Sunday, July 16, 2017

George A. Romero: 1940-2017

"...and now the darkest day of horror the world has ever known."

That was the tag line for 1985's Day of the Dead which, at the time was billed as the completion of writer/director George A. Romero's Dead Trilogy.  Sadly, it's pretty fitting today...

Starting with 1968's Night of the Living Dead and continuing with 1978's Dawn of the Dead, Romero reshaped the Horror genre with just three films.  Of course, he had a 50-year entire career of 20+ films he either wrote, directed, produced or, in some cases, performed all three tasks.  Each of his films carried his unique vision and style, allowing him to put his stamp on whatever it was he was trying to say with that particular film. 

Although I never knew Romero as a friend or a colleague, his career has touched my life deeply.  As a fan, I've appreciated his work from afar, while also getting a few chances to personally thank him for the films he's made.  Over the last nearly 20yrs, I was fortunate enough to meet George a few times and express my appreciation for his work.  He was always a kind and thoughtful gentleman when such a chance came up.  To say I'm crushed right now is definitely a massive understatement.

Starting with 1982's Creepshow, I got my first taste of Romero.  As I've said here time and time again, many of my earliest nightmares came from Romero's first collaboration with Stephen King and, even though I didn't know it at the time, a linear path leading right to this very moment and the way I'm feeling had been forged.  

The next Romero film I experienced -- because, let's face it:  as a Horror fan, Romero films are an experience -- was, of course, Dawn of the Dead.  Sure, at the time of that first viewing, I probably didn't have enough sense in my then 5yr old brain to fully comprehend what I was witnessing or becoming a part of... but it definitely happened that particular night at my older cousin's house.  Some people remember where they were they saw (insert famous athlete here) hit/score/dunk that winning shot/basket/goal/whatever or where they were the moment they first heard (insert favorite band name here) . . . me?  I'll always remember where I was and what I was doing when I was first bitten by the Dawn of the Dead bug.  It's really that simple:  for as long as I can remember, I've felt the same way about George A. Romero as any other kid who may have had posters of Michael Jordon or Alex Rodriguez on their bedroom walls or wore jerseys with their #'s on them.

Romero's work fully took hold when I was 11/12/13yrs old.  You see, I'd just completely jumped headfirst into all things Dawn-related and, had quickly come to the realization that this is who I was at heart -- a Monster Kid (or, in layman's terms, a Horror fan).  At this point, I'd seen that film countless times as it quickly became my all-time favorite; to this day, I'm at a loss for just how many times I've seen it!  In the summer of '95, my parents took me to my first Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors where I was able to meet Dawn star, Ken Foree for the first time.  You wanna talk about the thrill of a lifetime, the age of 12, that was certainly the biggest thing I'd done!  

And, in fact, I remember the exact instant that I later came to embrace my new identity . . . a short time after that convention, I attended a classmate's birthday party and was sort of holding court, recounting my experience at the show recently.  Adolescence is the time where we're supposed to be awkward and unsure of who we are or who we're becoming . . . and, yeah, of course I had my share of teenage awkward moments (Hell, I still have awkward thirty-something moments!) . . . but in that very instant as I was describing meeting an actor from a Horror movie I loved so much, I realized THIS is who I am!  Perhaps if a ball of some kind or a musical instrument replaced a VHS tape when I had my eureka moment, maybe everything would have been completely different, eh?

Pretty quickly, with my sights set on high school and beyond, I came to the realization that I pretty much wanted to be like George A. Romero.  From that point on, my goal in life was to become a filmmaker and write and hopefully direct Horror films.  That sort of became my identity throughout the rest of my school years . . . everyone encouraged me along that path, though, looking back I don't think I knew just what was required to reach such a goal.  But it seemed like a great (unlikely?) dream to chase, as it became a carrot for which I'd continually strive for. 

Beyond my hopes and aspirations, my Horror fandom itself grew on a daily level.  Sure, as a kid, there was obviously Freddy Krueger and the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (and eventually the other three from the Big 4 Slashers), but Romero and, specifically, Dawn of the Dead sucked me into dissecting every possible element about a film and the Horror genre itself -- specifically on the career of Romero himself.  Being that this was all happening in the days before the internet, locating information on various films extended to library visits, thumbing through books and magazines for old interviews or reviews of his films, and even long-distance phone chats with an adult fan in Michigan!  

Outside of the Horror genre, Romero's influence pushed me into Film classes (my first being Introduction To Film at Raritan Valley Community College . . . during the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years in high school), where I'd learn the in's and out's of the craft -- as best I could without actually, ya know, doing it.  Through all those years, that education awakened a sort of Third Eye in me to the point that it's sometimes difficult to just WATCH a movie without reading into it all the time (much to the annoyance of my loving wife, Sandee, at times!).  During my final year at Rutger's University, I even wrote two back-to-back papers on Romero and Dawn of the Dead (one for a film class as, what essentially was my Senior thesis and the other for Creative Writing: Non-Fiction); it was at this point that I threw down some coin to finally -- for the sake of great reference material while writing said papers -- pick up a copy of Paul Gagne's incredible (and pricey, as its been out-of-print forever) Romero tome, The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh

Listen, I could go through each and every one of George's films here in this very piece . . . but that's not what I'm here to do.  I'm here to pay tribute to a man whose work has made such an impact on my life.  There have been many incredible road trips to the Pittsburgh area to pay homage -- with most of our time being dedicated, of course, to Monroeville.  With Sandee at my side, I've done and seen some incredible things all because of George A. Romero.  

On the surface, Romero's work has brought so many hours of enjoyment and escapism to my life either from watching his films, reading about them, or talking about them with other fans and friends.  

Most importantly, one final thing that the work of George A. Romero has brought me is the wealth of deep-rooted friendships with people all over the world.  Most are fans just like me; our paths crossed because of one particular film of Romero's -- most likely Dawn of course, but really, it could be any one of his films.  In fact, in the very early days of my budding, long-distance relationship with Sandee, we watched Dawn together over the phone!  That was one of the moments when I knew she was a keeper!  Other meaningful friendships extend to people who actually worked with Romero -- a good deal of them from Dawn itself even!  It's still an incredible honor to call them friends.  All because a Bronx-born filmmaker based out of Pittsburgh was at the center of a group of like-minded friends who wanted to make a Horror movie about the dead returning to life in 1968!  

