Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shocktober Director of the Day: George A. Romero

With only 3 Shocktober posts left, it's time to break out the big guns and when it comes to modern Horror, one of the biggest belongs to none other than the father of the modern zombie film, George A. Romero.

In 1968, the Carnegie-Melon graduate made a low-budget exploitation film that shocked, thrilled and horrified, while giving rise to an entire subgenre. Of course, that movie was Night of the Living Dead. Shot for about $114,000 (an exceptional budget for an independent film in 1968), Night of the Living Dead has gone on to earn an estimated $12M. That's nearly 120 times the initial cost. Pretty remarkable for a movie shot on location in Pittsburgh with a cast of unknowns. So much has been written about this film (even by yours truly), that anything I might add here would be superfluous. Suffice it to say, when I first saw this movie (probably around 1975), it scared the crap out of me.

Romero followed up with a 1971 drama no one remembers, There's Always Vanilla, about a young man taking up with an older woman and 1972's Hungry Wives (aka Season of the Witch), about a bored housewife who takes up with a coven of witches. Neither movie was very good, truth be told. Then came 1973's The Crazies, about small town whose residents are turned into raving lunatics after an accidental chemical spill caused by the crashing of a secret military mission. Talky, preachy and militantly anti-Vietnam, The Crazies is still one of Romero's better early films.

The Crazies was recently (and decently) remade by director Brett Eisner, who wisely dumps most of the political elements of the original and concentrates more on the Horror.

Romero made a few TV documentaries (including one about O.J. Simpson) before his next genre film, Martin, about a young man (John Amplas) who believes he is an 84 year-old vampire. Creepy and effective, Martin is regarded by many critics as one of Romero's best films. Personally, I find it a bit depressing, but that's just me.

After martin, Romero made what most consider to be his masterpiece, 1978's sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead. Picking up where Night... left off, Dawn of the Dead is the story of a small group of Philadelphians who hole up in a western PA mall while the zombie apocalypse rages on outside. When a group of bikers (led by SFX man Tom Savini) breaks in, all hell breaks loose and the 'family' must find a way to survive. Released without an MPAA rating, I saw Dawn of the Dead alone, because my friends were all too scared. Taking on mindless consumerism amomg other social topics, Dawn of the Dead  is a classic for many reasons, and not least of all Savini's then state-of-the-art physical makeup effects.

Director Zack Snyder (300; Watchmen) eschews the social commentary in his mostly excellent remake, and creates one of the most intense opening sequences ever. Romero followed Dawn with the 1981 motorcycle jousting movie, Knightriders. Starring Savini, Amplas and a very young Ed Harris, Knightriders is one of the first films I can remember in which a gay character is accepted and loved for he is, all while taking a modern spin on Arthurian legends. Knightridersi is actually one of my favorite of Romero's movies, despite its rather silly premise.

Then came 1982's Creepshow, an anthology movie written by Stephen King, loosely based on the Horror comics of the 50's, starring Ted Danson; Leslie Nielson; Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau; Fritz Weaver; E.G. Marshall; Savini; King and Harris in five short tales of terror. I saw this movie with my then 15 year-old sister and my boyfriend. Guess who ended up screaming like a little girl? Hint: it wasn't me or my sister.

1985 saw the next entry in Romero's Zombie films, Day of the Dead, about a group of scientists and military personnel in an underground Florida bunker, ostensibly searching for a cure. Like Martin, Day of the Dead is rather talky and very anti-military, though it introduces the concept of a zombie who retains at least the most rudimentary memories in the character of "Bub."

1988 saw the ridiculous Monkey Shines, starring Jason Beghe, Stanley Tucci and Janine Turner in a story about a -- wait for it -- homicidal helper monkey. Not a highlight in Uncle George's career.

1990 saw the forgettable Two Evil Eyes with Italian director Dario Argento followed by 1993's The Dark Half, another King adaptation about a writer who symbolically kills his nom de plume, only to find the nom de plume may not be ready to die. King based the novel on his own experience writing under the name Richard Bachman. The movie isn't terrible, but still not up to Romero's best.

Bruiser, another unremarkable effort, was Romero's 2000 film, followed by 2005's Land of the Dead; his first big-budget Zombie movie. Starring Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo; Simon Baker ("The Mentalist"); Asia Argento and Robert Joy, Land... is movie about the Haves and the Have-Nots, and is probably the least successful of the Dead films.

In 2007's Diary of the Dead, Romero returns to both his indy and Pittsburgh roots, while jumping on the hand-held camera bandwagon started by The Blair Witch Project. In this story about about of group of University of Pittsburgh film students making a Horror movie when the Zombie Holocaust breaks out, Romero finally remembers how grim and hopeless such an outbreak would be and his cast of unknowns deliver some truly excellent performances. And that's not to mention some of the most inventive zombie kills since Dawn...

I have not seen 2009's Survival of the Dead, the first direct sequel in Romero's Dead series, though I am left to understand from others who have that it lacks the impact of his previous films.  

Romero's next announced project is a remake of Dario Argento's giallo classic Deep Red, though he has been quoted as saying there is at least one more Dead story left to tell. While he may be aging (as are we all), I hope that Uncle George has one last great Zombie movie left in him. It would be a shame to see a Horror franchise that started over 50 years ago die with a whimper.

Of course, Uncle P has a Zombie script or two up his own sleeves, in case Uncle George is reading...

More, anon.

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