Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Public Domain Undead : George Romero and the Halperin Brothers vs. ze World

With the apocalypse year 2012 only a handful of days away I thought I'd prepare you with this post about zombies and creative copyright - you'll need to know about both to survive what congress and cosmic radioactivity have in store!  

The post-apocalyptic undead 'shoot 'em in the head' cannibal zombie film/TV show is now so ubiquitous that anyone with a camera feels entitled to make one --yet the way the bandwagon jumpers carry on you'd think these walking dead 'zombies' were as old and license-free as medieval folklore. Do the makers of stuff like AMC's sanctimonious glumfest THE WALKING DEAD and/or zom-coms like ZOMBIELAND and SHAUN OF THE DEAD even remember what life was like before 1968? Do they understand their huge debt to one man, the Bram Stoker of zombie-hood? Seeing WALKING DEAD try to be so soapy and self-serious, like "stop smiling, man, my son is out there, dead! And no one cares!" is for me just painful. Lighten up, guys, it's a fucking horror TV show on basic cable!

In the 1930s, 'every desire' was extra dirty.
Before NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968 all zombies were in Haiti. They were tools of sugar plantation owners and voodoo chiefs, via films like 1932's WHITE ZOMBIE and REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (both by the Halperin Brothers). When the Halperin Brothers tried to release REVOLT as a WHITE sequel they wound up in trouble with their old distributor, according to Wikipedia:
In May 1936, however, the Halperins encountered legal troubles in the form of a suit from Amusement Securities Corporation, a company that had helped finance White Zombie. Amusement Securities alleged that its contract for the earlier film gave it the exclusive right to use the world "zombie" in motion picture titles. Amusement Securities sent letters to theaters who planned to showcase Revolt of the Zombies, warning them not to show the film. As the film's premiere approached, Judge Waservogel of the New York State Supreme court ruled that screenings of the film could take place until a judgment in the suit was reached, and appointed attorney Henry Hoffman to referee the case. On June 27, 1936, Hoffman issued an opinion in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding Amusement Securities $11,500 in damages and legal fees and prohibiting the Halperins from promoting Revolt of the Zombies as a sequel to White Zombie.[3]
Wow! All that over that one word --it's bound to make you mad when you consider what's going on now, how everyone and anyone makes zombie films as they like while the one man who invented zombies as we know them today collects not a farthing and rarely any public recognition. He brought us all the modern zombie features and there's not even a plaque (cough) or a statue of him... in that town, and meanwhile everyone with a camera is out making zombie movies, rewriting classic literature to include zombies, making faux History channel documentaries on zombies and using the ideas he invented as a 'given' of folklore. Michael, he could have been bigger than US Steel, which instead all but owns his hometown of Pittsburgh.

His name? George Romero.

 The Romero brand zombie has become 'the' zombie. Your zombie is a Romero-inspired zombie if:

1. It can only be stopped by a bullet to or strong blow to the head
2. It eats the flesh of living humans
3. Those who are killed rise up as zombies anywhere from a few seconds to a few days after death.
4.  It can somehow smell out who is dead vs. who is alive (or hear the heartbeat)
5. They're not really cannibals since they don't eat other zombies.

That's what I never understood. At what point does a dead person being eaten alive wake up a zombie and say, excuse me brother, get your damn teeth out my arm or I shall start eating thee? And why is it, even with tons of meat at their disposal, they'd rather waste an evening bashing at a front door than chow down on the corpses available and/or wrap something up for later?

Of course there's a long history of borrowing and co-opting in horror, stemming from legal issues over the use of DRACULA as a narrative in the 1920s, filed by Dracula author Bram Stoker's widow against Murnau's film, NOSFERATU in '22. That's just an example of the muddy battle by which the name DRACULA eventually became public domain. Now anyone can reprint that book or make a movie with a Dracula character. Free publicity - a bankable name. Ditto for FRANKENSTEIN, but the Universal monster make-up IS copyright, so your Frankenstein can't have a square head, bolts-in-neck, and so forth.

The original properties for those two are too old for renewal anyway, but NOTLD shouldn't be. (One of my pet peeves over books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is how lazy and bottom-line it is, the zombies are royalty-free, the source book is royalty-free, just Cuisnart them together and make some lazy fucker rich).

The big disaster for Romero was that the licensing rights to NIGHT fell into the public domain due to someone letting the copyright lapse, probably through the usual tangle of crooked distributors.  Then again, would the film have become so ubiquitous otherwise? Since anyone could show it, the film played endlessly at the end of drive-in triple features up until the end of drive-ins in the 80s, as well as college campuses, local TV, and cheap VHS.  Now anyone can make a movie or TV show or book with Romero-brand zombies, and adhere to the rules, or change them --it's a true myth for the ages. Maybe that's the definition of myth - public domain - once it's public domain, anyone can tell the story in their own way. And of course that's why the story gets told over and over... so letting your title lapse may lose you cash, but in insures your myth endures.

Disputes over the rights and directions, led to a branching of minds between Romero and his effects man / screenwriter John Russo who did RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1985, which references NIGHT directly, wile Romero did DAY OF THE DEAD the same year. I remember seeing both in different NJ cinemas the same week! Adding to the confusion, Tom Savini remade the original film with Romero producing (?) and there was also a colorized version.

Interestingly, I'm pretty sure the word zombie never even appears in the original 1968 film. The newscasters do refer to them as 'ghouls' and 'individuals rising up and committing mass murder and cannibalism' but never as straight up 'zombies.' Unless I'm mistaken that name came from Italy. They loooooved NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD over there. And the called DAWN OF THE DEAD (imported by Dario Argento who funded it with profits from SUSPIRIA being a huge fan of Romero's original) ZOMBI, so ZOMBI 2 was their own sequel to that film, called ZOMBIE here, and a big hit, with the unforgettable tag line "They are coming to eat you."

Even if you were too young to ever go see ZOMBIE, you saw the TV ad, and you remembered that tag line and that terrifying, rotting face.

At least the imagery of hungry hordes ripping the living to shred finds a perfect meta analogy for the feeding frenzy of zombie cannibal bandwagon jumpers.

Well, that's how we got where we are. So fuck THE WALKING DEAD, that's the name of an old Karloff programmer from the 1940s anyway.

So...if you're going to make a movie about zombies, heed these words: unless you're doing it in a voodoo context, you're using Romero's ideas, his and original co-screenwriter John Russo. Give some props.

 Or better yet, go back to 1932 and respect the brothers Halperin, who brought us the amazing WHITE ZOMBIE!! This film is also in the public domain, but that's okay, fuck the Amusement Securities Corporation. Plus -- the Roan disc is pretty good quality-wise so again so go for the reliable brand! Bela Lugosi won't get a cent but.... Bela Lugosi's dead! Long live...'choke - gasp!'.. Bella Swan.


1 comment:

  1. Great piece, and I agree with it totally. I think the directors get it, but I'm not sure the newer audiences do.