In 1968 George Romero released one of the most relentlessly frightening movies ever made in Night of the Living Dead, but it took a couple of years for the midnight movie crowd to make it into an epic cult phenomenon. Seen today, it holds up effectively, even with our sensibilities jaded from countless hack imitations. Its grainy black, white, and gray palette serves its otherworldliness well during a late night viewing on big screen, which I how I first encountered it. Even Romero could never quite match it, although he continued to try for forty years.
The argument can be made that Romero’s best post-Night of the Living Dead films were outside the zombie genre (The Crazies, Martin, NightRiders, and Creepshow). Still, no one does zombies like Romero (as Tom Savini proved with his 1990 NotLD remake), and the movie closest to the impact of the original was its immediate sequel, Dawn of the Dead(1978), which was a shock satire on Western consumerism, brutalizing in its late 70s comic book colors and deliberate plays on banality. Some claim Dawn is Romero’s masterpiece, although it lacks the original’s reinventing-the-wheel, rough-edged freshness. In 2004, Dawn was remade by Zack Snyder who completely missed Romero’s acerbic wit. The underrated Day of the Dead (1985) was the third in Romero’s original zombie trilogy, but did not attain the cult status of its predecessors. Its financial disappointment seemed to render it a finale to Romero’s zombie oeuvre. However, Romero, who has always been a sporadic filmmaker, returned with The Land of the Dead in 2005, which was followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and what looks to be his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009). Each of Romero’s zombie sequels has its equal share of fans and critics, but at the very least, he has tried to say something new with each entry.
None have attained the compact rawness of that 1968 yardstick, however. Duane Jones became a cult icon as the doomed protagonist Ben. Previously an English professor, Jones was the first African-American to have a starring role in a horror feature (the script does not specify Ben’s ethnicity). Judith O’Dea, as Barbara, is the eternal victim ( in Savini’s remake, the character is recast as a feminist femme fatale). Together, they hole up in a farmhouse and fight off the marching dead, but are inevitably at the mercy of hayseeds with guns. The shot-on-the-cheap crudeness and novice acting actually add to the mundane horror. It was riveting enough to create an entirely new genre, but predictably, its unique qualities have eluded pale imitations.
Elsewhere in 1968, AIP’s Wild In The Streets (directed by Barry Shear) was both hippie exploitation and a political satire starring that fifteen minute idol, Christopher Jones, along with Shelley Winters, Hal Holbrook, and Richard Pryor. It became an instant cult hit and received predominantly good reviews. The Mini-Skirt Mob (directed by Maury Dexter), on the other hand, was a biker exploitation that was as bad as its title indicated. Not to be left out, Herschell Gordon Lewis contributed She-Devils on Wheels. It’s about (drum roll)… biker chicks. It’s pretty damned entertaining.
Joseph Sarno began his famous series of arthouse erotica with Inga, starring Marie Liljedahl, who became a very short-lived sensation. Sarno followed this with two more Inga films (minus Liljedahl) before going into actual pornography.
Back on the Gothic end of the spectrum, Boris Karloff barely made it through his last three films: Fear Chamber, House Of Evil, and Vernon Sewell’s Curse Of The Crimson Altar. It was on the set of Curse that Karloff caught pneumonia and died shortly after. Sewell fared no better directing Peter Cushing in The Blood Beast Terror. John Carradine continued a downward slide with Ted V. Mikel’s The Astro-Zombies, which justifiably makes a lot of “worst movie” lists. Shockingly, it reaped quite a profit on the drive-in circuit, but one has to image it was merely an excuse for rubber-necking or a nap, because it’s a wretchedly dull endurance test.
Andy Milligan competed with Sewell, Mikel and primarily, Herschell Gordon Lewis in a race to the bottom with The Ghastly Ones. It’s seethed in sadism, repulsive sex scenes, execrable dialogue, and vile hatred. As per the norm, Milligan films with a shaky camera and records in wretched sound. Milligan’s nasty gore flicks are as sordid as his biography, which is infinitely more interesting than anything he put on camera. Still, it’s probably essential for any weird movie lover to sample some Milligan, and this is the best place to start.Despite a profitable body of work, Milligan died penniless, of AIDS, in 1991 and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Almost as heinous is Fangs of the Living Dead, directed by Amando De Osorio. De Osorio became an important figure in Spanish horror, but this, one of his earliest films, is a lesson in tedium. Even Karloff, who, knowing he was dying, accepted almost anything at the end of his life in order to leave as much money as he could to his family, turned it down. Anita Ekberg starred, and it butchered her career. On a happier note, Paul Naschy, an equally famous/infamous figure in Spanish horror, took off into indigenous genre stardom in 1968 after starring in Mark of the Wolfman (directed by Enrique Lopez Eguiluz).
