Seeking safety from a horde of flesh-eating creatures, a small group of people barricade themselves in a seemingly safe haven, but forces from both within and without inevitably threaten their hope for survival…
The “Alamo” scenario is a perfect fit for the horror genre. The recipe is simple: throw a group of diverse personalities together in a confined space and put a starving monster at the door. Add a pinch of cabin fever and a dash of human frailty, and dinner is served. A good many writer/directors have remembered the Alamo when cooking up their own melodramas, but two in particular take excellent advantage of its potential.
Released in 1959, Ray Kellogg’s THE KILLER SHREWS begins with the obligatory science lesson about the vicious standard-issue variety of shrew, and then strands supply boat captain James Best onto a suitably isolated island on the eve of a hurricane. The well-intentioned research scientists there have borrowed the wrong page from H.G. Wells, and have accidently created a herd of Doberman-size rabid rodents… that have now escaped and are at large. Despite a convenient ten-foot fence surrounding the compound, the nasty saber-toothed critters are relentless in their pursuit of the human smorgasbord within. The characters on the menu include a smokin’ Swedish bombshell, two oddball professors, and a couple of clearly doomed ethnic stereotypes. Producer Ken Curtis, who went on to star as “Festus,” the goofy sidekick on the long-running series GUNSMOKE, plays the necessary drunken douchebag role.
Of course the real stars of the show are the dog-sized shrews, played by… well, dogs. It’s pretty obvious these are regular canines with mangy wigs and dentures slapped on them, but they’re still pretty damn creepy. The hand puppets used for the close-ups of the vermin work much better when combined with their eerie, chattering screeches. The shrews are most effective when they attack in numbers, running down and devouring their prey, wisely concealed by conveniently placed shrubbery. In the end, the last humans standing devise and execute one of the most unique escape sequences in monster movie history.
For many years, THE KILLER SHREWS bore the stigma of Public Domain, and was dismissed as fodder for local network horror hosts and MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000-style roasts. But SHREWS rockets smoothly through its slight 69-minute running time, and all things considered, is much better than it should be.
Slightly less than two decades later, George Romero tossed his second ghoul grenade under the unsuspecting bunk of post-Hammer horror fans. The first sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the film that put him on the map, George revisits the Alamo framework, but instead of a rural farmhouse, places it in a landscape familiar to almost everyone… a shopping mall. Twice as gruesome but half as bleak as its predecessor, DAWN OF THE DEAD perpetuates the message Romero was sending from the start. The first violence we see in the film is the living killing the living, and the point is hammered home by the one-legged Priest shortly thereafter: “When the dead walk, Señores, we must stop the killing, or lose the war.” Arguably the best line of dialogue Romero has ever written.
All the characters in the film want the same thing… what’s inside the mall. The humans want the material stuff and the zombies want the humans — which make them the only characters in the story who do not act out of fear, malice, greed or vengeance.
This is one of the only horror movies ever made where the second act is the most important. The first act perfectly captures the confusion and chaos of society crumbling, but what follows is even more compelling. Our heroes become so successful at protecting their Alamo, they begin to lose any sense of who they are. When you have everything, there’s nothing to be had. By the final act, just before the invasion of the rogue bikers, the survivors are preparing to leave their self-imposed prison and live life again… even if only for a short time.
Alternately terrifying and cartoonish, with solid performances from the four leads, DAWN OF THE DEAD forever changed the zombie cinema archetype from somnambulistic slave to flesh-eating ghoul. Even more than Romero’s original 1968 film, DAWN became the template for all future zombie films and television shows to follow.
Both THE KILLER SHREWS and DAWN OF THE DEAD are examples of lower-budget American horror films that utilize the Alamo scenario to their best advantage. The message is essentially the same: the threat within the walls can be just as dangerous as the threat beyond.
There is one more thing to mention, with vast respect to the great Pee-wee Herman: Both of these Alamos actually do have a basement…