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  1. #1
    Senior Member Country: UK DB7's Avatar
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    Film-makers on film: George A Romero

    (Filed: 31/12/2005)



    The lord of the undead talks to Marc Lee about Powell and Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)



    The lord of the undead is a larger-than-life character. I'm sitting outside George A Romero's hotel room when a litre bottle of gin and the smallest possible bottle of tonic whiz past, carried on a silver salver by a waiter moving silently and as if on rails. When I'm ushered into Romero's presence 15 minutes later, he's standing at the door, an imposing figure at 6ft-plus with an unruly mane of white hair, and wearing glasses that resemble a pair of small televisions.



    "Mind if I smoke?" he booms rhetorically. I peer though the fug and locate a chair.



    The director who has dedicated his 40-year career to bringing zombies to the movie screen in a series of flesh-ripping, blood-spurting, cannibalistic orgies of horror and ultra-violence is the epitome of charm. He's warm, hearty and prone to bursts of loud laughter.



    If that's a surprise, even more unexpected is his choice of movie. The Tales of Hoffmann, Powell and Pressburger's vivid, voluptuous adaptation of Offenbach's opera, filled with delicately pirouetting dancers and jaunty, tra-la-la tenors, could hardly be more different from Romero's own work. Yet it's his undisputed favourite and the film that convinced him he had to make his own.



    He was 11 when it was released. "I saw it at exactly the right time," he says. "I was a Bronx kid, and I had this aunt and uncle who lived in Manhattan. They took me downtown and said, 'We're going to see a movie.'



    "I wanted to see the first Lex Barker Tarzan, but they said, 'No, we're going to see The Tales of Hoffmann.' They had to take me kicking and screaming."



    But the young George was captivated immediately. "I was just blown away by the fantasy elements. It also opened my ears to classical music: it's a very easy way in because it's so melodic."



    Told in a Technicolor whirl of singing and dancing on huge, dramatically lit and lavishly decorated sets, the film features three sad stories of unrequited love, as the eponymous hero (Robert Rounseville) falls for a beautiful automaton, a vain courtesan, and a consumptive opera singer.



    It's a narrative that was soon imprinted on Romero. "There was a television show at the time called Million Dollar Movie," he says. "And they would show one movie all week - twice a night, three times Saturday and four times Sunday. They showed Hoffmann about a year after it was released. I watched it every time they showed it." That's 17 times in seven days.



    It fired his imagination, and quickly taught him a lot about filmmaking. "Obviously, there was no CGI, no effects, not even animation. But I could see what they were doing with double exposure, or by running something in reverse."



    As for the performances, young Romero most admired those of ballet star Robert Helpmann, who plays a series of sinister figures, each of them intent on thwarting Hoffmann's romantic endeavours.



    "He's the greatest 'Dracula' that ever walked," says Romero. "Helpmann was my hero then; he was a really impressive cat, man. His eyes, his eyebrows - he beat Bela Lugosi by a mile."



    Romero's favourite scene is the moment of Helpmann's first entrance, as he sweeps into the opera house. An overhead shot follows his progress across a red carpet, as he swishes his long cape around a scattering of gold-coloured chairs. He clearly means business, and he steals the rest of the show with ease.



    The influence of Powell and Pressburger is not immediately obvious in Romero's work, but he insists it is there in his 1982 horror movie Creepshow. "I consciously set out to draw on them in that movie. I didn't have a lot of dough, so I tried these comic-book effects, using theatrical scrims and changing the backlight. I used to say on set, 'I bet Powell would have thought of this.' Creepshow was my chance to do a Hoffmann shot."



    Romero had dinner with Powell a couple of times shortly before the British director's death in 1990, "so I was able to tell him he was the man".



    "He was this spry, wonderful guy, still such a sharp wit. He was a gas. I could have sat there for days and just listened to him telling his tales."



    Their meetings also gave Romero the opportunity to ask his hero about the scene in which Helpmann trips while racing round a lady's bower. "I got to ask him why he left it in. Couldn't he reshoot it? What happened? He said he left it because the rest of the shot was so good. I don't know if I'd be bold enough to do that."



