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ralph robert moore


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Copyright © 2003 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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unfamiliar men
november 15, 2003

You can tell about someone based on their possessions, so let's stoop over a moment, tilt our head to one side, and read the spines of the DVDs on one of the black bookcase shelves in my kitchen:

A Mighty Wind
Blood Simple
Blue Velvet
Night of the Living Dead
Office Space
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Big Lewbowski
The Thing

Since her stroke, Mary has had a more intense emotional response to movies.

If there's a surprise in a film, her head jerks back and her right hand comes up. A sad movie makes tears flow down her cheeks, her head turning towards me with a trembling smile.

Horror disturbs her.

We started watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre together, but about halfway through, it was too much for her. It's a brutal film, one of the most inspired scenes in it, to my mind, not so much the running around being chased by a chainsaw, but the bit where the last survivor is bundled into a large sack, thrown on the floor of a pick-up, and driven back to the chainsaw family's house from which she had escaped, the driver, who's the father of the maniacs, keeping his left hand on the wheel while with his right, he pokes at the wriggling bag with a stick. It's the unnecessary, but completely in character, meanness of the scene that makes it work. (One of the most famous moments in horror is the shower scene in Psycho, and we've all heard by now how its brief length is actually comprised of something like ninety different snippets of film (Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter, said once that the one snippet he wished had been included, but which had been cut out because of censorship issues, was a brief overhead shot during the attack on Janet Leigh which showed her buttocks, because, Stefano said, seeing her buttocks in that context made you realize how innocent and vulnerable she was). Something I've never seen commented on, though, is the shower curtain itself. The next time you see the movie, take a closer look at the curtain. It's the plastic kind, hanging from large rings. Any plastic shower curtain in the world, because it's normally drawn back to get in and out of the shower, has vertical ripples across its width, but this shower curtain is absolutely flat, as if ironed. When I first saw the unnaturally flat curtain, I wondered why they had filmed it that way, then realized it must have been because if the curtain were rippled, the viewer might not see through the curtain that the bathroom door was opening, someone coming inside. I picture Hitchcock and crew trying less and less rippled hangings of the curtain, finally throwing their eighteen hands up, telling the Assistant Director to find an iron, quick, hurry!)

Because of Mary's reaction to Chainsaw, I decided to watch Night of the Living Dead by myself, on my computer up in my study, in the early hours while Mary is still sleeping.

I saw Night when it first came out, at a discount movie theater on 42nd street in Manhattan, in 1968. It was on a double bill with Dr. Who and the Daleks.

I dropped out of high school the first day of my senior year, taking what in America is called a GED, meaning a long written examination which allowed me to "graduate" high school in one afternoon. In the intervening year I now had before I started college, I got a job in New York City, in Manhattan, at Brooks Brothers, a men's clothing store on Madison Avenue.

I was seventeen.

I knew absolutely no one in the city, at first, and had spent my life until then living in Greenwich, Connecticut, a town of about seventy thousand souls.

It was an absolute culture shock to go from pokey old Greenwich to the teeming millions in New York City, which is exactly what I wanted.

After work each night, rather than catch an early evening train back to Greenwich, I'd generally wander around the city (wouldn't you, if you were seventeen?), find somewhere cheap to have dinner (I was paid a miserable salary at Brooks, but there was a crowded place on 42nd Street where you could get a char-broiled steak, albeit a rather thin steak, a baked potato, and a small, ice-cold salad for $1.99), then either just walk around, or else, if I could afford the extra ninety-nine cents, go to a movie.

I'd usually get home around midnight, sometimes later, go right to sleep, get up in a few hours to shower, shave, put on a suit, take the train back into the city.

The discount movie theater I'd usually go to on 42nd Street, and went to that evening to see Night, was fairly typical of the cheap admission 'movie palaces' you'd find in those days.

About half the people sitting inside, in the dark, had gone there to actually see the movie. Some were there to have sex, some to get out of the cold, or heat, depending on the season, and a lot because they just ended up there.

At least a few seats in each of the long rows were slashed, and the concrete floor was always sticky with spilled soda. It was virtually impossible to find a seat that did not face a flat, pink wad of bubble gum stuck to the back of the seat directly in front of you.

Each audience contained at least one person who would talk to the screen during the film, and it was usually the same punchlines each time.

On the screen, one of the male characters is wandering around a spaceship, old house, shadowy office, sunlit glade, eyebrows drawn together in puzzlement, head slowly swinging left, right. "Brad? Are you there? Brad?"

From somewhere in the audience: "He's takin' a shit!"

Boy, would that crack up everyone in the audience.

The evening I saw Night for the first time, I sat near the front center, as I usually did.

