I can’t even believe I am writing this. Yes, I knew from pictures that George was getting old…but lung cancer? No idea.
I remember when I was a young horror fan, and I heard about the influential NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I watched it due to the fact that so many hailed it as a classic. However, at the time my tastes leaned more toward super gory films, so I preferred DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD over the black and white film, which seemed too tame to me.
Many years later, I put the movie into context, imagining what it must have been like to see it at the time it came out. Oh movie going public, how can we offend thee? Let us count the ways! (And for the three or four people out there who don’t know this movie, I am going to say: SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!!!)
*In the late 60’s while the Civil Rights Movement is in full swing, they cast Duane Jones…a black man…as the sensible, level-headed, intelligent protagonist. Romero always claimed it was just a coincidence, that Jones was cast merely because he gave the best audition and NOT because a black leading man would be a controversial move. While there certainly is evidence to support this claim (see Duane Jones knock it out of the park when he talks about his experience at Beekman’s Diner), I can’t help but feel the fact that he was black and the climate of the country at the time had SOMETHING to do with his casting.
*A brother comes back as a zombie and eats his sister.
*A daughter comes back as a zombie and devours her dad, then stabs her mom to death with a gardening trowel.
*Our hero has to kill the same little zombie girl.
*In the end, our hero dies.
That’s a hell of a lot of subversion for one movie!
Romero followed NIGHT with THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA, probably one of his most rare films. Even in this digital day and age you would be hard pressed to find it. Judging from the reviews, I wouldn’t want to bother anyway. Another flop followed (SEASON OF THE WITCH), followed by THE CRAZIES. At the time, I thought CRAZIES was basically NIGHT with insane people instead of zombies. I watched it many years later and realized it has its own charms.
Then came what is my personal favorite Romero film, MARTIN. So much has been written about this movie that I’m not sure what else I can say. It’s about a young “vampire” who has to seduce his victims by doping them up and then has to get at their blood by slitting their arms open with razor blades. The movie alternates between the present and black and white footage, which could either be Martin’s memories of his vampiric past, or they are just fantasies based on what vampires are like in movies and books.
Of course, what came next was his magnum opus, the zombie film to end all zombie films, DAWN OF THE DEAD. Enjoy it as a wild, nasty splatter fest, or invest your brain a little and ponder the swipe Romero takes at consumerism and self-indulgence. Either way, this movie is where it’s at. It also features amazing early gore effects from newcomer Tom Savini. (He also did the effects for MARTIN and had a small role in both movies.)
Romero’s movies were always about social commentary. In most of them, people try to set up new societies that quickly become as volatile as the old ones. (Examples: KNIGHTRIDERS, DAWN OF THE DEAD, LAND OF THE DEAD) However, MARTIN is interesting in that it is about people clinging to OLD ways that don’t function anymore, without bothering to come up with new ones so they can adapt to the modern times.
Many other films followed the DEAD trilogy, which originally concluded with DAY OF THE DEAD but then resumed in 2005 with LAND OF THE DEAD. Many were hit or miss, such as MONKEY SHINES, TWO EVIL EYES (a collaboration with Italian horror hero Dario Argento), and his adaptation of Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF.
Many people view CREEPSHOW as a classic, but I think its five stories are too uneven to warrant such a label, and not for nothing but there is too much emphasis on revenge-based plots. Then there is the movie BRUISER, which is such a godawful mess that I am amazed Romero did not change his name on it. According to the internet, the movie has an overall rating of 67%. The movie has an interesting premise: a man who has no sense of his own identity wakes up one day to find the features of his face gone; in their place is a featureless mask. It is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s METAMORPHOSES, but then Romero goes nowhere with it. I hung in there and watched the whole thing, hoping there would be some kind of payoff, but there wasn’t. There’s a scene when the main character kills his sleazy boss (who was also having an affair with the protagonist’s wife), and it should have been powerful and intense, but it was just…boring. I mean, there’s really no other way to phrase it!
However, these missteps are minor complaints…mere footnotes in the career of a man who defined a significant subgenre of horror. Best of all, he did it on his own terms. Romero didn’t need Hollywood; he had Pittsburgh. He wasn’t just an inspiration to people in the horror genre; he was a guiding light for ALL indie filmmakers.
Thanks to your amazing body of work, your light still shines on, George.