Film

Night of Night of the Living Dead

Bill Gibron

On a cool October night in 1970, I was witness to something so shocking, so outside my sphere of fear influence that it ended up being a never-ending journey into total terror.

Forty years later, it's all fragments. Distorted memories and incomplete images. I remember struggling down in my seat, trying to get as low as possible. I recall wincing when I heard the speakers blasting those blood curdling screams. There's a faint memory of trying to get up and leave, only to realize that I was stuck in the middle of a row of like minded and equally horrified tweens. And then there was the fear – intense, uncompromising, unreal. On a cool October night in 1970, I was witness to something so shocking, so outside my sphere of fear influence that my nine-year-old brain just couldn't process it. My friend had promised it would be nothing more than a silly spook show and a movie. It ended up being a never-ending journey into total terror.

Growing up, I was a true horror nerd. I hated the macabre. Even the schlocky Saturday matinee kind of b-movie frights bothered me. My uncle Gary (who, it turned out, was only two years older than me) was the exact opposite. Whenever we would visit, I was always stuck staying in his room. It was a den of dread - full sized Frankenstein poster on the wall, various morbid model kits in the making strewn across his desk. He'd have the latest issues of Eerie and Creepy, and if you looked hard enough, you could usually find a Famous Monsters of Filmland lying around somewhere. Spending the night in his room was like entering a gallery of ghouls, goblins, and gore, gore, gore. Needless to say, I spent many a sleepless hour on those frequent family visits.

As I got older, I became even more wary of the scary. Sleepovers usually ended up tuned into the local late night horror movie (Shock Theater, more than likely), and some of my friends enjoyed mocking my ghost gullibility. I was usually the one being tricked when all the lights were off, my supposed pals pretending to be asleep, only to slowly skulk up to my spot and scare the living Bejesus out of me. Then it was laughs all around, and a guaranteed day or two of ridicule at school the following week. While many were just as jumpy as I, perhaps even more so, it seemed like every prank was pulled on my behalf. So when it was announced that our local high school was having a spook show/screening, I was not interested. After all, I was someone who saw Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster when I was six and hid under the covers, shivering, afterwards. Still, my buddies all wanted to go, and I felt a kind of sick sense of obligation to agree -- damn peer pressure!

For those who've never had the peculiar privilege, a spook show is a live action atrocity-fest fashioned after the old Grand Guignol theatrical presentations. A magician type would put together a half hour spectacle of tricks and travesty, lopping off heads and disemboweling bodies with wanton glee. All the while, he would admonish the audience to behave, threatening that they would be next if they didn't show respect. Naturally, some older boys would be caught jeering, and before you knew it, some hideous creature would come crashing out of a cage, mouth caked with blood and body parts, and bring the rebellious individuals onstage. There, amongst a mad scientist set percolating with dry ice fog and test tube bubbles, more preplanned slaughter was delivered in realistic red stuff.

On this night, the showcase was particularly nasty. The mock villain held a freshly guillotined head for the shrieking crowd to consider, and those of us unprepared for such a shock would later swear we saw the mouth and eyes move. Later, a series of grue covered organs were removed from one unlucky adolescent, his voice horse from yelling as the psycho surgery continued. For someone not used to anything remotely horrific, I was floored. I couldn't believe my eyes. Part of me found it impossible to comprehend. I had seen my fair share of gut gouging grotesqueries courtesy of some old EC Comics, but this was beyond disturbing. There, a few scant rows from where I was sitting, death was being delivered in heart pounding, head slicing vileness.

Then things got worse…a lot worse. With the obligatory reveal that some of what he was doing had been faked, our carnival barker killer left the stage. Slowly, the curtains opened and a massive movie screen was revealed. It seemed to stretch forever, covering one end of the auditorium all the way to the other. Without announcement, the credits began to roll, and something called Night of the Living Dead began. At first, it seemed rather dull and disorienting. A brother and sister were arguing, discussing something that made little sense to a shell-shocked grade schooler. Soon, names were attached to the individuals - Barbra and Johnny. To the untrained eye, one not used to genre specifics, their bickering appeared pointless. After all, they were in a cemetery, and couldn't stop sniping long enough to show some respect for the dearly departed.

