Okay, so, everyone knows about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its antecedents. And most people would probably twig on the name George Romero (his last name has become synonymous with zombies), but how many people think of his other movies? When Matchflick head honcho Tim suggested to me that I do a column about the other stuff Romero has done, it was like a golden sunbeam shot out of the sky. It landed on my ass instead of my head, but I guess that is an easy enough mistake to make. The end result is, I thought it was a capital idea, and here we are.
First and foremost, let's talk about young George: When he was a kid, he had no idea that one could make movies oneself; he was happy just to capture images on film. So he would abscond with his parents' video camera, and at the tender age of 11 began making short films (that is kind of a typical story of filmmakers, I imagine). After graduating from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his very first job was, get this, producing segments for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Chew on that for a few minutes.
After doing that for a while, George got together with some friends and formed The Latent Image, a company that produced and shot commercials and industrial films for the Pittsburgh area. They did fairly well for themselves, and began to garner a decent amount of equipment, and one day all of George's boyhood fantasies caught up with him: it was time to make a movie. A for-real, feature film.
What to do?
Well, horror was selling well at the time, being the halcyon days of Grindhouse and Midnight Theaters, so NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was born.
But we're not hear to talk about that. Nor are we here to talk about the other LIVING DEAD films, up to and including DIARY OF THE DEAD. They are well-known, and rightly well-loved films. So no need for me to flog those ponies here.
George's first film after NOTLD was THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA (1971), though some might know it as THE AFFAIR. But it is unlikely that many people know it at all. George is frank about it being a poor movie, and in fact considers it his worst. He had problems with the writer, apparently, and I was not able to find a copy at all. Hell, in my town the two choices are Netflix or Cockbuster. It was a bust at both places. So we'll just have to use our imaginations on that one. (Though you can find a video clip of it here.
Moving right along to SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972). The original title was JACK'S WIFE, which was changed to the very unfortunate HUNGRY WIVES, which basically tanked the film, as most people assumed from the title and the crappy marketing that it was a soft-core film. Eventually it was re-released as WITCH, which would end up causing more confusion later on when the third HALLOWEEN film would have the same subtitle.
It would be very easy to look at WITCH like a feminist screed, but that would be short-sighted. Obviously it deals with issues facing women heading towards their change-of-life: increased sexual appetite as their marriages wane into complacency, empty-nest syndrome as their kids don't need them anymore, and the double-standard of men becoming distinguished as they age, and women becoming crones. But if you scratch the surface, you'll find that it is not such a cheap parlor trick, not a device so crudely conceived to push the buttons of those either fighting the sexual revolution or those getting churning beneath the stomping boots. No, this is the story of a person who is unhappy with her life, for various reasons. So she tries to find something to fill that void. In this case, it is witchcraft, which leads to adultery. And then leads to far worse.
I think the strongest point of the film is made in the opening and closing scenes. In the intro, we are treated to a lengthy, surreal dream sequence (in fact, we are treated to so many dream sequences throughout the film we become unsure at any point just what is real and what is fantasy, which surely engages the mind of the viewer). At one point in this dream sequence, which sets up all the major plot points (the restlessness of being a bored housewife, the feeling of being useless if you're not a mother, and even the child she lost when he was an infant) we see the woman put on a dog leash and stuffed in a cage. At the end, when she goes through the initiation rites to become a full-fledged witch, once again she is put on a leash and led around, abased for the crowd to see. When she decries, deadpan, at a party later on that she is a witch, she might as well be saying, "I am a wife." She has simply traded one crutch for another.
Janina White, who plays Joan Mitchell, the wife, is gorgeous
and splendid in her role, and in the interview segment on the DVD she tells of how she initially turned down the role because of the nudity. She was worried it would be a porn film. Romero assured her he only wrote it that way to insure funding (which is quite ironic, given the overriding theme of the film) and that he would get her a body-double if she felt so strongly about it.