Sandee and I with George the last time we met him, at the Living Dead Fest 2014 in Evans City, PA where Night of the Living Dead was filmed.
My favorite memory of Romero comes from the last time Sandee and I met him.  It was in Evans City, PA for the 2014 edition of the Living Dead Fest, a convention/hang/reunion/tribute to all things related to Night of the Living Dead.  George was on-hand not exactly as a guest per say, but he was there to help dedicate the newly-fixed chapel at the Evans City Cemetery; while he was there, he also sat and posed for photos with every single fan in attendance...

But the moment that I'll always cherish was getting to the Edco Park location early, probably not too long after George himself had arrived.  There we were -- me and a handful of others who were direct staff/crew for the event -- standing in the parking lot, chatting with George and his wife Suz.  I realized something incredible in that brief moment . . . with a lot of celebrities, there are always stories about how kind and generous they were to their fans [and believe me, there are millions of stories just like that with George - ED].  However, standing there in a gravel parking lot chatting with George on that sunny, late October morning, with very few other people around us, I felt as though we connected on a human to human level and not just as the typical fan to idol separated by a table scenario of a convention.  Sure, George was always charming and friendly when I'd met him previously, but at that very moment, I felt as though I had stepped beyond the barrier of the silver screen and, like I said, was chatting human to human with The Man.   Looking back at it, it's a bit of a surreal moment that I'm not sure I'm even perfectly explaining here...  

With all that being said, it's taken me a good chunk of this afternoon and evening to find the words to pay tribute to a man whose work I've admired for so many years.  My heart aches that he's gone.  I'm still stunned on his passing and will probably never forget where I was the moment I heard the news.  It pains me to think of George in the past tense and to associate "RIP" with his name now.  Although he himself may be gone, his films will live forever (not unlike his living dead creations), inspiring & terrifying generations to come and awakening budding Horror fans the world over. 

For many, many years, Romero was famous for tagging autographs with "Stay Scared!"  Oh yes George . . . I did and I always will!  Thank you sir.  Rest In Peace.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Philadelphia, PA 3/7/97: 20 Years Later....

Growing up, I really had no idea how one went about getting tickets to concerts.  Sure, I'd seen tons of movies and even went to see Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden once.  Now that I think about it, I suppose I probably did see people lined up outside of a ticket broker in any local mall I went to.  The only concerts I'd been to had been at Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ [Starship, Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night - ED.] when I'd go with my mom; incidentally, as I got older, I'd go off into the park on my own while she hit the concerts!  So yeah, other than that, I'd never been to a concert and really no idea as to how one purchased tickets to do so.

In the early 90s with the success of Metallica's "Black Album", I immediately became hooked and those dudes quickly became my all-time favorite band.  Since this was before the internet, I'd scour MTV for any and all live clips of the band, which I'd record to VHS.  The only live Metallica I owned was their 1993 boxset Live Shit:  Binge & Purge.  Their posters covered my bedroom walls (next to the Horror posters and collectibles of course).  Their t-shirts hung in my closet like suits of armor, ready to help me navigate the life of a pre-teen and, eventually, a teenager.  Friends of mine were lucky enough to catch Metallica on their 1992 co-headlining jaunt with Guns N' Roses, their 1993 stadium/arena tour, and even their 1994 summer sheds tour.  But, alas, I missed the boat every time.

Flash-forward to 1996 and Metallica releases their Load album in June, with a headlining stint on the Lollapalooza tour soon after, carrying on through the Summer.  With hindsight being 20/20, I probably could have caught that tour, though the closest dates were at Randall's Island in NY.  For all I knew, it could have been on the other side of the country!  So, once again, I missed Metallica coming "near" my small New Jersey town.  It's also worth nothing that I turned 14yrs old that August.  That Fall, I started high school, so my thoughts gravitated towards girls, making new friends, looking cool in front of both, and schoolwork (all in that order).

1997 rolls around and, by then, I was knee-deep into high school.  Pretty much every day, I had a different Metallica shirt to wear and was thereby deemed "Metallica Bob" by many a classmate.  People liked me and some chicks dug me.  Somewhere around this time, a good friend told me how he was going to go see Metallica in Philadelphia very soon . . . this is a buddy who had seen White Zombie (a band I still kinda regret missing) the year before and, mustering all the teenage angst I had in me, I was NOT to be outdone.  I would go see Metallica, dammit!  Hell, I'd go before this dude got the chance . . . after-all, I was "Metallica Bob" and I had a rep to maintain now!  Still . . . I had zero clue how to go about getting tickets.  There was talk of Philadelphia radio station 94.1 WYSP giving away tickets, so I tuned in and figured that was my, er . . . ticket.

Those first few minutes of listening to the radio seemed like hours, as I anxiously waited -- phone in hand -- for any announcement to be "the XX-number caller" for a chance to score tickets.  Looking back, I probably wouldn't have been able to win anyway since I wasn't 18yrs old!  All of a sudden, during a break, I heard a commercial for a ticket broker agency that specialized in getting the best seats in town!  Naturally, they mentioned Metallica's upcoming shows in Philadelphia, so I begged and pleaded with my parents to make it happen....

A deal was struck that, perhaps my older cousin Tim would be able to take me to the show.  Sure, why not?  Dude is like the older brother I never had, so it only made sense that he'd take me to my first "real" concert, let alone my first Metallica show!  Alright then!  After a quick call to Tim to see if he was down, Mom and Dad wound up buying three tickets for 3/7/97 show at Philadelphia's CoreStates Center (whatever it's called'll ALWAYS be the CoreStates Center to me), as Tim's friend and bandmate Ed was gonna come with.

Man, the months leading up to the show were intense.  I couldn't believe that I'd be FINALLY be seeing Metallica!  On a monthly basis, I'd scour the pages of Metal Edge magazine for any and all tour reports and interviews about the current trek dubbed Poor Touring Me.  MTV was also a bright source of info, as they'd aired several tour report video packages during MTV News (the first of which covered their New Year's Eve gig in San Jose).  I couldn't believe the massive, in-the-round stage or their "new" live sound.  Various interviews in Metal Edge gave setlist tidbits and hints -- rotating sets almost every night, with some gems thrown in, including then unreleased new songs "Devil's Dance" (or "Devil Dance") and "Fuel", due to be on the follow-up to Load sometime later that year.

