Saturday, October 06, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 33: Kolchak, The Night Stalker: "The Zombie"

All I can say is, they don't make 'em like they used to. This is my favorite episode of the 1974-1975 series, Kolchak, The Night Stalker. "The Zombie," written by David Chase and Zekial Marko and directed by Alex Grasshoff, aired more than thirty-three years ago, on September 20, 1974. Shot mostly in dark hues of impenetrable night (by cinematographer Alric Edens), this remains a pretty terrifying installment of the classic seventies series, especially during the climax.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker stars Darren McGavin as quirky Carl Kolchak, an irrepressible reporter at the seedy little INS (Independent News Service) in Chicago. There, he gulps coffee by the gallon and investigates all the city big-wigs, often clashing with his editor and friend, the long-suffering Tony Vincenzo (the late, great Simon Oakland). Kolchak's cases, however, all end up with an unusual and inevitably terrifying bent. Public or government malfeasance often leads to direct evidence of...the supernatural.

Lest we forget it, Kolchak, The Night Stalker aired in the era of "hero" journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, right after the Watergate Scandal. Embedded in the series' DNA is the then-popular belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference. In the series, Kolchak is always battling corrupt cops or politicians and trying (and often failing...) to get the truth out to the people. This was before the age of a corporate news business and compliant "talking points" media. Kolchak - for all his failures as a human being - is a sterling journalist and a paragon of virtue in the sense that he always follows a matter where it takes him.

"The Zombie" reveals this "man against City Hall" aesthetic in spades. While investigating a gangland "syndicate" killing, Kolchak begins to suspect that a Mamalois, a voodoo priestess, has activated a zombie to kill the mobsters who put out a hit on her grandson, Haitian Francois Edmonds. Kolchak works every angle of the case, which allows him to consult the series' colorful recurring cast members, like John Fiedler's on-the-take "Gordy the Ghoul," an enthusiastic informant who works in City Morgue. The case also puts Kolchak in direct opposition with police captain Leo Winwood (Charles Aidman), who has a dark involvement with the mob case. In voice-over, Kolchak describes his relationship with Winwood as "long and bloody; like the Crusades...only without the chivalry."

One of the episode's best moment involves Kolchak putting Captain Winwood on the spot while he conducts an official press briefing (a ritual Kolchak derides as "a foolish game.") The Helen Thomas or Sam Donaldson of his day, Kolchak pummels the evasive Winwood with facts until the dishonest police captain threatens to have him expelled. Why our White House Press couldn't push Tony Snow or Ari Fleischer this way is beyond me.

Another aspect of the episode involves Kolchak tangling with Monique Marmelstein, the new partner Vincenzo has assigned him. Monique is a pudgy, annoying presence who got her job at INS through what she calls "nespotism" (but she means nepotism.) Just as the Winwood character is found to be corrupt; so does Kolchak here find corruption in his INS office. It turns out Monique's uncle is a powerful figure in local politics, so Vincenzo has no choice but to accommodate her on his staff. At a police shoot-out, however, Kolchak finds an inventive way to keep Monique out of his way: the always loquacious Kolchak jaw-bones Monique into hiding in the trunk of his car; and then locks her in. Not very nice. But undeniably effective.

The political undercurrents of Kolchak and the pervasive context of Watergate are always fascinating elements of the series, but as a horror fan I love "The Zombie" for its spine-tingling denouement. Convinced that a zombie is being resurrected nightly for revenge killings, Kolchak researches the ways to kill it. He discovers that zombies often rest in the "places of the dead" (mortuaries, graveyards, etc.) and that to kill one he must pour salt into the mouth, and then use needle and thread to sew the lips "very tightly" together. However, that mode of execution only works if the zombie is dormant. If awake, the undead can be killed by strangulation. But ever try strangling a zombie before?

Kolchak finds his living-dead quarry at an unconventional "place of the dead," an auto junkyard (where cars go to die...). In particular, Kolchak happens across the zombie in a wrecked funeral hearse. We watch with mounting suspense as Kolchak crawls in through the back of the hearse and methodically pours salt into the zombie's mouth. He slowly takes out the needle and is about to begin sewing the lips shut when...

...the zombie's eyes open and Kolchak - terrified - shrieks like a little girl and hightails it out of the hearse. I have to admit, this is one of the things I absolutely love about this character. So often in horror movies and television lately, characters face extreme situations (like vampires, zombies and werewolves) with a bit too much composure and acceptance for my taste. In keeping with Kolchak's 1970s-vibe and "everyman" nature, the character is foolhardy, but when faced with a monster, pretty damn terrified. I'm reminded (unfortunately) of the recent Bionic Woman pilot episode, wherein Jaime Summers takes in stride the fact that she is trading martial arts fisticuffs with a psychotic superwoman. In fact, she starts trading quips with the evil bionic chick almost immediately. And she's supposed to be a 23-year old bartender!! A little fear; a little anxiety; a little surprise would have been appropriate and would have given the scene the sense of verisimilitude it lacked. I like the Kolchak solution better. Upon seeing the zombie awake, Kolchak turns tail and runs like hell. "Suspension of disbelief" is important in horror and science fiction, and if the characters don't respond in a truthful manner to the strange events around them, I found suspension of disbelief is lost. For me, anyway. A lot of movies and TV shows today can't be bothered to actually generate suspense or have characters react in a realistic way (Supernatural, j'accuse!)

