Monday, June 20, 2022

Sheer Heresy: On watching the colourized version of Night of the Living Dead (or "colorized," for the Americans out there)

My wife, Erika, has problems with black and white movies (henceforth, B&W, which suddenly looks like it is the middle term between A&W and C&W... but nevermind...). 

I love B&W, myself - especially on a well-restored print of a beautifully shot film. But I acknowledge there are challenges for viewers unaccustomed to the form. As many of the B&W movies I want to show her - most vintage films noir, for instance - also are shot, edited, acted and written very differently from contemporary films, the absence of colour is not often the only thing one must get "used to," but even on its own, it requires a little more mental effort, maybe, to read a B&W film than a colour film (I'm really, really going to try to write this without seeming like a snob). You have to be willing/ able to extend yourself out to it, adopt a slightly different attitude as a viewer, accept a higher level of artifice, and look for pleasure in slightly different places (composition, not colour, for instance); this requires a slightly more critical relationship to the film or to cinema in general, maybe; I don't think people are born naturally with an appreciation of B&W film, these days, but rather have to work a bit to develop a taste for it. And if what you're coming for is emotional engagement in a story, that extra work can seem a needless barrier. Maybe it can be likened to trying to read a play or novel that's written in archaic or slightly foreign English; whether it's Shakespeare or Irvine Welsh, unless you can make that slight foreignness part of the pleasure, unless you can take that step back, take an interest in the difference, and find pleasure in the form itself, rather than the story being told, it's probably not going to be your cuppa. And even if you do access the somewhat more challenging pleasures of such writing, you're probably not going to stay awake late into the night so you can read one more chapter, as you might with a contemporary bestseller that has grabbed you.... I mean, I've enjoyed Shakespeare and Welsh, both, but not so as to have kept me up past my bedtime...

...And if you're only watching a film in the first place because your cinephile spouse is insisting ("It's an absolute classic, you'll love it, I promise!"), there might be good reasons to not want to make that extra effort (Erika knows that the more she indulges me on this front, the more I'll play her classic cinema, which doesn't really lead her anywhere she wants to go). Even when Erika does indulge me, no matter how gamely I can see her trying, if it's B&W, she almost always falls asleep during the film - especially if it's a classic. The few B&W films she's made it through without snoozing are almost always contemporary films, like Dead Man, that have been made in B&W for artistic purposes. Even films as powerful as Nick Ray's In a Lonely Place have left her non-plussed, unable to engage (she came out of a screening of that having cared about nothing more than how weird Gloria Grahame's lips looked. The actress had had, it seems, a lifelong problem with her own lips, wanting them to look fuller, and tried various methods to produce this effect, eventually resorting to plastic surgeries that left her upper lip almost immobile. I give Erika full credit for noticing this detail - one I had no awareness of, that she recognized even though - unlike me - she'd never seen a Grahame movie before. But it is still a kind of testament to just how little the film had moved her, that that's the main thing she came away with).

This has posed a problem, in particular, when it comes to the original George A. Romero Night of the Living Dead [henceforth NOTLD]. Y'see, Erika has become (somewhat unexpectedly) quite a fan of zombie cinema. In particular, she's even more enthusiastic for The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead than I am; I probably would have bailed on both series by now, but she rather loves them, and we're presently on hiatus mid-way through our second run through The Walking Dead, taking a bit of a break before we have to watch Glen get killed again (I mean, that's really an upsetting moment). Obviously at some point, she needed to see the Romero original, the film that started the whole contemporary zombie phenomenon. But I've been stalling in showing it to her, because...

