From the Zombie Hordes to the Successfully Bankrupt: The First Year of ‘The Next Reel’

The life of a PopMatters columnist is not all vine swinging, ninja fighting, fortune, glory, wild parties, Tibetan barroom brawls, palling around with robots, thrills, chills, daring do and synchronized figure skating. No we PopMatters jet setters have to do a whole lot of writing, interviewing, researching, fact checking, exorcisms and copy revisions while we’re also globe-trotting fighting giant monsters and saving the world. Luckily, we have a million unique and loyal readers each month, a steady supply of pre-release media, and the best set of erudite editors any writer could hope for (and their synchronized figure skating is second to none).

I would like to tell you that my PopMatters film column, The Next Reel, came to be when I met my editor after a bamboo cage fight in Thailand which was being filmed for a documentary by Elvis Mitchell, but that would be a total lie. (That is how I got my PopMatters comics blog To Be Continued…, however.) No, The Next Reel was born, as all PopMatters columns are, starting with a carefully constructed pitch, writing samples and an unembellished bio (that did not contain the words “I’m Batman”), all sent via email, so no bribe was included. I promised PopMatters an irreverent and informative look at film history and the evolution of and linkages between films. We’ve had 12 entries over the past year, most entering the PopMatters Top 20 most Popular list and collecting more “Likes” than a valley girl throws into an excited conversation about malls. So, like, the Next Reel’s “Lucky Number 13″ is upon us now and it’s time to take a look back over our first year and spin a few of these reels again.

The first article for The Next Reel (which possibly would have been more accurately been called “The Reel” considering it was the inaugural offering) was “The Zombification Family Tree: Legacy of the Living Dead“, an article so exciting it actually accidentally created its own Zombie Crisis due to actually raising the dead. Don’t worry, it got better. Legacy of the Living Dead explored the of entries into the Undead saga that began with George A. Romero and John A. Russo’s Night of the Living Dead, most of which are completely unrelated to that film or its sequels.

Of course, Romero didn’t invent the “Zombie” — unless he is significantly older than he looks. The concept of the flesh-eating risen corpse was first recorded in (but surely didn’t originate with) The Epic of Gilgamesh, written over a thousand years before Christ rose from the dead (with portions dating back over a thousand years before that). The text sounds a hell of a lot like Dawn of the Dead’s own “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” As the Gilgamesh Author writes, “Let the dead go up to eat the living! And the dead will outnumber the living!” Ancient Egyptian mythology is rife with tales of the dead rising again (without brains, however, due to the mummification process). The name and lore of the “Zombie” comes, of course, from Haitian Voodoo, inspired by African Vodoun and the legends of the “Nzumbe”, real people raised from the dead (actually a death-like state due to poisoning and other means). Literary works by Mary Shelley, Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells and Richard Matheson (as well as comic stories from the likes of Tales from the Crypt) furthered the legends and mythos.

However, the cinematic zombies before Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and after are remarkably different undead animals. Romero’s Zombies were the first to bring about an apocalypse (albeit spread across three movies) , the first to rise from any and every deceased human (no bite or ritual needed) and the first to only be “permanently” killed by destruction of the brain. Virtually every filmed Zombie story to follow the advent of the Romero Zombie (whether in or out of the official or unofficial saga) truly follows this set of rules (or variations thereon). Romero changed the face of horror.

Director Ralph Bakshi’s impact on the world of animation is arguably as deep as Romero’s is on horror. From his bringing of Fritz the Cat (1972) to animated life to his groundbreaking and influential version of The Lord of the Rings (1978) to his controversial social commentary in Coonskin (1975), to his television work, including Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures Bakshi has made his mark. In the second installment of The Next Reel, entitled “ ‘American Pop’… Matters: Ron Thompson, the Illustrated Man Unsung” I told the story of the star of Bakshi’s 1981 musical epic American Pop, informed by interviews with Ron Thompson himself.

Thompson gave a detailed account of the making of American Pop from the casting to the filming to the rotoscoping process that turned every actor into a cartoon. Thompson also described his unprecedentedly collaborative relationship with Bakshi. While the actor who brought not one but two of American Pop’s lead characters to life was unfairly downplayed in the media and his vast contributions unsung, one fan he is not underappreciated by is Ralph Bakshi

“Ron is a great talent and there isn’t anything he said that wasn’t the truth”, Bakshi told me in an August 2012 email in response to the second Next Reel and went on to describe Ron’s “brilliance in acting” and confirmed that he was “shoved away” by the industry. “The Illustrated Man Unsung” was not only impactful to Bakshi, but managed to get Bakshi and Thompson back in touch for the first time in over a decade. Bakshi is currently working on a new animated film called Last Days of Coney Island. Might this, or some new upcoming project lead to another collaboration with Ron Thompson? Our rotoscoped fingers remained crossed for that possibility.

