Three Significant 1968 Movies
Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead is a black and white, low budget, about $114,000[i], horror film. It was the film debut for most of the leading cast members. The New York Daily News gave the movie 1 star out of 4. The film seemed to have all the makings of a forgettable movie. The movie grossed $4 million during its initial run.[ii] This return on investment is noteworthy but other factors make this movie significant. Night of the Living Dead is a zombie movie. In previous zombie movies the zombies were under intelligent control such as a witch doctor or space aliens. In Night of the Living Dead the zombies weren’t under any control except for their need to feed on the living. The term “zombie” wasn’t used in the movie. The living dead were referred to as “flesh eating ghouls”. It also had the premise of zombies over a large area. There was no ritual or device that made people zombies. Anyone who died became a zombie. These are all staples in subsequent zombie movies.
The movie is set in rural Pennsylvania. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are visiting a cemetery. They haven’t been able to hear anything on their car radio for hours. They attribute it to the remote area. Johnny teases Barbra. His teasing is creepy. A zombie appears and attacks Barbra. Johnny fights with the zombie and Johnny hits his head on a stone. He is either unconscious or dead. The zombie turns its attention to Barbra. She runs to the lone house in the area. There she finds the body of a zombie victim. When Ben (Duane Jones) arrives at the house he finds Barbra almost in a state of shock. He barricades the house and gets rid of the body. He finds a radio and the news reports tell Ben what he already knows and advises people to barricade in place. Harry (Karl Hardman) and Tom (Keith Wayne) come up from the basement. With them is Harry’s spouse Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who is about 10, and Tom’s girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley). There is an immediate clash of wills between Ben and Harry. Harry wants everyone into the basement. He explains it is easier to defend one door than a large house. Ben explains the basement is a deathtrap. Tom decides to stay with Ben and brings Judy upstairs. Ben and Tom find a television. In the basement Karen is ill. Helen shows her dislike for her husband and points out how his stubbornness is keeping them in the basement when there is a television set upstairs. Harry comes up from the basement and tries to take charge but Ben will have none of it. Harry tells Ben a zombie bit his daughter. It was not part of the zombie canon that a zombie bite was invariably fatal. This movie established this part of the canon. The television explained the situation. It also showed Sheriff McClelland leading a posse that was killing the zombies. The news changed the advice and told people they should go to the nearest rescue center. Tom, who was familiar with the area, knew the location of one of the centers. Ben reported he saw a gas pump which was locked. Tom said there was a key hanging up in the basement. Ben devised a plan where Harry would drop Molotov cocktail from the second floor then Ben and Tom would drive the truck to the pump, fill it up, and come back for the others. Judy decided to go with them. All went well until they reached the gas pump. The key didn’t unlock the pump. Ben shoots the lock off. In the process the truck catches fire. The truck explodes killing Tom and Judy. Ben runs back to the house but Harry hesitates a long time before letting him in. Later the zombies attack the house. Harry grabs Ben’s gun and in the struggle Ben shoots Harry. Harry makes his way to the basement. As the zombies break in Helen runs to the basement. Harry is dead and Karen is a zombie. Karen kills her mother. Barbra sees Johnny, who is now a zombie, and she is taken away. Ben rushes past Karen and barricades himself in the basement. He shoots Harry and Helen when they awaken as zombies. The next morning all is quiet. Ben comes up from the basement as the posse arrives on the scene. He is mistaken for a zombie and shot dead.
The low budget contributed to making the movie frightening. There was more gore in this movie than in other movies of the day. When Night of the Living Dead debuted on television in the early 70’s the scenes of the news reports flashed “dramatization” on the screen.[iii] In this movie Duane Jones (Ben) was the lone African-American in an otherwise all white cast. Ben’s race wasn’t mentioned or alluded to in the movie. It is sometimes said had they worked together from the beginning they would have survived. The characters may have been in an impossible situation. The initial advice expert advice was to barricade in place. When the advice changed they quickly devised a plan of escape which went horribly wrong. Ben survived the night by going where Harry advised all along. Was Harry right but ignored because he was obnoxious? Unknown to the characters Karen would become a zombie and a lethal threat as long as she was among them.
[i] United States Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063350/business?ref_=tt_dt_bus)
[ii] As of January 2000 it grossed $12 million in the U.S. and so far has grossed $30 million worldwide. It also grossed $1.6 Million in rentals. United States Movie Database.
