The Art of Addiction (Ganja & Hess, 1973)

Ganja_and_Hess_PosterDr. Hess is attacked by his assistant, who promptly commits suicide. When he awakens, Hess has no wounds and he has a compulsion to drink blood.  He stores his assistant’s body for safe keeping, but then is contacted by Ganja, the assistant’s wife.  Ganja discovers her dead husband,  but ultimately is both seductress and seduced by Hess.

It is hard to describe the film, because it is more of an art film than a horror film.  Playwright Bill Gunn was hired to make a blaxploitation horror film by the studio, but had little interest in making another knockoff. The end result is a vampire film that is a surreal exploration of addiction and seeking redemption. It never makes use of the word vampire, Hess is able to walk in the daylight.

The audience in theaters was not interested, wanting something more violent. But Gunn was not interested in this. The studio wanted an alternate cut, but Gunn, his editor Victor Kanefsky and Cinematographer James Hinton all refused, being very happy with the film they made. When the studio recut the film, Gunn walked out of a showing a few minutes in.  Ever confident in the work, he submitted his original edit to the Cannes Film festival where it received a standing ovation.  After decades of the recut and retitled film being the only version available for rental, the correct cut was created for DVD.

The movie ends on a fascinating note, as the film is full of religious imagery, with Christianity seeming to haunt Hess throughout the film.  It is interesting to see Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones in the role of Hess. He is more sedated in this role, often being pensive and observant of his surroundings.

For a lot of horror fans, this film may be a tough watch.  It moves at a very subdued pace, but it is such a fascinating watch.  Gunn’s vision is so unique, not just for black horror, but horror in general. I found myself wonderfully confounded and intrigued by the final decisions of Hess within the film.

Ganja & Hess is a fascinating exploration of vampires, addiction, religion and  redemption.

They’re Coming To Get You (Night of the Living Dead, 1968)

Night_of_the_Living_Dead_poster1968 was a time of real social upheaval in the United States of America.  Out of this turmoil was born a tale of people desperate to survive in a situation they cannot hope to make sense of.

George Romero and his friend John Russo put together a film that would challenge the norms of film-making in America.  Horror monsters had always been distinct creatures.  Vampires, werewolves and so on.  But Night of the Living Dead introduced something different.

The concept of the zombie was not a new one.  But Romero and Russo introduced a lot of what we consider standard zombie lore.  Head shots to kill, undead and eaters of flesh.  These monsters were scary not because of their personalty…but because they were our loved ones, but without soul…the dead are a horde without emotion and only seeking to devour.

We are introduced to Barbara and her brother Johnny.  They have come to a remote cemetery to place flowers on their father’s grave.  When they are attacked by a man, Barbara is forced to flee.  She discovers a farmhouse and along with another stranger, Ben, start to try and hide from the attackers.  Soon they discover they are not alone in the house and the small band of survivors work to try and survive and determine a way to escape.

The group finds itself strained by the tensions that develop as some desire to stay hidden, while others hope to get away from the farm.  They are able to find news reports giving bits of information, but leaving them with few answers.

In some ways, Night of the Living Dead is ahead of the curve for films of that time. Ben (Duane Jones) is a black man who finds himself assuming the role of leader for many of the group.  On the other hand, Barbara is pretty much comatose the entire film, paralyzed by her fears.  Romero does not burden himself with to complex of a story, and although there are hints of a cause, the film is vague about it.  There is talk of a satellite and radiation, but ultimately, there is no definitive answer.

Night of the Living Dead is an effective thriller that is, in the end, responsible for what we now know to be zombies.  It’s significance cannot be overlooked, as it defined the zombie as a monster that still stands today.

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