When I was a kid (and just how many of my blog posts start out with those words?), there were only a handful of film critics whose names were well-known. Judith Crist had a regular film column in the weekly TV GUIDE magazine. Gene Shalit delivered movie reviews on NBC's THE TODAY SHOW. Rex Reed's name was often seen accompanying pull-quotes in movie advertising. I knew these names, although I wasn't a regular reader or viewer of any of these personalities.
In college, I discovered Pauline Kael and read several of her collections of film criticism. In the '80s, I, along with millions of other movie lovers, quickly became a fan of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel when their syndicated television series AT THE MOVIES, became a blockbuster cultural phenomenon which popularized film criticism like never before and gave us the still popular "thumbs up, thumbs down" nomenclature.
For the longest time, I mistakenly believed that my first exposure to Roger Ebert came through the weekly viewings of his television show. But one day, I had an epiphany and recalled that I had actually read one of Ebert's earliest and most influential pieces of film criticism years ago. I just hadn't paid much attention to the author's name at the time.
The year was 1969. I was in my seventh-grade speech class at O. Henry Junior High. We were assigned to look through issues of READER'S DIGEST magazine and find suitable material for an extemporaneous speech assignment (you remember those, don't you?). Somehow, the RD issue for June, 1969 ended up in my hands. I glanced at the table of contents printed on the cover and discovered an article entitled "Just Another Horror Movie..Or Is It?" that had originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times. Being a hard-core horror film fan, I quickly turned to the article and read it.
The article was about a new horror film entitled NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I was unfamiliar with the film. Forry Ackerman had not covered it in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS which I unfailingly read every month. NOTLD was, according to this article, a low-budget, black-and-white horror film in which the dead come back to life and eat the living. The gut munching was apparently shown in very realistic and graphic ways. The article not only described the film in vivid detail, it described one audiences' shocked and disturbed reaction to seeing such cinematic atrocity.
My take away from the article was that this was a movie that I must see, which I eventually did several years later. I didn't pay any attention to the writer's name but years later, I found out that it was penned by none other than Roger Ebert. His review of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had gained a certain amount of notoriety and had helped put the young film critic on the map. I had read Roger Ebert years before seeing him on AT THE MOVIES and never made the connection.
Surprisingly enough, I didn't use "Just Another Horror Movie" as the material for my speech. I chose something from another issue of READER'S DIGEST, something equally shocking and gross.
I chose "I Am Joe's Colon."