So Kolchak turns tail and runs through the junkyard, the white-eyed zombie hot on his heels. With a degree of ingenuity and on the fly, Kolchak manages to trick the lunging zombie into a noose, hence the necessary strangulation of the creature. But the point is that it all looks very unplanned, very spontaneous and therefore very human. Kolchak: The Night Stalker did things in this fashion all the time, and the audience found itself rooting for the little guy not just as he battled City Hall, but as he battled terrifying monsters too (or more appropriately, a different kind of monster than he found ensconced in the hallways of power). Of course, the very nature of episodic television assures that the protagonist survives his or her travails week-to-week, but the very fallible nature of this particular protagonist actually makes the viewer forget such convention and hold on tight to that critical suspension of disbelief. Carl has heart, but he's hapless and - like most of us - not exactly courageous in the face of the unknown. That's why I love the guy; he's us.

With its roving night-time camera, hand-held moments promoting immediacy, staccato character banter, sharp writing and unforgettably individual protagonist, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is really a shining jewel in genre television's crown. It's a one-of-a-kind production, and "The Zombie" reveals why. It moves effortlessly from comedy to social commentary to monsters-on-the-loose with utter confidence, not to mention an overwhelming sense of charm and fun.


  1. Anonymous1:58 PM

    Why our White House Press couldn't push Tony Snow or Ari Fleischer this way is beyond me.

    As well as Mike McCurry and Dee Dee Myers. :P

  2. Lee, my bud,

    Interesting comment.

    I think I disagree with it though.

    (But hey look!!! I still passed your comment through to the blog in my neo-fascist way!!!).

    I would argue that the The White House press DID do their job during the Clinton Era (the era of McCurry, Lockhart and Myers), which is why we all know every minute detail of Clinton's blow jobs from Monica Lewinsky.

    We know the when, the what, and the how. Yeah, baby!

    Heck, he was held accountable by the representatives of the people (the congress) and by the due course of law: impeached (but not convicted) during a trial as the Constitution stipulates, his license to practice law in Arkansas revoked.

    What more is there to complain about there? Justice was served and the system worked; the Press exposed Clinton's misbehavior. (And it WAS misbheavior. Moral and personal, if not legal misbehavior: Lewinsky was a young intern who looked up to him, and he abused his position of power in the relationship. I think that's...yucky.)

    However, on the flip side, I'm still waiting for the same Washington press to to hold President Bush accountable for his bad deeds in even a token fashion.

    So while I appreciate your urge to make this a bi-partisan issue, I don't think it really is. Clinton got shafted for getting a blow job; by contrast Bush gets blown by the press every day while he gives America the shaft. See the difference?

    Love ya, Lee.

  3. Anonymous12:35 AM

    As much criticism as the show got, you have to admit that NO ONE seems to be able to move deftly between humor/horror/social commentary anymore... They make it look so easy.

    I prefer David Chase when he was working in this mode.

    Another thing about "The Zombie" - even though how Kolchak defeats the zombie is pretty clever and is logical, given that most of the supporting cast is black in this episode, 'hanging' the monster is a pretty dark and sick joke.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that... I'm actually surprised the network allowed it.

  4. Truly one of the best ever series. I agree.

    That moment where "the zombie's eyes open" has to be one of the scariest things I have ever seen.

    I first saw it, about 15 years ago, late on a Friday night. It pulled me in and scared the crap out of me like nobody's business.

    They don't make TV like that anymore...

  5. Agree -- one of the best episodes of this great series. I think the zombie opening it's eyes is the perfect "gotcha" moment that the whole sequence was building to. Poor Carl having to squirm into the back of the hearse, and lay side-by-side with that horrid zombie. The confined space really conveys a claustrophobic feeling. Then having to pour the salt, and knowing what must come next... actually touching the beast, sewing up it's lips!

    Powerful scene, and I still get very tense just watching it, after all these years. The director really made the most of it, with the build-up and the great feeling of such "tight quarters". Darrin McGavin plays it perfectly, evincing an obvious disgust with what he's having to do. He really conveys the feeling that he'd rather be just about anywhere else... and how many of us would have the nerve to crawl into the back of a hearse with a creepy-looking zombie.... let alone having to sew up it's lips? Whew....
    Mike Douglas


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