    Remarkably, Romero wasn't the only boy in early-'50s New York who was obsessed with The Tales of Hoffmann. The other was a junior film fan from Queens by the name of Martin Scorsese (who would later draw direct links between Hoffmann and the skull-crunching fight scenes in his own Raging Bull).



    "When I was old enough," recalls Romero, "I used to go downtown and rent the movie. In those days, you had to go rent a projector and then rent a 16mm print in order to see a movie at home. It was a big deal: you had to save up.



    "Whenever I went to the store and the movie wasn't there, Marty had it. And whenever he went and it wasn't there, I had it. So, when we finally met - only about 10 years ago - we had this amazing thing in common.



    "And we looked at each other and said, 'You son of a bitch! It was you who had The Tales of Hoffmann out when I wanted it!"

  2. #2
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    Good interview. It expands slightly some aspects of the interview on the new Criterion DVD of the film.



    Steve

  3. #3
    Senior Member Country: United States TimR's Avatar
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    This was a challenging film.



    I read through a synopsis of the opera before I watched the film, as filmed opera is not usually part of my list. But it is not just a "filmed opera". It is a film that transforms the material and turns it into something new.



    There are aspects of it that I had difficulty with: The lyrics are not always intelligible, and if I had not read the story first, some of the motivation would not have been clear. Robert Helpmann is weirdly, amost bizarrely miscast as the demonic antagonist in the Venice sequence, and some of the scenes in that section are over the top. The Antonia sequence is slow at the beginning, though necesssary. The final redemption and explanation of Hoffman's experience is left out, which was bewildering.



    But those are minor quibbles; the film is a marvel. The comparisons with the great silent films that are on the commentary are, I think, accurate.



    I have watched several scenes three times in the last two days:



    The opening credits with the weather vanes snapping in time;



    The beer steins and wall figures comng to life in their own world of the tavern, reflecting the action (An irresistable sequence);



    The entire Olympia segment, with the transformation of Moira Shearer and the puppets and dolls into "living" people who are not alive, through magic spectacles. This idea is perfectly executed - a triumph of imagination and skill;



    Moira Shearer rocking slowly back and forth on a golden swing;



    The shock of her being literally torn apart after spinning off a golden stair;



    Ludmilla Tcherina floating on an airborne gondola and responding to her own singing reflection, and then seducing Hoffman (a very beautiful woman with the most beautiful hands I have ever seen);



    Hoffman losing his reflection and then gaining back his soul;



    The journey to a mythical Greek island for the Antonia sequence;



    The disturbing and mesmerizing search for her mother's soul;



    The final spellbinding scene of Moira Shearer;



    And all the way through the sanity and wit - and sadness - of Pamela Brown, who acts the entire part with her eyes alone.



    And the exhilerating "Made in England" stamp at the very end.



    A marvel.

  4. #4
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    It is a marvel, and it is and extension of the new art form they created with The Red Shoes. In TRS they invented the idea of a filmic ballet. Not just a film of a ballet performed on stage but really using the camera movement, and camera tricks, to show you what the dancer was thinking and feeling.



    With The Tales of Hoffmann they extended this into a full opera, with the help of a lot of the friends they'd made by making TRS. A filmic opera that would be impossible to perform on stage.



    ToH is a more balletic version of the opera than is usually performed. But the opera has always been performed with a lot of variations. Sometimes the tales are told in a different order or with parts missed out. Thomas Beecham introduced the opera to the UK and he had enough clout to persuade a lot of people that the way The Archers messed about with it was OK really.



    Moira Shearer is just beautiful as Stella in the Dragonfly ballet in the prologue. That's Edmond Audran she's dancing with. He is also the banker in the Coppelius segment. Edmond was Ludmilla Tch�rina's husband until he was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after they'd finished filming, aged just 33.



