Nobody got out alive
Night of the Living Dead opened at the Fulton Theatre in Pittsburgh on the 1st October 1968, one month before the MPAA rating system was established. In the early weeks of release, the film was often shown as a Saturday afternoon matinee, which enabled children as young as six-years-old to buy a ticket, causing a great deal of disquiet among commentators. The film critic, Roger Ebert, wrote:
‘It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.’
Despite the controversy, within five years Night of the Living Dead was the most profitable independent horror film ever made – though John Carpenter’s Halloween and then The Blair Witch Project, would each claim this mantle. Another parallel they shared was a resounding box office success, necessitating a sequel. Thus, Romero’s debut would be followed by at least one new ‘Dead’ release almost every decade, culminating in his final film, Survival of the Dead, in 2009.
Night of the Living Dead co-writer, John Russo, would create his own separate legacy when his novel, Return of the Living Dead, was fashioned into a film under the same title. A legal battle ensued between Russo and Romero with the latter believing that Russo was ‘appropriat[ing] part of the title of the prior work’. With both working towards a similar release date, Romero with the third film in the ‘Dead’ series, Day of the Dead, an accord was reached and both films went on general release within a month of each other in the summer of 1985. Return of the Living Dead eventually spawned four sequels, with the final two efforts heading straight to DVD following their premiere on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Let it bleed
A peculiar darkness enveloped the end of the 1960s. For a decade that promised, and to a certain extent delivered, so much change it ended on two of the sourest of notes. On the night of the 8th August, Sharon Tate, the heavily pregnant wife of Roman Polanski, was murdered by members of a cult led by Charles Manson, along with her friends Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Jay Sebring. The gang also killed 18-year-old Steven Parent as he left the property after a visit to the caretaker.
A day later, the gang accompanied this time by Manson, arrived at the residence of La Bianca
Four months later, on the 6th December, The Rolling Stones, were headlining a free concert at the Altamont racetrack just outside of San Francisco. Meredith Hunter an 18-year-old African American man was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels who had seen the man brandishing a gun and attacked, allegedly believing he was about to shoot the band’s lead singer, Mick Jagger.
The fire lit under the decade was extinguished. 26 years later, in an interview with Jann Wenner, Jagger was less philosophical about the end of the era:
“I didn’t think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era … I didn’t think of any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed…”
As the 1960s rolled over into a new decade, cinema was about to enter a decade of production so influential that many of the films released during the period remain definitive masterworks over 40 years later. The 1970s also became known as the decade that gave birth to the sequel; a non-sequitur, given the number of follow-up films that had appeared during the decades proceeding this, yet it’s true to state that the Seventies did herald the start of a heavy cycle of sequels that continues to the current day.
Hammer productions would continue to churn out sequels in their Dracula and Frankenstein series, but the seams were starting to show. The public’s interest in gothic horrors was on the wane and despite contemporary versions of the Dracula story, Dracula AD 72 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula the Hammer legacy was in danger of being tarnished. Hammer did attempt another vampire series, The Karnstein Trilogy, which took a more risque approach to the vampire myth with its themes of lesbianism amid the usual Gothic trappings, but despite two further films being released within a year of The Vampire Lovers (1970) a projected fourth never went further than an early draft.
It was in 1970 that the Giallo first came to prominence following the release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the debut film from a young Italian director called Dario Argento. While a sequel didn’t follow (in fact, the Gialli cycle was notable by the lack of follow-ups to its major output), Argento did produce two further unconnected films unofficially titled The Animal Trilogy, Cat O ‘Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. His own contribution to the annals of sequel films came via Suspiria (1977), arguably his masterpiece, and the first part of his Three Mothers Trilogy concerning a trio of witches. The first of these, Inferno, was released in 1980, with a long-delayed and ultimately disappointing final part, The Mother of Tears, arriving in 2007.