...well, it's always been a film I've struggled with myself, to be honest. I've seen it at least five times, but:

a) I've only ever seen kinda-crap looking public domain DVDs of it. One of those was projected by Jonny Bones at a Horrorshow in Maple Ridge, but seeing it on the big screen only underscored the flaws of whatever crap-looking DVD Jonny was using at that time, My own copies - I've had several, since it pops up on tons of public domain anthologies - were no better. At some point I figured out with the help of friends that the Elite Entertainment "Millenium Edition" of the film looks pretty good, which is what has been filling the space on my shelf for a few years now, but in fact, I haven't watched that version of it since I got it, since the five crap-looking versions of it that I'd seen kind of still lingered in memory, tainting the experience.  

b) ...and when I think of the pleasures of B&W, I don't think of NOTLD. Unlike my favourite films noir, it does not have that element of carefully-crafted compositions and gorgeous, expressionistic  cityscapes, for example. Rather - kinda like Cassavetes' Faces, which came out in the same year - it looks rough, savage, raw, driven beyond "craft" into something else, which surely made it somewhat hard-to-watch for viewers at the time, given what most moviegoers were used to in 1968. Now, that's not a problem for me, since "carefully-crafted compositions" were NOT the point of either the Cassavetes or the Romero. The energy and the overall punch-in-the-gut are the point - and you'll see plenty of filmmakers adopting some of these films' roughness in subsequent decades - but the B&W photography certainly isn't a "draw" in and of itself for either film (I revere Faces, but not because of the photography). If I want to see a B&W movie - if that's specifically the sort of pleasure that I'm seeking - I might go to Night and the City, for example, or Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder or such - or Bela Tarr, for that matter. If I want B&W horror, Bride of Frankenstein or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. George Romero, not so much. The film is just not the sort of film where B&W itself is an attraction.

c) ...And in terms of the history of cinema, NOTLD really kind of BELONGS to the era of colour. The film has next to nothing in common with the classics of B&W horror filmmaking, the Universal monster movies and so forth, whereas all its sequels are in colour, as are most of its peers and less official progeny. Plus it's shot and edited like a contemporary film, too, making the B&W seem a bit odd given that none of the rest of the film feels like it belongs to an earlier time. Has there even been a major horror film made from 1968 onward that is in black and white? Does Eraserhead count? Tetsuo The Iron Man? Perusing the Wikipedia list of B&W films since 1970, I do see a couple of horror movies, like Singapore Sling, Anchoress, and a few homages to Caligari, Frankenstein, even the zombie subgenre... but most of these are rather obscure and unseen-by-me. I might be missing something, but the only inarguably major B&W horror films I've seen that were made since NOTLD are, I think, Abel Ferrara's The Addiction; the director's cut of Darabont's The Mist - which is not how the film was released theatrically, so I'm not even sure it counts; and The Call of Cthulhu (which is a short, so perhaps shouldn't be included, either). This all makes the absence of colour actually feel somewhat incongruous for NOTLD. 

d) And who wants to see human flesh being eaten in black-and-fucking-white, anyhow? There's actually some really striking gore in the original NOTLD - more than in the Tom Savini remake, oddly, since Savini is known as a gore-effects guy, primarily - but it just isn't the sort of subject matter that screams "this would look better in black and white." Some images and subject matter just inherently lend themselves to B&W, but others don't. Like, compare items on this list:

i) a cityscape at night

ii) a horse being led up a hill in a storm

iii) a field of flowers blowing in the wind

iv) a giant banquet of food

v) a volcano erupting

vi) a woman sitting alone on a bench, eating an apple 

vii) a ballet dancer 

...maybe there's a subjective element to this, but if you're at all like me, you'll agree that i), ii), vi) and vii) are subjects that lend themselves to B&W, that could look really lovely filmed thus. But who wants to see flowers, a banquet, or a volcanic eruption in B&W??? Colour is an integral part of the visual pleasure of looking at such things, and while it may seem a bit odd to talk about intestines being eaten as source of visual pleasure, it's all just more impactful to see organs that are the colour of organs, blood that is the colour of blood. For all we know, in the original NOTLD, the black splash on the wall when the reanimated little dead girl is plunging the garden trowel into her parents could be ink being thrown; in fact, in B&W, who knows what colour the fluid used actually was? (I could rush to check a commentary, to see if someone says, "we tried blood, but it didn't show up as well, so we settled for ink" - but I think the point should be clear regardless of  a supporting quote). 