    Moira is also the lady in the Kleinsach segment, with Sir Frederick Ashton playing Kleinsach. OK, he wasn't actually Sir Fred at the time, he was knighted in 1962. But he was regarded as the founding father of British ballet and could be considered to be a respectable figure. Luckily he liked to play silly roles like this one and Cochenille, the assistant in the Coppelius segment. His other great silly role was as an Ugly Sister (Bobby Helpmann was the other one) in the Royal Ballet's production of Cinderella.



    In that Coppelius segment, Bobby Helpmann plays Coppelius with that wonderful coat full of eyes. L�onide Massine plays Spalanzani the salesman / con-man.



    A brief aside to note that everything we see on screen was performed to playback. They recorded all the music and singing first and then filmed it on an old silent stage at Shepperton. This meant that they didn't have to have the huge soundproofing "blimp" over the Technicolor camera which allowed it a lot more freedom of movement. It also meant that they could have the recorded music playing so that they could time their movements to it. Apart from Hoffmann himself (Robert Rounseville), and Pamela Brown as Niklaus, just about everyone you see on film is a dancer. This shows in the way they move even when they're just walking. Every step and gesture is in time to the music. Rounseville was an opera singer and he is singing his own part, although that's pre-recorded.



    In the Coppelius segment, when Moira's doing the doll dance she mimes to the singing very well, until the footwork becomes more intricate when she abandons the miming. But accuracy isn't too important in this film. There are a few other slip-ups, literally in the case of Massine rushing around the swinging chair. The whole thing is more impressionist. Especially with Hein Heckroth's floaty, draped set designs.



    Hein said "On screen it says the first act takes place in Paris. This is not true - it takes place in yellow with, of course, some other colours to play against."



    BTW Make sure you don't have the brightness turned up too high at the end of the Coppelius segment or you can see Moira in the black body stocking as Olympia is torn apart.



    And the great way that spring from Olympia's head goes into a ripple on the Venice lagoon - Emeric claimed that was his idea and it's a lovely one.





    And so on to Giulietta. Was there ever a character, or a lady, more slinky than Ludmilla Tch�rina? That black outfit with her impossibly thin waist, the small dagger and the snake bangle winding it's way around her wrist. Marvellous. You mention her singing to her reflection. That's the famous Barcarolle and is usually sung as a duet. It's a clever way to let one character sing a duet



    The "special effects" in the Giulietta, when Dapertutto steps out of the mirror, when he turns the candle wax into jewels and when Hoffmann's soul/reflection is stolen, these are the things that make it George A. Romero's favourite film (or very high up on his list of favourites). They made him realise that you didn't need huge, fancy special effects to get a message across. So he went and made Night of the Living Dead!



    Scorsese reckons it's the eyes of Schlemil (Massine) during the duel that inspired the look of Travis Bickle's eyes in the mirror of his cab in Taxi Driver. It's odd what inspires different people.



    There's a lot of odd stuff going on in that Giulietta segment. The boatmen dressed in some very kinky gear, the bodies she walks over, that whole banquet/orgy scene and much more.





    Then the Antonia segment where we meet the only other person who sung her own part (Anne Ayars) although that was pre-recorded as well. This segment is the only "pure" opera in the whole film. Although a lot of people think it could do with being quite a bit shorter, or even being cut altogether. Massine does a lovely comic turn as the deaf gardener.



    And this is where subtitles really do help. Which version were you watching? The Criterion DVD has optional subtitles as does the Japanese DVD. I don't know of any other commercially produced versions apart from the old video.



    When Hoffmann, Antonia, Dr Miracle, Crespel (& Antonia's dead mother) are all singing at once it is hard to make out what they're singing. Even though they're singing in English. Having the libretto to hand, or having the subtitles, is almost essential.





    And then the epilogue, where all the different women are merged in to one, and the big surprise
      Spoiler:
    that the antagonist in each episode was really the same person
    . But when Stella comes to meet Hoffmann, he's lying in a drunken stupor, so she goes off with said antagonist in another guise.





    There was quite a lot that was cut out. There was a longer scene with Massine as Franz the gardener. There was a scene at the end where Nicklaus was a golden statue that comes to life. That one did lead into a scene giving Hoffmann redemption and starting him on his path as a poet. It was definitely filmed and printed because it was included when the film was shown at the New York Met and when it was shown at Cannes. But then it was cut before the film went on general release and no-body's been able to find it since ... as yet.





