One thing that has always fascinated me is the thing that is neither one thing or the other; that is, any piece of art that defies easy classification into a particular genre, style, or movement. The hybrids, the evolutionary links, the crossovers – these chimeras are some of the most fascinating experiences the art and entertainment world can offer us. They are hard to replicate and frequently stand alone near a crowded field of genre mainstays and their copycats. A few people play classical music and some people play jazz and lots of people play rock, but nobody else sounds like Zappa… if you see my meaning.
In the world of the horror movie, there are lots of sub-genres and approaches, and they are easily differentiated by their vocabularies. You’d never confuse a polished psychological ghost story for a gore/splatter movie; “The Others” and “Dead Alive” is a double bill that not a lot of people are pining for (though more should be). Taking a larger view, there is a general feeling that horror cinema was mostly one thing before the 60s, and then it was mostly something else. Old horror movies were largely informed by German expressionism (the black-and-white, the stark shadows, the set construction), were generally demure in the area of violence and bloodshed, and featured melodramatic, theatrical acting.* Modern horror movies discarded the expressionism and brought in the blood, limbs, and flying organs – and if the acting wasn’t exactly realistic, at least it pretended to naturalism. (There’s only so much you can do on a tiny and fixed budget, after all.)
So for someone like me who obsesses over the whole history of horror, the point of evolution – the point where stilted, mannered politeness gave way to a more naturalistic (but less psychologically resonant) bloodbath – is of great interest. And the few horror movies from that time that are neither one thing or the other have an unusual timelessness, a never-aging and harrowing quality that elevates them above many other great movies made before and since.
The classic example of this for me will always be “Night of the Living Dead.” Here we have a late-60s movie that at first glance looks like a relic of the 50s, with its chilly black-and-white and rather (low-grade) theatrical acting in the opening scenes. Of course, the B&W was a result of budget limitations, and the acting was the result of a very small-time cast with roots in local theater (or no roots at all – some actors in the production were crew members, friends of Romero, or homeless people pressed into service in exchange for a bottle of liquor or a run at Judith O’Dea**). But these factors give the opening of “Night of the Living Dead” the feeling of an even older movie from a quainter time. And when the first zombie comes along and turns out to be a guy with pasty makeup and his shirt untucked, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was not going to be a significantly more violent or modern movie than any of the Universal classics.
You’d be wrong, though. In short order Duane Jones enters the picture, his laconic and prominent (but unremarked-upon) blackness bringing a distinctly modern feel to the proceedings. And that’s before he beats a zombie’s head in with a crowbar. The movie then goes on to a mutilated corpse in close-up with dripping blood, and zombies in the yard munching on guts and severed hands, and the viewer realizes that the opening scenes established a very false sense of security. By the time a zombiefied little girl is trowelling her moaning and screaming mother to death in the basement near the end of the movie, we know that all bets are off. This movie is not safe. This is not the 50s any more. This movie wants to hurt you. “Night of the Living Dead” works as the single best reduction of what happened to horror movies from 1950 to 1970.
Also worth considering is “Eyes Without a Face,” the extraordinarily creepy 1962 French movie about a surgeon and his ongoing project to restore the beauty of his mutilated daughter. Like Romero’s movie, “Eyes Without a Face” suckers you in with cool black-and-white (more elegant and cinematic, in fact, than “Night of the Living Dead”‘s low-budget shenanigans) and an opening sequence that seems to be almost played for laughs. The music is kind of creepy and silly at once, like Bernard Herrmann’s theme for “Psycho” but pushed a few notches more to the side of comedy. The action is right out of a classic horror movie – a servant-type disposes of a body, neatly and without undue fuss, its origins unknown. In an older movie this might have been Igor; here it is the surgeon’s wife (characterized in the movie as more of a housemaid). The body is not a gory makeup effect but mostly covered – we only see legs to clue us in that this human-sized wad she’s pushing into the river is not just trash that was over the weekly pick-up limit. The acting is a bit more professional and tame than the amateur histrionics of the “Night” actors, but it still fits in an older mold, inherited from the stage and silent cinema.
And like “Night,” “Eyes With a Face” goes on to sucker-punch you. It takes a little longer though. First it cuddles you in a blanket of chilling creepiness – mainly through images of the surgeon’s daughter in a featureless mask, drifting through the house like a sad spectre trapped between the world of the living and the dead. Which of course is what she is, or at least how she feels. To bring his sad spectre back to life, papa surgeon has to kill. But he doesn’t kill right away. First he abducts, drugs, and ties down the unlucky girls who are young and beautiful enough to serve as face-farms for his daughter. Then, in an excruciating, oh-my-god-they-really-did-this-in-1962??? scene, he gets out the scalpel and cuts their faces off. And if a girl happens to wake up during surgery and see the masked girl watching as her own face is removed – well, so much the more horrifying. Yes, “Eyes Without a Face” proves for the patient viewer to be in some respects a very modern and very gross movie. It doesn’t have a black protagonist, but it does pre-date the somewhat more forward-thinking Romero movie by half a decade.+ In the end, “Night” mainly trumps the modernism of “Eyes” in the way it ends: while both endings are dark and pessimistic, “Night” encourages a very nihilistic interpretation of its plot, while “Eyes” turns out to be a straight-forward morality tale with some suitably poetic justice for the not-so-good doctor.
* Of course some of these things can be said of all movies before the 1960s.
** This is not true.
+ They share a similarly backward view of the societal role of woman, however: in “Eyes Without a Face” the women are servants, helpless face-donors, or mute face-recipients; in “Night of the Living Dead” they spend most of the movie hysterically muttering and sometimes passed out on a couch, or in the basement tending to a sick child while their pitbull husband is upstairs arguing with the black guy about the best way not to get chewed on. Romero would make up for this with central female roles in his later “Dead” movies; I’m not familiar enough with the other work of Georges Franju to make the call on him, but he did have an interest in animal welfare, at least.