e) Finally, there is a certain baggage that comes along with watching a revered classic that you've managed to miss (which was true of me, at one point; I'd seen Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead more than once, before I ever happened upon Night of the Living Dead). If you haven't seen Rashomon or Ikiru or The Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil, or - there's a long list of revered B&W movies I could rattle out - but have been reading about them for years, seeing them proclaimed as the greatest films ever made, there's a certain pressure that comes with the viewing. Deprived of the freedom to feel how you will, knowing the conclusion you must arrive at, is a fairly un-fun, even stifling experience. You're supposed to love the film; it's a revered classic. You're not supposed to find it clunky or awkward or overly long or, God forbid, boring. I actually have had little problem with the other films I mention above, here - though Touch of Evil has never been my favourite Welles, regardless of which cut I watch;  it's always seemed a bit too long, a bit too obvious, a bit too self-indulgent, a bit too broad. But if you start to voice those sorts of reservations about a revered classic, you only make yourself look like a vulgarian, a heretic. Which judgment cinephiles around you will have no problem reinforcing.

The stakes are even higher when the film is actually the first film of a filmmaker you truly do admire. Sometimes first films - Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door? is my favourite example - are the best places to catch an aspiring cinema prodigy at work, to see their energy, their potency, to glimpse the themes that cut deepest, to see their most powerful, unfiltered filmmaking, the film they made before they sold out, bought into their own press, were sucked into making superhero movies, developed a massive ego or cocaine problem, or so forth (Scorsese has continued to make interesting films throughout his career, mind you - I'm not saying that HE has done all of these things - but his first feature remains my personal favourite of his movies). I can recognize things in NOTLD that become more pronounced in Romero's later films, but while I am aware of their importance - both in terms of horror cinema of the time, and in terms of what was yet to come - that's quite a different thing from being able to see and enjoy the film on its own terms. Sometimes you just can't drop the baggage that a film comes to you with - especially when all that baggage is telling you that you should be LOVING it, and you realize, with the wrong sort of horror rising in you, that you are NOT. 

It would all have been very different if I had seen the film in 1968, of course. But I was busy being born that year, so...

The Savini remake, of course - made in vivid colour, around 1989 or 1990, depending where you look - is a wonderfully well-made film. Romero tweaks the screenplay in interesting ways; Savini has a very sure eye (and operates with a really kind of admirable restraint when it comes to gore, which, as I say, is not what you'd necessarily expect). And the cast is a joy to watch: I only know Patricia Tallman from Knightriders, haven't seen her Babylon 5 or Star Trek work, and didn't realize until last night that she served as stuntwoman for Laura Dern in Jurassic Park (!), but I love what she does to transform the mousy, panicky, over-emotional Barbara (who is really quite annoying in the 1968 film, and begins this one in much the same vein) into a heroic lead (best female "transformation" via zombie apocalypse, at least prior to the work of Melissa McBride; and surely Carol's creators were aware of Tallman's Barbara). She's fun in Knightriders, too, but her character there is a ditzy, somewhat minor figure, where here she's the lead, and does some amazing work - for example, the scenes where she's crying in despair, disgust, and sorrow while still killing zombies take us to places you seldom get to in any kind of cinema, combining both sensitivity and toughness; usually the two are seen as antithetical. You don't see Ripley sobbing as she slaughters aliens. The pathos of these scenes is nearly the equal of poor Bub realizing that Logan is dead in Day of the Dead. One does not generally come to zombie cinema hoping for great acting or moving performances, but Tallman delivers, regardless. I won't even get into the scene where she trades out her skirt for pants. Poor ole Barbara DESERVES to be the main character, the hero, of NOTLD, after the taunting she gets in the film's opening; and Tallman makes that possible and believable in ways that the original Barbara, Judith O'Dea, never had a chance to.

