May 2001

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead The first film in Romeros Zombie trilogy, and still a classic. Night of the Living Dead builds a tense atmosphere before the opening credits have finished rolling and manages to keep the pressure on right through to the end of the film.

Shot in black and white and taking place in the course of a single night, the film brings together a small group of diverse characters, allows them to barricade themselves in a farmhouse and then centres on the frayed nerves and growing tensions which develop between them as a horde of zombies amasses outside.

And, for a plot synopsis, the above paragraph pretty much sums up the film, yet totally fails to convey how influential Night of the Living Dead was and how refreshing this film still is. It has spawned countless imitations in several sub-genres - the vast majority of which fail to come close to the power of the original film.

On one hand, Night of the Living Dead is a zombie movie. In this instance, the low budget works in the films favour (as often seems to be the case). There is not a great deal of explicit gore in Night of the Living Dead… what is disturbing is what is implied. For instance, the zombies tearing at and munching on flesh (zombie/cannibal movies is another sub-genre spawned by Night of the Living Dead) looks faintly silly, but when they reach into the burnt out truck and tear something off… your imagination can run free and your stomach starts doing somersaults.

Then again, we have the kids in a shack movie. Granted, the characters arent kids but we do have a group of people trapped in an isolated building which is a premise that has since been done to death while killing off countless none-too-bright teenagers. What really differentiates Night of the Living Dead here is that the characters all behave in a consistent manner - their behaviour is in keeping with their established personalities. They have a TV and a radio and are using these to try to establish what the government is advising. Where they put themselves in danger, they are following advice, which - if not entirely applicable - makes some sort of sense.

The use of TV and radio news to provide background is a bit hit-and-miss and the TV footage is the only real weakness in the film. On one hand it is an effective and reasonably realistic way of providing background information and driving the plot - this is a national emergency and the characters are looking to official sources for advice - but the dialogue is corny beyond belief. And with the supposed TV bulletins, the camera has a tendency to film the interviewer rather than the interviewee not good.

Night of the Living Dead is also notable for being the first film to feature a black character in a lead role while not making an issue of race. Even today, this is unbelievably refreshing. Given the tensions arising in the farmhouse, it would have been so easy to have white guy resort to racist abuse - and not out of character for him either. But this isnt a film about race and the cheap cop-out is avoided.

Night of the Living Dead is a classic movie that has been imitated far too many times yet rarely bettered. It spawned countless imitators and its influence can still be seen in the vast majority of horror films today. Any self-respecting movie buff should see this film at least once.

4 Dogs Playing Poker

4 Dogs Playing Poker Now heres an interesting premise… four friends find themselves on the wrong side of a crooked art dealer and need to get hold of $1 million in order to avoid finding themselves feeding fish. Their solution is to take out life insurance on each other and then to randomly select one to be a killer and one to be a victim so that three of them survive.

The four are brought together by Felix (Tim Curry) who has a plan to steal a statuette from Argentine art collector, Carlo (George Lazenby, no less) and sell it to crooked art dealer, Mr Ellington (Forest Whitaker). The film starts with the heist in progress - at the wedding of the Carlos daughter. This is pretty well done, with the characters displaying just the right mix of amateurism and luck to make it believable that no only could they get away with the theft, but they could also lose the statuette afterwards.

Escapes are made, the statuette is shipped and our naïve art thieves meet up with Felix at his bar to celebrate. And its at this point that things start to go wrong.

While the celebration is in full swing, in walks Mr Ellington along with his two thugs, one of who shoots Felix in the leg. Mr Ellington wants to know where the statuette is. Not satisfied with hearing that everything is going to plan, he starts laying on the threats and tells the gang that if they cant sell him the statuette, they are going to have to find the aforementioned compensation or hell be coming after them.

So weve established that the buyer of this statuette is a no-nonsense kind of villain who is keen to get hold of it. But we are given no indication as to why it is so urgent. And to walk in and start making threats when everything is under control smacks of panic. I can sit here and speculate all night as to why he is panicking in this manner, but I suspect that the truth is simply that the scriptwriters wanted to get the friends into debt, under threat and unable to go to the police - and they couldnt come up with anything less contrived than this.

Things go from bad to worse. Felix admits to having screwed up his last job and that he has dragged the red-hand gang into something much more dangerous than hed originally let on. Then he gets killed - horribly. The four friends try to confirm that the statuette actually is on the ship… And then the panic sets in and our four rocket scientists spend the night in a bar, over drinks, trying to figure out a way of extricating themselves from this mess. What they come up with is the bizarre life insurance circle of death scheme which will force one of them to murder one other in order to raise the million dollar compensation Mr Ellington has demanded.

Up to now, the film has been going very slowly. I know from reading the back of the video box that we get to this point but its taken half the film to do so.

However, the waiting is over and the scheme is set in motion…

There are a lot of holes here. For a start, these four friends seem to rule out other options a bit too quckly and settle on the solution that says one of us must be a sacrifice for the other three a bit too easily. And the life insurance idea raises a number of questions that go unanswered. They backdate the policies to avoid suspicion - one of their number conveniently works in an insurance office - but surely any insurance company is going to spot a fraud as simplistic as this. And wont someone query why people are taking out life insurance on their friends?

They even set a time to commit the murder before the boat is due to arrive. Even if they are sure that the statuette has gone missing, I cant believe that - even if I was able to suspend my disbelief with regards to the rest of the plot holes - anyone would want to exhaust all other options before deciding to pull he trigger.

And then there are the characters. On the video case, Four Dogs… compares itself to Shallow Grave and The Usual Suspects. In both these films, the characters were complex, realistic and believable. In Four Dogs… the characters are one-dimensional, erratic and tend towards stereotypes. Not only did I find them hard to believe in, but also impossible to care about.

This is a shame because, If done right, this could have been a tense and original thriller. Unfortunately the contrivances and the weak characters are all a little too much and the film failed to get me onto the edge of my seat.

It has quite a nice twist at the end, though.