Camping Out at the Graveyard

Matthew Sorrento
The camp nature of Romero's ghouls was cleverly resurrected in Shaun of the Dead (2004)

When we relax and revel in the campy ghouls, our nerves are left fresh for the film’s terrifying bite; the last and sharpest of which comes at the searing downbeat ending.

More than just a cult favorite, George A. Romero's debut, Night of the Living Dead, dovetails right with American film history. The film showed up just after the benchmark year, 1967, when the mainstream success of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate urged Hollywood to revolt against its own established myths. Inspired by new reactionary movements overseas – mostly the France's Nouvelle Vague – the films of the “New Hollywood” recalled their predecessors to subvert their influence.

The results were downbeat revisions on the traditional forms: Penn's film retooled the American gangster (as did his inspiration, Godard, in Breathless), while Sam Peckinpah viscerally revised the most American of all genres, the western. Some genres even came into their own, like the road movie, which lived mainly in the cult literature of Kerouac before arriving on the screen via Easy Rider and Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop.

The American horror film felt the revolutionary tremors as early as 1960, when Hitchcock's Psycho proved to be a devious take on genre conventions. Its exhilarating transgressions are now things of pop legend, with Norman Bates upturning the narrative after his murder of Marion Crane claims him the spotlight. (With leading lady Vivian Leigh dead at the end of Act II, viewers guessed they were the butts of the prankster Hitchcock, though it turns out he had bigger plans.) Now in the perspective of a killer, the narrative eventually heads toward a resolution Classic Hollywood-style, when the denouement leaves Norman Bates' deconstructed but still a looming menace.

Hollywood upturned all its cargo by the decade's end, when the horror film would see the same. Psycho had looked to pop-psychology for its inspiration, while Night of the Living Dead, the indie horror film par excellence appearing eight years later, employed a politicized narrative. Night of the Living Dead has its purist fans, those who refuse to look beneath the film's helpings of terror and gore. But from its bleached-out American flag in the opening title sequence, to its final images of Ben (Duane Jones) hooked and dragged by the redneck posse that shot him (lynching imagery recreated with still photography), this film channels the overwrought times of civil unrest and a losing battle overseas. Night of the Living Dead's community of survivors occupy a house under siege by zombies, the temporary haven always on the brink of collapse. This extended metaphor – like those of the other great New Hollywood films – reflects a culture amidst a political avalanche.

Hardly new, this reading has been celebrated and debated for as long as Night of the Living Dead has acquired its status. The consistent suspense and mordant humor are key in pulling off the film's tricky narrative, but its deeper significance is felt more than understood. It's evident how the film works against genre conventions, most impressively by igniting prolonged suspense by the first scene, while classic horror films often take their sweet time. Yet the finest example of genre irony comes in the film's first zombie attack. When Johnny intones the now iconic lines, “They're coming to get you, Barbra!” to his sister, classic horror gets parodied, as the old school is employed for a jest. Yet the joke's on us when this jester gets mauled, and the nightmare has begun. As shown here, Night of the Living Dead deploys convention only to abandon it.

But more lies beneath the genre-trickery. Much of the film's charm results from its low-budget production, itself overcome by creative use of setting and materials. Viewers – especially those of us who frequently return – want to reveal the filmmakers' permeated method, what makes Night of the Living Dead a consistently fresh genre entry. While contemporary filmmakers vowed to “make it new,” Camp style – also surfacing in the '60s – surfaced in Night of the Living Dead's inventive approach.

Not that numerous horror films had been strangers to Camp beforehand. Camp styles are the stepchildren of the entire classic Hollywood tradition, stemming back to depictions of the early sound performers Mae West and Bette Davis. The latter's high-energy style was encouraged by the melodramatic treatments of the Golden Age. Though her form soon eclipsed her milieu, most notably in All About Eve, in which her immortal lines “Faster your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!” suggests a shrewish outrageousness as much as menace. It was here that the gays, seeking out any subversion to be found in the conventional mainstream, caught sight of her raging persona, an overacted femininity that sniggered at the real thing.

Soon the very same Davis took on Joan Crawford, another over-stylized classic performer, for the kitschy gothic romp, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (appearing in 1962, soon after Psycho). This trendsetting Baby Jane would be the first to consciously channel the kind of artificiality that came accidentally for years. The shrewish edge that Davis had come upon for years was now on full display, in her role of an aging child star that yearns to recapture her immature fame. In jealous mania, she makes her sister, Blanche (Crawford), who since childhood has become a successful actress, into a punching bag that she's trapped in their home. Crawford plays things with more subtlety, until her character is pushed to a boiling point, when Joan, that self conscious glamour doll of old, shrieks out as if attempting to break through the barrier of silent film.

