Monthly Archives: February 2009

Duane L. Jones (1936-1988)

Although his name might not be as recognizable as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Robert Englund, Duane Jones is one of the most important people in American horror cinema.

Jones is best known for his role as “Ben,” a man who faces many difficulties while trying to lead (and save) a group of people trapped in a house besieged by zombies, in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Due to the social commentary in Romero’s “Dead” films, many have assumed the character of Ben was specifically written for a black male in order for his struggles to comment on race relations. However, it is noted in Elite Entertainment’s Night of the Living Dead: Millennium Edition DVD that the role wasn’t written with a specific ethnic group in mind. Duane Jones got the part because he gave the best audition out of those trying out for the role. According to Karl Hardman, who portrayed Ben’s rival in the film, the character of Ben was originally written as an uneducated trucker. Being a well-educated man and not liking the characterization, Duane Jones chose to alter the character’s dialogue.

Although the fact that he was in a classic horror film (which popularized the concept of flesh-eating zombies) alone would have made him an important figure in the history of horror cinema, Duane Jones did so much more. Positive portrayals of an African-American in a horror film were few and far between during that period of American history. Usually when black people appeared in horror movies, it was either in small roles as servants, jungle natives, or as cowardly and supposedly “comedic” characters. However, his character in Night of the Living Dead was a brave, calm, and intelligent man (due in part to changes Jones made in the character’s portrayal).

It is often said that Duane Jones was the first African-American actor to have a leading role in a horror movie. Not knowing about how black people were cast in horror films made in other countries and knowing that some horror films with all (or mostly) African-American casts existed before Night of the Living Dead, I’m not sure if that claim is 100% accurate. The films in question include Drums o’ Voodoo (1934), The Devil’s Daughter (1939), and Son of Ingagi (1940). Judging from what I could find about those films, the protagonists all appear to be females and they seem to have been shown in theaters that catered to black audiences. By contrast, Night of the Living Dead was given wide theatrical distribution. Even if some other actor was the first black actor to star in a horror movie, Duane Jones would still the first black actor to have a starring role in a mainstream American horror film.

In a 1988 interview included on the special features of the Night of the Living Dead: Millennium Edition DVD, Jones expressed concern that people would only see him as “Ben,” despite his roles in other films. While researching his filmography in preparation for this blog entry, I was surprised to see that the bulk of his acting work was in horror films. Not counting his two non-horror film roles, Duane Jones appeared in Night of the Living Dead (1968), Ganja and Hess (1973), Vampires (1986), Negatives (1988), Fright House (1988), and To Die For (1989, filmed in 1988).

However, his work wasn’t limited to acting in films. His Wikipedia article says he taught acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, served as executive director at the Richard Allen Center for Culture, and taught theatre at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. Interestingly enough, there’s a recital hall there which is named after him. Although he died of cardiopulmonary arrest in 1988, his legacy still lives on. Even though he disliked how his first horror role overshadowed his other work, I hope that he took pride in the fact that the traits he gave the character made such a positive impact in the history of American cinema.

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Linger longer

Some poor schmuck went on “The Opie & Anthony Show” in order to promote his low budget horror movie, Gap. Although the hosts got some licks in, comedian Louis CK took it upon himself to brutally rip apart all aspects of the film as its pretentious creator tries (and fails) to defend himself. Here’s part one of this gloriously not safe for work masterpiece:

The other six parts are available on Pestz4Evah’s Youtube channel.

TGIF13

Here’s a treat for all you New Englanders who’ve signed up for Newbury Comics’ weekly e-newsletter: You can get a coupon for a free Friday the 13th-themed pint glass with a purchase of ten dollars or more. The offer’s good through February 22nd (while supplies last). You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Don’t worry if you’ve just signed up and didn’t get a copy of this week’s newsletter, as they usually sell leftover glasses on their website and give them away on Record Store Day. Or you could just try contacting Newbury Comics through their website to ask for the coupon. Whatever you end up doing, we here at the GdL hope you have a happy Friday the 13th!

Pieces

Get this: the movie I reviewed immediately after Winterbeast also has a connection to Massachusetts! This time, it’s a gory horror flick set (and partially filmed) in Boston called Pieces.

