George A. Romero – A Career In Review

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George A. Romero’s career has varied wildly, from smash hits to forgotten gems to curious oddities that only the man who made Night of the Living Dead could manage to ever get funded.  And while I haven’t experienced his full filmography, here is a list of his works I have seen and will hopefully be a place to start for anyone previously uninitiated with his films.

George Romero

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Every once in a while, a movie comes along and just redefines everything we know about… well, everythingNight of the Living Dead came along at a time in the 1960’s when horror movies were just beginning to cut their teeth, and while masterpieces in the genre certainly existed, nothing like NotLD did.  It was cold, cynical, low-budget and, most importantly, scary as hell.

A group of survivors find themselves trapped in a rural cabin and besieged by wave after wave of recently reanimated corpses that have a hunger for living flesh, and their hunger is insatiable.  The only way to kill them is simple enough, “If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy.”  Easier said than done when their sheer numbers only increase as everyone, victim of zombie or not, who recently dies comes back from the dead as one of them.

I was totally unprepared for how scary Night of the Living Dead was going to be when I saw it on on PBS late at night when I was 11 years old.  I figured, “Black and white, old, bad music… this ought to be good for a laugh.”  By the end, with the tragic finale works as commentary on the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, I was terrified for days afterward…. but addicted to zombies.  It was a great place to start.  Thank you, PBS!

There’s Always Vanilla/Season of the Witch (1971/1972)

Romero followed his amazing low-budget (though unfortunately not financial) success with a pair of interesting failures.  I hate the term “interesting failure” because failures usually are.  When a movie goes through the numbers and sets out specifically to be bland and milquetoast, but have a formulaic mass appeal, they’re generally successful.  People, by nature, aren’t too adventurous when going to the movies, they like knowing that the hero is going to get the girl or win the day in the end and that a certain amount of predictability will be present.  Movies which are failures usually tried to be interesting by eschewing tropes, subverting genres, etc., but something along the way just fucked up.  And that’s where There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch fall.

I’m still not entirely sure what There’s Always Vanilla was setting out to be, but I’ve read that it was Romero’s attempt at making a Cassavetes film, which sort of makes sense.  Perhaps Romero didn’t want to be seen as solely a horror filmmaker.  He wanted to make an interesting comedy drama which was character and dialogue driven… but holy shit, as we later found out, that kind of thing is just not Romero’s strong suit.

Season of the Witch was an attempt to make a more subtle horror movie, it seems, that was also a commentary on aging and being dissatisfied with one’s life.  Romero’s never been subtle about his commentaries but they’ve at least been more interesting than this… or funnier.  Season of the Witch could have worked, but I just don’t feel like he had the chops for it yet.  Night of the Living Dead survived by sheer audacity and setting and atmosphere, but Season of the Witch needed an extra, I don’t know… oomph somewhere along the way.  Better writing and acting could have helped.  It’s certainly not terrible, but neither this nor There’s Always Vanilla would be “must-sees.”

The Crazies (1973)

AKA: Code Name: Trixie.  I wish I liked this movie more because some of it is purely awesome.  Stretching a budget of under $300,000 as far as it will go, Romero shows us a vision of hell on earth when a rabies-like virus exposed to a town’s water supply turns the infected into screaming madmen like the sufferers of rage in 28 Days Later.  When the government shows up to quell the problem, things only get worse.

The problem this time around isn’t with plot or writing, or even performances, per se, it was just that once it got to a certain point, around the second reel, it just sort of flounders and the doldrums set in.  The first and last third of the movie are awesome, but the middle-section is just bloated.  Even at only 103 minutes, it feels much too long.

This movie was perfect for a remake, but the re-visitation starring Timothy Olyphant was unfortunately only partially good, much like the original (though the original is much better).   It’s worth seeing, honestly, but it falls short of greatness.

Martin (1976)

Martin is probably my favorite George Romero film.  Hell, it might even be my favorite vampire story.  It’s that good.

Martin, played by John Amplas, is one of the most detestable characters a film has ever asked an audience to sympathize with.  He’s a rapist and a murderer.  At least Travis Bickle had an internal logic that made a twisted sort of sense.  Martin’s only saving grace is the possibility that he’s nosferatu, a cursed member of the undead the needs human blood to survive.  According to his uncle Cuda, the young boy is an old man, an ageless monster who only looks like a teenager.

Romero, known mostly as a writer and director, is actually a master editor.  His editing in Martin is first rate.  The pacing of the film is incredible.

Nothing lags in Martin.  The grainy 16mm cinematography is beautiful and washed out.  The music is haunting.  The performances–from everybody in the cast–is great.  This is George Romero meets arthouse, bringing with him his full bag of tricks and kicking ass at it.  This is one of those magical, disgusting films that works.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

This is it.  This is the granddaddy of awesome (and I mean awesome in the truest sense of the word, inspiring pure awe and amazement) sequels.  Good sequels are few and far between and making a sequel to Romero’s first success, ten years later, must have seemed like the worst idea ever.  I can’t imagine this scenario working today.  Imagine if, say, Guillermo del Toro decided to make a sequel to Cronos all these years after it came out.  Terrible, right?