For The Next Reel, I promised an exploration on the linkages between films. Thus my next column took to the stage. While that may seem like an iconoclastic and antithesis move for only the third article, seeing as how that next Next Reel was “The Cinematic Experience of Roger Waters’ ‘The Wall Live’“, it’s not nearly as strange as one might think. Waters’ resurrection of the elaborate 1980 – 1981 Pink Floyd touring stage show featured an almost Ralph Bakshi amount of animation (directed by Gerald Scarfe) projected against the ubiquitous circular screen and, of course, the growing title “Wall” itself creating a truly cinematic experience of horror, drama, erotica and wonder. It was also the biggest concert draw of 2012. Not bad for a 68 year old man, performing a thirty year old album.

When a band has been around as long as The Who, you’ve been “contemporaries” with just about every rock band out there, including and especially fellow Rock Opera pioneers Pink Floyd. Tommy put the Rock Opera on the map, but Quadrophenia was an even more serious and ambitious project. Released in 1973, The Who have resurrected the album for concerts more than once over the decades.

Most recently in 37 date tour called “Quadrophenia + More”, the rock opera about the four aspects of one “Jimmy” was given an enormous production the size and scope of Waters’ “The Wall Live” tour. The album was performed in its entirety while three round screens reflected the projections of Who iconography and enabled past members Keith Moon and John Entwistle (both now deceased) to rejoin the band on vocals as well as drums and bass (respectively). “Quadrophenia + More” is an incredible experience and, much like “The Wall Live”, was truly cinematic.

Speaking of precious stalwarts, The Next Reel Volume IV was a decades-spanning piece that I wrote in the lobby of a Chechen funeral home on a stolen classic typewriter, called The Non-Bonds: James Bond’s Bitter, Decades-Long Battle… with James Bond (the article, not the typewriter). This exploration of James Bond on film was published on 5 October 2012, the 50th anniversary of James Bond on film (counting from the 1962 release of Dr. No).

A month later the most recent film in the series was released and Skyfall was a critical and financial success that became almost the antithesis of the “Non-Bonds”. Pulling together elements from almost every era of James Bond, Skyfall refocused the character as an individual man with a long and brilliant history with MI-6, in spite of the varied takes from competing studios on the character. Whose parents died in a climbing accident, drove the souped-up and weaponized Alpha Romeo, drank his vodka martinis shaken, not stirred, smoked the Chesterfields, lost his wife Tracy to a vengeful Blofeld and faced the Thunderball, not once but twice? There is only one Bond… James Bond.

Most movies still shown on film (a dying breed) are around five reels long, but The Next Reel wasn’t over with its fifth incarnation, “The Pragmatic Anarchy of the Long Take“. Article 5’s subject matter, the particularly difficult and artistic type of cinematic shot called “The Long Take” and the films that feature this technique, could fill five reels by itself. That article began and ended with Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player (lines from which, incidentally, gave both this article and “The Next Reel” itself their names) and covered a large number of Long Take films, but I had to draw the line somewhere, lest the article be longer than the famous takes themselves.

If there is any Next Reel that deserves a sequel in and of itself, it’s the fifth one. The readers were quick to throw in suggestions such as Atonement (1997), Stalker (1979) and Janghwa, Hongryeon (2003) were suggested and there are large number of others worth a mention. Watch this space… they all deserve their due.

While the first Next Reel focused on the films that exploded from the series started with Night of the Living Dead, the sixth column took the opposite approach to 1979’s Alien; illustrating how a great many divergent elements came together to coalesce into one perfect whole. To me, this article was exactly what I was going for when I originally pitched The Next Reel, to my editor, this was the kind of thing PopMatters is all about. Well, that and Synchronized Figure Skating.

In “Building the Perfect Star Beast: The Antecedents of ‘Alien’” I also briefly referenced Lifeforce, a 1985 film with similarities to Alien and Alien’s precursors, Dark Star and Planet of the Vampires. Lifeforce is the tale of a group of astronauts who come across a seemingly harmless derelict ship with a large and horrifying corpse inside. They also discover a seemingly innocuous survivor in the form of a beautiful naked “Space Girl” (ballerina Mathilda May). While May may appear to be about as similar to Alien’s facehugger as I am to a canned ham, she turns out to be anything but innocuous and soon Earth is overrun by Zombies, created and controlled by Space Vampires.