At this point, my Metallica world had been opened up to bootleg recordings or, as record stores used to dub them, "Import" releases.  I'd had a few ridiculously overpriced CDs and a couple VHS tapes of shows from '94 and '95.  It appeared that setlist structure wasn't straying too far from the basic skeleton of what they played on the Lollapalooza dates.  I'd heard "Devil's Dance" via a bootleg from their Escape From The Studio '95 tour where they played a small handful of dates in England and the North Pole, so of course, I'd been down to hear it at my show.  "Fuel", however, was brand new and I was really stoked to possibly hear it -- again, potential bragging rights of hearing a brand new Metallica show before probably any in my high school seemed like a cool notch in my belt. 

Another couple cool things I knew to be on the lookout for were the fact that Metallica were jamming some other new material throughout the tour.  I distinctly remember a quote about how if we didn't recognize any of the jams that the band did throughout the tour, it was new material!  Of course the BIG surprise on the tour was the destruction scene that occurs at the end of the show during "Enter Sandman"...out of the three of us who were going, I was the only one who knew it was gonna happen.  Finally, Metallica's entrance on this tour was drastically different from what I'd been use to seeing in videos and hearing on live recordings; they had scrapped long-time intro music "The Ecstasy of Gold" by Ennio Morricone and making a dramatic entrance with the sort of fanfare one might expect from the biggest Heavy Metal band in the world.  Instead, they chose to simply walk out into the arena, one by one, with the houselights still on.  Once all four band members would meet in the workings of the tech pit within the bowels of the main stage, they'd start with a jam on previously unreleased material before ripping into either "So What" or "Last Caress" (depending on the city and whether they were doing two nights back to back in that city). 

FINALLY, the show date arrived.  School was hell that day, as I nervously watched the clocked.  Leading up to the show, I distinctly recall Mom asking if I wanted to get a haircut before the show and I replied "No Mom!  I need to have enough hair to headbang!"  My pseudo-skater cut, parted down the middle bowl-type would have to do.  Another curious thing about the day of the show is that I remember exactly what I was wearing . . . my black and white Adidas soccer-style low-tops, a pair of black Dickies chino pants, and my white Unforgiven shirt with a black, longsleeve under it.   Earlier in the day, I had been daydreaming and leaked a bit of black ink towards the bottom of the front of the shirt even!

Since the show was on a Friday night, I'd be spending the weekend at my cousin's house in Ewing, NJ and going to see his and Ed's own band, Hands Tied, the following night.  That second night wound up being the first Hardcore show I'd go to as well, but that's a story for another time....  Mom and Dad dropped me off at my aunt and uncle's and I was anxious to get going and get to the show.  Before we left, of course, I met Ed for the first time.  It's cool to look back now because, I've known the dude 20yrs and he's one of my best friends! 

We got down to Philadelphia in what seemed like no time and hurried to line up for security checks, as both Tim and Ed were stoked to see openers Corrosion of Conformity.  The moment we lined up outside the CoreStates Center, I'll never forget someone a few people in front of us getting searched . . . and the security guard pulling out a wooden handled screwdriver and tossing it onto the sidewalk.  This was indeed a METAL show! 
The CoreStates Center (pic from
By the time we entered the venue, Corrosion of Conformity were already pretty deep into their 8-song set; in fact, they were just starting their closer "Clean My Wounds" as walked in and found our seats.  Immediately, the main riff to "Clean My Wounds" nestled into my brain and, to this day, has never left.  Our seats weren't bad actually; 12th row in the lower tier, in the section before the floor GA area.  Since the stage was in the round, the best way to describe where we were located would be on Lars' right side (his drumkit on the main stage would slowly rotate throughout the set, but he started out facing the opposite long end of the arena).  At that point, I don't think it had quite set in yet that I'd soon be seeing my boys in Metallica! 

The stage itself was actually TWO stages; one, sizable figure-eight stage with large almost robotic arm-looking lighting trusses at each corner and another, smaller stage that would be utilized in the second half of the set. There were microphones dotted all over the place so James Hetfield could sing pretty much anywhere -- including even on the floor itself!  Between the two stages, on each side, there were microphones on the floor near ramps for each band member to navigate from stage to stage....or prowl along the barricade around the stages, literally getting right into kids' faces!  It was a spectacle unlike anything I'd ever seen before and, honestly, haven't truly seen since -- even after 20+ Metallica shows!

By then, our stomachs were growling, so the three of us headed out on the main concourse of the arena for some chow and beverages.  I also found the Metallica Club booth which, of course, was an essential stop for anyone currently in the Metallica fanclub (or MetClub) or those of us who were not yet members.  At this point, I'd completely forgotten about the Club -- despite having an original order form pamphlet from early 1994 after sending a SASE to the address printed in the Live Shit tourbook!  Hell, I'd even completely filled out the order form and just forgot to send it in [that or Dad said "No" to the membership fee at the time - ED.]  As I stood at the booth inquiring about a Meet & Greet, I'll never forget how foolish I felt having not joined the Club ahead of time . . . as it turned out, on this particular tour, you'd send a postcard to the Club with dates of shows that you'd likely be able to attend and your membership card was essentially a backstage pass!  So, had I been a MetClubber then, I probably would have met some of the band guys that night!  Urrrrgggggh!!!  Needless to say, I grabbed a new form and promptly filled it out, again begging Mom and Dad for the membership fee.

Later on, I'll also never forget making small talk and chewing on a pretzel, while sipping a Pepsi, as we heard . . . music coming from inside the arena.  We looked at each other and collectively thought, "Nah, that's not the roadies jamming during it?"  In the all excitement of being at the show, I'd completely forgotten about the band simply walking out into the arena and jamming on new music to start the show!  We hastily tossed whatever was left of our snacks and literally ran around the entire concourse to get back to the entrance to the section where our seats were . . . only to realize that we ran around for no reason, as the entrance had been right behind us the entire time!