It was Roman Polanski who finally made the devil a superstar in his superb Rosemary’s Baby. Being the eternal ham he is, Old Nick was not content with a single 1968 appearance. Director Terence Fisher, writer Richard Matheson, and composer James Bernard, along with stars Christopher Lee and Charles Gray, were all in top form for The Devil Rides Out. Although critically acclaimed upon its release, initially it was a commercial failure, which hurt Fisher’s standing with the studio. However, together with The Horror Of Dracula and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Devil Rides Out makes up the trilogy that has sealed Terence Fisher’s cult reputation. Matheson shapes his script, an adaptation of the novel by Dennis Wheatley, into symmetrically riveting terror.
The Duc de Richleau (Lee) has been entrusted with the care of a deceased friend’s son, Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). Upon arriving at Aron’s estate, Richleau discovers that Aron is part of a satanic cult, which includes the dark-haired Tanith (Nike Aright) and is led by the malevolent Mocata (Charles Gray). Playing the inverse of his later role in The Wicker Man , Lee’s Richelieu is a Christian crusader of steely virtue in battle with the Allister Crowley-like monster Mocata, who plans to induct Aron into the coven through a black mass baptism. As he did in Dracula, Fisher, with Matheson, trims off the source material’s fat, producing a lean, kinetically paced narrative.
1968 was also the year of Jean Rollin’s feature debut, Rape Of The Vampire, Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, and Ingmar Bergman’s rare excursion into horror, Hour Of The Wolf. Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim also stepped out of their normal realms for Spirits of the Dead, an omnibus of Edgar Allan Poe short stories as translated, or rather interpreted by,Charles Baudelaire (who improved on the originals).
Originally, the producers had planned on Fellini, Luis Bunuel, and Orson Welles to direct the Poe trio, which would undoubtedly have made an even more compelling anthology. For vague reasons, that lineup was scratched. First up here is Vadim, who directed then-wife Jane Fonda in “Metzengerstein.” As expected, Vadim uses the ground source as an excuse for decorative kinkiness. Surprisingly, Vadim casts Fonda in the role of a debauched Contessa, albeit in various stages of fashionable dress. It’s an overly eroticized trip through the looking glass, with Jane dallying in incestuous horseplay with brother Peter Fonda before he reincarnates as a steed out for a fiery revenge. It’s pure Vadim, which translates to haphazard, convivial trash.
Malle’s segment is “William Wilson,” and critically, it’s the most divisive, alternately being deemed the best and worst effort. Alain Delon essays the title role and proves to be more than just a pretty face. He channels the character’s frosty sadism to perfection, which spells trouble for Brigitte Bardot’s erotic, cigar-chomping Giuseppina. Sumptuously photographed, but hampered by a predictable conclusion, the S&M finale is well-filmed enough to conjure up both Buñuel and Mario Bava. However, like Vadim, one feels Malle struggling with his confined timeframe.
Fellini has no qualms and turns in what many consider to be the finest segment, which unsurprisingly, also has the least connection to its source material. “ Toby Dammit” features a tour de force performance from an ashen Terence Stamp (best known as General Zod in Superman II). Even when directed by Fellini, however, Stamp can hardly compete with Fellini himself. It’s about a Shakespearean actor who sells his soul to Old Nick herself, which of course opens Fellini to the possibilities of phantasmagoria absurdities. Filled with his usual props of debauched clergy and a smorgasbord of freaks, Fellini sets them in a contemporary setting (in contrast to the previous period segments), resulting in a quintessential example of postmodern surrealism. Because of its brevity, it’s often overlooked in essays on the Fellini canon, but this is a vital nexus in the director’s development.
- Also recommended is the compelling treatise “ The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld Of Filmmaker Andy Milligan,” by Jim McDonough, which is ripe enough itself for a screen treatment. 
- Lee, who reportedly suggested Fisher tackle the Wheatley novel, listed The Devil Rides Out and The Wicker Man as his two favorite performances.