Director: George Romero
Cast: Lane Carroll, W.G. McMillan, Harold W. Jones, Lynn Lowry, Richard Liberty
(Pittsburgh Films, 1973) Rated: R
DVD release date: 22 April 2003 (Blue Underground)
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Two Evil Eyes (due Occhi Diabolici)
George A. Romero and Dario Argento
Harvey Keitel, Adrienne Barbeau, Ramy Zada, Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, John Amos, Kim Hunter, Madeleine Potter
US DVD: 22 Apr 2003
George A. Romero is best known as a horror movie director, but he is also a politically conscious auteur. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead (1969), most of his films examine the disintegration of social institutions, offering sharp criticisms of human selfishness. Such is the case with The Crazies (1973) and Two Evil Eyes (co-directed with Dario Argento, 1990), two of Romero’s most accomplished productions, and perhaps his most neglected. Except for expensive Japanese and European editions, both films have long been unavailable for purchase in the U.S. Fortunately, Blue Underground Home Entertainment has recently released them as two first-rate DVDs.
The Crazies has a plot strikingly similar to Night of the Living Dead and its sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). It takes place in Pittsburgh’s Evan City district, a small and mostly rural community, where a military plane transporting a potent biological warfare agent crashes to the ground. The accident releases a highly contagious virus, rendering victims insane and aggressive: during the opening scenes, a man murders his wife, threatens to kill his children, and sets his house ablaze. This sets up a theme typical of Romero’s films: the family is fragile, a prime target for destructive forces.
When an Army bio-warfare unit is deployed to quarantine the entire community, the troops impose severe martial law. Sent to maintain “order,” they look much like alien invaders from outer space, wearing protective white biochem suits and bulky black respirators, and carrying guns and flame-throwers. The soldiers engage in brutal fights, not only against those who have been infected by the virus, but also the terrorized civilians who are just trying to escape a terrifying situation.
The Army’s shocking violence against civilians is such that the viewer has to wonder who are the “crazies.” And this behavior has obvious associations with what went on during the Vietnam War. (In one scene, a soldier shoots a civilian (Harold Wayne Jones) in the head, 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 makes that case explicit.
At the same time, and somewhat subversively, the infected people represent “freedom.” The madness caused by the virus releases repressed desires, allowing (even forcing) victims to break social taboos regarding sex and violence. When Artie (Richard Liberty) and his daughter Kathy (Lynn Lowry) are infected, she becomes sexually aggressive, and her father exhibits incestuous desires and tries to rape her.
The would-be heroes are also broadly drawn, including ex-Green Beret David (W.G. McMillan), who leads a small group of civilians attempting to escape the quarantined zone; Dr. Watts (Richard France), a scientist seeking a cure; and Colonel Peckham (Lloyd Hollar), in charge of the military unit. For all their differences, these men are also similar: fighting each other and ignoring what others have to say. Indeed, along with these protagonists, the surrounding institutional representatives—police officers, doctors, scientists, and priests—also fall into total disarray. A cure for the disease slips through the fingers of the Army not once, but twice. The film’s terrible finale only underlines its initial premise: social structures are bound to fail under the weight of panic and self-interest.
Two Evil Eyes makes a similar critique, but starts with very different materials. It consists of two segments, loosely based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The fist segment is adapted from “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and was directed by Romero, while the second emerges form “The Black Cat,” directed by Romero’s longtime friend and collaborator, Italy’s Dario Argento.
Although both Argento and Romero are famously willing to showcase blood and gore, their styles and sensibilities could not 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.
In Romero’s piece, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau) is the greedy wife of the much older and immensely rich Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley), who is on his deathbed. Jessica has her ex-lover Robert (Ramy Zada), who is also Valdemar’s doctor, hypnotize Valdemar so that he will sign over his estate to her. When Valdemar dies, the couple places his body in the basement freezer. Since he dies while under hypnosis, he is in limbo, surrounded by creatures from beyond. Before story’s end, you can be sure that Jessica and Robert will pay for their avarice.
The segment is more reminiscent of the moralistic EC horror comic books from the 1950s (such as the classic Tales from the Crypt) than Edgar Allan Poe. On the other hand, Argento’s segment is closer to Poe’s spirit, highlighting the protagonist’s psychosis, while seeming similar in tone and rhythm to the notorious gialli, or Italian thrillers.
In “The Black Cat,” Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a photographer obsessed with gruesome images of death and torture (the film opens as he’s photographing a woman who had been cut in half, and later photographs a corpse whose teeth have been pulled out). Slowly sinking into dementia and alcohol, he uses his girlfriend’s (Madeleine Potter) cat as a model to photograph images of animal cruelty, which leads to a more dire circumstance involving his girlfriend. “The Black Cat” here turns into a morality tale about the allure of the grotesque, with Usher standing in for the horror film viewer.
If Two Evil Eyes acknowledges a troubling attraction to the monstrous, then the DVD presentation of both The Crazies and Two Evil Eyes recognizes the horror film fan’s obsessive desire for behind-the-camera details. The Crazies DVD includes an insightful commentary track with Romero where he details the making of the film. Equally revealing interviews with Romero, Argento, and makeup special effects maestro Tom Savini are included in the Two Evil Eyes DVD. Even more important, thanks to the restorative efforts of Bill Lusting, Blue Underground’s founder and the director of the splatter extravaganza, Maniac (1980), both films are presented in uncut and pristine condition.
Even though The Crazies and Two Evil Eyes were made 30 and 13 years ago, respectively, their cultural critiques remain relevant today. And as corporate scandals and fears of biological attacks proliferate, their warnings look alarmingly prophetic.