[iii] This was done so viewers would mistake there scenes for actual news broadcasts.
What was the best choice for the characters?
Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes had a Twilight Zone type formula. It begins with the characters in a given setting, then it takes a strange turn, and it ends with an ironic twist. This movie launched a genre. The movie spawned 4 sequels. There was a live action and an animated television series. There was a remake in 2001 and two Planet of the Apes related movies with another related movie scheduled for 2017.[i]
Planet of the Apes begins on a space ship traveling at a relativistic velocity. Astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) gives a soliloquy where he shows his dislike for the 20th century. He reveals he has already traveled for 700 years in Earth time, 6 months ship time. The other three astronauts, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton) a black man, and Stewart (Dianne Stanley) a woman, are in suspended animation. Taylor puts himself in suspended animation as the ship hurtles through space. Then the spaceship enters a planet’s atmosphere and lands in a body of water near land. The men wake from suspended animation. The Stewart is a mummified body. The date on the ship’s clock is November 25, 3978. A hatch blows and water rushes in the space ship. The astronauts abandon the ship with a few supplies. They are in a barren landscape. Landon plants a small flag and Taylor laughs at him. They eventually find a lush place with fresh water. As they are bathing a group of people ransack their clothes and supplies. They track down the people who are primitives. Then gorillas with horses, nets, and rifles appear and hunt the humans. The gorillas shoot Dodge dead and capture Landon and Taylor. Taylor is put in a cage where Zira (Kim Hunter), a chimpanzee, has him and some other humans for behavioral research. Taylor can’t speak because of a neck wound. Taylor tries to communicate with Zira. She believes he is trying to communicate with her but Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), an orangutan, dismisses her claim and wipes out the letters Taylor wrote on the ground. Taylor steals a pen and paper from Zira and writes down his name is Taylor. Zira takes Taylor to her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). There Taylor writes about himself and answers their questions. When Cornelius remarks flight is impossible Taylor makes a paper airplane and throws it across the room. Taylor tried to escape but the apes net him. As they close in Taylor screams, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” Taylor finds Landon but the apes lobotomized him. Taylor is brought before a tribunal where the prosecutor contends Taylor is a result of an operation Zira performed on him and he has no intelligence. During the trial the apes on the tribunal do an impression of the three wise monkeys. Taylor is saved from Landon’s fate when Cornelius, Zira, and Lucius, an ape version of a ‘60s campus radical, break him and a woman, Nova (Linda Harrison), out of his imprisonment. They travel to the barren area, called The Forbidden Zone, where Cornelius has done some archeological excavation. Dr Zaius and a squad of gorillas arrive. Cornelius shows Dr. Zaius what he found in the excavation where the more advanced civilization was the older civilization and there were only human bones at this level. Dr. Zaius tells Cornelius if he keeps digging he will finds ape remains and the ape would be the master of the house. Taylor picks up some artifacts and contends they are items weak but technologically advanced humans would use. Dr. Zaius counters he could get archeologists who could come up with other explanations for the artifacts. Cornelius shows Dr. Zaius a human doll. Dr. Zaius explains his granddaughter plays with human dolls. Nova plays with the doll and the doll says, “Mama”. Taylor rhetorically asks, “Would an ape make a human doll that talks?” The gorillas make their move but Taylor outshoots and outwits them and holds Dr. Zaius at gunpoint. Taylor is allowed to leave with Nova and a horse. Dr. Zaius orders the excavation destroyed and arrests Cornelius and Zira for heresy. Taylor and Nova travel along a beach and Taylor sees the remains of The Statue of Liberty. Taylor realizes he was on earth and humans destroyed their civilization. He curses those responsible.
Interesting for 1968 were the characters Stewart and Dodge. Taylor explained to Nova, who had no idea what he was talking about, Stewart was supposed to be “the new Eve”. The idea of a woman in a polygamist relationship where one of her partners would be of a different race was radical for a G rated 1968 movie. This didn’t cause a stir. As in Night of the Living Dead, Dodge’s race wasn’t mentioned or an issue. Racial themes were brought up with the ape characters. There was an apparent cast system where gorillas were the soldiers, orangutans held the leadership positions, and chimpanzees held the worker positions.
The iconic scene of the damaged Statue of Liberty may have started a trend since many other movies have since showed a damaged Statue of Liberty. In 1960s science fiction shows it was common for humans to be anywhere in the universe and for aliens to speak 20th century English. From that reference it is understandable Taylor didn’t realize he was on earth until the end of the movie.
