Retro Daddy

The Past Isn't Over - It Isn't Even Past
DECEMBER 14, 2008 6:28PM

I Talked with a Zombie

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I've been reading more books than seeing movies out at the theater lately. I've also been watching old VHS tapes of movies from the 1980s, like John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China and Eddie and the Cruisers.


These are the days when Retro Mama wishes I would show the taste and refinement I displayed when we met in Berlin, and we saw movies like Eraserhead and Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky's, not Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's). Both of those movies were frightening, but only Eraserhead was frightening in a good way. Solaris was just boring.


Decades later I still can't get the Lady in the Radiator out of my head.


lady in the radiator

The Lady in the Radiator


What to do this weekend? Be disappointed by the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still? I'll save that letdown for a few months and the DVD. Right now I agree with what Jeffrey Sconce (author of the book, Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics) said in the latest issue of the magazine Cineaste:


“. . . I do sometimes worry the day will come when I'll have the sick realization that I've never had access to so many movies in my life, and yet cared so little about any of them.”


The best thing for me to do when I experience this boredom (or ennui, if I've seen a French film recently) is to sit with a stack of trashy books and read until my eyes bulge out and I look like the creature in a Roger Corman drive-in monster pic from the 1960s.


weaver it came from horrorwood


And speaking of Roger Corman, the book publisher McFarland has a series of books of interviews by Tom Weaver with B-movie filmmakers and actors from the 1950s through the 1970s. Weaver publishes most of his interviews first in magazines like Filmfax, Video Watchdog, Fangoria, and Films of the Golden Age. But there's an advantage to reading them collected in book form.


You get conflicting stories about how movies like Jungle Woman with Acquanetta and The Day of the Triffids with Janette Scott were made. People call each other liars, settle old scores, badmouth old lovers. A lot of it reminds you of the old joke about academic feuds—the emotions run so high because the stakes are so trivial.


Tom Weaver's latest book is  I Talked with a Zombie: Interviews With 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television.


weaver i talked with a zombie


A lot of the interviews Weaver gets are with writers and directors who take their low- and mid-budget movies seriously. You read about films that have become low-budget classics, like The Return of Dracula, a mixture of Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt with the new (for 1958) blood-ridden style of vampire movie imported from Hammer Films in Britain. It's bad enough in Shadow of a Doubt, when “Uncle Charlie” (played by Joseph Cotten) comes home to small-town America to entrance his newly grown up niece while continuing his murder spree. But what if “Uncle Charlie” were a postwar refugee from Europe (played by respected actor Francis Lederer) who was literally after the blood of a young American woman who is bored with her hot-rod driving boy friend, and who is tempted by the eternity of experience the vampire offers her?


weaver earth vs


Earth vs. the Sci-Fi Filmmakers includes an interview with actress Mary Mitchell, who made Panic in the Year Zero!, directed by and starring Ray Milland in 1962. American International Pictures (the people who produced the Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule movies I loved as a kid) sold this movie as another of their teen exploitation pictures, like I Was a Teenage Caveman, with Robert Vaughn or I Was a Teenage Werewolf, which launched the career of Michael Landon, who had the sense not to make any more movies for AIP.


But Ray Milland and most of the other actors and makers of Panic in the Year Zero! took it very seriously as a nuclear-war scare picture. What didn't get much attention when the movie first came out was the sexual politics. The teenage daughter of the family, played by Mary Mitchell, is raped by a pack of teenage boys after the atomic bombs fall and civilization, as is usual in these films, collapses. She's avenged by her father and brother, but in the movie the crime seems to have been committed against the males of the family.


You can find (or invent) subtext in the story for yourself by watching it, but you have to read Mary Mitchell's recollection of the filming to learn what she thought about the actors playing the rapists: “They were just punks. . . .I don't know if they were actors, or if they were actors and punks. . . . it was like they dug it.”


Somebody making Panic in the Year Zero! wanted to show how a woman might be treated by formerly “civilized” men after a nuclear war, but no one made sure the real-life actress playing her was safe while making the movie.


I'm going to go read now. I have a book about Val Lewton's “homefront” films made during World War II and it will give me an excuse to see Curse of the Cat People again.



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Great selections, RetroDaddy. I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one to have been bored by Solaris. And I say this as someone who's read everything Stanislaw Lem, author of the novel Solaris, wrote after 1957 (with the exception of a few pieces never translated into English).
I love a good and cheesy horror movie! I just searched for "The Return of Dracula" on, but the only thing that comes up on the search is "Return of the Vampire", from 1943 starring Legosi as the vampire "Tesla", unearthed during the WWII blitz.

You view those Ray Milland films from the '60's, and you realize how difficult it is for the vast majority of great actors to cope with the process of aging in an industry that values youth above all else.
Rob - Thanks. I liked Lem too.

Procopius - Have you seen the M-G-M video series "Midnite Movies"? They pair up similar B-movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini for around $10 per DVD. Amazon has The Return of Dracula on a double bill with The Vampire (also written by Pat Fielder, it's a modern--1950s--American version of the Jekyll/Hyde story, not as good as The Return of Dracula but watchable). And you're right, movies have always been aimed at youth. (I didn't mind that when I was younger.)
Retro, I haven't seen those, but my b-day comes 6 weeks after Christmas, so they might be on the list then (too late for the Christmas list).
Procopius - As Monsieur Chariot used to say, "Quelle coincidence!" My Retro Day is one day after yours.