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It used to be a movie. Now, it’s a myth. Where once it represented the concerted efforts of some Pittsburgh admen and their desire to enter into the realm of commercial filmmaking, now it’s the granddaddy of all zombie flicks. But beyond all the legends, the factual falsehoods and made up mysteries, lies one of the supreme experiments in horror ever conceived - and to believe those involved, it was more an accident than intentional. Between proposed narratives about invading aliens to the decision to cast a black man in the lead, Night of the Living Dead was as much happenstance as pure intention. Yet the results speak for themselves - and for generations - even 40 years later.

So much has been written about this now classic creepfest that it’s impossible to imagine any new product providing additional insight. From the proposed political subtext to the proto-documentary cinema vérité camerawork, director George Romero and his post-modern macabre remains the proverbial overbeaten movie mare. Everyone, from the casual fan to the detail-oriented obsessive has a take on this material, a way of making a weekend effort by some bored professionals into a universal statement on the story of man. Of course, as the years have passed, those involved have begun to believe their own fable. It remains one of the more intriguing aspects of the film’s heritage.

For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline, it all begins when adult siblings Barbara and Johnny travel to a distant cemetery to lay a wreath on their father’s grave. During their visit to the site, Johnny is accosted by a strange man and is mortally wounded. Barbara runs for her life and, after wrecking the car, seeks shelter in an abandoned farmhouse. There she finds a rotting corpse in the upstairs hall. Before she can gather her thoughts, a black man named Ben barges through the door and starts sealing up the house. He has also had some “run-ins” with angry individuals, and has witnessed the senseless brutality of the mob.

As he secures the doors and windows, a group of people appears from the basement. They are Helen and Harry Cooper, a married couple with a sick child in the cellar. Local boy Tom and his girlfriend Judy are also present. They escaped to the house after being accosted. A radio reports the awful truth: the dead have risen, and have started to kill…and eat the living. Tempers flare and plans are hatched. There is a gas pump on the property. If they could refuel Ben’s truck, they could escape. But as more and more zombies encircle the house, these survivors come to a horrible realization: they may not survive this ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

In conjunction with their release of Romero’s latest take on the genre, 2008’s divisive Diary of the Dead, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company are putting out an anniversary DVD of Night, complete with some new bonus features. In many instances, the reverence almost ruins what is an inherently fascinating tale of ambition and realization. It goes without saying that everyone more or less knows Night, and if they think that they don’t, they just haven’t realized it yet. Romero and a group of local Pittsburgh day players more or less invented the undead Bible, laying the foundation for the meat-eating mythos in all of its bullet-in-the-head, shuffling corpse glory. Influencing more films than the works of Fellini, Kubrick, and Cassavetes combined, this black-and-white marvel of minimalism packed a powerful wallop in its decidedly low-budget heyday.

A look around the current pop culture landscape produces more bows to the living dead dynamic than anyone should have to endure. There are remakes of other Romero classics (Dawn of the Dead and some unnecessary offal called Day of the Dead) just waiting to sully our memories of the originals. The omnipresent videogame industry (creators of such software shockers as Silent Hill and Resident Evil) has taken the foul flesh eater and turned it into Level Three’s big bad “boss” (not to mention creating their own motion picture spin-offs). Honestly, it seems that society is fixated on the ornery undead in a very big spending way. Even rock and roll has embraced the creepy cadavers - surely Rob Zombie isn’t celebrating a certain rum-based drink with his horror handle.

That being said, Night of the Living Dead has not really aged all that well. Sure, it’s still a masterpiece, but one that’s been lessened by its status as the standard-bearer for the entire walking corpse conundrum. The movie is still a fascinating, fatalistic work. But it is very talky in its middle act, a lot of the more horrible elements of the story needing exposition to envision them, since the production couldn’t afford to create the necessary visuals. Action and bloodshed comes in spurts and many modern horror fans, more adjusted to a ratio of down time to killing spree will consider this scattershot approach too much to tolerate.

Also, Night has been basically remade a million times in both direct (John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13) and inspired (Aliens has a lot of the same “us vs. them” vibe) ways, so much so that it’s almost an experience in rote entertainment. You don’t respond to what’s happening onscreen as much as the realization that you understand the plotting implicitly and realize automatically what will occur next. While it is still dark, foreboding and cruelly heartless, Night of the Living Dead has left a lot of its cinematic effectiveness in the past, where people appreciated its attention to authenticity. Today, it almost plays like a parody of itself, overworking all the formulas and clichés it helped create.