    But the whole thing is still a delight to behold. A visual feast, full of humour (unrolling the staircase), Hein's colour coding of locations and characters. But it is an intense experience.



    Steve

  5. #5
    Senior Member Country: UK
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    I watched this again recently and just can't get over the the scene when Shearer's dancing on the rug with the stairway on it, Magnifique!!

  6. #6
    Senior Member Country: United States TimR's Avatar
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    There was quite a lot that was cut out. There was a longer scene with Massine as Franz the gardener. There was a scene at the end where Nicklaus was a golden statue that comes to life. That one did lead into a scene giving Hoffmann redemption and starting him on his path as a poet. It was definitely filmed and printed because it was included when the film was shown at the New York Met and when it was shown at Cannes. But then it was cut before the film went on general release and no-body's been able to find it since ... as yet.





    But the whole thing is still a delight to behold. A visual feast, full of humour (unrolling the staircase), Hein's colour coding of locations and characters. But it is an intense experience.



    Steve
    Thank you for the information.



    I have the Criterion DVD, but it did not occur to me that there were English subtitles available. I watched it again last night with the subtitles, and it did help clear up some of the plot details - such as the business dealings in the Olympia sequence and the specifics of how and why Hoffman loses and then regains his soul in the Venice sequence.



    As for the glimpses of the black body stocking as Olympia is torn apart - I thought it was supposed to be vaguely discernible, as a sort of shadow of what she was.



    That decision to cut out the final sequence is a strange one. That is something I would like to see if it is ever found. The absence of redemption makes the film unnecessarily dark, and puts it slightly outside the German romantic tradition. I filled it in for myself after reading the libretto, but it would be a good thing to have it available.

  7. #7
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    As for the glimpses of the black body stocking as Olympia is torn apart - I thought it was supposed to be vaguely discernible, as a sort of shadow of what she was.
    I don't know what they intended but I've seen it on the big screen a few times and I much prefer it when you can't see the rest of her and they are just disconnected torso and limbs as she's torn apart.



    It's really just another example of the cheap, "impressionistic" special effects. They work better with a bit of suspension of belief and just going along with the story



    Steve

  8. #8
    Senior Member Country: United States TimR's Avatar
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    I don't know what they intended but I've seen it on the big screen a few times and I much prefer it when you can't see the rest of her and they are just disconnected torso and limbs as she's torn apart.

    It's really just another example of the cheap, "impressionistic" special effects. They work better with a bit of suspension of belief and just going along with the story



    Steve
    Yes, and in the case of this film, willing suspension of disbelief is easy and in the spirit of the film, with its brilliantly imaginative use of fantasy.

  9. #9
    Senior Member Country: Canada
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    We have the Criterion TALES OF HOFFMANN, but Jeannie and I have found it so dense with visual metaphors and 'way over the top set dressing, that it is hard to watch - so far.



    The comments posted earlier are going to be a big help as we dive into the DVD again.



    Offenbach's music is the main attraction of course. We thought PnP had brilliantly pushed the edge of art and drama with THE RED SHOES, but we weren't quite ready for HOFFMANN.



    Thanks for your insight, and I hope to come back soon with a report that TALES OF HOFFMANN is well-loved here.

  10. #10
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    We have the Criterion TALES OF HOFFMANN, but Jeannie and I have found it so dense with visual metaphors and 'way over the top set dressing, that it is hard to watch - so far.

    The comments posted earlier are going to be a big help as we dive into the DVD again.



    Offenbach's music is the main attraction of course. We thought PnP had brilliantly pushed the edge of art and drama with THE RED SHOES, but we weren't quite ready for HOFFMANN.



    Thanks for your insight, and I hope to come back soon with a report that TALES OF HOFFMANN is well-loved here.
    It's not compulsory to love P&P films

    I am also interested in people saying they don't like them, as long as they can give a reason.