Dawn of the Dead is one of the best sequels and one of the best films ever made.  It’s like The Godfather Part II of zombie movies, and let’s not dance with hyperbole here… Dawn of the Dead is a huge part of pop culture and film history.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to compare it to Michael Corleone’s descent into evil.

Like I’ve said, Romero’s not one for subtlety.  In fact, while subtle filmmaking is great, not everything needs to be communicated to the viewer through gestures and nods.  Sometimes a story needs to be shotgunned into your face for the full impact of it.  The story of our survivors of the zombie apocalypse, set weeks and then months after the devastation of Night of the Living Dead seek refuge in a large indoor mall and Romero plays with satire, imagining the zombies as mindless consumers.  While Night asked us who the real monsters were, Dawn asks us who the real mindless idiots are:  Us or them?

The special effects provided by Tom Savini are top-notch and all of the characters are likeable.  The opening fifteen minutes and the closing fifteen minutes are some of the hardest-to-watch gore I’ve seen committed to celluloid.  It’s ugly and relentless.

Knightriders (1981)

Remember when I was talking about interesting failures earlier?  Well… I really, really don’t know how else to describe Knightriders.  How else do you describe a movie starring Ed Harris with hair as a King Arthur figure who leads a group of motor-cycle mounted “knights” that joust for money and are at constant war with the local police?

At the very least, Knightriders is never, ever boring.  It’s weird as shit, sure but at 146 minutes which is just an astronomical length for something like this, I was never bored.  Confused, yes.  Bored, no.

In all honestly, I kind of love Knightriders.  It tells the story with a straight face and is never meant as camp or for there to be unintended laughs.  Everything that takes place is thought out and for the most part it’s actually pretty good!  It is!  It’s just… it doesn’t really go anywhere with the plot and a lot of the developments are bizarre.

Look, go out and watch this movie.  Watch it under the influence of something and you’ll understand what I mean.  Words do not yet exist to summarize this plot and do it justice, but I feel like there may be a word which would be perfect for it in an ancient, extinct language.

Creepshow (1982)

Creepshow is a bona fide classic.  While I, just as a matter of taste, prefer Creepshow 2 and Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, this movie is a sort of standard that most horror-anthology movies strive to be.  The “Tales From the Crypt” television show from the late 80’s and early 90’s owes much to Creepshow‘s homage to the macabre EC Comics that kids loved and parents hated.

And what a cast!  Ed Harris shows up for a bit.  Leslie Nielsen appears in a chilling, non-comedic role.  Ted Danson is a victim of a cruel, watery death.  Stephen King’s utterance of the line, “meteor shit!” is hilarious.

Some segments of Creepshow work better than others.  My favorites are “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” and “They’re Creeping Up On You” but I’m also partial to Hal Holbrook’s performance in “The Crate.”

Creepshow is great for Halloween-viewing, to have some friends over and watch something made for short attention spans and conducive to beer drinking.  None of the stories ever have a chance to wear out their welcome and some of them are legitimately very good.

Day of the Dead (1985)

When it first came out, Day of the Dead was considered something of a disappointment.  Compared to Night and Dawn it lacked the freshness of the zombies and anything of importance to say about society’s ills.  In the many years since its release, it seems to have aged quite well, but still isn’t held in as high regards as its two predecessors.  Day of the Dead didn’t perform very well at the box office but its legacy on home video helped gross over $30 million and was given a terrible remake in 2008 starring Mena Suvari.  True to the trademark zombies of the film, it just wouldn’t stay dead.

While the characters do have a tendency to overact to high heaven and shout and scream and yell at each other, the monsters of the movie do not disappoint and Tom Savini and crew (including a then-newcomer Greg Nicotero) offer up some gore which is worth the price of admission alone.

Romero has some interesting ideas in Day about how the infestation of the world above the underground military bunker that most of the action takes place in can be dealt with.  The idea is to domesticate them the way you would a wild animal.  Dr. Logan’s techniques at accomplishing this are the subject of much controversy among the military leaders and some very bloody complications ensue.

Day of the Dead is not a bad entry in Romero’s living dead series.  It seems worse by comparison in that it’s only merely good compared to the previous great installments.  If Dawn of the Dead is a zombie Godfather II then Day of the Dead is surely Godfather III.

Monkey Shines (1988)

This is one of those movies you might have vague memories, having watched it on network TV on some weekday when you stayed home sick from school, suffering from a fever, and you wonder, all these years later, if that movie really, actually exists.

Monkey Shines is about a depressed, suicidal quadriplegic man who is given a helper monkey named Ella, to assist him with everyday chores he is unable to fulfill on his own.  The relationship between the man and his useful pet begins great (doesn’t it always?), but the little guy is the victim of medical experiments and terror soon begins to follow.  People wind up dead, and it’s all the capuchin’s doing.