George now. Ouch.
Also, the guy who plays her lover is so reminiscent of Chuck Barris that it almost took me out of the film.
Next up for George was THE CRAZIES (1973), which, frankly, I am not really crazy about (wocka, wocka). It is not bad film, per se. It does contain all of the things that make a George Romero film enjoyable. In fact, it particularly showcases his eye for what he refers to as "dog shots". As in, when the action in a scene isn't moving very well, you cut to the dog. The euphemism applies to any little cutaway to something other than the main scene, to keep a kinetic feel to a static scene, such as an exchange of dialog. When George shoots a film, he shoots everything. Gets all sort of nice little bits and bobs to cut to when needed. He is, essentially, the king of the inserts. This is mostly due to the reverence he receives from everyone he works with in regards to his prowess as an editor (he was the editor on all of his early films).
It is the plot of the movie that bothers me. A government devised supervirus is accidentally unleashed on a small town, either killing people or leaving them drooling idiots. The government moves in to take care of the problem, and only end up making matter worse. My problem is, I guess, that things don't really get beyond scores of dudes in white Tyvek suits and gas-masks getting shot by the locals. All of the elements of the film are there, in spite of the obviously low budget, but it just never made it above bland for me. Sorry, George.
It is an important film in other respects, though. Mainly, when negotiating the distribution stateside, George hooked up with producer Richard Rubinstein, which was a match made in heaven. They would go on to work together on various projects over the years, which I will get to. When shopping the film around for foreign distribution, an Italian gentleman distributing the film overseas turned George on to Dario Argento, where yet another famous friendship and collaboration was born. I'll get to that as well.
Even though George states that he feels THE CRAZIES is a perfectly fine film, one which he feels holds up to the test of time, I for one feel that the planned remake is a fine idea (even though it was ripped off a decade ago and called OUTBREAK). With George's blessing on it, let's hope it turns out more of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake quality, as opposed to the DAY OF THE DEAD remake (a film which needed to be remade like I need barbed-wire rammed up my peephole).
But I digress.
George's next piece would go on to become a huge cult favorite among his true fans, 1977's MARTIN (I assume the four-year gap to be explained by promoting THE CRAZIES, getting the budget and script together, and, of course, making commercials and industrial films – not to mention a documentary about OJ Simpson, of all people).
For some reason, I had always thought I disliked Martin. Maybe just because I had only seen it on a shitty VHS dub that was too dark, and years ago at that. So hearing George say that MARTIN is his favorite of his films, I thought perhaps I should give it another shot.
Good thing, too. It's fabulous.
Martin is a confused boy, who grew up in a family of immigrants who believe they are cursed with the Nosferatu bug: Martin being the current victim. Yes, Martin believes he is an 80+ year old vampire. Except he is very shy and quite squeamish, so he injects his victims with a sedative and only rapes them and drinks their blood after they have passed out.
"You have to go to sleep, it's very important to me!"
He goes to live with his cousin, Tada Cuda (who looks remarkably like Santa Claus) for some undisclosed reason, and Cuda insists that he will save Martin's soul...before he destroys him. So Martin attempts to adjust to life in small-time Braddock, PA, home of several closed mills and lots of poverty and drug abusers.
Pretty soon, Martin starts to get shaky. Even though he has the love and support of Cuda's granddaughter, and even finds himself a sort of girlfriend, Mrs. Santini, (he can now add cuckoldry to his list of sins), he simply needs to feed. Which, as you can imagine, ends poorly for everyone.
The brilliance of George is here in spades. From the dog shots to the way he keeps his actors grounded in reality, everything here works. There is never a determination as to whether Martin is actually a vampire or just a
confused, psychopathic misfit, and even though Martin does horrible, horrible things, George makes us like and sympathize with him.
Mrs. Santini found out for herself just how little magic there really is.