The very front row was occupied by various bag ladies, as everyone called them back then. I was never certain who exactly they were, although my impression from observing them was that they were, in effect, what I suppose I would have to call retired prostitutes, in that they were rather old, stout and hair-frazzled, which suggested to me they had some time ago been given their gold watch, therefore the retired part, and they would frequently make what to me, at seventeen, raised in staid Greenwich, seemed like 'coarse sexual references', i.e., while I would wait in Grand Central Station each late evening, in the high-ceilinged waiting room just off 42nd Street, row after row of long benches, reading a newspaper, killing time until my train was ready to depart, while the dark blue cops walked up and down the rows, stopping each time they came across an obvious vagrant using the wooden arm rest at the end of a row as a pillow, grinning at each other, then banging their night stick down on the wooden arm rest right next to the vagrant's ear, shocking him awake, lifting him by his shoulders, shoving him out onto the snowy sidewalk, telling him to don't ever let me catch you sleeping in here again, sometimes I'd hear those rapid bang-bang-bangs over and over again, while I reread the same paragraph, anyway, the bag ladies would occasionally banter coarse sexual comments at each other, usually one bag lady at one end of the immense hall taunting another bag lady at the other end, in a voice proud of its loudness, "You been selling yer hole for fifty years," therefore the prostitute part.

The theatre that night, as it always did, held a number of blacks, which comprised maybe thirty percent of the audience. Since this was the sixties, some whites still sat with whites, some blacks still with blacks, but a lot of people just sat where they wanted, without caring very much who was near them, unlike the fifties.

Dr. Who and the Daleks was boring to everyone in the theater. The crowd was restless.

After a brief intermission, the wide, white screen in front of all of us showed a black and white view of a road twisting through an autumnal landscape, a station wagon approaching. Big letters across the screen: Night of the Living Dead.

We settled in our seats, ready to be bored, but at least not as badly bored as we had by Dr. Who.

Night is such a famous movie now, and in fact, probably one of the "seminal", as they say, films of the last fifty years, I don't feel compelled to give too many plot points, but let me go into a few details.

A brother and sister visit the grave of their mother, after which, still in the cemetery, the brother teases his sister, as brothers sometimes do, about how nervous she would be as a child in the cemetery, realizes his sister is still uneasy, even as an adult, teases even more, spots a man walking towards them, and tells her the man is coming to get her, then pushes her in the man's path. The sister goes to apologize to the man, but before she can get her words out, the man attacks her. The brother, at a distance, laughing, realizes suddenly what's happening, comes to his sister's defense, struggles with the man, and is killed by the man, head bashed against a gravestone. The sister flees, stumbling to a small house set all by itself in a pasture. Soon there are a number of men trying to get at her.

Inside the house, at the top of the stairs, she discovers a corpse, its face partially eaten.

She rushes outside onto the wooden front porch, trying to escape, blinded by headlights in her eyes. A young black man pushes her back inside, fights the men, shuts the door.

As I said, about thirty percent of the audience was black, mostly young men themselves.

Although we had all been following the story, interested to one degree or another, as soon as the young black man appeared on screen, and it was clear he was a hero, I could feel and see interest in what was happening on the screen pick up tangibly among the blacks in the theater.

It was rare back then to see blacks in movies anyway, unless they had big teeth and big pimp hats, and certainly rarer still to see one cast as the hero, particularly in a genre film.

The sister at this point is in shock, not making sense, immobile, standing in the center of the room, then sitting on a couch, looking down at her lap. At one point, she tries to sleep, and the black man, wanting to make her comfortable, loosens the front straps of her rain coat. A few sniggers. One of the bag ladies in the front row, in a loud, nasty voice: "Get your filthy hands off her, you black bastard."

Nowadays, of course, such a comment would end in a lawsuit, although what you could possibly recover from a bag lady I don't know, and who would actually want to widen the mouth of her bag to see what was inside, but back then, everyone in the audience, white and black, in a truly liberating moment, "considered the source", and we all laughed together at how stupid her comment was. In a way, her comment brought us closer together, as an audience.

A truly great film often has a 'turning moment' to it, where your emotional investment in the film suddenly increases dramatically, and in Night, that moment is when several of the people trapped inside the house try to escape.

Let's go back to the plot to catch up.

The sister and the young black man discover there are other humans hiding in the house, in the cellar. A young couple, and a middle-aged couple with a small daughter.

At about the same time, using a radio they've found in the house, and later a TV, the people trapped in the house learn the recent dead are coming back to life, attacking the living, killing them, and eating them.

There are now dozens of the dead surrounding the house, trying to weakly force their way inside.

The middle-aged man, white, short, bald, argumentative, wants everyone to barricade themselves in the cellar. "The cellar's the safest place." The black man argues they should stay on the first floor. The doors have been locked, the windows barricaded. If they seal themselves in the cellar, and the dead somehow break down the cellar door, there's no way to retreat. At least by staying on the first floor, if the dead do break through, the group can try to flee out the back.

