The number of walking corpses is on the rise…well, in the movies, anyway. October is the month for monster movies, and the monster flavor of the month is ZOMBIE! It’s about time too. Vampires have had the spot light for far too long. Time to give the rest of the undead the attention they deserve. With zombie favorites such as Dawn of the Dead (original and remake) available on DVD and the new satire Shaun of the Dead now in theatres, this is the year of the living dead. Of course, you can’t talk zombies without mentioning one of the greatest, the film that inspired George Romero, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls.
Also known as Corridors of Evil, Carnival of Souls was Harvey’s only feature film. Released in 1962, Carnival of Souls was filmed on a budget of less than $30, 000, and shot on location in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah. To give the film its due credit, Carnival of Souls is much more than a zombie picture. It is a moody and artful psychological thriller, which tells the story of a woman disturbed by the tragic death of her friends. She tries to escape the haunting visions of her past, but her journey is plagued by chilling encounters with both the living and dead.
Some elements of the film might seem tedious to a modern audience. The dialogue is dated and the acting is stiff at times. A few of the plot devices are old hat to the post M. Night Shyamalan audience, but bear in mind, at the time of its release, Carnival of Souls was completely original. Independent films were scarce, and rarely as experimental as this. Moreover, unlike the cold war-inspired, alien invasion fear-fests of the time, Carnival of Souls delves into the human psyche. It explores terror on a personal level, examining the anxiety of self-doubt and the fear of mortality. What Carnival of Souls may lack in subtlety or sophistication, it makes up for in atmosphere. The black and white photography is stunning and is complimented by some spectacular locations and art direction; particularly the scenes filmed at Saltair, an abandoned amusement park in Salt Lake City, which was Harvey’s inspiration for making the film. The ambiance of the film is further enhanced by an eerily disjointed score consisting entirely of moody and seemingly improvisational pipe organ music.
The Criterion Collection DVD for Carnival of Souls offers a number of exciting bonus features, including commentary, interviews, and the director’s cut of the film. It also contains a short documentary, The Movie That Wouldn’t Die, produced by KTWU in Topeka. It discusses the making of Carnival of Souls as well as its impact on the horror genre, and offers perspective regarding film’s relevance to Kansas film history and filmmaking in general.
Carnival of Souls has enjoyed a strong cult following for decades, including numerous revivals, celebrations, and festivals. It is now regarded by filmmakers and film historians as a work of great significance to the history of independent films and the horror film genre. Herk Harvey said that his goal for Carnival of Souls was to achieve the look of a Bergman film with the feeling of a Cocteau. A fairly lofty ambition for a zombie movie, but he succeeded. It is truly a splendid picture, in addition to being a whole lot of spooky fun.
Oh, did I mention it’s full of zombies?
Director: Herk Harvey
Writer: John Clifford
Running time: 84 min (director’s cut)
Reviewed by Maggie