This is the first production that George did with Rubinstein, for just over $75,000 (and a skeleton crew of 15, including the cast) and it led to other important things, much in the same vein as THE CRAZIES. They took the film to the US Film Festival, then in its second year (but before it eventually became Sundance), and there they met some Warner Brothers players, who wanted George to direct a cinematic version of SALEM'S LOT. Obviously that went to Tobe Hooper as a TV Movie, but George did end up hooking up with Stephen King, and another lifelong friendship and working relationship was born, possibly the most important of his career.
Martin also marks the first time George employed Tom Savini (as an actor, stuntman, and SFX man).
Skipping right over DAWN OF THE DEAD, we land squarely on KNIGHTRIDERS (1981). This was by far, at the time, George's largest movie in scope, budget, and shooting schedule (almost two and a half hours long, featuring multitudinous machines and stunts, slightly over $1 Million, and 90 days, respectively). It features the acting talents of a young Ed Harris, and a host of Romero regulars can be seen. Everyone from MARTIN's John Amplas and Christine Forrest (shortly before she changed her last name to Romero) to DAWN's Ken Foree, and Harold Jones from THE CRAZIES. Amongst many others. It's a really big cast. And, of course, Mr. Savini.
The film is essentially a retelling of Camelot, and quite coincidentally came out the same year as EXCALIBUR. I will let you make the determination on which is the better film. In the story, a group of traveling motorcyclists go town to town, putting on a show. Basically a grandiose Renaissance Faire, with jousting and music and meat cooked over open flame. Ed Harris, as Billy, their "king", is more than a little bit of a zealot, and resists all attempts to commercialize the group's endeavors. This angers the faction that actually wants to make money, and many battles are had, both internal and spilling out into the field.
I will admit that I thought the premise of this film was silly, but it gripped me by the balls immediately. It is a modern-day epic saga of a man attempting in vain to stay true to himself, to keep "the dragon" at bay: the dragon, in this case, being Hollywood and all of its trappings, to George, who never wanted that. Wanted only to be able to make his movies, his way. For instance, the reason the DAY OF THE DEAD script had to be rewritten was because the producers would only give George enough money to do the script if he would commit to an R-rating. Not wanting to be censured in any way, he took less money to deliver an unrated film, and thus had to rework it almost entirely.
But we aren't going to talk about that film.
Next up would be George's first collaboration with Stephen King, 1982's CREEPSHOW. It was King's idea to do the movie, and with George's approval he whipped the script together in no time flat. The film, a loving homage to the old EC horror comics of yesteryear, is a four-part anthology with a wraparound story of a boy and his abusive story, is pretty much golden. It is scary, and funny, and campy in all the right proportions. It also marks King's debut as an actor. Sure, he had done a cameo in KNIGHTRIDERS, alongside his real-life with and also author Tabitha, but this was an actual acting gig. He portrays Jordy Verrill in, oddly enough, The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, and had to be covered in green, mossy appliances for much of the shoot. The other segments all feature some bold acting talent as well, from the likes of such heavyweights as Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, EG Marshall, Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver, hell, even Ted Danson and Leslie Neilson. You can also get a gander at Joe King as a boy, who grew up to become author Joe Hill.
Skipping right over DAY (and the three episodes of the Richard Rubinstein-produced, seminal 80's horror TV show Tales from the Darkside he directed), we arrive at 1998's MONKEY SHINES. This film is sort of a come-down. I mean, it is a good film, but it is, in essence, a studio-flick, the first film of George's that I would say that about. Based on the novel of the same name, it centers around an athlete, Allan, who is run-down by a truck and turned into a quadriplegic. He is screwed over by his doctor and his girlfriend, and is given a Capuchin monkey by his best friend and research scientist buddy, Geoff (played by Mad About You co-star John Pankow). Except Geoff has shot the monkey, Ella, up with some weirdo serum made from human brains, and it makes her smarter, and somehow able to make a telepathic connection with
Allan. She falls in love with him, and essentially acts as his Cronenbergian doppelganger, killing all of the people Allan gets angry with.
