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Fright Fest: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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Though zombie is never said in Night of the Living Dead, this 1968 horror film set the standard for all following zombie films: radiation raises the ghouls (as they’re called in the film) to life (though, as of this film, radiation as a cause is only speculation), they move in a slow, plodding manner, they eat the flesh of the living, and the people they kill turn into zombies.

What makes George A. Romero’s Dead films so important, though, isn’t the thrills and chills they provide, as generous as that providing assuredly is. It’s the social and political commentary, hidden beneath the piles of corpses, that distinguishes him from his imitators. The following is my interpretation of that commentary, a theme of mindless, pitiless killing, and a killing not limited to what the zombies commit, by the way.  Continue Reading

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Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

 

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There is a strange perverse serendipitous feeling watching Rosemary’s Baby. This first of Roman Polanski’s American films opens with a New York City urban landscape outstretched and panned across, as if what we see is some malevolent box metal toy, wound up and played on the tune of some woman humming an intently sweet and ambiguous lullaby. But instead of some creepy jack-in-the-box, we get something much different in the end. Much more sinister. And utterly human, regardless of its supernatural parentage. The movie makes things almost too easy to find some quality or deeper meaning to the story of Rosemary’s Baby, from the presence of evil surrounding an alienated city, to spousal rape, to the occult even (to get to the nitty-gritty) or the overshadowed all-consuming feeling of a small frail Nebraskan girl being swallowed alive by the even more deadpan banality of the city. But, before we get too comfortable with our new neighbors, let’s walk the halls of the apartment house on West 72nd Street, and see where those eerily demonic chants are really coming from.

As stated above, Rosemary’s Baby opens on a panorama view of an urban city with a disturbingly sweet lullaby “la-la-la” playing in the background, and opening credits in a cursive script and hot pink. Immediately I think of girls, as in pink for girls, blue for boys. Given the title, even if you’ve never watched Rosemary’s Baby, the title kinda gives away the central theme, childbirth. What waits for us following the opening credits and the bird-like drifting to the young couple walking through an archway, remains a mystery, all but for one thing, whatever happens, it has to do with Rosemary’s baby. What happens with Rosemary’s baby, we do not know; all we know is that everything that will be set up will be for the sole purpose of telling a story regarding Rosemary’s baby. Savvy? Let us continue.

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Moving into the apartment, we are introduced to Guy Woodhouse, a struggling New York City actor, and his very meek looking wife, Rosemary. We also discover they are newlywed and are considering (maybe more) starting a family. The apartment is very gothic and old looking, perhaps as old as the city itself, with roots as deep as the Trans system underneath them. The previous tenant was an elderly woman, in fact, most of the tenants of West 72nd Street are elderly, who had passed away recently in a coma. Her apartment remains as she left it, the furniture collecting dust, the herbs in her kitchen garden browned and frail, and notes of “I can no longer associate myself…” partially complete. And there is one more item, a large heavy secretary cabinet is blocking one of the hallway closets. Odd, we think, because of the placement of the furniture and that it would seem too heavy for an elderly woman to move by herself. But we laugh it off, perhaps the old duck really had gone senile before passing. Regardless, the next we see Rosemary’s nearly begging, but not that hard really, for Guy to agree to lease the lavishing apartment.

Guy Woodhouse is many things. Some of those things are quite vile and selfish, of this, we’ll see intimately later on. But there are moments when we get a look at a guy (no pun intended) who would do whatever it took to make his wife happy. It’s evident, he’s a city (again, no pun) guy and she’s a small town girl, and her eyes shine with that jubilant expectation of a glamorous life in a rich landscape of modernity. We see her giddiness and are nearly jumping up and down with her. In this lush big city dream apartment, what’s not to love?

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Next, just before the montage “moving-in” scene, we are introduced to one of the few pleasant characters that fill the void. At the dinner table of close friend Edward “Hutch” Hutchins, played by Maurice Evans, a scholar of sorts and author of children’s adventure stories, warns them with the history of the apartment the Woodhouse’s have just leased, a history of witchcraft and cannibalism and dead babies in the basement. The story is quite chilling, but the young couple does not seem phased by it, as if they may be accustomed to hearing fancy tales that may or may not be entirely true from their friend Hutch, a type of friend, family or otherwise, is not entirely clarified, though he does seem to favor Rosemary over Guy. And we’ll see later on, that he is more her friend over the husband in many instances that do not last long enough on screen as they should.