I seem to enjoy Monkey Shines more than just about anyone else I know.  It’s not without its faults, and I felt like the catalyst to spur the simian rage that happens is a little too ridiculous–I mean, why overexplain the horror?  Why can’t some things be mysterious?  The enigmatic creation of Romero’s famous zombies was perfect.  Even still, Monkey Shines has moments of real heart.  I think that the ending, in particular, is one of the saddest endings I’ve seen in any film, but it’s not undeserved.  The relationship that builds and the tragic climax is very much earned and the tears that follow aren’t some last-minute attempt to justify exploitative violence.  It’s just sad.

Bruiser (2000)

His first film in 7 years, following an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, Bruiser is a fun little revenge-fantasy with Jason Flemyng as the morally ambiguous, literally faceless antihero who seeks punishment against all those who have wronged him.

Romero, here, could have really taken Bruiser into much more nasty territory, but Romero has always been a bit more naive in his storytelling, I think.  He believes very much in right and wrong and didn’t want to blur the line too much because that sort of exploration is, admittedly, a bit stomach churning at times and the movies that populate his filmography don’t seem to revel in the enjoyment of evil.  He simply wants to establish a scenario in which it’s possible for someone “good” to become “bad” and so the results are a bit bland.

The people who are killed in Bruiser, except for the first victim, all seemed to really have it coming.  It would have been interesting to see a darker exploration of what someone would do if they really did awaken with a blank, white mask for a face and murder/vengeance on their mind, but that’s not really Romero’s thing, I don’t think.  Instead, what we wind up with is a darkly comedic, visually entertaining horror movie that doesn’t have a whole lot of depth.

It does, however, have Peter Stormare doing a great Tommy Wiseau impressions 3 years before The Room premiered.

Land of the Dead (2005)

This was the first of Romero’s films I ever got to see in the theater, and considering it was his first zombie flick in twenty years and with a pretty sizable budget, it was a fun time.  It was a blast.  America was zombie hungry at the time.  Thanks to the British films 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead and then the American remake of Dawn of the Dead, it was great to see the master back at work again and back in the domain he helped create almost 40 years earlier.  It didn’t even matter if it was good or not!  It was just something to see.

Land of the Dead isn’t bad.  It’s not.  But, if Dawn is Godfather II and Day is Godfather III… then, Land is probably, I don’t know, The Last Don:  An okay entry that seems more like an imitation than a work from the actual creator, but yet it somehow is.

The important part is that the cast seems to be having fun and there are a ton of movie references.  Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg cameo.  Asia Argento, daughter of Dario who produced the original Dawn co-stars.  Dennis Hopper seems sleepy, but he brings some huge laughs to some of the scenes that he’s in.  Simon Baker and John Leguizamo seem to really be giving this movie their all and Robert Joy walks a fine line with his performance and never goes into exploitative “goofy” territory.

When the gore (this time supplied by Nicotero, though Savini does cameo as his biker character from Dawn), it does not disappoint.  The hand being split down the middle like a chicken bone will never, ever be gone from my mind’s eye.

The movie’s social commentary this time around revolves around the world’s elite, the last remaining rich folk in this apocalyptic landscape, simply ignoring the problem, like it just doesn’t exist, much like they do with the world’s impoverished and homeless that exist all around them.  It’s not a gutsy or controversial position to take, but Romero believes in it and it works.

Diary of the Dead (2007)

The last two works as director by George Romero were this, and Survival of the Dead (only partially seen by me).  Diary of the Dead is shot in a found-footage style that he had previously never worked with and experiments with this time around, taking some of well-known directorial trademarks and having a fun time with playing with them in unexpected ways.

Diary is a fun movie… you’ll like it if you love zombies and you’ll maybe like it if you’re pretty non-discriminating with low budget features shot on video in that quasi-documentary feel, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a very good movie, unfortunately.  I feel like it has the heart, but not so much the energy anymore.

Because Romero is a much-idolized hero in the world of horror, he managed to get some other great icons to cameo like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven and Guillermo del Toro.  Everyone seems to be having a blast with the production, but I guess the same could be said of something like Cannonball Run 2.  Aside from some pretty exciting setpieces and a fun ending that spoofs the idea of Romero’s slow-walking, lumbering corpses from Night of the Living Dead, Diary of the Dead is pretty much only recommended if you really, really love Romero’s work or are just so, so into zombie movies you need a quick fix that won’t be awful.  It is fun, it really is, but not something I could ever imagine revisiting.

Romero’s films are a source of inspiration for a world of filmmakers who want to delight and horrify audiences, and it’s easy to see why.  Even his lame duck entries are worth checking out at least once, even out of morbid curiosity.

His great films sore and are exemplar of the horror genre and exactly why we watch those kinds of movies.  They can be as brilliant as anything else, and he truly shows us why.

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