without that, it seemed to me that something significant at the core of our cultural heritage had died, wholly unmarked and unmourned. Some two centuries of London tradition deleted with the click of mouse from a Powerpoint presentation at some corporate marketing meeting. There was no official statement on the closure from Madam Tussauds that I could find. Just the following bald statement:
‘The chamber closed until further notice on 11 April 2016, due to many complaints from families with young children.’
Yet they should have said something. For, whatever you may feel about the morbid character of the Chamber of Horrors, as much as a visit to Madame Tussauds Waxworks has been a must for visitors to London for generations, the Chamber represents the dark foundation of the institution, hooking it bloodily into European history. Our story begins with a French physician named Dr Philippe Curtius, who became skilled in creating wax models to illustrate anatomy. In 1765 the good doctor decided to abandon medicine and dedicate himself entirely to the art of sculpting human figures in wax. His displays were a huge success and by 1770 he had a permanent wax museum in Paris. Curtius’s Caverne des Grands Voleurs (Cavern of the Great Thieves) opened twelve years later, showing the likenesses of notorious criminals, often taken from their executed cadavers, and was similarly successful.
Unusually perhaps, the doctor took a young girl under his wing as his apprentice, named Marie Grosholtz, she was the daughter of his housekeeper. Marie referred to Curtius as ‘uncle’ and soon proved to be an eager, able sculptor in her own right. By 1780, their work began to enjoy approval at the highest levels of French society. They were even invited into the household of Louis XVI. But then, in 1789, history intervened in the bloodthirsty shape of the French Revolution. The next time Marie would encounter the royal family, it was as decapitated corpses. Not long after the Revolution began, her royal association had led to Marie’s arrest as a suspected Royalist. She even got as far as having her head shaved in preperation for her own appointment with the guillotine, when her skills saved her.
Under literal pain of death, Marie was ordered to make wax models of the heads of decapitated aristocrats – many of them former patrons and friends that she had to find for herself from among the piles of cadavers – for public display. According to one story, the originals kept rotting and falling off their appointed spikes, necessitating more durable, convincing artificial alternatives. By 1795 the worst savage excesses of the French Revolution had passed and Marie had found herself a husband, an engineer named Francois Tussaud. Dr Curtius had died the preceding year, leaving all of his wax models to his protege, and Madame Tussauds Waxworks was born (the apostrophe in Tussaud’s was abandoned some time ago). In 1802 they took the show on the road, crossing the Channel to bring their waxworks to an English audience.
‘Her odyssey was amazing at the time, when almost no married women worked, and when travelling even a short distance was arduous,’ observed Tussaud biographer Pamela Pilbeam in an article for Business History. ‘Marie remained on the road for nearly 33 years in total, visiting 75 main towns and some smaller places. The packing and unpacking alone, without the travelling, and model and costume making, would have been herculean tasks for a young person, but Marie set out when she was already middle-aged, with a tiny child, knowing noone and speaking not a word of English when she began.’ The English exhibitions were a resounding success, but the Napoleonic Wars prevented the Tussauds from returning to France for some time. Abandoned by her husband by this point, Marie decided to relocate, finally taking up permanent residence in London’s Baker Street in 1835.
‘Exhibitions illustrating the iniquities of the Revolution were popular in Britain,’ Pamela Pilbeam, notes. ‘What made Marie’s unique was that she and Curtius had made the figures from the living, or dead, bodies of their subjects. For the first time, English audiences could really see the features of the guillotined king and queen, whose deaths they had mourned.’ Londoners could gaze upon wax figures actually cast from executed aristocrats and monarchs, figures that embodied the ethos that would drive Madame Tussauds for the best part of two centuries – a mixture of celebrity, history and morbidity. The ethos casually abandoned in the recent closure of the Chamber of Horrors…
Madame Tussauds hasn’t always had a Chamber of Horrors, even if it has always displayed horrific waxworks. Originally it was simply known as the ‘Separate Room’ in recognition that it was separated from the other less harrowing displays. Nobody was obliged to go in – which has always been the case – putting those ‘complaints from families with young children’ which led to the recent closure of the Chamber of Horrors in context. But more of that anon… There is some controversy as to when the Separate Room became the Chamber of Horrors. Some say the term was first coined in an 1845 article in the humorous magazine Punch, though others maintain Marie had been using the term herself for at least a year before then.