Following dinner, we get our first montage scene. The drab dark gothic is replaced by bright whites and sunny yellow wallpaper and new (at least in 1968) furniture and appliances. Everyone is happy, though Guy does seem a little apprehensive about the move and the costs, mostly due to being passed over for parts in his acting career. Day or weeks go by, we’re not entirely sure, montage in all, and next we see the misses doing laundry in the basement of the apartment building. The basement is stereotypically creepy and Rosemary is happy to share the space with a new face, Terry Gionoffrio, who she mistakes for Victoria Vetri, an actually real person made famous by Playboy magazine and the real name of the actress playing Gionoffrio, who admits she gets mistaken for “all the time, but she doesn’t see the resemblance.” I have to assume that this actually stirred some laughs back in 1968, or at least I hope because this joke went right over my head when I first watched the movie (heck, even when I screened the movie for the fifth time). To get this joke, watching Rosemary’s Baby in 2016, you have got to be a historian or a really big fan of Playboy magazine.

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Well, moving on.

The two are fast friends and commit to doing laundry together to avoid being alone in the “creepy” basement. And while the creepy basement is an overused trope in horror, it’s overused for a reason. It’s believable. It solidifies the realism of the movie. We don’t want to be in that basement alone either. And thus, we’re given another of many human connections to Rosemary’s Baby. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes. Following a night of strange chanting sounds coming through the yellow sunny wall, the Woodhouse’s discovered a freighting scene in front of their apartment house. Police tape is being strung. Reds and blues are flashing. People are gathering and murmuring among themselves. And on the pavement, the bloody aftermath of Terry Gionoffrio, dead from an apparent suicide. “She must have jumped from her apartment window,” the police say. Before the scene ends, we are introduced to our un-seeming antagonists, an elderly couple, Roman Castevet, and his wife Minnie, who are both perhaps eccentric and maybe a little intrusive, but otherwise kind and thoughtful. They were taking care of Terry, you see, and are heartbroken to discover that she killed herself, though Roman states he is not entirely surprised as Terry was known, according to him, to get “deeply depressed every three weeks or so,” which I can only assume is a quip to the menstruation cycle. Perhaps, given the rest of the story, Terry was incapable of conceiving a child, which also begs the question…did she know?

Fast-forwarding a little, after accepting a dinner invitation, following another passed over the part for our husband Guy, the Woodhouse’s are being entertained in the apartment home of the Castevet’s. The dinner was actually entertaining to watch, even more so for a second or third screening of the movie, looking for those clues where the betrayal took root. My guess is the scene following Rosemary helping Minnie in the kitchen washing dishes, and Guy and Roman sitting on the couch together, Roman looking nondescript, smoking a pipe, while Guy glares at him mouth agape. Roman is a very warm character, despite the things he does or eventually does. Sidney Blackmer did a fantastic job with that role, from charming to near-homicidal/comical shouting to the (forgive me) heavens, “The end is near! Satan has won!” But not yet, not until the end.

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Things begin progressing, sometimes fast, other times slow. One distinct thing is for sure, Guy is beginning to act differently. Sometimes his indifference is pointed out to us, mostly by Rosemary, who complains they are not talking to each other like they used to, or that he doesn’t look at her anymore. The biggest different, for obvious reasons, happens soon after Guy lands a huge acting part, a part given to another actor who mysteriously is blinded. Guy tells rosemary he wants to make a baby. Rosemary is beside herself with joy. Date night. Dessert delivered by Minnie, a dessert with a strange aftertaste. And as the night progresses things begin to get a little dark and strange. Stuck between a dream world and reality, Rosemary drifts between being on a boat to being stripped nude and surrounded by a crowd of naked strangers, and not so strangers, such as the Castevet’s and her husband, Guy. And then, she thinks her and Guy are having sex, but Guy’s face becomes…something else, something beastly and demonic. There are a few religious notions sewn into the movie, the Pope shows up, and we know that Rosemary had been brought up catholic, but I do not think religion is the focal point of the story. The focal point is the as the title suggests, Rosemary’s baby, and of course, Rosemary herself.

