Return of the Living Dead (1985 D: Dan O’Bannon, W: Dan O’Bannon, Rudy Ricci, John Russo, Russell Streiner)
I’m going to go ahead and distinguish “soundtrack” from “score” here — there are plenty movies with scores I adore (anything by Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone or Dimitri Tiomkin, for starters). And sure, there are great soundtracks in tons of movies: Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Repo Man. But for me, I love Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead. On the soundtrack, there’s 45 Grave’s “Partytime,” which accompanies the film’s trademark skeleton zombie-puppet scare , there’s Roky Erikson’s “Burn The Flames” in a pivotal character death scene, TSOL’s “Nothing For You” — which I recently tried to revisit and it hasn’t aged as well as some of the other tracks. There’s Flesheaters doing “Eyes without a Face” (not the Billy Idol song) and, probably best of all, there’s “Surfin’ Dead” by The Cramps which ostensibly forms the movie’s theme song. Linnea Quigley does an infamous goth-punk striptease to “Tonight” by SSQ (later known as Stacey Q, who had a minor hit with “Two of Hearts”), although originally the song was to have been “Nasty Girl” by Vanity. The movie itself is a fairly insane parody of the Romero dead films, and created the notion that zombies exist to eat brains. There are memorable lines galore, such as the zombie, having just attacked an ambulance, grabbing the CB radio and saying, gutturally, “Send.. more… paramedics.” The cast is especially great, with Clu Gulager as the sensible owner of a medical supply store, and bug-eyed James Karen as the old pro showing new kid Thom Mathews the ropes. Don Calfa is particularly fine as the mortician who thinks the plastic bags full of “rabid weasels” dumped on his floor by Gulager might just be something else entirely. The film was the result of a split of intellectual property between Night of the Living Dead’s George Romero and John Russo. Romero got the rights to his own sequels, Russo got the rights to the phrase “Living Dead.”
The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964 D: Ray Dennis Steckler, W: Gene Pollock, Robert Silliphant)
Drive-In Theaters are, for the most part, lost now. I saw a bunch of films at drive-ins in the ’70s and early ’80s with my parents or neighborhood kids –from The Apple Dumpling Gang to Hot Stuff (starring Dom Deluise and Jerry Reed!), to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Conan The Barbarian — but one night stands out. Working at the U Film Society in Minneapolis, fresh out of college, and working with Joel Shepard and Doug Jones, we rented a drive-in in St. Louis Park and showed a triple feature: The Last House on the Left, Andy Milligan’s Torture Dungeon, and this unforgettable picture. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies was Ray Dennis Steckler’s first film, and was shot, on a budget of $38,000, by Laszlo Kovacs, who later did Easy Rider, Shampoo, Ghostbusters and tons of other movies, and by Vilmos Zsigmond, who later did Close Encounters, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Blow Out. Steckler (as “Cash Flagg”) plays the main character Jerry, as well as the main zombie himself, which he portrays by cinching his hoodie tightly around his face. Did I mention it’s a musical? Did I mention Steckler as “Cash Flagg” is a dead ringer for Nicolas Cage? Wikipedia tells me the film was shot in an empty Masonic temple owned by Rock Hudson. During this film and The Last House on the Left, the drive-in was packed full of cars. Ten minutes into the last feature, Torture Dungeon, there were 2 cars left. Steckler was still making movies until he passed away recently, shooting them out of a video store he owned in Las Vegas.
Near Dark (1987 D: Kathryn Bigelow, W: Eric Red, Kathryn Bigelow)
This is a film that reminds me of someone — my wife, specifically — more because we saw it on our first date some 23 years ago, than because of any thematic connection (unless Rosemary Pepper is secretly a 100 year old travelling vampire hobo). Near Dark was Kathryn Bigelow’s first real showcase for her talents as a director, and it’s a beautifully stylized treat. Mixing the western with vampire and biker movies, with a wicked sense of humor and pure aesthetic (the night shots are bathed in blue light, with that archetypal ’80s Tangerine Dream score), it finds its own originality out of style, blended genre pics and some fun acting. Lance Henriksen is every inch the grizzled Civil War-vet vampire, Jenny Wright the gentle succubus, and Bill Paxton as a terrifyingly slobbish vampire dickhead. Joshua John Miller, the prescient child actor from River’s Edge, makes a perfect pre-adolescent vampire, stuck forever just before puberty. Some neat pyrotechnics take the whole thing over the edge. Apparently it’s a pretty good date movie, too.
Let Him Have It (1991 D: Peter Medak, W: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade)
There are plenty of sad films out there. Just hurt a dog in a movie and I’m ready to stick my head under a car tire. (I’ve contended for years that Where The Red Fern Grows and Ol’ Yeller are the child’s equivalent of torture porn.) But for a truly transcendent kind of sadness, watch Let Him Have It. Christopher Eccleston plays Derek Bentley, the illiterate who falls into bad company with Chris Craig (played by Paul Reynolds). In the famous case, referenced in Elvis Costello’s song “Let Him Dangle” on the Spike LP, Bentley is sentenced to be hanged for the murder of a police officer, even though he didn’t pull the trigger. The double meaning of the phrase “let him have it” forms the crux of the legal debate. The film is solid, the script airtight. Bentley’s last moments with his mother are impossibly sad, as is the underlying story itself. Medak’s direction is as restrained as the acting – he was on quite a roll with The Krays, this film, and the nutso Romeo Is Bleeding. I love this film.
Rio Bravo (1959 D: Howard Hawks, W: Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett)
There’s not a sour note in this rousing, funny Western from Hawks. Although I’ve read that some think it’s Wayne’s reaction to High Noon (which he hated), all I see is Hawks’ later obsession with characters over story. Sure, it’s something of a siege movie — and the inspiration for Assault on Precinct 13, among others — but mostly it’s a chance to watch some great character actors work around each other, digging into great dialogue and rich set pieces. Wayne interacting with Dean Martin’s recovering drunk Dude — Wayne doesn’t really do anything, he mostly just waits to see what Dude is going to do next — while Walter Brennan humps around as Stumpy Joe is hearty camaraderie; Angie Dickinson is a real female presence in a deeply masculine movie, and Claude Akins plays the bad guy. Of course he does. Martin and Ricky Nelson get a song each, more or less. When I watched this movie with my pal Orville, during the siege sequence he said “I don’t want any of these characters to die.” Pretty much.
Forrest Gump (1994 D: Robert Zemeckis, W: Eric Roth) To me the polar opposite of It’s a Wonderful Life, Forrest Gump is the story of a life lived by accident, redeemed despite ignorance (or because of it); it’s overblown and drearily sentimental. I like Zemeckis and I even like Tom Hanks, usually, but this one just makes me put on my angry pants. I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Rosenbaum, who says, “Judging by the the movie’s enduring popularity, the message that stupidity is redemption is clearly what a lot of Americans want to hear. ”
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946 D: Frank Capra, W: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling)
While it’s now a holiday tradition, It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t tied to any one day or time of year. It’s a film that embraces a lifetime, one of few pictures that can grasp something as all-encompassing. For me, it proves that community is everything. There is no justice for Old Man Potter’s malicious crimes — Capra famously said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Let God sort him out.” Friends and family are the reward for a life lived honestly, even if that life seems off course at the time. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are impeccable, and the supporting cast – including Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as Bert and Ernie, the cop and cab driver, Gloria Grahame glowing as Violet Bick, charismatic Henry Travers as Clarence the angel, and a gnarled Lionel Barrymore as Potter — are absolute perfection.