Hetfield's pre-show ritual (pic from
Running to our seats, I couldn't take my eyes off the stage as Metallica was right there, in front of me, jamming away on some new music before ripping into "So What!"  My eyes blinked like a kid on Christmas morning . . . I simply couldn't believe it.  That wasn't Metallica.  It COULDN'T have been.  They had to be imposters!  There was no way the dudes who adorned so many posters in my bedroom were now in the same space as me, starting a show!  Since I was free of parental discretion, I gleefully sung along to the profanity-laced lyrics of "So What!" and threw middle fingers in the air, as I'd seen so many metalheads do in previous Metallica live videos! 

It was ON.

Lars and Jason crushing Philly!  (pic from
As the band ripped into "Creeping Death" next, the pyrotechnics they'd become known for exploded on each of the four corners of the main stage!  I eagerly chanted along with the "Die! Die! Die! Die!" chorus during the song's bridge; seeing this classic staple was something I'd dreamt of for so very long! 

Next up, James announced that they had come here to kick our asses and asked if we wanted "heavy"...he then proclaimed "'Tallica gives you heavy, baby!" before launching into a riff so heavy that it's been known to shatter teeth.   Of course, in my nirvana-like state of euphoria, my mind completely and totally went blank as this next song started -- I literally could not recall the name of the song they were crushing skulls to at this time!  Of course, by the time the chorus rolled around, I knew it was "Sad But True" (or, as it had been dubbed by Tim and Ed:  "Sad But Honest" which, these days, is known as "Sad But Buck Honest").

Pic from
Throughout the rest of the show, there were many moments which were forever etched into my brain:  during "Ain't My Bitch", Jason broke a string and had to switch basses mid-song and James' guitar unplugged from his radio pack . . . when they started "Hero Of The Day", I couldn't believe that they were actually playing it, as it hadn't been played yet during the interviews and tour reports I'd read earlier . . . in place of either "Devil's Dance" or "Fuel", we got "Wasting My Hate", which James dedicated to C.O.C. . . . during the Bass And Guitar Doodle, I actually thought they were gonna play "My Friend of Misery" when Jason started the bass intro, but knew they weren't going to play "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" since Kirk doesn't start the song live . . . "Until It Sleeps" seemed pretty damn epic when it played . . . after "Fade To Black", I distinctly remember looking up into the waaay upper teers of the arena when James proclaimed how much we liked the song, all the way up into the stands . . . during the Kill/Ride Medley (Ride The Lightning / No Remorse / Hit The Lights / The Four Horsemen / Seek & Destroy / Fight Fire With Fire), I remember Kirk standing on the bridge over the tech pit on the main stage during the intro to "Hit The Lights" . . .

Jason and Kirk killing it.  (pic from
For the first encore, the band jammed a bit on "Damage, Inc.", a song I wished they'd actually played that night [for the record, it's one of my all-time favorites and I've only seen it played live ONCE, at the same venue on 10/20/04 - ED.].  From there, they launched into their classic cover of The Misfits' "Last Caress".  During the shortened version of "Master of Puppets", a staple in the early 90s, the show started to take a bit of a turn . . . one of the lighting trusses started to spark and malfunction.  A few roadies snuck on-stage to check it out and effectively deactivate it.  Throughout "Puppets" though, Kirk and Lars played off of each other by constantly looking up at it as it sparked and when a lone, sparking wire swung from above as well! 
Jason greeting the Kidz on the rail. (pic from

During "Enter Sandman", the much talked about "accident" occurred.  Maybe it's a testament the early life of the internet, but not a lot of people knew about the accident -- despite it taking place on every. single. stop on the tour!  Seriously, after some shows, fans were either writing to the band or calling their local radio stations either showing sympathy for the "injured" crew members or expressing outrage at the band for staging such a stunt and fooling them into believe what they saw had actually occurred!  Once again, the lighting truss started acting up and a roadie climbed a rope ladder to get it and work on it throughout the song.  Towards the end though, as soon as James does the "BOO!" line and more pyro goes off, all hell broke loose! 

The roadie who'd climbed up to the lighting rig via rope ladder, suddenly fell from his nest, only being saved by his climbing gear harness.  Then, the soundboard started sparking and exploded . . . setting one roadie on fire, who then ran around the stage before falling down and being covered with blankets to put out his flames!  Hetfield even took some sparks to the face during the melee!  The roadie who'd fallen from above laid out on the stage, as a team of paramedics with a stretcher ran over to him . . .

Tim and Ed stood there dumbfounded, not really sure what the hell was going on.  Each asking me if I knew about anything; I played dumb of course.  As the faux paramedics loaded the injured roadie onto a board, I was yelling variations of "kick him!  he'll get up!" and shouting out song requests such as "Breadfan"!

James down on the floor between the stages. (pic from
Before long, roadies set up small practice amps around one of Lars' drumkits.  Lighting was kept to a minimum as several globe electric lightbulbs were lowered from the rigs above the stage -- think of the type of lights you'd see in a garage while working under the hood of a car -- each with its own pullstring.  As they had done so at the start of the show, each band member appeared one by one, yanking the chain to an overhead light as they took the stage . . . except for Hetfield.  He stood there, pretending to yank on his chain, teasing the crowd.  At one point, he even flipped us off as we demanded he turn it on and get on with the final encores -- yup, one of my first Metallica show memories included giving The Mighty Het the finger! 

The band then proceeded to "warm up" with a loose jam on Slayer's "Raining Blood", testing out their new practice amps . . . and effectively re-creating their own Garage Days.  Hetfield was playing his ESP Flying V JH-1 (with red hot rod flames) that he used earlier on the Kill/Ride Medley and Kirk was using his ESP WaveCaster; the WaveCaster has a hollow plexiglass body filled with blue liquid which, as a result, makes its mechanics limited, as it was only used on this tour for the first for "Am I Evil?"   I've always thought of this portion of the show as some sort of statement that Metallica doesn't really need the "Big Rock Show" with all its crazy lights, pyro, and massive stages . . . they're just as powerful with a three amps, a couple microphones, and minimal stage lighting.  The sound at this point was shitty, tinny, and poorly mixed as though it was coming from a boombox or garage practice space.  As the band started the main riff to "Am I Evil?" (skipping its traditional intro), the sound suddenly became clearer as thought it'd been run through the arena's main PA.  Again, another classic cover that Metallica arguably made their own, so it was nice to see it at my first show!  The final encore was "Motorbreath" off of Kill 'Em All . . . another classic that, as of this writing, I've only seen a handful of times actually!