Now, I’m going to have to really speed things up here to the end. The movie is actually quite long and I would think it unfair to force any of you fine folk to read something equally as long.

As you can guess, following the deranged night of naked cultism, Rosemary is pregnant. And then we get our next montage scene, and Rosemary goes from newly pregnant to full blown balloon. And Guy, well, his behavior remains strangely distant, in fact, when the baby kicks inside her womb, he withdraws his hand rather quickly, as if he’s afraid. In the interim, Hutch, suspicious of the Castevet’s and Rosemary’s condition, had slipped into a coma and has now passed away. But he doesn’t go quietly in the night. He left behind a book for Rosemary, a book that fuels her own suspicions about not just the Castevet’s, but her husband as well, titled, “All Them Witches,” a phrase she repeats towards the end.

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Positive that her husband is involved with the Castevet’s in a plot to steal her baby for some kind of cult ritual, Rosemary runs to her doctor, someone she believed she could trust. Discovering her obstetrician is a member of the coven, Rosemary runs to her original doctor, a very quaint farm boy looking fellow, all-American and down to earth. He pretends to believe her wild claims about witches trying to steal her baby and asks her to rest while he gets her checked into his hospital. But, the kind warm face betrays her, intentional or not, and calls Guy and Dr. Sapirstein to collect her.

Rosemary attempts to escape again but is given a sedative. Under the drug, she goes into labor. The next, she wakes and baby is delivered. She’s told it’s a boy and everything is fine. Still sedated, she falls asleep. Next, she’d told the baby has died and goes into hysterics. Again, Rosemary wakes, this time hearing the muted sound of a baby crying somewhere in the apartment house. She’s told it’s a new neighbor that has moved in but does not believe the lie. Discovering that the once barricaded closet is actually a secret passageway, she creeps into the Castevet home, knife in hand, readied to take back what is hers, her child. What she discovers is a celebration, of sorts. Neighbors are gathered, some new, some we’ve seen before, sharing drinks and toasts around a coal-black basinet.

No one stops her, which I found to be chilling. They know, somehow, she will not harm the baby. Peering inside the bassinet, Rosemary smiles and then cringes with a look of heart-stopping horror. “My baby, my baby, what have you done to my baby? What have you done to its eyes?” she utters, stumbling backward, dropping the knife to the floor. To this, Roman says matter-of-fact, “Nothing. The boy has his father’s eyes.”

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Here we finally discover, the actual parentage of Rosemary’s baby. The Devil, not Guy, is the real father. Some theatrics follow. Roman’s shouting jubilation. Others are toasting and smiling and conversing with one another. Later, Roman suggests Rosemary be a mother to the boy, stating the other women are too old for such a thing. Rosemary cringes again at his suggestion, “That’s not my child,” to which Roman quips, “Isn’t it?”

In the end, we see one of the most memorable scenes in horror history, Rosemary stands and walks to the bassinet, dismissing one of the older ladies, and begins to rock the cradle. And what was once a cringe, turns suddenly into a smile of warmth.

Then the movie ends.

And if you’re like me, watching this for the first time perhaps, as the end credits roll you’re thinking, “What the heck did I just watch?” Which is part of the beauty of Rosemary’s Baby, right? The plot is non-complicated. In fact, it’s downright simple. The mesmerizing thing about the movie are the characters and the actors that played the roles. Everything was believable, so much so that even when the unbelievable end came, it no longer mattered, we were a part of the story, no turning back. Her rejection of the cultist devil worshipers is expected and warranted, but so is her eventual acceptance of her own child, regardless of what it is, in this case, the Anti-Christ. And then the movie pans away, showing us again this panorama view of the city and that same (now utterly) chilling lullaby, “la-la-la,” as if to say, the horrors of the world lay hidden behind the curtains of modernity.