As a further bit of synergy to tie this all together can be found in the movie’s writer, one Dan O’Bannon, also the writer of Dark Star and Alien. What’s more, accounting for the zombie presence, O’Bannon was also the writer and director of Return of the Living Dead (1985), creator John A. Russo’s own non-Romero “Official Sequel” to Night of the Living Dead. Every Reel is a full circle.

O’Bannon didn’t direct Lifeforce, as he was busy with Return of the Living Dead. Instead, that director’s chair was occupied by one Tobe Hooper who had gained worldwide fame eleven years before Lifeforce with a little independent film called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That film inspired its own chain of sequels, imitators and rip-offs as explored in the seventh Next Reel, “No Texas, No Chainsaw, No Massacre: The True Links in the Chain“.

Hooper is also the credited director of Poltergeist, the 1982 film written by Steven Spielberg that came out the same year as Spielberg’s own E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Both films are said to have been developed from Spielberg’s unproduced screenplay Night Skies about malevolent aliens attacking a suburban household. A bigger development, however, was the rumor that Hooper was not the actual director of Poltergeist, but that Spielberg filled the director’s chair. Universal Studios’ contract with Spielberg prevented him from directing other films while preparing for E.T., so he hired (allegedly) Hooper to be his DINO (Director in Name Only). Spielberg himself indicated that Hooper often deferred to him on set and the cast and crew remember Spielberg calling “Action” in more than the second unit scenes.

The controversy proved strong enough for the Director’s Guild of America to open an investigation into who the true director was. While Tobe Hooper remains, to this day, the sole credited director on Poltergeist, including in the files of the guild, the rumor still comes up constantly that Spielberg was the creative force behind every part of Poltergeist. This may be harder to prove than whether or not Leatherface does yoga, or whether or not I actually wrote this while sharing a tree with a family of gorillas descended from the same apes that raised Tarzan, but this story is not going away any time soon.

The first Next Reel was a study of interlinking horror films, the second was an interview with and remembrance of a great actor, the third was a cinematic look at a stage show. The “Chain Saw” article was written to echo the inaugural Next Reel, the eighth Next Reel was written as something of a reflection of “The Illustrated Man Unsung” as I delved into the life and career of a great and wonderful Italian actress in “Italy’s Lost Bellissima Actress, Margie Newton, Re-Appears in The Next Reel“.

Over the past year I have become friends with Margie and I am amazed every time we communicate I am impressed by the positive, spritely, poetic and artistic woman she truly is. And her daughter Valentina is still her best friend. Although she disappeared from the public eye, Newton is ready for the limelight once again. So far The Next Reel article hasn’t reunited her with her with her favorite directors, as Bakshi was reunited with Thompson, but then again, PopMatters is an English Language Magazine. Luckily “Bellissima” has introduced many English speakers to the real Margie Newton. In this case, I wrote an article I was dying to read, having wanted to know Newton’s true story for years. I’m grateful for being the writer who got to write that article.

In our ninth revolution, I revisited the concept of looking at a stage show through cinematic eyes in the article “A Cirque Du Soleil Performance in Hollywood Evokes Memories of the Circus of Hollywood“. Tragically, IRIS, the “Permanent” Cirque du Soleil installation at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre closed in far too short a time, and lost a great deal of money in the experience, in spite of its exciting and wonderful whole.

However, this part of the year in review is not at all hard to expound upon. Actress Ekaterina Pirogovskaya, featured in IRIS’ promotional materials in a zoetrope skirt, remains in Los Angeles giving classes and Cirque-esque stage performances. Her most recent showing is Cirque-a-Palooza, at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Dragging our corpses from stage back to screen, The Next Reel “X” was called “ Books of the Dead: The Followers and Clones of ‘The Evil Dead’” and explored the creations of and connections between the Evil Dead movies and their unlikely series of unofficial sequels. I would have considered myself remiss for not mentioning Equinox (1967/ 1970) if that one didn’t deserve a column all its own. The Evil Dead films, yes even the first one, had humor infused and showed their oddball Three Stooges influence. However one of the weirdest and funniest moments from the third (official) film was main character Ash’s adoption and of and amnesia surrounding the magical phrase “Klaatu Barada Nikto”.