Regardless, the same meticulous dedication to veracity prevailed which had distinguished the grislier displays she had brought with her from the French Revolution when preparing new inhabitants for her Chamber of Horrors. Allow me to quote from my own book, SAUCY JACK, co-authored with true crime expert Paul Woods…
In addition to working from life wherever possible, Tussaud’s went to considerable effort and expense to obtain authentic artefacts relating to the cases they featured – from clothes actually worn by the accused to furniture or even structural elements from the scene of the crime, which would go on display alongside the completed figure.
Such attention to detail and concern for veracity not only strengthened the claims of Madame Tussaud’s to represent a museum rather than a ghoulish freak show, but also lent the Chamber of Horrors a strange, almost totemic quality – the visitor walking among the exhibits would almost literally be rubbing shoulders with killers.
The attraction was a huge success, drawing visitors as eminent as the Duke of Wellington and Queen Victoria, and the introduction of a notable new criminal to the collection was like an opening night, with queues curling out of the building to catch a chilling glance of the Chamber’s newest inmate. Not everybody was a fan. William Thackeray Makepeace fretted over the addition to the Chamber of effigies of Frederick and Maria Manning, sent to the gallows in 1849 for the murder and robbery of an elderly friend of theirs. “Should such indecent additions continue to be made to this exhibition the ‘horrors’ of the collection will surely predominate,” the author fretted. “It is painful to reflect that although there are noble and worthy characters really deserving of being immortalised in wax, these would have no chance in the scale of attention with thrice-dyed villains.”
It’s an argument that echoes to this day relating to the depiction of violence in the media. Does it inspire criminality, as some contend, or act as a cathatric safety valve? The Victorian public continued to vote with their feet and, after Madame Tussaud died in 1850, her sons Francis and Joseph expanded the Chamber of Horrors the following year to cater for the popularity of exhibits like the Mannings, displayed alongside an effigy of their victim and a scale model of the room in which he was murdered. In an attempt to stave off criticism, the Tussauds assured visitors that “so far from the exhibition of the likenesses of criminals creating a desire to imitate them, experience teaches that it has a direct tendency to the contrary.” Reliably confirming or contesting such claims has challenged generations of criminologists, psychologists and sociologists.
John George Haigh, the Acid-bath Murderer, visited Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors on the day before his arrest in 1949. Haigh subsequently became a popular exhibit, bequeathing a suit of clothes to Tussaud’s for the display. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, is reported to have been a boyhood regular at the waxworks in Blackpool, particularly favouring a macabre anatomical display. If a visit to the Chamber of Horrors was really the first step on the road to Hell, you would expect a queue to the scaffold to mirror those that formed outside Madame Tussaud’s when a new horror was due to be unveiled. But no such symmetry has ever been observed.
Despite this, Madame Tussaud’s descendents continued to endeavour to defend the propriety of their Chamber of Horrors. In the 1870s her grandson Joseph made a valiant effort to rename it the Chamber of Comparative Physiognomy. Physiognomy – the ancient art of determining character according to facial characteristics – was popular in the day, and if Joseph Tussaud might have legitimately claimed some scientific value to his exhibits in attempting to identify a distinctive criminal ‘look’. To make such a claim plausible, the models had to be as close to their inspiration as humanly possible.
The Chamber of Horrors seemed on safe ground when SAUCY JACK was published in 2009 – I never imagined that such a long and distinguished – albeit macabre – tradition might disappear as it did with so little ceremony last year. In 1996 the Chamber enjoyed a $1.5 million revamp, though the French Revolution death masks and John George Haigh – complete with original suit – remained unchanged. But things have changed. In 1977 Tussauds was no longer a family concern after being taken over by the Pearson corporation, the first of a series of company mergers and takeovers, that saw Madame Tussauds fall into the hands of the Merlin Entertainments company with the Tussauds Group effectively dissolved in 2007.