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And isn’t this what Rosemary’s Baby ultimately does? It forces us to question that even in a city as sprawling as New York, sin, evil, darkness, whatever, is, perhaps not in the dark alleyways, but present in our everyday lives and typically behind the faces of those we thought we could trust? In a carefully crafted way, Polanski asks us just what are our hopes and dreams and how exactly do those desires play into the future of not just for ourselves but society too. As we’ve seen time and time again,  change, be it for good or bad, is always inevitable and nothing, absolutely nothing, is for certain.

 

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Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò. His paranormal-thriller series, The Subdue Books, including Dwelling, Emerging, and Conceiving, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can check out his work on the altar of Amazon here.

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Fright Fest: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

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Kicking off Fright Fest 2016, we’ve got a fresh review for you to chew on. Creeping from the grave we’re going to talk a bit about Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead. Now, it is important for us to distinguish who the director of the film is, versus who it had been and the writers involved with the project as well. Believe it or not, Return of Living Dead has a sort of complicated history. What started out as a sequel to Night of the Living Dead by legendary George A. Romero co-creator John Russo, when Russo and Romero parted ways after 1968 , according to the documentary provided in the newly released Shout! Factory Return of The Living Dead [Blu-Ray], Russo was able to retain the rights to use “Living Dead,” while Romero was free to work on his sequels to the original film.

However, when slotted director Tobe Hooper backed out to work on Lifeforce, producers brought on Dan “The Man” O’Bannon to not only polish the script but also to assume the directorial seat. O’Bannon agreed to the job under the condition he could radically alter the original Russo script. I’m not sure what Russo’s script was exactly, but given that he had written the story coming off of Night of the Living Dead, it was probably more serious in tone and akin to the work of George A. Romero. When O’Bannon took the reins, he did not want to produce something that resembled anything Romero had done or was working on. Understandable considering Romero’s zombie trilogy (Night, Dawn, Day) was all released before Return hit theaters in August 1985. He wanted something his own and completely unique. While Russo remained credited, I do not think much of his original story remained in the final product. Hense all the “Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead” bit. This film was very much his own, written and directed and a living legacy to the late great director.

Before we continue with this review. How about a synopsis?

When foreman Frank (James Karen) shows new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews) a secret military experiment in a supply warehouse, the two klutzes accidentally release a gas that reanimates corpses into flesh-eating zombies.  Frank and Freddy seek the help of their boss (Clu Gulager) and a mysterious mortician (Don Calfa) to dispose of the remains of a still twitching cadaver. When the smoke from the crematoria rolls over the nearby cemetery, the undead wake and mayhem ensues and a group of punk rocker friends hanging out in the graveyard for their buddy Freddy must fight to survive the growing shambling horde of undead fiends. 

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Admittedly, growing up, I was very much a Romero-purist. My first horror love was Night of the Living Dead which my older sister introduced me to during one of our customary Friday night movie binges. I think I recall hearing about Return of the Living Dead, but never really gave it much interest in watching. I did watch Return of the Living Dead III back in the 90s when I was working at Blockbuster and rented the sucker on VHS. I was not impressed with that one in the least and assumed at that point that all Returns were just as dumb. I’m not one to shy away admitting when I’m wrong. And I was certainly wrong about the original Return of the Living Dead (1985). For the life of me, I cannot remember when I first watchedReturn of the Living Dead…but it had to have been within the last few years. Regardless, I was wrong. You heard it here first, folks. I WAS WRONG.

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Despite the horror-comedy hijinks versus the very serious undertones of Romero’s work, Return of the Living Dead was a wonderfully fangtastic flick. While Romero may have the social commentary in the bag with his films, we cannot discredit the cultural significance of Return. The movie is bleak and ironic on a massive scale. The most obvious moment, of course, is the end (SPOILERS). Those characters fight and struggle and deal with so much bullshit and so much death to finally contact the Army for help and then get nuked only to see the same contaminated smoke rolling over new graves is laughably nihilistic.

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In the end, we’re left to ask, “What was the point?” Much as what any decent horror does, it doesn’t answer questions to how we should go about doing things or solving difficult problems. Good horror movies force us to face our deepest darkest questions about ourselves. And that it what Return of the Living Dead precisely did, though not in the serious way most people are used to, but in an over-the-top parody of itself. My favorite scene, though, in the entire movie was when Frank, realizes that he’s about to go, full zombie, decides to sneak past his friends and climb inside the crematoria, immolating himself. Rumor us, James Karen didn’t want to join the other zombies outside in the cold ass prop-rain and asked if he could “go out” this way instead. Whatever really happened as to the reason, the addition of that scene adds to the wonderful bleakness of the movie.