    Steve

  11. #11
    GRAEME
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    I wrote this on the Best British Musicals thread a while back - it was my first impression:



    Just saw The Tales of Hoffmann for the first time (as an adult).



    Hugely impressive film-making with some haunting scenes and characterizations.

    I didn't go a bundle on the singing - too stiffly operatic for my taste - but the whole is so well done it held my attention for the entire two hours.



    I still think The Red Shoes is the greater P&P "musical" however. TOH is like the ballet sequence from Red Shoes elongated to breaking point. Incredible - but just not really a "movie". A one-off though.

  12. #12
    Senior Member Country: United States TimR's Avatar
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    ....Hugely impressive film-making with some haunting scenes and characterizations.

    I didn't go a bundle on the singing - too stiffly operatic for my taste - but the whole is so well done it held my attention for the entire two hours.



    I still think The Red Shoes is the greater P&P "musical" however. TOH is like the ballet sequence from Red Shoes elongated to breaking point. Incredible - but just not really a "movie". A one-off though.
    I would disagree with you there. I was fascinated by Tales of Hoffman because it is a film, not just a filmed opera. The Kleinsach sequence at the beginning is an example of what a film maker can do and that is impossible on a stage.

  13. #13
    GRAEME
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    I would disagree with you there. I was fascinated by Tales of Hoffman because it is a film, not just a filmed opera. The Kleinsach sequence at the beginning is an example of what a film maker can do and that is impossible on a stage.
    I would agree that it is cinematic - I wasn't denying the art and skill of the director - hey it's Michael Powell! - or his crew of technicians.



    I was just feeling that in terms of content it was unlike any other movie I ever saw. No real plot. No pace. No dialogue.



    It is impressive in spades - and yeah it's a movie because it's a movie - it isn't a banana... I know that.



    But it isn't coherent as a movie like The Red Shoes for example - it breaks all the rules. Good or bad is up to each of us. I say it is a hugely accomplished experiment and a wonderful artefact - but it doesn't satisfy me (only me) as a film.

  14. #14
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    I would agree that it is cinematic - I wasn't denying the art and skill of the director - hey it's Michael Powell! - or his crew of technicians.

    I was just feeling that in terms of content it was unlike any other movie I ever saw. No real plot. No pace. No dialogue.

    It is impressive in spades - and yeah it's a movie because it's a movie - it isn't a banana... I know that.

    But it isn't coherent as a movie like The Red Shoes for example - it breaks all the rules. Good or bad is up to each of us. I say it is a hugely accomplished experiment and a wonderful artefact - but it doesn't satisfy me (only me) as a film.
    That's fair enough. They were trying to create a new art form, something that hadn't been done before in any medium, a filmic opera. People had filmed stage productions of operas before but this was the first attempt at using all the techniques and tricks available to film--makers to produce an opera. Because they used the team from The Red Shoes they had more ballet than is usual in an opera. It's only in the last act that it really goes into full opera.



    As Tim said, they do things in it that can't be done on stage, and they also give you close-ups and a lot more than can ever be done with a staged performance.



    It doesn't use a conventional film narrative, but that is a fairly normal narrative structure for an opera, particularly this opera.



    It's not to everyone's taste and opinions do vary as to the degree in which they succeeded. The Antonia segment especially is too much for many people. Although subtitles are a big help.



    Steve

  15. #15
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    " It's not compulsory to like PnP films"



    Yeah, but it is necessary that a self-professed film fan should try more than once to appreciate a complicated movie.



    A personal epiphany: I first saw Altman's NASHVILLE at the cinema in 1976. I didn't get it. Seen again on VHS a couple of times in the 1980's, I was still left cold. Then, hallelujiah! The scales dropped from my eyes a few years ago and now NASHVILLE is a re-watched fave that threatens to wear out the DVD.



    HOFFMANN may be another, who knows?

  16. #16
    Senior Member Country: United States TimR's Avatar
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    I just watched Tales of Hoffman once again - I have lost count how many times now.



