“Not that room! Not that room!” Notes on noirs and nights of the living dead

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I was rewatching Robert Siodmak’s seminal film noir CRISS CROSS (1949) the other day at the distance of maybe twenty years and I was struck by the angle on this door near the end of the film. Oh, hold on… 

Devastating, traumatic, irrevocable spoilers follow for the films CRISS CROSS (1949), YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937), GUN CRAZY (1950), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). If you have yet to see these films, and want to experience them fresh, then back away now. Or, you could watch this trailer for AMERICAN HUSTLE (2014), which you’ve probably already rushed out to see because it’s new.

Back to the door. In CRISS CROSS, lovers-on-the-run Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo stare at this door, frozen in terror, knowing their number is up for cutting out on crime boss Dan Duryea, immobile as the clock runs out on their good fortune.Siodmak and cinematographer Franz Planer hold this shot for a surprising amount of time (given that the entire feature is 88 minutes long), a disconcerting tactic that stops this bracing tale of love and fate dead in its tracks. As intended. You’ll remember that I said “dead.” And my thought while watching this was “Not that room! Not that room!”

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You may, if you enjoy the same sort of movies as I do, recall that line from George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), first sequel to his horror classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Early on in DAWN, a SWAT team responds to civil unrest in a ghetto apartment block. Only a few minutes into the movie yet we know the set-up: the dead are coming back to life, people are unwisely attempting to keep the bodies of their deceased loved ones from municipal funeral pyres, and chaos is the consequence. Cops mill around outside of a locked apartment door and one team member kicks it in as a beat cop (or maybe a lowly officer of building security), who has seen what the SWAT team has not, yells in a panic “Not that room! Not that room!” But it’s too late.

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An odd place to go, I grant you, from CRISS CROSS to DAWN OF THE DEAD  but that’s the way my mind works. And yet, as the scene from the 1949 film played out (entirely fresh to me at two decades past my last viewing), I began to detect an even greater resemblance to the 1978 movie that I could have predicted. As Dan Duryea’s character materializes from behind the open door…

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… moving stiffly due to a bullet in his leg and holding a .38 pistol in his other hand, I thought to myself… “Flyboy.” No, Flyboy isn’t Duryea’s character but rather one from, you guessed it…

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… DAWN OF THE DEAD. David Emge plays a character nicknamed Flyboy for his ability to operate a helicopter. (Film noir fans may be reminded of the villain Little Boy from Robert Wise’s THE SET-UP.) By this point in the movie, Flyboy has fallen victim to the zombie horde and has become one, the reveal pulled off by director Romero and DP Michael Gornick via the opening of an elevator door…

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… and then later the slow opening of a second door as Zombie Flyboy finds DAWN OF THE DEAD‘s surviving protagonists.

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The resemblance of Flyboy to Duryea’s character, Slim, is striking. Both walk with a limp due to a gunshot wound in the right leg, both carry a .38 pistol in their left hands, both are trim men dressed in shirtsleeves and belted trousers, and both bring death (or the threat of it) to the boy-girl protagonists…

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… who stare, dumb with terror…

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I am not claiming any particular influence on DAWN OF THE DEAD from CRISS CROSS… at least not yet… and yet the films echo one another in interesting ways. In CRISS CROSS, Duryea kills DeCarlo and Lancaster, his perfidious ex-wife and her lover, in a fit of jealous pique. In DAWN OF THE DEAD, Flyboy also seeks out his former lover and the man she is with now (more out of circumstance than passion) but is put down, allowing protagonists Ken Foree and Gaylen Ross the getaway denied Lancaster and DeCarlo. You may not know this, but the shooting script for DAWN ended with Foree’s character putting a bullet in his brain and Ross’ walking, her fate sealed, into the whirring blades of the helicopter that would have flown them to safety were there any safe place left. Though I didn’t know that development factoid when I first saw DAWN in 1979, it lingers, ghost-like, at the back of my mind when I rewatch the movie now. For my money, a patina of film noir pervades both NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD. Both protagonist sets, in the 1968 and 1978 films, resemble crime movie gangs, with all the arguing and plotting and failed schemes, and falling out between members. I’ve half suspected over the years that one of the influences on NIGHT was John Huston’s KEY LARGO (1948), in which a tropical storm did for its dramatis personae what a zombie apocalypse did in the Romero film.

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Just as the characters in CRISS CROSS get together to plot an armored car robbery…

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… those in DAWN OF THE DEAD do their own plotting, their own huddling, their own poring over blueprints and site maps. That these people are in survival mode rather than acting out of greed hardly matters in the long run. ”We’re thieves and we’re bad guys, that’s exactly what we are,” one of the protagonists in DAWN tells another, while a third enjoys a rare light moment…

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… of pretending she is a gangster/film noir gun moll. Both CRISS CROSS and DAWN OF THE DEAD have scenes involving gas masks…

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… and scenes of almost apocalyptic confusion and violence…

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… which strike me as being fairly representative of the fog in which these characters live, torn as they are…

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… between incompatible impulses to live and love on the one hand…

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… and to bring death and destruction on the other. I guess it should come as no surprise that film noir, with its essential pessimism, should beget the zombie films that followed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and reveal themselves in the fullness of time to share a stronger bloodline with NIGHT than did the Gothic spookers cranked out in the 30s and early 40s. NIGHT‘s grim denouement, in which both hero and heroine are figuratively consumed by fate (and literally consumed by fire and zombies, respectively) echoes the wild finish of such noir classics as CRISS CROSS and GUN CRAZY, as well as Fritz Lang’s proto-noir YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937), whose protagonists met similar fates. (Take a moment to remember how many film noir heroes assumed the identities of dead men… or how many wound up as dead-men-walking. Some noirs are even narrated by dead men!) Intriguingly, the male-female protagonists in George Romero’s zombie movies are not lovers but platonic partners who learn (or fail to learn) to rely upon one another to survive, the metaphor of crime from the noirs rewritten by Romero (as class conscious as the best of the noir specialists) as one of community, with love supplanted by cooperation between the races and sexes as an ideal worth dying, or living for.

6 Responses “Not that room! Not that room!” Notes on noirs and nights of the living dead
Posted By Jenni : February 7, 2014 8:04 pm

I just finished rewatching Kiss Me Deadly last night and the words by Dr. Soberin, “Don’t open the box!” keeps echoing in my head, as much as your “Not that room!”

Posted By robbushblog : February 7, 2014 8:26 pm

The parallel I was waiting for was Tony Curtis dancing in the background. I guess that didn’t happen in Dawn of the Dead. Darn it.

Posted By kingrat : February 7, 2014 9:06 pm

Richard, I am definitely not a horror film fan, but what a great article. You proved your point. Great shots from CRISS CROSS. No wonder another director wanted to imitate them.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : February 7, 2014 9:36 pm

Well, we don’t know Romero was imitating anybody… I just like to think of how these images percolate into our shared consciousness. It makes the art even more exciting than when drawn out of homage.

Posted By Doug : February 7, 2014 10:09 pm

“Well, we don’t know Romero was imitating anybody…”
There are only so many ways to walk through a door-we’ve probably seen thousands of such entrances, so I doubt that Romero was imitating anyone; probably each director was looking for the most dramatic shot.
“to the boy-girl protagonists…who stare, dumb with terror…” I haven’t seen this movie, but the tension is evident even in the static pictures.
One entrance that I can’t recall ever seeing even an unconscious ‘homage’ to is Gregory Peck walking straight towards the camera in Spellbound.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2014 10:44 pm

Oops! Wrong comment but just wanted to say.. loved this!

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