The movie opens in 1942, with a mother catching her son diligently working on a puzzle depicting a naked woman. Furious with her son taking after her lecherous husband, she trashes the room and prepares to burn all of his porn. The boy’s response? Ax murder. Flash forward forty years, the little boy is all grown up and feeling remorseful about the whole “dismembering mom” thing. After a co-ed skateboarding into a sheet of glass reminds him of his mom trashing a mirror, he sets out to recreate his mom using parts from unwilling donors. As the body count at an unnamed college campus keeps rising, Police Lieutenant Bracken and undercover officer/tennis champion Mary Riggs (played by 70’s TV regulars Christopher George and Lynda Day George) take up the case. They also team up with the lover of one of the victims, Kendall James, in order to find out the killer’s identity and end his chainsaw rampage. Is the murderer the nervous comparative anatomy professor, the burly groundskeeper, or some other person?

Originally released in Spain under the title “Mil Gritos tiene la noche” (roughly translated as “One Thousand Cries has the Night”) in 1982, Pieces plays out exactly like an over-the-top stereotype about what a slasher movie is like. In other words, a flimsy plot coupled with wall-to-wall nudity and gore. What separates Pieces from the typical horror film is all the hilarious (and often bizarre) moments randomly distributed throughout the movie. There’s a completely random sex scene, an out of nowhere appearance by Bruceploitation legend Bruce Le, a topless chase sequence, a victim wetting herself, the “who cares if it doesn’t make sense, it’s scary” ending, and so much more. Interestingly enough, the urination wasn’t a special effect. You see, the chainsaw got a little too close for the actress’ liking and the director chose to leave the embarrassing shot in the final product.

Grindhouse Releasing’s two disc set marks the first official American DVD release of Pieces. The widescreen transfer from the original negative blows away all the cropped, VHS-sourced transfers offered by cheap DVD labels. It’s a testament to the quality of the special effects that they still hold up even after the film was digitally remastered. As for the audio, the English and Spanish mono tracks are both clear and problem-free.

I highly recommend watching both the dubbed version and the English subtitled version. This is due to how the Spanish version is edited slightly differently at the beginning and has an original soundtrack, whereas the English version uses stock music that wasn’t prepared for the movie. Also, the English subtitles reveal that there are several differences in dialogue between the original and dubbed version. It seems like the person who put together the English dub’s script inserted humorous material to amuse themselves. The people at Grindhouse Releasing seem to feel the same way about wanting people to see both, since they included a link to the Spanish opening sequence in the “Features” section of disc one.

The other special features on disc one include animated menus, chapter stops with the murder scenes marked in red, and the “Vine Theater Experience.” Selecting that option plays a short film of people at a recent showing of the film and then plays the audience’s reactions along with the movie in 5.1 stereo. Oh, and hitting up when the cursor is on “Play Movie” will lead you to a hidden icon that will play Eli Roth’s (and others’) comments on the film when clicked on.

Moving on to disc two, there are two interviews that clock in just under an hour each. The first one is with director Juan Piquer Simón, who discusses the making of the film and his career. The second features Paul Smith (who played the groundskeeper), who details his life and film career along with a few insights on his role in Pieces. Simón’s interview is subtitled while Smith’s is in English. The “Cast & Crew” section provides filmographies and/or biographies for several people involved in the film. Each entry has bonus content, either in the form of an interview segment or a preview for another film that the person was involved in. The numerous still galleries show production stills, publicity photos, and box art from various video releases. One of the galleries, titled “Juan Piquer’s Still Show,” is actually a video of the director showing off various publicity material, the original puzzle prop, and even the magazine whose cover art he licensed to use in an alternate Spanish poster for Pieces. Rounding out the special features are the numerous previews for current and future releases from Grindhouse. Two Easter eggs, one featuring Paul Smith and the other dealing with nudity and the casting process in Pieces, can also be found on this disc: One can be found by hitting up when the cursor is on the “Main Menu” option in the “Interviews” menu and the other can be found by hitting up when the cursor is on the “Main Menu” option in the “Galleries” menu. Just click the chainsaw icon that appears and you’re all set!

Also worthy of mention are the liner notes, written by Deep Red’s Chas Balun. When unfolded and flipped over, the liner notes form a small reproduction of the film’s American poster. Be warned that the notes, like many of the special features, contain spoilers.

My only real complaint about this otherwise flawless release is how there’s a missing English subtitle about one hour, seventeen minutes, and thirty-four seconds into the Spanish language version of the movie. Thankfully, I (and anyone who took high school Spanish) could tell the unsubtitled line was to the effect of “Get the car, quickly!” and could still enjoy the movie. Some may dislike how the packaging overlaps the DVDs in such a way that you have to remove both discs in order to get to the second disc, but others might just swap it with another DVD case and think nothing more of the issue. To anyone interested in checking the film out, I say this: please do not let these small matters keep you from getting this DVD.