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Since the film’s original August 16, 1985, release, Return of the Living Dead has spread into a huuuuuge cult following. Most of the zombie-culture today gives thanks to this film over Romero’s work. Whenever you hear someone moan, “Braiiiinnnsss,” it’s thanks to this horror-comedy flick. There’s even a Simpson’s TreeHouse of Horror episode dedicated to Return of the Living Dead, the parody being when the zombies are hunting for brains, they pass over Homer Simpson. And domestically, the evidence is clear on which film audiences preferred. Releasing just a month or so ahead, Romero’s Day of the Dead grossed around $5.8 million, while Return of the Living Dead grossed around $14 million. And don’t get me started on the soundtrack. As far as movie soundtracks go, Return has one of the more memorable and fun lists of bands to jive to while trick-or-treaters are ringing your bell.  If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you need to. If not for the cultural significance, then for the fun, over-the-top zombie gags and punker hilariousness.

My Rating: 5/5

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Thomas S. Flowers has a passion to create character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest writers who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

Revenge is a dish best served with BBQ!

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Night of the Living Dead: celebrating 47 years

RELEASED this day in 1968, George A. Romero’s epic, groundbreaking classic, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD hits theaters, recounting the tale of a group of disparate individuals who take refuge in an abandoned house when corpses begin to walk in search of fresh human bodies to devour. The pragmatic Ben (Duane Jones) does his best to control the situation, but when the reanimated bodies surround the house, the other survivors begin to panic. As any semblance of order within the group begins to dissipate, the zombies start to find ways inside — and one by one, the living humans become the prey of the deceased ones.

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There are few movies out there that represent the feelings of the era in which the film was made as honestly and brutal as Night of the Living Dead. 1968 America was very chaotic, with the deaths of charismatic leaders such as MLK and JFK, post Tet, and the furious antiwar protesters took over in colleges across the nation, including Columbia University in New York. And of lest no forget, Tricky Dick’s infamous call for the GREAT SILENT MAJORITY to stand up and be recognized. Night of the ?Living Dead was very much an subversive answer to the late Presidents speech. And was interesting invoked one of the greatest Civil Rights speeches made, when Dave Dennis stood up in front of those mourning the loss of James Earl Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner from New York City, when he said, “I’m not here to do the traditional things most of us do at such a gathering…what I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care, those who do care but don’t have the guts enough to stand up for it, and those people who are busy up in Washington and in other places using my freedom and my life to play politics with…”

Not only does Night of the Living Dead hold historical clout, but also became the predecessor to an entire sub-genre in horror. Think about it. Before Romero, zombies were still in the realm of voodoo witch-doctors and crazed plantation owners, space alien mind control, or even atomic aged ghouls. Not saying those sub-genres aren’t good in their own right, cause anyone whose seen The Serpent and the Rainbow can attest that voodoo zombies are still scary. But Romero created something new, a new monster in the lineup of Frankenstein’s, Vampires, Werewolf’s, Mummy’s, fish people, and the like. Without Romero we wouldn’t have The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Resident Evil, Zombi3, The Beyond, and a laundry list of films that benefited from George’s take on walking flesh eating ghouls. 

And besides all this, Night of the Living Dead is a damn fine horror movie. Low budget and gorilla in nature. The story was plausible and the characters felt real: we know these people; they’re us, we’re them. Romero’s take on zombies is fundamentally about the people who are trying to survive and how they react given certain situations. How we ultimately take sides and are not quick to listen to the ideas of others. Our fight or flight response forces us into making poor decisions, instead of working together as a group. And then in the end, much how Ben met his fate, we needlessly die. 

One of the best reviews I read on Night of the Living Dead wasn’t really a review, but rather a review on the audience during a screening in 1969. The unknown reviewer noted the following: 

“The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying. I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed. It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all. I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.”