And Tony Todd, Tom Towles, and Bill Moseley (whose name gets misspelled in the credits) are great, too, and benefit from their association with other well-regarded horror films (Candyman, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and - well, pick a Moseley; I'll go with Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II, but there are certainly other choices). The sunny daylight compositions are delightful in their incongruity and lend the film a freshness (unless you are watching the Twilight Time version, which fucks with the colour; an unfucked-with version has since come out on blu, note). I love the 1990 film, have done so since I saw it theatrically first-run, but the whole point was playing Erika the film that got the whole thing rolling, and that is NOT the remake. Plus she'd be much better off appreciating the things that are great about the remake by having seen the original first: Ben's death in the first one would be far less shocking after seeing Ben die in the remake, especially given that the remake teases us with the possibility he might make it...

So I've hemmed and hawed and not played Erika the film that started the whole zombie phenom- a film that is not made less significant for me given that it came out the year that I was born! It's been on the list of movies to play her for a few years now, but my reservations got in the way. Finally, while poking through movies at a Surrey Gamer's Choice on Saturday, I stumbled across the solution to my problem: a version of Night of the Living Dead that had been colourized, back in 2004. 

Remember the colourization of feature films? I presume the practice has been abandoned and forgotten, as it should be, but it was a hot issue at one point, when the technology was new, back in the 1980's. Like any young movie lover would, I objected in principle. A film shot in B&W, designed by its authors to be viewed in B&W, should be seen in B&W, just like an album that was made to be listened to in mono should be heard in mono, rather than as re-configured after the fact by some disinterested studio technician ("electronically re-channeled for stereo!"). Because of my objections, I actually don't think I've ever sat through an entire colourized film before - nor would I have been inclined to try it this way if it hadn't been for wanting to show the film to a wife who was AWAKE, rather than a wife who was asleep. 

And indeed, it worked: Erika got into it in a way that would not have happened had I tried the original version of the film. Not only did she stay awake, but she was emotionally engaged, commenting on what a prick Mr. Cooper was, predicting obvious plot points ("does the daughter kill her parents?") and shocked by the shooting of Ben. I know too well the experience of waking her up to explain that she'd missed a key scene like that. It irritates her and feels like failure for me. It wasn't a problem at all yesterday. And dammit, colourized or not, it still counts - she might not have seen the original B&W version of Night of the Living Dead, but she's seen the film. My mission has been accomplished.

The weird thing is, I loved it too. None of my previous viewings of the film could compete: the colour really helped me engage with the story emotionally... Even though the colourization didn't look especially good, it not only kept Erika awake, but (somewhat to my surprise) helped me get more out of the film than I have ever gotten before. Scenes that I'd looked at as moments in a historically important artifact, but felt little else for, suddenly became gripping elements in a story. I was a little embarrassed at how well it worked, considering my objections to the process.  

And having finished it yesterday afternoon, for our evening film, I sprung the Savini remake on Erika, and she really enjoyed that, too. Two films scratched of the list! 

Anyhow, I guess I am now some sort of heretic, here. My most baggage-free, emotionally-involving flat-out enjoyable screening of the original Night of the Living Dead ever, and it was COLOURIZED. Not even very well-colourized, though there is one moment that is quite brilliant, probably my favourite in the whole (colourized) film. I do not know if the people who colourized the film were aware that Romero had said that he chose B&W because "the news was in black and white" (I am pretty sure that I am quoting exactly, from that terrific IFC documentary The American Nightmare, which came out a few years previous to the colourized DVD). I don't fully understand what Romero means by that (surely the news was only in B&W if you  had a B&W television?) - but it's still enough for me to love it, when the characters in the film find the TV and set it up, the colourizers opted, no doubt simply to save themselves work, to leave the TV broadcast as they found it. Something about watching black and white TV in a colourized movie really appeals to me. 

That's it, all I've got, but do not worry, I am not going to go seeking out other colourized films, and I have ordered the Criterion (black and white!) Night of the Living Dead blu as penance for my heresies.

Post-script: apparently multiple colourized versions of NOTLD exist - of COURSE they do! - so I should point out that the one we watched, the one from which the screengrabs above were taken (Pat Tallman excepted, of course) was the Legend DVD

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