As soon as the band said their goodbyes and left the stage, my life had been changed.  We headed out to one of the merch booths where I promptly bought a Made In L.A. 15 Years longsleeve shirt (just like Hetfield had worn during the show from "Nothing Else Matters" through "Enter Sandman").  There were some other amazing shirts that I should have also picked up that night -- the King Nothing Lanes bowling shirt [I'd eventually get one a couple years later at a record store - ED.] and the Corrosion of Conformity longsleeve tour shirt -- just like Hetfield wore in several promo photos from earlier in the tour.  On our way back to the car, I picked up a $10 bootleg parking lot shirt that featured the Harvester of Sorrow Pushead artwork, with the current Load-era logo on the front along with tourdates and Pushead Zorlac artwork on the back.  Also among my merch grabs were the official tour program (featuring tons of Ross Halfin photographs from the Lollapalooza tour as well as the European leg of Poor Touring Me) and a now highly sought after Ninja Star necklace -- which I still have to this day.

The setlist was as follows:

"Bad Seed" jam
So What!
Creeping Death
Sad But True
Ain't My Bitch
Hero Of The Day
King Nothing
Wasting My Hate
Bass And Guitar Doodle
Nothing Else Matters
Until It Sleeps
For Whom The Bell Tolls
Wherever I May Roam
Fade To Black
Kill/Ride Medley
"Mission:  Impossible" jam
"Damage, Inc." jam
"Sweet Leaf" jam
Last Caress
Master Of Puppets (short ver.)
Enter Sandman
"Raining Blood" jam
Am I Evil?

Monday, February 6, 2017

Rings (2017)

In 2002, director Gore Verbinski introduced American audiences to a cursed videotape and thereby kick-started the wave of American Remakes of Japanese Horror [or J-Horror as The Kids call it - ED.].  Much like any trend in film -- especially Horror -- the imitations quickly paled in comparison to the original.  The Ring was a fine film starring Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, and Brian Cox, which scared up millions at the box office for DreamWorks, with something that was original to US audiences.  Sequels were inevitable and The Ring Two followed in 2005 . . . though the less said about that one, the better!

Twelve years later, Samara returns in F. Javier Gutierrez's Rings, a sort of sequel/reboot trying to breathe new life into a somewhat forgotten franchise.  The biggest question going into a film about a cursed video tape in the year 2017 is "Does the target audience even know or remember what a VHS tape is?"  This, of course, is quickly addressed by Johnny Galecki's Gabriel, a pot-smoking, deep-thinking professor at the local college, when he laughably refers to a VCR at a flea market as "vintage".  And all the hipsters looked up from their lattes and squealed.

The VCR that Gabriel purchases comes from the collection of a kid who once again falls victim to Samara's curse in the film's opening sequence aboard a turbulent, late night flight.  For what it's worth, this could have been a very cool opportunity to do something unique and interesting -- what with all the TV screens available on an enclosed flight (the TV monitors on the seatbacks, peoples' portable DVD players, smart phone screens, etc.) -- and the film tries to play up this idea a bit, with Samara appearing even on the cockpit monitors!  Though things quickly fall apart when American Horror Story's Lizzie Brocheré shows up proclaiming "I've seen the tape too!" and all logic goes out the window and the story becomes muddled for the sake of the film's shock opening. 

Of course, Gabriel investigates his new/old VCR and finds a tape, labeled "Watch Me!" jammed inside.  In an age where VHS collecting has definitely become a thing (I'm a proud collector and VHS Misfit), there's an inherent thrill to scoring tapes from thrift and GoodWill stores.  Sometimes picking up tapes of the unlabeled variety with the hope of finding some bizarre, comic gold in the form of someone's personal home movies, so it's not unexpected that Gabriel would go down the rabbit hole with this cassette. 

In a small town not too far (?) away, young Holt Anthony [to quote Mad Dog Tannen in Back To The Future Part III, "What kinda stoopid name is that?"- ED.] lays in bed with his too skinny girlfriend Julia (played by Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) on the eve of his leaving for his Freshman year of college.  Holt is played by Alex Roe, looking like a budget version of Dave Franco (himself a budget version of his older brother) with distractingly annoying Martin Scorsese-esque eyebrows [seriously...once you see them, you cannot unsee them...or the fact that they appear to be a uni-brow that was clumsily split not quite in the middle, with one straying a bit far over the borderline - ED.]  Roe plays Holt with all the "hero" factor of Rick in Friday the 13th Part III; the guy is as dumb as a box of rocks...but he's got six-pack abs for the girls in the audience.
Alex Roe, his eyebrows, and Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz
When their Skype session is interrupted by Holt's obnoxious college bros, Julia becomes concerned about her knight in skinny jeans.  He won't answer her texts or calls and then Julia receives a strange Skype call from a girl looking for Holt.  Since she apparently doesn't have a job or any responsibilities at home, she heads for Holt's college campus -- which must not be too far away -- and wanders across the grounds and into his dorm room [this college must have a helluva Campus Security team - ED.].  She finds his iPhone (which dies just after she reads some frantic texts from a girl named Skye), a strange key, and Holt's course list, with one particular class highlighted -- which is conveniently happening right at that exact she wanders over to whatever building that class is being held in and walks right into the middle of Professor Gabriel lecturing.

After Gabriel brushes off Julia's interrogation about why Holt isn't in class that day, she decides to follow the ironic weasel to an elevator, which he takes to the unauthorized 7th floor.  She soon stumbles into a workshop/party environment of what appears to be an entire class who have seen or are currently watching The Tape, with its imagery plastered all over the room via monitors and printouts of its various cryptic images.  It appears that, after watching The Tape himself, Gabriel did some research on Samara and the curse and has turned his findings into some sort of experiment about soul searching/soul jumping.  Whatever.  Anyway, for every one of his students that he selects for the experiment, he must eventually find them a "tail" who will then watch The Tape as well, thereby it's assumed, lifting the curse from the previous person . . . I think . . . are you following?  Since it's 2017, the experiment consists of making copies of the .MOV file of The Tape and passing it along to the next idiot succumbing to peer pressure. 
Those aren't eyebrows, they're forehead moustaches!
After actually seeing Samara come out of a flatscreen TV (yay modern times!) and claiming a hapless victim, Julia, of course, watches The Tape herself in a desperate attempt to save Holt.  Though, since she sees different imagery than what everyone else sees, this sets the rest of the plot in motion and calls for a roadtrip to mine the backstory of Samara and uncover the secrets of Rings