Baby Jane was the ticket that brought the '60s into the land of camp. Not only was it followed by sequels, with and without Bette and Joan, but the “crazy mama” became a fixture in schlock crime stories and horror. Titles showed up like Hush. . . Hush Sweet Charlotte and Who Slew Auntie Roo?, the latter with Shelley Winters, another golden age performer who helped light the first sparks of camp. In 1970, she brought kitsch to the gangland milieu as Ma Barker in the Roger Corman picture from which the movement borrowed its title.

America really felt the pulse when a mainstream television series, Batman, went for an outright campy approach. The cape-crusader duo directly suggested a closeted homosexual pair, a subtextual hint in the earlier comics which now winked right at the urban gay camp-base. The show's cast of villains seemed bent on out-acting each other, with Caesar Romero's cackles as the Joker riffing against the pulsing nasal snorts of Burgess Meredith's Penguin. With such able talent made up to outrageousness, it seemed as if the show deliberately employed Classic Hollywood to ironically mock it extravagances. The campiness saw new heights when the show created a character – the shamelessly outrageous Egghead, sayer of countless cornball egg-bound puns. It was made for Vincent Price, the aesthete who nonetheless helped epitomize the schlocky potential of the horror film (more on him later).

Like the rest of early Hollywood, the golden age studio horrors stumbled upon camp. Bela Lugosi's count in Tod Browning's Dracula made over-accentuation a norm in the genre, while the outsized role of the mad doctor was ripe for such a touch. James Whale was the bravest to realize campy touches to his dynamic Bride of Frankenstein, in the form of Ernest Thesiger's Dr. Pretorius (“I was booted out of the academy – booted out for knowing too much!” And we have a good idea of what barriers he'd crossed.) Closet queen Charles Laughton left similar touches as Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls, a film resolving in an attack by man-beasts that consumes their prissy creator. Meanwhile, another Hollywood import, Peter Lorre, took cues from Lugosi to make his Euro presence into a freakish, cackling Doctor Gogol in Mad Love.

Yet, it was another performer in classic horror films – that incomparable Vincent Price – who would steer the horror film right into the land of camp. After he vocalized the Invisible Man without credit in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – a revision of his title role in the second film of the series proper – Price's refined presence helped ignite 1953's House of Wax, which brought him to stardom in the horror genre. Price's wronged and misunderstood curator hit notes similar to the mad doctors of earlier films. His reliability caught the eyes of two horror masters not too proud to make films on the low scale and the thrills just as cheap.

William Castle new he'd need an outrageous showman to bring to life 1959's The Tingler, a film in which victims must scream off a wormlike, spine-crawling critter. The film, like Castle's and others of the '50s, showcased theater-bound gimmicks that celebrated the carnivalesque fun of horror shows – after viewers signed faux life insurance policies in the lobby, theaters were rigged with contraptions and planted screamers. As out of control as these elements were, nothing captured the schlocky glory better than when the film brings the storyline into a silent movie theater, into which the Tingler runs rampant.

Thus, viewers of Castle's film would view the diegetic screen, when Price's voice comes on the voiceover for a delivery equally maniacal and hammy: “The Tingler is loose in this theater – scream, scream for your lives!” at which point the Percepto vibrating gizmos fixed under the seats would go off. Aside from the gimmick, it was as if Baby Jane's ghost took possession of the actor. We see much the same in another scene, when Price winces and screams while under mind-altering drugs, not sparing laughs for the movie's tense young horror audience.

Roger Corman's use of Price wasn't for such outlandish ends, but the camp strains were certainly there. The post-Psycho 60's horror film appeared to be owned by Corman's budget Poe cycle, which acquired Price to garner credibility and account for much of the film's resources. Yet Corman was a veteran at the game by then, have made plenty of drive-in successes in countless genres, and he knew how to recycle his materials and his genre star. The series began with the House of Usher, in which Price's benighted Roderick suggests that other sinister (same-sex?) urges lurk beneath his obsession for sister Madeline. And his lip-licking wine connoisseur in Tales of Terror – that delightful Poe portmanteau film – brought moments in which the camp sensibility nearly halts the narrative.

Yet Price offered more for Corman than subversive winks: his theatrical line delivery triumphs in the chamber gothic Masque of the Red Death, with a finale in which Price's Prospero deliciously overacts his descent to the forces of the plague. Price easily grasped the overreach needed for Corman's stylized danse macabre.