This may explain other developments in the Chamber of Horrors. Merlin took over London’s other major macabre tourist attraction, the London Dungeon, in 1992. Founded in 1974, the London Dungeon had originally been a traditional waxwork museum, focused on horrific historical tableaux. Under Merlin, the London Dungeon began replacing the waxworks with themed rides and live actors in period costume. Recent years saw the Chamber of Horrors following a similar policy of introducing actors to supplement the museum’s traditional inanimate exhibits. Yet none of this hinted at the decision to close the Chamber in 2016.
Perhaps, once the company owned both Tussauds and the Dungeon the business decision was simply made to focus all of their ghoulish displays in one franchise, meaning that a Chamber of Horrors in Tussauds seemed superfluous. Perhaps the Chamber of Horrors was deemed the least popular, and hence profitable, aspect of Tussauds – though the idea that our appetite for the macabre was suddenly sated after two centuries seems improbable to say the least. Sadly, it does seem most likely that the sanitising tendency of corporate culture is the most likely culprit. That a few complaints from entitled, sanctimonious parents who hadn’t even experienced the Chamber of Horrors (it was called the Separate Room for a reason – originally you had to pay extra!) were enough to trigger the corporate reflex to keep the brand’s reputation anodyne and squeaky clean at all costs.
And what’s replaced it? There are now two dozen franchised Madame Tussauds across the globe – none of which at a cursory glance feature a Chamber of Horrors. We live in a globalised world with shared values, many of which are not especially encouraging. Without access to floor-plans it’s hard to say what now occupies the space once occupied by Marie’s morbid exhibits or ponder upon the fate of John George Haigh’s suit. It doesn’t really matter I suppose. What is important perhaps is what is now considered a more compelling attraction for today’s sensation-seekers. It would seem that morbidity – and indeed history – have almost wholly given way to celebrity.
Perhaps the most horrific chamber in today’s Madame Tussauds is the Youtube display. ‘Enter into the digital world of YouTube and meet two of Britain’s most popular vloggers, Zoe Sugg (Zoella) and Alfie Deyes (PointlessBlog),’ promises the official website. ‘Step into the epicentre of the Zoe and Alfie’s “vlogsphere” and sit beside their likenesses in an exact replica of their spare bedroom, where both often vlog from. Not only were Zoe and Alfie closely involved with the creation of their wax figures and recreating their “vlogsphere”, with a donation of the Ruby Ruth Dolls that appear in the background of many of her vlogs, but so were their fans. Voting on the lipstick her wax figure would wear, as well as picking out which colour t-shirt Alfie should be dressed in – the final poll revealed that Zoe would wear Kate Moss 107 by Rimmel and Alfie a speckled grey t-shirt.’
It would doubtless be gratuitous at this point to start any critique of the cretinous cult of pointless celebrity or indeed underline how Youtubers like Sugg and Deyes embody it. Sadly, it is the world we live in and there is no shortage of meditations on the topic. It might however be valid to pause for a moment to think about how waxworks have reflected its rise. Madame Tussauds is now a selfie facility – a temple to vacuous aspiration. Nobody went to the Chamber of Horrors wanting to pretend to rub shoulders with poisoners at fashionable parties or fancy themselves on the scaffold awaiting decapitation. So why did we go? Is our morbidity really any better than the slackjawed sycophancy feeding the Youtuber fan phenomenon? I’ll think about that in an upcoming piece.
In the meantime, I’d like to take this opportunity to raise a glass in rememberance of the Chamber of Horrors. At the very least, you deserved a more dignified wake…
A quick heads up to any genre film fanatics living in the north of England. I’ve got together with some friends to screen Ridley Scott’s horror-sci fi masterpiece ALIEN in York at midday on Saturday 18th of February. We’ll be taking over one of the screens at City Screen, so it will be on state-of-the-art sound and projection equipment, making this a rare opportunity to appreciate this truly iconic film as it was intended, on the big screen. The idea for the screening began as a way to celebrate the upcoming wedding of a film-loving friend, but we quickly decided we wanted this to be a public screening, open to fellow fans. Matters took a poignant turn with the recent death of John Hurt, who gives a standout performance in the film, and we thought screening it like this also offered the perfect way to pay tribute to one of Britain’s greatest ever acting talents.
For tickets and further information, click here.