Rounding out the cast is Vincent D'Onofrio, who looks to be phoning it in so much that the moment he appeared on-screen, I exclaimed "Private Pyle!"  He does his best impression of James Earl Jones in The Sandlot here and chews up every scene he appears in; even a phoned-in D'Onofrio acts rings around his young co-stars! 
Apparently Gunnery Sgt. Hartman made good on his promise.
First things first:  like any Horror sequel, Rings falls victim to its need to explain Samara even more than what already was explained in the two previous films.  Hey screenwriters, sometimes it's okay NOT to have a reason "why" for some of these characters and films -- they're scarier that way.  The screenplay by David Loucka, Jacob Aaron Estes, and Akiva Goldsman piles on one ridiculous twist after another [a couple of which are fairly obvious right from the get-go when a particular character is introduced - ED.] in the hopes of wowing or "freaking out" its intended teenage audience.  In what was supposed to be a tense cat-and-mouse game in the final act, one is reminded of how it was done better in last year's Don't Breathe!  The film's poster even spells out one of the twists as well!  Forhelvede!

Somewhere around the midpoint, Gabriel discovers a pivotal plot point and immediately tries to call Holt to warn him and Julia, but the call goes straight to voicemail.  By the film's coda -- literally the very end of the picture -- Holt finally looks at his phone and sees that he has a voicemail.  What kind of teenage/college-age kid isn't looking at their phone constantly these days?  Granted, Holt is a pretty dumb buffoon for most of the film, but surely he'd glance at his phone at least once during the movie and see that he had a missed call and voicemail! 

It's unfortunate that principle photography on Rings started almost two years ago, as it aided in the screenwriters missing what could have been a very obvious angle for the story . . . all of these stupid Youtube challenges that The Kids do these days.  Instead of Gabriel's experiment and desperately trying to find "tails" for his students, the entire movie could have been over if they just uploaded the video to Youtube and labeled it as "The Samara Challenge"; dumbass teens would have been all over it and everyone would have been saved! 

Unfortunately, Rings is a bit of a mess that will likely make enough money at the box office to warrant yet another sequel -- theatrical or direct-to-DVD -- when it should hopefully be put out to pasture.  What started off as a great remake of a truly scary Japanese film has become so watered down as a franchise that it drowns in its own mediocrity.

No, please don't.  Save yourself.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tales From The Crypt: "...And All Through The House" 1972 vs 1989

If you're reading this blog, you know what I'm talking about when I say that the "...And All Through The House" segment of the classic Amicus anthology Tales From The Crypt flat out RULES!  In fact, it rules so much that Robert Zemeckis decided to remake it as the second episode of the classic television version of Tales From The Crypt.   So, since it's the holidays and all, I figured now is as good a time as any to look at both versions of this creepy classic tale.  Let's get into it shall we?

Of course, there will be spoilers here . . . so if you haven't seen either the 1972 film or the TV episode yet . . . turn away now!

Tales From The Crypt is a fine example of a British Horror anthology (of which, there was quite a boom in the early to mid-1970s, with Amicus releasing the best of the bunch).  It's got five separate stories, tied neatly together by an engaging wrap-around, all of which serve as the sort of morality tale the original source comics did in the 1950s

"I know he's got that insurance money on him somewhere!"
The first segment, of course, is "...And All Through The House" and it stars Joan Collins as a Joanne Clayton, a woman who kills her husband on Christmas Eve, with the hopes of finding a rich insurance settlement in her stocking!  As Joanne methodically arranges her victim so that it appears he had an accident, she fails to hear a radio announcement of an escaped mental patient dressed in a Santa Claus outfit in her area.  Of course, he comes straight to her house and she gets into a bit of a juggling act trying to arrange her late husband's corpse, barricade her home, and pull the St. Nick wool over the eyes of her daughter who is anxious to see the Jolly One and won't stay in bed.  Amicus mainstay Chloe Franks plays the daughter, Carol, who eventually lets "Santa" in at the story's climax. 

Joan Collins thinks it's Linda Evans outside her window!
Everything here is played for sheer terror and director Freddie Francis works hard to make the audience's blood freeze when the killer Santa first shows up.  Collins is exceptional at showing off her range of emotions with very little dialogue (she only really ever speaks to her daughter and once to her husband after she's killed him).  She goes from cold and calculated as she arranges the "accident" scene and cleans up the murder scene to fright once "Santa" reaches in through and open window.  All the while, she's trying to let on what happened to her husband even though Carol let's out a "goodnight Daddy" and her prying eyes are constantly on the verge of exposing Joanne's misdeed. 

Santa, wash your hands before taking a cookie please!
The gore is minimal here, though, as it was 1972.  However, the little bit of red stuff that we do see is effective and works well within the context of a "comic book film".  When Joanne first clobbers her husband over the head with the fireplace poker, there's a squirt of very pink blood on the newspaper he's reading.  There's also a messy -- again, very pink -- stain on the white shag carpet that the body collapses onto.  Honestly, it looks as though Collins spilled some pink nail polish onto her groovy carpet . . . but the color is so splashy that looks right at home in the context of a 1970s comic book!  Joanne also collects some of the spilled blood into a champagne glass to effectively dress the scene of the "accident" once she throws her husband's body down the basement stairs.  Although, as she cleans up her tools later on, the "blood" comes off a little too easily with some soap and water. 

All in all, this original version of "...And All Through The House" is the perfect kick-off to a great film where every story is a corker!  In fact, it also may very well be the first (?) [or at least first "modern" - ED.] "Killer Santa" film!  Everything is played pretty straight, though there is an underlying sense of dark humor in the segment's penultimate twist as young Carol finally lets "Santa" into the house with the same sort of naïve and giddy smile any child would have at seeing Saint Nick at their house! 

