In 1968, film director George A. Romero unleashed Night of the Living Dead on an unsuspecting world, and the horror genre has never been the same.
This Halloween, the SoHo bar and grill will have a special treat for its patrons: Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, a 16mm double feature in honour of the late Romero.
The prints are presented by Jacob Windatt and Nathan Hill.
The pair first discussed the idea of buying film prints at a drive-in, and have spent close to ten years building their collection. Among the titles are Wes Craven’s 1972 debut film The Last House on the Left (the print itself was previously owned by the film’s star, David Hess) and the obscure Secret of Magic Island, a 1957 French fantasy film starring only animals. It’s a cinephiles treasure trove.
Old ways are the best ways
But what is it about watching a film print that’s so special? Digital is more convenient for most people, the images are crisper and the audio is clearer. Yet there’s still something unique about the discoloured grain and audio pops, they’re signs of history.
“I think every film reel you see has a story to it. It’s been played God knows where,” Nathan explained. “There are so many questions that come when you’re putting a film onto a projector. Is it going to play? Is it going to burn? Is it going to break?”
When the duo started the monthly showings during the spring, genre films like Night of the Living Dead began getting the most positive crowd reception.
It’s no surprise – grindhouse cinema has always had a very passionate fanbase, although larger cinema chains in London rarely show classic horror films. It makes the monthly movie nights a welcome addition. The SoHo is a great setting for friends to enjoy drinks, food, and some beloved films from yesteryear.
“It even goes back to the old Vagrancy Films days,” Nathan recalled about the appeal of cult classics in London. “That was, you know, I think proved that people still are itching for unique movie-going experiences whether it’s a genre film or not.”
But not every cult film is as cherished as Romero’s zombie classics.
During the showing of Umberto Lenzi’s 1981 gorefest Cannibal Ferox, one bar patron voiced his disgust at the films content. The Italian exploitation films are among the most controversial movies ever made, and they’re not for everyone’s taste.
But beneath the excessive violence and sex displayed in grindhouse films, they often present social commentary that’s still relevant to today’s world.
Racism, gun violence, drug addiction, war, and mental illness are some of the topics tackled. Sometimes it’s necessary to make the audience uncomfortable to address a more serious issue.
“If it’s stirring up something emotional inside of you, then keep watching it,” Nathan stated. “It’s doing its job. It’s working.”
Tame but groundbreaking
While it may seem tame by today’s standards, Night of the Living Dead was ground-breaking in 1968. Zombie films had been around for decades, but Romero’s film brought something unheard of to the genre – the dead returning to life and feasting on the flesh of the living. That too, would be a cause of disgust and outrage at the time of its release.
The film is an icon for a reason, and one of many horror flicks that has become culturally significant.
One of the best things about movie night at the Soho is discovering an obscure title, perhaps one that could still be as relevant today was it was during the time of its release.
When Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was released in 1971, it lead to the creation of an entire subgenre of grindhouse films.
It’s also something of a rarity in the American film industry even to this day – a highly successful and influential independent film made by and starring a black director about the black community.
“Watch any 1970’s cop films or any of the Blaxploitation films, and you can see exactly what is wrong with people today, with society,” Jacob suggested. “Racial barriers are nothing new in this world. I mean these guys have been tackling these subjects since the 1970s. But to see a real perspective from real filmmakers in the 1970s about those issues and to see them empowering themselves through film is socially important beyond belief.”
Losing the pioneers
Unfortunately the artists who gave the world these films have been passing away over the past few years. Wes Craven died in 2015, Umberto Lenzi passed two weeks after Cannibal Ferox was shown during the 16mm movie night.
When George Romero passed away in July of this year, the Hyland Cinema Retromania played Dawn of the Dead in tribute. But to see his two most iconic films presented in 16mm is a rare treat for any cinephile. As the artists who created these timeless films leave us, so does the magic of film.
Ask any audiophile about vinyl and they’ll tell you “it just sounds better”. Celluloid film is the exact same, and digital can never capture its appeal.
“There’s an aesthetic, too. Anyone who is, I would say over 30, remembers the sound of a projector in the back of the theater,” Jacob explained. “You know, you can hear that sound and it adds to the experience. It’s comforting, it’s familiar.
“I think that running film as opposed to digital brings back those feelings. It’s a great feeling of nostalgia.”