New horror styles came from overseas, and American audiences of the '60s received their demand for new visions. But Night of the Living Dead found inspiration in the American underground. With bloody exploitation screening at the urban grind houses, Night of the Living Dead's most prominent predecessor would be Hershell Gordon Lewis, father of 10,000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red, and Blood Feast. Much of the latter film's cult status rests on its titular blood and guts, while fueled on its campy excesses. Blood Feast is epitomized by its furrow-browed madman, who's incantation in close-up is the film's sole iconic image. Surfacing in 1963, the film laid territory early for Romero's experiment (underway by 1967).

Romero's debut was the result of workshopping for economy. Hence, he and his crew came up with a zombie film that could be shot on the cheap on accessible locations. Much of their budget would go to makeup and gory effects, to make the fresh guts for zombie-munching. Once the zombies' raid upon the house begins, Romero gets his camera closer and closer to them. Many made-up performers loom in the shadows, and are depicted in a form of documentary expressionism. Yet soon they are upfront with the audience, getting late-'60s viewers closer than they'd ever been to an onscreen zombie.

As atmospheric as were the approaching zombies, the dread spawns from the human captives, so panicked they grow maniacal. Many modern viewers thus see the film as a home invasion, in a documentary viewpoint from which we cannot escape. The human parts realized much of the dread, while the new grounds in filmmaking were happening outside. Romero knew he had to make the monsters real: the actions of his human characters proved it, while the ghoulish excesses were insurance.

Yet when the director gets up front with them, he depicts something like a Halloween show, a horror charade at which we shriek in fun during Halloween. His zombies are accentuated freaks, donned in makeup and lugubriously stomping to magnify their place as monsters. They are much like trained stars employed to overact, as stars of the Batman series to excess. The zombies even go right to the camp source, as they substitute for drag performers, donning ironic dress to upturn the norms. Whereas campy cross-dressing disrupts gender conventions, Romero's ghoulish performers, and the human dread they inspire, upturn the conservative complacency of the previous Eisenhower America. The dread of the turbulent '60s was real, and Romero conceived a means to prove it.

Yet we shouldn't confuse the campiness outside with the stilted performances of the captives. From inside, we shouldn't idolize the amateurish talent. Romero clearly wanted everyone freaked, and fueled this end by robbing a voice from his initial female captive, who had witnessed her brother mauled in the first attack. Her presence serves as the sole element of accidental camp within the house, as her quivering presence attempts to fuel paranoia. In an innovative film, this mildly misogynistic element may be the most dated bit, even if the other actors remind us that things are artificial.

We must credit Duane Jones for much of the verity, and Romero's introduction to his character. When his Ben first appears at the door, after others have already taken refuge, he's revealed in a wandering camera. It is a nearly vertiginous point of view that suggests his race is as menacing as is the possibility that he may be a ghoul. Hereon, after taking leadership among the captives – until mutiny disrupts it – Romero conflates his “exterior” camp style with a submerged tinge of racial hatred, a political counterpart to the zombie terror. Jones' assertion resounds deep in contemporary viewers, while I'd bet his fight against a white man was downright shocking in the film's initial release (just a year after Sydney Poitier's groundbreaking slap to the face of Rod Steiger's racist cop).

Ironically, one ghoul that arises in the house is the only one to prove non-camp. This zombie found its way onto many a piece of advertising for the film, as her very memory injects dread. The little girl zombie, with sheer conviction in her eyes, makes us temporarily forget that those outside have accidentally stumbled upon kitsch. She's the film's one true element of preternatural dread. Looking up to her mother as she reaches out for a slow attack invokes a sheer return to the repressed, a startling moment that makes us think such things may just pop out from the dark. In this later moment of the film, late night audiences quiet down, relieved that they are amidst a communal viewing experience. For those watching it alone at night, this is what the terror film is all about.

More broadly, thoroughly human terror occupies the inside, with a campy ghoulfest out beyond; hence, the darkest depths are matched with devious delights. Though many claim it to be a guilty pleasure, Night of the Living Dead is a dynamic viewing experience, which manipulates us into a deep unease. When we relax and revel in the campy ghouls, our nerves are left fresh for the film’s terrifying bite; the last and sharpest of which comes at the searing downbeat ending. We finish the film with nerves alive, remembering in catharsis why we crave horror. The campy delights flicker in memory over a smoldering bullet in the brain.

A regular contributor to the online magazine Film Threat, Matthew Sorrento edits the film section of Identity Theory and has written for Bright Lights Film Journal. In 2007, the LA Times (dis)honored him as one of the "crankiest movie critics" of the year. He teaches writing at Camden County College in Blackwood, NJ and lectures on film at Rutgers University in Camden.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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