Director: George Romero
Cast: Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Tom Savini, Amy Ingersoll
(United Film Distribution Co./Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1981/2000) Rated: R
PopMatters Film and Books Critic
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Knights & the Living Dead: The Resurrection of George Romero
The Independent Film Channel recently screened The American Nightmare, a documentary on the horror cinema of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The sad thing it brought to mind is how many of the figures featured in the program have seen their careers crash and burn. Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre ), Larry Cohen (It’s Alive ), and Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator ) expired into the realm of cable television and direct-to-video.
David Cronenberg (Scanners  and Videodrome ) left the field for more mainstream if equally disquieting concerns. John Carpenter (Halloween ) graduated to bigger budgets and less impressive results. One of the saddest victims of this dissipation of the horror genre was George Romero. Best known for his zombie trilogy (Night of the Living Dead , Dawn of the Dead , and Day of the Dead ), he gravitated, much against his instincts, to Hollywood yet saw most of his efforts over the last fifteen years languish in development hell. A new film, Bruiser, awaits domestic distribution, yet it would seem as if the director has come to resemble his forlorn gut-munching protagonists, more dead than alive in the public’s eye.
Romero’s work always possessed an abundance of virtues. There was certainly the sheer audacity of its imagery. Romero was one of the principal purveyors of splatter film, illustrating without prevarication the violence that can be wrought on our tender flesh. His zombie films in particular pushed the envelope of permissible content so far that Dawn was released without clearance by the ratings board. However, his films were not gross for their own sake. The zombie trilogy illustrates time and again how thin the distinction is between the hunger of the dead and the vehemence of the living. In fact, as the series came to a conclusion, the audience’s sympathy shifted uncomfortably to the purported monsters. Their animate antagonists came across as beneath contempt for harboring mankind’s least appetizing traits. As a result, what is most disturbing about these films is that they cause you to care more for the dead than the living.
In addition, Romero more than once tackled serious issues of race and gender in the context of popular storytelling. All three films feature able and engaging African American protagonists. His white female leads are paragons of strength and fortitude who fight tooth and nail to preserve themselves and their loved ones. An unreconstructed social critic, Romero’s attitude toward any kind of consensus was always wary if not antagonistic. His implied attack upon civilized savagery was inescapable and uncompromising. When the final film of the zombie trilogy, Day, appeared in the midst of the Reaganite ‘80s, the prevailing sense that our culture had succumbed to Social Darwinism received an uncomfortably apt reflection. Much as society seemed to be descending into a dog-eat-dog chow-down, the studio shakeup of the 1990s devoured Romero’s career, his last release being a half-baked Stephen King adaptation, The Dark Half (1993).
Romero’s reputation, like that of many other underemployed filmmakers, has achieved some manner of resurrection through the advent of DVD. Like CDs before them, this technology has led to the ransacking of vaults for available product, and, in the process, two of Romero’s more interesting and insightful works have come to light. Martin depicts the grisly exploits of the eponymous vampire, destined to live out his days in the post-industrial, rust-belt decay of Romero’s native Pennsylvania. Actually, whether he is a genuine creature of the night remains one of the story’s most effective dilemmas. The eerie black and white sequences—either flashbacks or fantasies on Martin’s part, depending upon one’s perspective—portray him as such, yet Martin is shown to extinguish his victims with drugs and razor blades, not fangs. His old-world uncle, ironically a neighborhood butcher, believes in antiquated myths of the Nosferatu that his cynical nephew brutally informs him are nothing more than magic tricks. Romero’s sympathetic depiction of the young outsider is made even richer by the taut and often nerve-wracking construction of the stalking sequences. One in particular, an assault upon a woman and her extramarital lover, is that rare phenomenon of a set piece that deserves the comparison to Hitchcock.
Romero has always skillfully employed his settings, and the success of this scene hinges upon our knowing exactly where locks and phones are located. Romero cuts with breathtaking proficiency between the human figure and the man-made environment. He is no less able in his portrayal of the ruined streets down which Martin treads his final days. If this is the world of the living, extinction might not be so poor an alternative.
Knightriders remains a personal favorite and a unique example of a genre film with a cockeyed alternative agenda. One can only imagine how this picture would be pitched to a producer: “You’ve got guys in armor—on motorcycles—it’s Braveheart meets Mad Max!” Few other recent films I know so warmly and yet self-critically depict the hardship of maintaining a personal vision in a mainstream society. Billy (Ed Harris) has brought to life an Arthurian domain that resembles the Society for Creative Anachronism except that its warriors duel on modified motorcycles, not on horseback. There is a Lancelot figure (Gary Lahti), a Guinevere (Amy Ingersoll), even Mordred (make-up artist Tom Savini) and Merlin (Brother Blue), the last a street-savvy African American elder.
The audacity of Billy’s vision and the fervor with which he struggles to preserve it in the face of a potential corporate takeover of the group obviously bears a parallel to Romero’s efforts as an independent filmmaker. Knightriders exhibits Romero’s skill at depicting physical exuberance in sequence after sequence of masterfully edited shots of speeding bikes, splitting lances and swinging maces. The picture is simultaneously such an off-the-deep-end concept done with a straight face that it’s hard to resist. Also, the depiction of sexual orientations is notably broad-minded. Two of the characters are gay, one without resistance and the other fighting against his apparent attraction to other men. The community is wholly accepting of them as they are, and the weaker of the two eventually finds a lover amongst his peers. Romero not only incorporates both characters without question but also makes their commitment to identity as heroic as the knights’ valor in battle.
The DVDs of the films are letter-boxed and include off-camera commentaries by Romero as well as cast and crew members. The group is at times overly clannish in their shared knowledge about the productions, but what comes across more often than not is the joy Romero possesses for filmmaking as well as the skill with which he time and again achieves substantial ends with paltry means. In an era marked by digital effects, the hand-made quality of these narratives is all the more humane and haunting . Few other filmmakers have worked so skillfully within the constraints of established genres and represented what is most laudable about the stance of the professional independent.