“They’re coming for you, Barbara.”
Some movie quotes need no introduction, like Russell Streiner’s taunting jibe to Judith O’Dea in Night of the Living Dead. They’re kept alive in the vernacular of film fans everywhere, the more so when a film has achieved cult status. When director George Romero made Night of the Living Dead on a shoestring budget back in 1968, no one then — not the cast or crew — could have predicted that the small but grisly indie production out of Pittsburgh would become the trendsetting zombie classic it is today.
“Of all the genres, the one genre we always thought was kind of the lowbrow genre, but the one that has lasted the longest, is the horror movie,” says filmmaker Joe Dante in Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time (Volume 2, Horror & Sci-Fi). Dante joins the series hosts, filmmaker John Waters and actors Illeana Douglas and Kevin Pollak, for the second go-round in director Danny Wolf’s follow-up to Volume 1, Midnight Madness.
This entry in the three-part documentary series is divided into two sections. The first deals with the horror movies that broke with conventions, upping the ante in terms of their macabre themes and over-the-top violence and gore. And it’s not for the squeamish. Unflinching views of cannibalistic ghouls chomping on limbs and entrails is one of the things that set Night of the Living Dead apart from previous zombie pictures. In true cult style, it failed to gain an audience when it was first released on the grindhouse circuit on double bills with second-run features. Originally titled Night of the Flesh Eaters, movie theater mogul Walter Reade failed to renew the copyright when the name was changed, and it fell into the public domain. Film critics in Time Warp suggest that this unfortunate state of affairs had the unintended consequence of elevating its presence in the public consciousness.
Romero followed up his ghoul picture 10 years later with the blood-splattered Dawn of the Dead. As funny as it is horrifying, this first in a long line of Romero-helmed sequels, took aim at consumer culture with zombie’s lumbering through a shopping mall, where a ragtag group of survivors seeks refuge.
Like its predecessor, Volume 2 offers up more behind-the-scenes insights, like the fact that the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead was open to the public during filming and the cast and crew had a heck of time trying to avoid letting elderly shoppers run smack dab into the gut-munching zombies. And, in its treatment of director Tobe Hooper’s midnight classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), we learn that the old homestead where a hapless group of teenagers fall victim to chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his cannibalistic family of psychopaths, is still standing. But it’s now an upscale restaurant (no word on what the meat is on the menu).
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a tour-de-force case study in effective editing. The film contains almost no gore while leaving you with the impression of being among the most brutal productions made at the time. In archival footage, Hooper explains how people told him they could swear they saw fountains of blood where there was none. But its quick-cut editing style and horrific themes pack a visceral punch to this day. Leatherface, wildly swinging his chainsaw in pursuit of the sole survivor, is etched into the minds of horror film fans everywhere.
To its credit, Time Warp isn’t content to merely plumb the depths of film history but features more recent productions, too, like The Human Centipede (2009), which owes much of its cult status to its revolting premise. The film, made by director Tom Six, casts Dieter Laser in the role of a mad scientist determined to create a human monstrosity by surgically connecting three helpless victims together, mouth to anus. While it’s less graphic than its premise makes it sound, the repugnant story alone is enough to turn your stomach. The film’s tagline boasted that it was “100% medically accurate.” That’s debatable, but Six explains in Time Warp that he did seek the advice of medical professionals to find out is such a procedure was possible. Public service announcement: Don’t try this at home.
Leading up the science fiction-themed second half is the Roger Corman-produced comic actioner Death Race 2000 (1975). Set in a dystopian America, drivers in a cross-country road race score extra points for mowing down pedestrians. Volume 2 largely dispenses with the debates about what exactly constitutes a cult film, unlike Volume 1. But Corman, whose oeuvre alone could provide all the fodder one needs for a cult film documentary, gives a broad definition while discussing Death Race. “A cult film is generally a genre film that has some element in it that goes beyond the conventions or the limitations of that genre,” he says. A life-or-death race to the finish line wasn’t enough for the film. It needed that shocking pedestrian murder angle to make it into the hit it became. The outlandish, gut-busting death scenes alone are worth the price of admission.
You won’t see films like Star Wars or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey discussed in Time Warp. As great as they are, they have broader critical and mass appeal than most cult films. However, one Kubrick entry made the list: a dystopian adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. The film, made in 1971, is still shocking today for its frank depictions of rape and violence and for the uneasy sympathy it culls from the audience for its antihero Alex (Malcolm McDowell). The actor explains how the infamous “Singing in the Rain” sequence was a spur-of-the-moment inspiration that came after a lull in filming when cast and crew were in the midst of a creative dry spell. Kubrick later tried to introduce McDowell to Singing in the Rain (1952) star Gene Kelly at a swanky Hollywood party, but Kelly snubbed him. McDowell learned later that it wasn’t the actor that Kelly wished to ignore but Kubrick.
Volume 2, again, finds its strength in zeroing in on only a handful of films, which is a help and a hindrance. While it allows for more in-depth analysis of each film, there’s a nagging suspicion that the selective format is leaving a lot out. You get the feeling that Volume 2 director Wolf could do it all again with an entirely different set of films equally worthy of being called the greatest of all time. Still, this is as fresh and up-to-date a documentary on cult films as you’re likely to find. And even film buffs steeped in the genres of sci-fi and horror will likely learn something they didn’t already know.
Volume 3, Comedies & Camp, premieres on June 23.