    If you have not seen it I encourage you to try it



    Here is the Kleinzach sequence, one of my favorites:



    My link

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    When I was twelve or so, a local mortuary used to present Grimshaw's Waltz Time. Offenbach’s Barcarolle was a favorite of whoever produced the radio show, and consequently mine. When The Tales of Hoffman was showing at a Scottsdale cinema specializing in classic and foreign films, I persuaded my sister to drive me over. Fortunately, she liked good music as well. I recall her saying afterwards that she thought Robert Helpmann was the best in it. I sat there, entranced, throughout the whole film. It was subtitled, but I would have enjoyed it anyway.



    I recall Helpmann’s demonic sway over Antonia, whose jewels he turned into melted wax, then back again. Which, I suppose, illustrates how little consequence most things are which we consider so important.



    And then, there’s that sinuous, languorous, Barcarolle, one of my favorites.



    Some years ago, there was a good television production of Tales—in some ways better than the Helpmann classic, but I think I preferred the version I first saw, with Helpmann and Robert Rounseville.



    When I lived in San Francisco, the Powell Theatre, at the corner of Market and Powell, used to show filmed operas, and I’d catch them. Later, it turned into a gay male cinéma, then back again, showing old movies. I don’t know what it is now.



    I’ve seen La Traviata, Boris Godonov, Madame Butterfly—all of which I’d probably have otherwise missed.



    I’m glad this discussion has been raised.

  18. #18
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    When I was twelve or so, a local mortuary used to present Grimshaw's Waltz Time. Offenbach�€™s Barcarolle was a favorite of whoever produced the radio show, and consequently mine. When The Tales of Hoffman was showing at a Scottsdale cinema specializing in classic and foreign films, I persuaded my sister to drive me over. Fortunately, she liked good music as well. I recall her saying afterwards that she thought Robert Helpmann was the best in it. I sat there, entranced, throughout the whole film. It was subtitled, but I would have enjoyed it anyway.

    I recall Helpmann�€™s demonic sway over Antonia, whose jewels he turned into melted wax, then back again. Which, I suppose, illustrates how little consequence most things are which we consider so important.

    And then, there�€™s that sinuous, languorous, Barcarolle, one of my favorites.

    Some years ago, there was a good television production of Tales�€”in some ways better than the Helpmann classic, but I think I preferred the version I first saw, with Helpmann and Robert Rounseville.



    When I lived in San Francisco, the Powell Theatre, at the corner of Market and Powell, used to show filmed operas, and I�€™d catch them. Later, it turned into a gay male cinéma, then back again, showing old movies. I don�€™t know what it is now.



    I�€™ve seen La Traviata, Boris Godonov, Madame Butterfly�€”all of which I�€™d probably have otherwise missed.



    I�€™m glad this discussion has been raised.
    You're in good company in admiring the Giulietta segment Girard - it was Giulietta, played by Ludmilla Tchérina, who had her jewels made from melted wax and turned back into wax when she wouldn't do what Dapertutto (Helpmann) wanted. It was also Giulietta who sang the Barcarolle, as a duet with her own reflection.



    Ludmilla really did define slinky and sensuous in that role







    Amongst the many other people who particularly admire that segment is George A. Romero

    He admired it as a piece of artistic work but also because it showed him that it wasn't necessary for special effects to be overly complicated. They could be quite simple, and were therefore quite cheap to do. That told him that he could make the films he wanted to do, so he went and made Night of the Living Dead (1968). There's not an obvious connection between ToH and NotLD, but the one did inspire the other.



    Read George's comments as he presented ToH at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1999



    After he had been introduced to the film by Martin Scorsese when they were both living in NYC, they would both rent a 16mm print of the film. Whenever Marty wanted it, George had it and whenever George wanted it, Marty would have it



    There's a nice interview with George on the Criterion DVD



    Steve

  19. #19
    Senior Member Country: United States TimR's Avatar
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    I watched this again after several years. It's definitely worth seeing and a remarkable achievement.

  20. #20
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    As well as the recently released region B Blu-ray & region 2 DVD the digitally restored print is on a world tour of cinemas

    Steve

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