True be told, the television remake of "...And All Through The House" was actually the first Tales From The Crypt episode that I ever saw -- at least part of it!  I vividly remember my dad being excited about the premiere of Tales From The Crypt, recalling the old comics and there was even Mom chiming in about seeing the 1972 film back in the day as well!  Of course, the first episode was "The Man Who Was Death" with William Sadler taking the law into his own hands after he's laid off as the city jail's executioner; of course, being a good dad and shielding my then 6yr old eyes, my Daddy-O quickly changed the channel at the first sight of female nudity!  We, of course, came back to HBO a short time later, picking up with the "...And All Through The House" episode which, again, I recall Dad putting his foot down and changing it quickly deeming it to be "too scary" for my young eyes!

Alas, series show-runner Robert Zemeckis directed "...And All Through The House", which effectively retells the classic story as seen in the original 1972 film [and Vault of Horror #35 - ED.] though, as with most remakes, things are expanded a bit. 

Drinking too much can cause a splitting headache.
Zemeckis' then wife, the late Mary Ellen Trainor (Dr. Stephanie Woods in the Lethal Weapon films), stars as the wife, killing her second husband (played by the always awesome Marshall Bell), once again, for his insurance money.  Following the same set-up, there's an upstairs daughter who is supposed to be sleeping, whom the wife desperately tries to hide the evidence of the murder from.  Larry Drake also stars as the decidedly more gruesome Jolly Old homicidal maniac, caked with blood and gore in his beared and suit!  There are some subtle changes to the story here as well -- the wife tries to dispose of the body via an outside well, the story is expanded with a lot more action between the wife and "Santa" as he tries methodically tries to get into the house. 

What? No more Lethal Weapon movies?!
Zemeckis plays up the dark humor of the original story, really ramping up an almost cartoonish vibe as "Santa" becomes like Wile E. Coyote, always getting bonked on the head and mugging for the camera before falling out of frame, unconscious.  It's also worth noting that Marshall Bell is great at playing a stiff; he's always displaying a goofy death face -- even with a plastic bag on his head -- and expertly plays dead weight as Trainor drags him out of the house, through the snow and decides just how to dispose of him.  Another comedic moment comes when, after the "Santa" has first shown up, the wife decides to make it look like her husband was axed to death by the killer!  Even though she herself is a cold-blood killer, she still cannot bare to smash an axe into her late husband's head -- his dumb expression peering back her probably doesn't help!  So, she closes her eyes and blindly swings, completely missing him! 

Trainor herself is quite effective as well, as she again displays a range of emotions; going from cold-blooded murderer to a mom whose trying to hide her misdeed to a frightened mom trying to protect herself and her daughter.  Her blood-curdling screams at the story's close as, once again, "Santa" finds his way into the house, are pretty chilling too, if not a bit over the top.

'Dem cookies ya got there are bad for my teeth!
Drake really steals the show here though, as the homicidal maniac.  At the time, he was known for back to back Emmy wins as mentally-handicapped Benny on L.A. Law (his only previous foray into Horror as the similarly challenged Bubba Ritter in the CBS TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow some eight years earlier).  Drake is effectively menacing -- again, that nasty shit in his beard probably helps sell it -- without saying a single word until the very end when he utters a "Naughty...or nice?"  His comedic chops are also on display as he gets manhandled and beaten up like a Looney Tunes character, displaying a stunned expression and muttering something that sounds like a Gremlin, just short of seeing stars and tiny, cartoon birds circling his head. 

Ultimately, this episode perfectly sets the tone that the rest of the series would follow -- horror morality tales, soaked in dark humor.  It perfectly updates the (then) modern sensibilities of the story and expands a little to pad out the running time for a full episode.  All in all, not a bad piece!   

If you were to hold a gun to my head and ask me to choose which version of "...And All Through The House" was better, I'd probably go with 1972 because Joan Collins.  Although, my love for that particular telling may be mostly due to the nostalgia I feel for the first time I saw Tales From The Crypt from front to back; the same could be said for the Zemeckis version as well, with a similar nostalgia for the television series!  If you haven't seen either of them, do yourself a favor and make it happen -- Tales From The Crypt is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory in its original, uncut form, paired in an awesome double feature with its 1973 sequel The Vault of Horror (presented in two different versions!) and, of course, HBO's awesome Tales From The Crypt series is available via Complete Season sets or multi-packs depending on your needs (you wants Season 1, of course, for "...And All Through The House").

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Black Christmas (1974)

Few horror films are as synonymous with the seasons they depict -- My Bloody Valentine (Valentine's Day), Halloween (duh), Jaws (summer) -- as Bob Clark's 1974 shocker Black Christmas.  It's an interesting little film that, along with Peeping Tom and Psycho laid the template for what we know as the modern Slasher film [or, at least the 70s and 80s version - ED].  Its got a fairly simple premise:  a sorority house is being stalked by an obscene phone-caller and, soon, the girls start turning up dead...and there's a neat twist, too.  Clark throws in enough twists and turns to make the story interesting and, most importantly, frightening.

There's a certain sense of nostalgia I always get when I sit down and watch Black Christmas and, oddly enough, it has to do with the awesome 70s Christmas lights on display throughout the film.  Anytime these lights -- on the house outside or on the tree inside -- are on-screen, Reg Morris' cinematography has a soft focus, which creates a strange halo on those lights.  Somewhere in my home video library is a Christmas tape from when I was an infant, so we're talking probably '83.  In that clip, my family is at my aunt and uncle's house and, sure enough, their tree and its lights look exactly like what is seen in Black Christmas -- strange halos and all!  Maybe it's just the product of early 80s home video recording equipment, but dammit, it helps to fully immerse me in the world that Clark and writer Roy Moore create!

Another unique aspect of Black Christmas is that the audience never fully sees the killer (spoiler?), instead only seeing shadow-drenched shots of him with maybe an eye or a mouth exposed.  When we're not even seeing the killer, we ARE the killer as Morris' camera allows us to see through his eyes...the blackest eyes...wait, that's a reference for a little bit later on.  But yeah, along with Peeping Tom, this film is one of the earliest examples of placing the audience into the killer's POV!  It's an unnerving effect that, literally from the start of the film, has us all wondering "What the hell is going on here?"
Perhaps most bizarre of all the tidbits and background for Black Christmas is that director Bob Clark is also responsible for that other famous Christmas movie . . . A Christmas Story.  For my money, it just proves how diverse he was as an auteur in that he can terrorize Christmas audiences with one film and yet also bring so much joy with the other!  This film came early in Clark's career and still showed echoes of his earlier works like Dead of Night (aka: Deathdream) and Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, but there were hints of where he would eventually go with some of the more comedic elements that were present in Porky's and A Christmas Story; the "fellatio" scene in the police station is straight out of Porky's with Nash's naivety and the hilarious reactions from Lt. Fuller and the laughing detective!  The scene even features Coach Warren from Porky's himself, Doug McGrath!

