Today’s Halloween Horrors entry comes to us courtesy of Dawn Keetley of Horror Homeroom. Oops! Make that Professor Dawn Keetley of Horror Homeroom.
For her Halloween Horrors debut, Dawn dissects 2015’s Tales of Halloween…. or at least parts of it. In a sense, this is a piece on 2 movies as Dawn finds multiple connections between this film and George Romero’s immortal classic, Night of the Living Dead.
I could continue to prattle on about this piece, but instead I’ll just pass the spotlight over to Dawn. She handles the topic in a more educated and tactful manner than I probably ever could. And she should…… she’s a professor for Christ’s sake.
Tales of Halloween: Reanimating Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead screened in Pittsburgh on October 1, 1968—kicking off the Halloween season. With its famous opening in a cemetery where ill-fated Johnny and Barbra discover that the dead are coming back to life, this first modern zombie film is an integral part of the horror (and Halloween) canon.
Not surprisingly, then, Night of the Living Dead appears regularly not only in Halloween film line-ups but also in Halloween films themselves. Notably, it’s appeared in Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981) and in the more recent Tales of Halloween (2015)—specifically in two of my favorite shorts from this anthology, “Sweet Tooth”, directed by David Parker, and “Trick”, directed by Adam Gierasch.
Halloween II is not a very good film, but a short sequence near the beginning constitutes its best moment, as we get some of the subjective point of view shots that justifiably made John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) one of the best horror films ever. Michael Myers is lurking around a suburban house, and we see Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) in an extreme long shot telling a police officer that he shot Myers six times but that he got up and walked away: “He’s not human,” he yells. As Myers moves around and then into the house, grabbing a knife, we see (and hear) that Night of the Living Dead is playing on the TV. It’s just beginning, and Johnny is telling Barbra, as they see a man staggering toward them: “They’re coming to get you Barbra. Look—there comes one of them now.”
This scene on the TV is intercut with Myers stalking through the house, looking like one of the living dead himself, certainly something distinctly less than human—a point Loomis makes repeatedly in both of the first two Halloween films. What the intercut references to Night of the Living Dead do, then, in this early sequence of Halloween II, is reinforce the fact that Michael Myers is not human. More generally, Romero’s canonical horror film is used to add meaning to its successor.
In two shorts from Tales of Halloween, directors similarly interweave shots from Night of the Living Dead, drawing on the multiple meanings of zombies within the horror tradition to add greater depth to their own films.
“Sweet Tooth”, clearly inspired by Halloween (a “Carpenter” candy bar is prominently featured), uses the two-part temporal structure of the slasher, going back in time to show how Timmy was forbidden by his parents to eat his Halloween candy so they could eat it while having sex on the sofa (cameo here by Caroline Williams who played “Stretch” in Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2!). This is rather a traumatic sight for little Timmy (the candy eating, not the sex), who then decides he’s going to get and eat his candy no matter what. Timmy’s blind need to devour candy become the stuff of Halloween legend, a story that then gets told in the present. The intercut scenes of Night of the Living Dead in this present all feature the ghouls devouring flesh, cleverly signaling what’s happening in “Sweet Tooth”—which is all about the horrific embodiment of the ferocious urge to eat (candy).
By far my favorite of the ten shorts in Tales of Halloween, though, is “Trick”, directed by Adam Gierasch. It’s a simple story: four twentysomethings are sitting around smoking pot and watching Night of the Living Dead, answering the door as kids come trick-or-treating. The kids, though, inexplicably start viciously attacking the twentysomethings—how and, most importantly, why, constitute the twist that makes this a great short film.
Gierasch weaves Night of the Living Dead through his film in ways that are utterly integral to its meaning, done so that “Trick” tracks what’s going on in Night, but at the same time utterly upends expectations that the early film instills in the viewer. In the screenshot below, Nelson walks across the room to get the door, just as Johnny (on the TV) says, “They’re coming to get you Barbra—Look, there comes one of them now,” exactly what’s on the screen in Halloween II. Nelson mirrors Johnny here, which suggests that, like Johnny, Nelson may be a victim. Indeed, what this shot does is invoke a film (actually two films) in which it’s very clear who is coming to get who (the ghouls and Michael Myers are clearly the killers), but “Trick” goes on brilliantly to confuse exactly that crucial thing—who is killer and who is victim—and then it confuses it again.
The same evoking of expectations and then overturning them happens a bit later, too, as we get a shot of the TV showing Barbra with a knife—ready to protect herself from the ghouls. This sets us up to be sure that the woman hiding in a corner, in a gleaming white room similar to where Barbra is, is the victim in “Trick”. But is she? You can never be sure in “Trick”.
All three of these films, Halloween II, and “Sweet Tooth” and “Trick” from Tales of Halloween, intercut scenes from Night of the Living Dead—paying homage to a classic horror film but also, more importantly, adding depth, adding meaning. They make clear one of the very many things I love about horror films—how they are always coming back to their predecessors, honoring them but also continuing them by weaving them into plots that extend the originals, making them come alive (again) in the present.
Dawn Keetley teaches (the horror film, of course) at Lehigh University and writes about horror for the website she co-founded, http://www.horrorhomeroom.com. She can be reached on Twitter @horrorhomeroom or @dawnkeetley or on Facebook.