The TV announces safe shelters that have been established for people until this crisis is controlled. One is nearby. The young black man's truck is almost out of gas, but there's a gas pump a few hundred yards away. The black man proposes he and the young man try to get past the dead with his truck to the pump, fill up the truck's tank, pick up the others, and drive to the nearest shelter. At the last minute, the girlfriend of the young man decides to join the two.

The black man and the young couple get past the crowd of dead outside, waving a torch to keep the dead at bay, get in the pick-up, drive to the pump, but then the torch accidentally ignites gasoline spilled in haste on the truck, the truck explodes, and the young couple are burned alive inside the truck. The young black manages to fight his way back to the house, as the dead pull parts of the young couple's bodies out of the charred husk of the truck, eating the parts.

Up until this scene in the film, the crowd at the theater had been generally enjoying the movie, making a few wisecracks, but clearly getting drawn into the situation.

When the pick-up blew, the young couple dying, everyone in the theater went silent. They stayed silent for the rest of the film. Even the shots of the dead eating parts of the couple, which should have drawn at least a few noises of exaggerated disgust, elicited no sound at all from us.

We were stunned.

Stunned because no one had expected the young couple to die, we thought they'd almost get captured, but then at the last minute sprint free, as always happened in horror films up to that point, and stunned because of the extreme explicitness of the shots showing the dead eating the two young lovers.

We had never seen that before, where the camera didn't, at the crucial moment, turn away.

We all watched the rest of the film in silence, as one by one, the people inside the house died, until only the young black man was left. The dead crawled through the windows, broke through the doors, as the black managed to make it to the cellar, barricading the door behind him.

The next morning, he wakes to the sound of dogs barking. There don't appear to be any dead still in the house. He goes up the cellar stairs, pulls down the barricades. Creeps to the nearest downstairs window, looks outside. In the distance, a sheriff's patrol are hunting down the dead, shooting them through the head, tossing their bodies on a bonfire. One of the posse members spots the young black in the distant window, takes aim with his rifle, puts a bullet through his forehead.

The sheriff nods at the shooter. "That's another one for the bonfire."

As I said earlier, I'd often get home quite late from New York City, sometimes at one or two in the morning, usually the only person on the train getting off at the Greenwich depot.

I'd then have to walk a mile or so from the depot up Greenwich Avenue, the main business district, but all the stores locked and dark at that hour, then another quarter mile or so along suburban sidewalks.

I'd rarely see anyone during those long, lonely walks, with the town silent, the moon high, no cars on the streets, but whenever I did, a figure off in the distance, approaching, my spine would wonder, Has it started? Did the dead begin reanimating while I was on the train?

You can never be sure.

The DVD I watched these recent early mornings features an excellent transfer. George Romero's film, shot in black and white, had often been criticized as being 'grainy', and in fact whenever I saw it, in whatever venue (movie theater, drive-in, television), the images were degraded (one of the worst showings of it was at a drive-in in California, where the projectionist had not framed the film properly, so that everyone's heads were chopped off).

In this DVD though, the Millennium Edition DVD issued by Elite Entertainment, the resolution is the best I've ever seen. It was like seeing the movie for the first time.

The acting in the film had also been criticized, as being amateurish, but seeing the movie again after so long, I found the acting to be fine. The people trapped in the house are ordinary people. They aren't particularly good-looking, or well-dressed. They're us. They don't behave well during this crisis. They argue themselves to death, bickering as to who should be in charge while the danger outside is getting closer and stronger, and this stupidity on their part, this getting lost in petty jealousies while the world is collapsing around them, is what helps doom them.

Another source of their doom is the hero, although I don't think any of us in the theater that night caught that point. It's usually only on a re-viewing that you realize the ignorant, argumentative middle-aged male had been right, and the young hero of the movie wrong. They should have stayed in the cellar, the cellar the hero himself retreats to after his ill-advised decisions have killed everyone else.

I've been writing these Lately columns for five years now. They've been a lot of fun. It's enjoyable for me to sit down at my keyboard and explain what's been going on in my life the past week, and to talk about other matters that interest me. I'm pleased so many people read the columns, and seem to enjoy them.

For a number of reasons, I no longer have as much time as I used to, to compose a new Lately each week. The free time I do have, I want to devote primarily to my fiction.

Looking realistically at my schedule, I've decided to change the frequency of my Lately columns to once a month, rather than once a week. Sometime in the future I may change back again, but for now, a monthly column makes more sense.

I've always thought of Lately as a letter to a friend. The letters will be more widely-spaced than before, but I hope you don't mind.

To account for the greater time lapse between letters, while I journey deeper into fiction, think of me mailing my latest correspondence to you not anymore from a friendly U.S. mailbox, cobalt skies above desert and mountains, but instead from a counter in a distant city, in a different time zone, where it's always raining, the left half of the envelope covered with pink and purple stamps depicting the faces of unfamiliar men.

The first of the new, monthly Latelys will be posted around the beginning of December, and then around the first of each succeeding month.

Talk to you then.