Film fans of all stripes worth their spears and magic helmets will tell you exactly where “Klaatu Barada Nikto” comes from: the 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the classic film, benevolent alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) uses these words to stave off the potential violence of his robotic partner Gort (Lockard Martin). The phrase quickly entered Pop Culture and has invaded other media throughout the years. For example, Return of the Jedi features a character named Klaatu (of the Nikto people… not kidding) and another character named Barada (of the Klatoonian people… also not kidding) and the phrase itself has appeared in episodes of such diverse shows as Farscape, Rocko’s Modern Life and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The phrase became so ubiquitous in Pop Culture that by the time Keanu Reeves uttered the phrase in the 2008 remake, many fans wondered why this new film was quoting Army of Darkness as opposed to the other way around.

In the eleventh Next Reel I took on “Creepy Myths, Curses and Urban Legends of Hollywood” and was advised by a busload of spiritual mediums that put Whoopie’s character from Ghost to shame. Again Hooper and Spielberg rear their heads in a Next Reel with a section on Poltergeist, along with The Omen, Oz, Three Men and a Baby and lots and lots of Superman myths.

But let’s pick on Spielberg one more time. One of “Steve’s” favorite stories about his quick rise to becoming one of the best known and most respected directors in Hollywood reads like something straight out of Michael J. Fox’s The Secret of My Success. According to Spielberg, the wunderkind wrote his own ticket by sneaking onto the Universal Studios lot and observing techniques. Ultimately, the story goes, homeboy started putting on a suit and tie and walking onto the Universal lot like he owned the place, picked out an unused office, slapped his own name plate up on the directory and forced his way into Hollywood and our hearts.

If that sounds like a romanticized tall tale, you’re partially there… it’s actually complete bullshit. The truth is that Spielberg was given his first glimpse at the Globe because of an old buddy of his dad’s. Chuck Silvers, from the editorial department, gave 16-year-old Stevie his first tour and said goodbye. A few years later, Spielberg did, indeed, walk onto the Universal lot in his black suit, but not as a part of some subterfuge, but as an unpaid assistant in Universal’s TV department. That’s not to say Spielberg is any less of a great creator… just that this particular urban legend happens to be one of his “great creations”.

The most recent Next Reel (aside from this one) was written atop Pike’s Peak while on a hunt for truffles with Freddy Fender and Larry Norman. At one point I looked up and asked “What Happens When Hollywood’s Critical Acclaim Fails to Match Box Office Receipts?” and one of them (I forget who) said “You’re the film historian guy, you tell us.” So I did, illustrating the many box office failures who were Oscar darlings and the many studios who were sunk by the weight of their own Oscar Gold.

Tying this entire article together, it is worth noting that Orion Pictures did have many successes in its day and one of them happened to be Dan O’Bannon’s own Return of the Living Dead. But there is one studio that I didn’t mention in this article whose folly trumps the legendary.

The company was called The Cannon Group and they started out honorably enough in 1967 with a company called Cannon Films that mirrored Orion and RKO Radio Pictures in a few ways, starting with the critically acclaimed Joe from 1970. Before long, Cannon was making movies called Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Sorcerers and the company soon had to be sold for a mere $500,000, slightly more than the set budget of one of their films and the Israeli team of cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus soon steam-trained the company down the B-Movie highway with pictures like Exterminator 2, Breakin’2, Electric Boogaloo, the two 1980s Hercules films (the latter of which actually starred Margie Newton), all of the Death Wish sequels, the well-intentioned but regrettably regrettable Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (whose Warner Bros.-assisted budget was cut by half to help fund Masters of the Universe) and, yes, even Lifeforce.

As bad as many of the movies commonly were (and they were), the films they almost made were even worse and we can all join hands and sing like we’re in an early 1980s Coke commercial at the gratitude we all feel that Cannon’s Spider-Man was never made. The Marvel Character was so misunderstood by both Golan and Globus that they believed that Spidey was cursed to turn, werewolf-like, into a man-sized spider… and, more tragically, they believed that this would make a good movie as opposed to the filmic equivalent to stepping on a Lego block in the dark.

So what did Cannon make that was either box office or critical gold? Well… You remember when I mentioned Joe earlier? The list pretty much ends there.

So there you have it… 12 (more or less) monthly installments of The Next Reel summed up by your favorite adventurer and film historian who is just as at home comparing the works of Antonioni, Fellini and Bergman as I am fighting Yeti in the Himalayas. Lucky number 13 is upon you now, so now that we’ve completed the column equivalent to a “clip show”, here’s a little toast to the next 12 installments of The Next Reel.

I’ll see you there!