With his humble beginnings making TV commercials in the Pittsburgh area, nobody would have imagined that in 1968, George Romero would dramatically change horror film history. Night of the Living Dead became the first entry in his “dead tetralogy”, which encompassed three sequels, Dawn of the Dead (1979), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005). In these films, Romero portrays the continuous and irremediable collapse of institutions of authority that cannot deal with devastating crisis. Because of their deep social commentary and allusions to many of the ills that haunt modern day America, Romero’s Dead films may well be the most written about by critics and academics, and some of the most beloved by horror film fans.
The recent release of his eagerly anticipated Land of the Dead and Zach Synder’s decent 2004 remake of his timeless classic Dawn of the Dead, have resurrected Romero to a younger generations of horror enthusiasts. But even though Romero is famous for his zombie flicks, he has directed a variety of other equally interesting fright films that are usually overlooked by the casual fan. As Halloween looms over the horizon, now is an excellent opportunity to rent some of his lesser-known works.
Truth be told, these other films of Romeros are not that different from his sagas of the undead, which combine truly frightening situations, gruesome images of carnage, mordant humor, and incisive social criticism. In this regard Romero is a rather consistent director, as all his movies invariably gravitate towards the disintegration of the social order, and consistently present sharp criticisms on the nature of human selfishness.
After the overwhelming success of Night of the Living Dead, Romero wanted to prove his directorial versatility. He gave us There is Always Vanilla (1972), a non-horror film about teenagers living a meaningless existence. Reportedly made without a script, we should feel grateful that it was a deeply flawed and unsuccessful film, as this forced Romero to return to horror.
Romero’s next was Season of the Witch (1973), one of the earliest feminist horror films since it revolves around problematic gender issues. In this movie, a frustrated woman who is unable to obtain solace from her husband, daughter, and members of her church, is seduced by the obscure black art of witchcraft. Of course, her discomfort and ultimate disobedience of the established social order brings dire consequences for her and those around her. These two films are the most obscure in Romero’s oeuvre: There is Always Vanilla was presumed to be lost, and Season of the Witch was unavailable on home video for several years. Fortunately, both movies have recently been resurrected on a double feature DVD.
A far more popular film is The Crazies (1973), which almost feels like an unofficial sequel to Night of the Living Dead. The Crazies takes place in a small rural community outside Pittsburgh, where a military plane transporting a potent biological warfare agent crashes to the ground. The highly contagious virus renders its victims insane and aggressive, and an Army unit is quickly deployed to quarantine the entire town. The shocking violence by the Army against civilians is such that the viewer has to wonder who are the real “crazies”. This behavior has obvious associations with what went on during the Vietnam War. In one scene in particular, a soldier shoots a civilian in the head, in a manner similar to the 1968 Eddie Adams photo of the execution of a Viet Cong suspect. If Night of the Living Dead metaphorically brought the horrors of the War to America, then The Crazies made the case very explicit, indeed.
If Romero deconstructed the zombie mythology with Night of the Living Dead, he did the same for the vampire archetype with Martin (1978). In the film, Martin (John Amplas) is a troubled teenager who firmly believes he is a vampire. Lacking fangs to suck blood from his victims, Martin uses a razor blade to slice their arms and throats. Romero presents Martin as a vampire completely devoid of his supernatural and gothic origins. Instead, Martin is portrayed as a vicious serial killer, the product of a fully dysfunctional family and an oppressive capitalistic society. In this film, the Victorian romanticism that characterizes the traditional vampire world is replaced by a decadent industrial landscape.
After Martin, Romero directed Dawn of the Dead, and then went on to make Knightriders (1981), his second, and so far last, non-horror film to date. In Knightriders, Romero combines the Arthurian legends with the elements characteristic of the road movies, creating a truly unique film. The narrative of this movie revolves around a group of motorcycle performers who adopt King Arthur and his knights as their way of life. They create a small nomadic society that upholds a combination of modern culture and medieval values. The resulting cultural clash is used by Romero to question the validity of social structures and subcultures in contemporary America.