That’s why this newest DVD is so intriguing. Aside from delivering a devastatingly crisp and clean image (the new 1.33:1 transfer looks amazing), the added content continues to further redefine the film’s formative fairytale. Between commentaries and interviews, we learn of the role mannequins played in the production and that Dwayne Jones was not hired for his skin color, but his availability and ability as an actor. Distributors were also disturbed by the amount of dialogue and actually demanded six minutes of contextual conversations be edited. Their stipulation for more zombie footage also fell on deaf ears, since Romero and crew had limited amounts of that material. Perhaps most compelling of all, a terrible flood destroyed most of the artifacts associated with the film, including the actual work print.

Granted, some of these stories have been offered up before, and when it comes to staying firmly within the boundaries of their illustrious reputation, Romero, producer John Russo, and other members of the Night committee aren’t about to stray too far. The new documentary created for the 40th anniversary, entitled One for the Fire, uses a stagy recreationist approach to get some valuable information across. While it’s great to see the remaining cast look back at their foolhardy novice naiveté with a wistful veneration, it’s hard to argue that they do much more than repeat what fright fans have already committed to memory. Indeed, the main stumbling block Night of the Living Dead faces is its own well-earned scary movie status. Objectivity is no longer possible, or perhaps necessary.

And like any great hero, the movie moves on, forever heading toward the sincere sunset of cinematic classicism. It is an amazing achievement considering the dozens of like minded efforts that crammed their way into drive-ins and dives during the same period. Because of what Romero created, because of his desire to treat the schlocky subject seriously and with an unflinching eye, the results speak for themselves. Night of the Living Dead, the movie, may indeed render Night of the Living Dead, the 40th Anniversary DVD edition meaningless, but the journey into the past is still a captivating one. While one may never be able to experience this seminal film the way audiences did four decades ago, at least we have such scholarship to keep its cause contemporary. In that regard, this newest packaging is a success. 



Though Diplo has reigned supreme as the underground ying to Timbaland’s overground yang, for my buck, one of the best beat magicians slicing and dicing today is Montreal’s Ghislain Poirer.  His non-instrumental work with MC’s, such as the collaboration with Abdominal (“City Walking”) brim with alleyway menace and threatening intricacy.  For Poirer, it’s not a matter of just finding the groove and then just striking over and over again in that same sweet spot.  Poirer’s beats are knotty, itchy and architectural.  “Don’t Smile, It’s Post Modern” sounds like a particularly fast and difficult Tetris game where patterns are assembled and dissolved at a furiously glitched pace. 

The video is little more than a one-joke stretch, but as Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” proved, you can create an infinitely entertaining video out of the rapt fascination people have with dance moves.  (the quality seems to be a secondary issue) Even the Ipod silhouette commercials recognize the magnetic currency of raw movement, proving wildly popular despite the fact that they are little more than outlines pulsing to an upbeat song.  I think this video similarly succeeds in part by playing on all the hilarious tensions of the situation coupled with the freedom and joy of just watching some fool, in this case, possessed by the need to dance.

First off, it seems to be shot with a club-drug lens, a fact emphasized by the superimposition of the germy spots which glide across the toilet surfaces.  For anyone whose ever abused/used these drugs, the effect is a familiar one as is the almost painfully fluoresced tile and uncomfortable urinal silences.  I’m sure someone has analyzed the weird tensions involved in the men’s restroom where sexual panic, fear of inadequacy and free floating erotic tension mix.  It’s probably somewhere in Camille Paglia’s footnotes.  Perhaps the best part of the video is that it makes a dance routine out of post-micturition convulsion syndrome, a shiver/tremor sensation that a large percentage of men have after or during urination.  For me, that’s funny enough to make the video one that bears repeated viewing.

Look Me in the Eyeby John Elder RobisonCrown, 2007

Look Me in the Eye
by John Elder Robison
Crown, 2007

I enjoyed this article today from Northwestern University’s Medill Reports about the joyful moments of a life in online journalism. Dianna Heitz describes the rush of approaching and interviewing one of her writing idols, John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.

I emailed the author’s publicist on a whim, thinking I’d have to wait weeks to get a response. About an hour after I sent the email, the author called me on my cell phone. And once again, I bounced around like a kid who had a bit too much sugar.