Doug McGrath as the clueless Nash

John Saxon as Lt. Fuller
As the girls being terrorized by the film's obscene caller, Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder really standout.  Hussey plays Jess with an air of concern and general fright over the calls, while Kidder's Barb borders on the obnoxious with her sarcastic and standoffish reactions to the threats.  Of course, Barb's archetype would later be seen again and again in the genre throughout the 80s and 90s as characters would continue to talk shit to their tormentors.  SCTV's Andrea Martin is also a standout -- although much more subdued than what audiences familiar with her comedic work might expect -- as Phyllis (or Phyl as Jess repeatedly refers to her).  Phyllis is played as sort of the mediator between Jess' panic and Barb's alcohol-induced insults (to the caller and her fellow house sisters), though she herself is also visibly shaken by the events unfolding.

If only Barb had a super man to protect her...

This ain't no party line, ya hoser!

Lynne Griffin as Claire and Andrea Martin as Phyl
Perhaps serving as the film's sort of McGuffin, there's also Lynne Griffin as Claire, who turns up missing in the first reel and sets the plot into motion.  For the sake of spoilers [shame on you for reading this if you haven't already seen the film! - ED], Claire is the first victim and Griffin spends the majority of the film tucked away in the attic, sitting in a rocking chair with a plastic bag over her head.  She plays dead incredibly well actually!  As Claire's worried father Mr. Harrison, James Edmund shows up looking like a dead ringer for Frank Oz.  Edmund's performance perfectly conveys the feelings and emotions that a parent must go through when they fear something has happened to their child.  In fact, Mr. Harrison is probably the film's most tragic character; he comes into the world of the college campus in search of his daughter, immediately getting pelted by a snowball, then is introduced to the free-thinking sorority life, becomes a victim of the obscene phone-calls by default of being in the house as they happen, joins a search party for another missing girl in the area (he's ultimately disappointed when it's not Claire) and then never actually receives the closure of knowing what exactly happened to his beautiful daughter . . . while she's literally right over his head for most of the picture!  It's tragic stuff, folks!

Mr. Harrison doesn't have time for Mrs. Mac's shit!
While some of the lines that Kidder delivers as Barb could be comic relief, most of them play as a bit dated, but then there's Mrs. Mac (played by Marian Waldman of Deranged fame) who, honestly, reminds me of my Gram with her vulgar dialogue!  Mrs. Mac is another great character in Black Christmas, as she's blissfully unaware of what's happening around her (she believes that Claire went off with her boyfriend for the weekend) and is more interesting in tying one on and finding her dear cat Claude. 

On the male side, there's Art Hindle (of The Brood and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Claire's hockey playing -- they are in Canada after all -- boyfriend Chris.  Hindle is convincing as a hero type who immediately sets off to the police station when he finds out Claire is missing.  Although, Chris doesn't become the sort of "last survivor hero" type, as this trope hadn't quite been invented yet.  He's likable though.  Also along for the ride is brooding, struggling pianist Peter (2001's Keir Dullea), who is Jess' boyfriend.  Dullea plays Peter with the sort of short fuse and unpredictably possessive nature that has itself become a trope recycled again and again to show a possessive asshole lover.  But it works here, as Peter quickly breaks down when Jess won't talk to him about their baby she's carrying and her decision to get an abortion -- again, this is pretty heavy and timely stuff for 1974! 

Peter just wants to TALK Jess!
If there is a "hero" in the traditional sense though, it's definitely John Saxon as Lt. Ken Fuller (get your Mystery Science Theater 3000 jokes out of the way now because "Hey! Wasn't John Saxon in this movie?").  Saxon is fine as Fuller, a cop who's just trying to figure out what the hell is going on!  When a second girl (after Claire is first reported missing) turns up MIA, Fuller heads a massive search party and Saxon is quite believable and comforting in the search.  Fuller is ultimately cut from the same archetype cloth that Saxon would later revisit ten years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street as Lt. Donald Thompson.

Going back to the film's Prowler (some call him "Billy" as it's a name that he repeatedly says during some of his calls), the film really keeps the audience guessing as to his true identity!  At times both Chris and Peter may as well be in a police lineup, although the former quickly vindicates himself of any potential guilt.  As many times as I've seen the film, I'm not really sure WHO the Prowler is . . . though most signs point to an unhinged Peter finally cracking and offing Jess' friends as he terrorizes her throughout the picture.

As an aside, unfortunately (or fortunately, if you're into this sort of thing), the Prowler and "Billy" are further explored in Glen Morgan's 2006 remake (affectionately known as Black X-Mas . . . hey, keep Christ in our Christmas horror movies dammit!), fleshing out some sort of backstory based on "Billy" and "Agnes" (another name the caller repeatedly spews).  On one level, sure it's kinda cool to dig into it and effectively explain what was only implied in the original film . . . but, as is all too often with similar backstory-mining remakes, the question stands:  did what made the original so effective really need to be fleshed out and presented on a silver platter?  Andrea Martin returns as Ms. Mac, which is a cute enough nod to the original, as things are played campy and millennial Slasher, emphasizing gory set pieces over the restrained suspense of the first film.  Bob Clark even served as an Executive Producer, so the remake at least had his seal of approval.  Unfortunately, this remake would be Clark's last project before his tragic death (along with his son!) the following April. 

Andrea Martin and Lacey Chabert in Black Christmas (2006)
Today, with the advent of caller-ID, Black Christmas would probably fail to catch on with a younger audience.  However, its basic premise is still just as powerful as it must have been in 1974; I still say its main twist and final reveal as the camera slowly dollies away from the house is positively skin-crawlingly creepy and depressing!  

Hello?  Hello?!  Hell-ooooooo?
So, if you haven't seen Black Christmas yet, now is the perfect time to snuggle up under a warm blanket and give it a spin.  If you're a longtime fan, check it out again via Scream Factory's just released 2-disc Collector's Edition Blu-ray loaded with new bonus features and even two versions of the film!