Even as some strange man lumbered up to them, Barbra and Johnny kept at it. Things swung wildly into what seemed to be a standard fight. Our hero swung, then tripped, then hit his head on a gravestone. Suddenly, his sister was alone, and running. She sought refuge in a car, yet couldn't get it started. Her pursuer continued, breaking the windows and forcing her to smash the vehicle against a nearby tree. Again, none of this registered as anything more than your typical onscreen assault. In fact, for the first few minutes, this Night seemed rather nominal. We watched as Barbra ran, discovered a nearby farmhouse, and sought shelter inside. So far, so good. Even as she realized the place was abandoned, we all relaxed, safe in the knowledge that nothing as nauseating as the previous live splatter spectacle was on the horizon.

As she wandered up the stairs, continuing to explore her possible sanctuary, I began wondering just what the big deal was. After all, people often look around empty buildings before settling in. Nothing unusual there…that is, until the extreme close-up of the rotting head appeared. Eye exposed from desiccated flesh, lips peeled back to reveal a sickening skeletal smile, the jolt was visceral and immediate. Barbra balked, the audience joining her in an involuntary shout. Almost immediately, another character came barging in the door. He was tall and black, his face frozen in the kind of naked fright that Barbra just experienced. Outside were a group of slow moving people. He started shouting. She babbled incoherently. The individuals kept coming. Their pursuit was relentless. And…

For the next 90 minutes I was a nattering, nervous wreck. I shook and stammered. I looked at my friends, tracing the lines of terror on their equally freaked out faces. I remember snippets of speeches - reporters claiming that corpses had risen from the grave and were…eating people -- adults arguing over who was going to do what, unearthly moans and ungodly munching. And then there was the little girl, so ill before, now wielding a garden tool and tearing her mother apart. I was numb, stricken with a kind of paralysis I didn't know how to handle. I averted my eyes, but somehow, I still saw the screen. I tried to avoid the moments of horrific imagery, and yet inside my mind they were playing out, in a manner more reprehensible than in cinematic reality. When it was all over and the lights went up, there were a few nervous twitters. But mostly, simple stunned silence. Even the magician, who returned to send us off with a wish of "pleasant screams" seemed halfhearted in his salute.

Night of the Living Dead had that kind of impact then, and it still resonates with me today. Granted, I am much more of a horror aficionado now, relishing that which made me wince four decades before. Still, George Romero's genius continues to haunt my infrequent dreams of blood. Part of the reason I remember that Night so well is that the movie felt more like a documentary, like a portrait of reality captured in dramatic black and white. It seemed shot by someone inside the house with the survivors, intense and unyielding. The use of news footage and man on the street interviews gave it an authenticity that your typical scary movies of the time failed to possess. In essence, Night seemed real, especially to someone as naïve and susceptible as I. True, the random vivisection beforehand had prepared me for something truly sinister. I just could never have imagined it would be so frightening.

A few days later, my friends and I were walking through the neighborhood, trees blocking out the last few rays of a fading Fall twilight. As the shadows grew long and the unlit houses became imposing in their dark lifelessness, someone whispered "They're coming to get you Bill". For a moment, my own blood ran ice cold, and I could see that iconic rotting head floating directly in front of me. Johnny was waiting around the corner, head wound congealing and eyes spying my plump school boy flesh. The look on my face must have been priceless, as a goofy group laugh rose from the others. I relaxed, if only a little, and quickened my pace toward home. I had experienced one night of Night of the Living Dead. It would be a few more years before I was ready to try another.

Since deciding to employ his underdeveloped muse muscles over five years ago, Bill has been a significant staff member and writer for three of the Web’s most influential websites: DVD Talk, DVD Verdict and, of course, PopMatters. He also has expanded his own web presence with Bill Gibron.com a place where he further explores creative options. It is here where you can learn of his love of Swindon’s own XTC, skim a few chapters of his terrifying tome in the making, The Big Book of Evil, and hear samples from the cassette albums he created in his college music studio, The Scream Room.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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