By 1982, Romero enjoyed an excellent reputation as one of the greatest horror film directors in modern moviemaking. Almost simultaneously, bestseller horror writer Stephen King was at the top of his career. Considering that King had shown great admiration for Romero’s films, a joint collaboration between both men was bound to happen. The result was Creepshow (1982), a visually stunning film that collects five horror stories celebrating macabre in the style of the infamous 1950s EC comics (such as Tales from the Crypt).
Romero has often admitted that these moralistic magazines, where the malice and selfishness of the characters is invariably punished by a gruesome death at the hands of a creepy monster, were a strong influence on his entire oeuvre. Adding to the creative Romero-King partnership were the talents of special effects/ make-up maestro Tom Savini, also an established horror celebrity in the early 1980s. Creepshow held a great deal of promise. But unfortunately it was far from successful at the box office.
The disappointing performance of Creepshow, often attributed to the fact that anthology films have never been extremely popular, negatively affected Romero, who was unable to obtain complete financial support for his intended version of Day of the Dead (which went off with a very limited budget). As a result, a dissatisfied Romero decided to leave the independent film arena and move under the umbrella of a big studio. The result was Monkey Shines (1988), a film based on a Michael Stewart novel about a paraplegic man who is aided by a cappuccino monkey. Romero succeeded in presenting a taught psychological thriller where the monkey ends up acting out the repressed “animalistic” desires of its master.
Unfortunately, Romero’s film suffered deeply from unnecessary studio intervention. Orion executives requested a new ending, one that recalled the cheap and clichéd final scare from Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) as well as the chest-buster scene from Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). Yet in spite of this pointless change, Monkey Shines remained an exceptional film, one that explored the nature of human evil.
Up next for Romero was Two Evil Eyes (1988), another omnibus consisting of two segments loosely based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The first one was adapted from “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and was directed by Romero, while the second was derived from “The Black Cat”, and was directed by Romero’s longtime friend and collaborator, Italy’s horror film enfant terrible Dario Argento. In spite of its source however, Romero’s segment is more reminiscent of the moralistic EC horror comic books than Edgar Allan Poe. The real highlight of Two Evil Eyes is the way it offers the opportunity to appreciate divergent directing styles. Both Argento and Romero are famous for their uncompromising showcases of blood and gore, yet their aesthetic and sensibilities couldn’t be more different. While Romero’s oeuvre is characterized by storylines that reflect moral and political problems, Argento’s work is distinguished by highly stylized images of violence where narrative and theme are secondary.
After Two Evil Eyes, Romero went on a five-year hiatus and did not direct another film until 1993’s The Dark Half. Based on a Stephen King novel, The Dark Half tells the story of a writer who has to deal with his evil doppelganger. Even though this suspenseful film touches on familiar Romero territory, specifically the collapse of the family institution and the nature of human malevolence, it is relatively uninspired by Romero’s standards. As a result, it was not well received by critics or fans.
Seven years would pass before his next film. However, Bruiser (2000), about a man with a murderous double personality that is unleashed when he wears a mask, may indeed be Romero’s most uninteresting film to date. Thankfully, Romero returned in style this year with the outstanding Land of the Dead. Still, for a filmmaker of the caliber of Romero, someone who revolutionized the horror genre, his limited artistic outcome over the past 37 years has been truly disappointing. Even so, Romero at his worst has always been infinitely better than most of the mediocre horror movies released during the intervening years.
Romero is perhaps better suited for the turbulent cultural climate of the 1970s. However, recent events have once again made Romero’s films relevant and revelatory. As human nature continues to be mankind’s own worst enemy, his movies look alarmingly prophetic. Consider how troubled our post-9/11 times are, characterized by terrorism, wars, financial scandals, and economic and political turmoil. After the astonishing Land of the Dead, fans hope that Romero will continue to make deliciously frightening horrors, full of his trademarked social criticism. He has already earned a unique place in cinema history. Here’s hoping it’s for more than his look at the living dead, because it should be.