Dianna also has a great piece up on the Examiner today about the effect Cafe Press merchandise sales are having on the 2008 election. Here’s a sample:

Embracing the interactivity of modern media, CafePress lets customers submit designs for everything from shirts to hats to underwear. It has received more than 1.2 million designs for Obama products, while those for Clinton and John McCain combined barely break 1 million.

Dianna Heitz is profiled on the Loyola University website here.


I am on the record as being against customer service. It seems to me a trick to get us overinvested in shopping as a place where we can exercise our will to power. So when Yves Smith asks, in this post about a few ideas for new consumer-service businesses, “Do we want to foster customer neurosis?” I believe the answer is yes. Of course we do. Retailing is essentially the art of making insignificant choices seem paramount, and getting people hooked on the “thrill” of making such discriminations. Total neuroticism is the art practiced at its highest form and is a state of mind marketing in general is always preparing us for, stoking our fantasies of omnipotence and our insecurities about not belonging to group of preferred customers or whatever. (That is part of the logic behind retailers’ loyalty programs—those stupid cards you have to flash to get the sale price on items, like you are part of some elite cadre of special shoppers. Though the main reason for them, I always thought, was to track what you purchased and use that to compile demographic data to sell to manufacturers and advertisers.)

Perplexed by services for helping customers get the best rooms or seats within a hotel or particular flight, Smith asks “Is this much information really empowering, or does having such fine grading merely make some people unhappy when they don’t get what their little website says is the best?” It certainly supplies the illusion of power and an opportunity to discriminate. I think it allows for the pleasure of making petty judgments, becoming ersatz insiders, and scoring insignificant victories over peer shoppers on a scoreboard that the insecurity mongers conjure out of thin air. Basically, when we as customers become fussy children, the retailers become our parental authority figures, granting or withholding the love we crave, even as we foolishly believe we are in control because we are being fussed over.

In a consumer society, shopping isn’t about satisfying some set of wants extrinsic to the market arena—it is about entering the arena and having our wants stoked and then satisfied, with our competitive juices stoked and our fantasizing mind fully engaged. Shopping is itself an experiential good; anything we take happen to take home from us is often just a souvenir.

Like Vaughn at Mind Hacks, I’m generally skeptical of neuroscientific research of the brain-lights-up-therefore-it’s-true variety, but for what it’s worth, this WSJ piece today explains that shopping is like crack smoking:

Research shows that people often do get a high from shopping—the brain releases chemicals such as dopamine or serotonin when a person is stimulated by discovering something new, such as a handbag. Sometimes, aspects of the shopping experience such as friendly sales clerks, eye-catching displays or aisles that are easy to navigate can trigger brain activity that brings about these “euphoric moments,” says Dr. David Lewis, director of neuroscience at Mindlab International, a United Kingdom-based consultancy whose clients include athletes, retailers and advertising companies. “The brain is turned on by novelty.”

The writer sums up that “For the consumer, such studies serve as an important reminder that these euphoric moments do exist but they aren’t necessarily triggered by the desire to own a particular item.” I’m starting to believe that we convince ourselves we want some specific thing as an alibi so that we can enjoy the shopping experience as a whole. Like when I would sit down for some “writing” because I knew that would lead to cigarette breaks.

To a larger and larger degree, the wants occur after we have already decided to go shopping; they are not the impetus. So we don’t start by wishing we could be “getting a better room” but we enter the sphere of services and discover that we can and then want to. The key for marketers is to keep us in that sphere—a mental space more than a physical space—where we are searching for things to buy, with buying becoming how we remind ourselves of our being.

When Apple actually considers breaking out of it’s 99 cent box for selling all of its items, that’s news.  No doubt that this has something to do with the fact that the entertainment companies that were supplying it with content were getting frustrated and finding other online services to do business with (i.e. Amazon).  While Apple still holds a huge share of the music download market, it’s not on as solid ground with movies or TV, where it hasn’t been able to strike as many deals.  No doubt the TV/movie companies don’t want to make the same mistake as the music companies (who are sometimes part of the same corporation) and all agree to give over all their goodies to Jobs and friends so that they can corner the market in another realm of online entertainment.  While they’re still far ahead, Apple ain’t dumb- they know that they have to stay competitive and that the entertainment big-wigs don’t like ‘em and want more options so they’re not tied into the whims of Apple (much like they have to kiss Walmart’s feet when they make decisions about pricing too).  Now if only Apple would see the light about streaming albums for a monthly fee…

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