Steve and Tabby: the couple that acts together, stays together.
Like I said, not a bad film. Solid acting, good effects, engaging story. And working with a Capuchin monkey could have been no day in the park. It's just that, compared to George's other work, it feels a little pedestrian. It is still an above average horror film, but I wonder how much pressure was put on George to do things certain ways, to stifle his normal flair. Although, I do have to give credit to any film where a chick grabs the guide-handle for lowering a quadriplegic into bed as a means of steadying herself while the quadriplegic gives her a mustache ride.
I mentioned earlier that George had a working relationship with Italian horror auteur Dario Argento, and the second film they worked on together was 1990's TWO EVIL EYES (the first was DAWN OF THE DEAD, but, well, you know...).
This film has kind of a bad reputation, and I can see why. It is two hour-long films, one by each director, each based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. Right off the bat, I find Poe overrated. And George's story (The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar) is once again sort of pedestrian. Not bad, just not inspired. At least until the end. The plodding nature of the narrative is saved by some truly twisted imagery at the end, as the elderly husband of Adrienne Barbeau's character Jessica rises from the dead (after being shunted off into a freezer), and exacts his revenge. You see, Jessica and her boyfriend, Dr. Robert Hoffman, had been fleecing poor Mr. Valdemar out of his money. Tsk tsk. But the real shock is the fate of Hoffman, the final image of whom will be burned into your retinas forever. The film also features Tom Atkins and EG Marshall.
(The Argento bit, The Black Cat, is tedious and almost a total bust. Huge surprise.)
Which brings us to 1993's THE DARK HALF. To save us both time, allow me to link you to the column I did a few months back, where I already covered this film. Here ya go.
The next seven years of George's life would be spent actually NOT making movies. And making more money doing it than he ever did MAKING movies. He had a sweet corner office in a building, and worked on deals. Got ready to make a movie. Got paid. The film would fall through, and it was back to square one. Films on that list that ending up happening without George's one-time possible involvement include PET SEMETARY, THE MUMMY, AND RESIDENT EVIL. I can't say that I'm unhappy he didn't end up doing those.
Now, making lots of money is a good thing, but not having your name on a product for seven years is not. All of the "sweat equity" that George had built up doing his movies sort of disappeared, and he found himself in a position of finding difficulty in getting his personal projects off the ground. So he opted to make a "small" movie, 2000's $5 Million budgeted BRUISER. The story is of a man who wakes up one to find he has no face, and, indeed, his entire identity has been erased. Sort of sounds like what George was going through at the time, huh? The character in the film, stripped of his humanity, is thus able to exact murderous revenge without the hassle of a conscience. Sort of like THE HOLLOW MAN, if THE HOLLOW MAN didn't suck Capuchin monkey nuts.
BRUISER was generally ill-received by his fans, even though it does feature an appearance by The Misfits. I would love to end this piece with an in-depth examination of this film, after having watching all of his other non-DEAD movies in order, and thus having the perspective to see where he was coming from in his progression as a filmmaker, but I can't.
Netflix screwed me.
They have the film. It is #1 in my queue. I was due the movie. But they simply never mailed it. Okay. A trip down to Hollywood Video is in order. I drove to Hollywood Video. Oops. They closed down. I didn't get the memo on that. The only other option would be Cockbuster. I don't have a membership there, and I refuse to get one. F*ck them. They probably wouldn't have it anyway.
So, there you go. Lots of good Romero films liberally sprinkled in amongst the zombies. Take a peek at them, if you're inclined. You just might find something you like.
1. In the commentary for THE CRAZIES, Romero and Bill Lustig talk smack about Michael Bay and praise Robert Rodriguez. As it should be.
2. MONKEY SHINES star Jason Beghe, a former top-level Scientologist, recently slammed his former religion into the ground. Check out some of the video footage here.
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