The Religion vs. Science debate is a constant theme throughout the movie. Dr. Zaius had his own agenda. With his dual role of Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith he had an interest in dismissing any science that would conflict with his faith. Looking at it from a different angle Cornelius and Zira had an interest in finding something new in science that calls the faith in question. It could mean a higher status for chimpanzees. Taylor had an agenda. If the apes recognize him as something more than a primitive it could keep him from being lobotomized or stuffed as a museum exhibit. Taylor also had preconceived notions. When Dr. Zaius asked him what happened to the advanced humans he put forward a couple of natural catastrophes that could explain the human downfall. When he found he was on earth he immediately concluded, as did the audience, it was a nuclear war. Humans make talking teddy bears and dinosaurs, so why wouldn’t apes make a human doll that talks? If Taylor accepted a planet about 2,000 light years from earth could have beings that speak and write in English, and use familiar expressions such as “All apes are created equal” can’t he also accept the human predecessors may have built a Statue of Liberty look alike?
[i] International Movie Database - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3450958/?ref_=fn_al_tt_8
Some movies that used the image of a destroyed Statue of Liberty
The Day After Tomorrow
Star Wreck - In The Pirkinning
Escape from New York
2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey put the science in its science fiction. It gave a realistic, for the time, look at activities in space in the early 21st century. Reality shows its view of the advances of human space exploration was overly optimistic. In 1968 it was a marvelous look what space exploration could be within the lifetime of most of the audience. As with real science the movie generates many more questions than it answers. There was a sequel, 2010, in 1984.
The film begins in the distant past. The theme music is Also Sprech Zarathusa. There is a group of human predecessors. They are driven off by another group of human predecessors. One morning the original group wake up and find an upright rectangular square near them. They tentatively approach the slab. Soon they learn how they can use bones to kill their prey. While they are eating the other group shows up. After exchanges of screeches one of the other approaches them. He is promptly struck down by a blow from the new weapon and then beaten to death. The others from the second group leave. The primate that struck the first blow throws his weapon into the air. The scene changes to outer space in 2001. The scene shows spacecraft moving to the tune of The Blue Danube. A PanAm space ship with the passenger capacity of a jetliner has one passenger, Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) and two flight attendants. The space ship docks at a space wheel. The inside of the wheel resembles as large luxurious airport terminal. There are very few people in this space terminal. Dr. Floyd calls home from a Bell Telephone booth. He goes to a restroom where the toilet has 721 words of instructions. He has a drink and cordial conversation with some Russian scientists. They mention one of their craft was refused an emergency landing at an American lunar base. Dr. Floyd travels to the moon. There he is briefed about an ancient artifact found on the moon. He and some others take a hovering craft to the site. The artifact is a slab similar to the one the primates found at the beginning of the movie. The slab lets out a deafening sound. The scene changes to a space ship traveling to Jupiter 18 months later. Astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) are awake. The other 3 astronauts on board are in hibernation. The onboard computer is a HAL 9000, the most advanced computer in the world. The computer uses speech to communicate with the astronauts. The HAL 9000 reports a unit on the spaceship’s exterior will malfunction in 12 hours. All other indicators, including an earth based HAL 9000, show the onboard HAL 9000 is in error. Dave and Frank decide to shut down HAL except for its functions that enable it to operate the ship. When Frank goes outside the space ship he gets into trouble and Dave sets out in a space pod to rescue him. HAL kills the three hibernating astronauts and refuses to let Dave and Frank back into the space ship. Dave abandons Frank and gets back into the space ship. He disables HAL. Then he hears a recording that explains the slab was sending a message to Jupiter and that is the reason for the mission. Dave reaches Jupiter and there is a slab orbiting the planet. Then there is a 10 minute light show. Dave walks through luxurious rooms. A geriatric Dave walks to a table and sits down to eat. A much older Dave, lying on a bed, sees a slab at the foot of the bed. A child in a womb appears where Dave was. The movie ends with the child in the womb is floating in space around the earth.
The movie’s music and visual images were stunning in 1968 and hold up well today. The movie had long periods with no one speaking. Much of the speaking wasn’t relevant to the plot. HAL 9000 was the most developed character in the movie. Neither HAL’s nor the unseen aliens’ purpose was explained. Among the things 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes had in common was many patrons talked about what drugs they were using when they watched these movies.