|Posted on October 14, 2014 at 1:40 PM|
A Tribute to George A. Romero
Part Two: Vampires, Bikers and Monkeys, Oh My
With the three big zombie flicks out of the way, we need to take a little journey back to the early 1970s. After Night of the Living Dead, George Romero actuallydidnt even want to make another horror movie. Sure, he showed an uncanny ability to make something from literally nothing, but for his second movie he wanted to make a drama. It wasn’t good. It was very, very early 1970s. It was called There’s Always Vanilla and it has not aged well. At all. Now it was a well-intended little picture, it even has its charms in its own way certainly, but I would argue it’s unwatchable even for 1970s standards. Either way, it wasn’t all that well received though let’s also note Romero didn’t write it.
He did, however, write his next one. What does one do when the first foray into drama wasn’t well received? Do another one I guess.
Still very low-budget, indie roots, but his follow up films just didn't quite connect despite his working in interesting spaces.
It wasn't a better film than its predecessor, which at least had a very 1970s charm to it, and it certainly had a better alternate title in “Season of the Witch” - "Hungry Wives?" "Jack’s Wife, "Ungh…. It’s, by far, Romero’s worst picture, messy, re-cut, just all over the place, and shows that he was in a bit of a slump despite its interesting thematic elements. Maybe he was still trying to figure out exactly what kind of director he wanted to be. Thankfully, he figured that out as quickly as I me rushing through a couple of paragraphs begrudgingly acknowledging these movies. Let's get to the more interesting stuff...
The Crazies (1973) is not a good movie, but it was a movie that put Romero on a specific track. I suppose you have to say it was an important movie in that regard, because if you actually want a good take on this concept you best check out the 2010 remake. The idea is there, certainly. It is a cool concept: a manmade virus causes insanity and the military tries to contain it. That’s awesome. That’s an idea. Unfortuantly the barely 300,000 dollar budget worked against it. It’s an idea with scope and grandeur, something Romero can do as we’ll see later on, but it was working with a budget that wouldn’t allow that to be fully fleshed out and Romero wanted to show that scope.
That comes at a cost, because while Night of the Living Dead was about a zombie outbreak, it was contained to one place. Here, it’s a similar outbreak of “zombies” but Romero heads out to an entire town and many more characters and effects but didn't have the money to back it up. He does best with what he can, it’s just a messy flick and sometimes not a very interesting one. It certainly helped define some elements that Romero would become more known for as we follow groups of people dealing with a strange outbreak that make people go insane. It's as broad and high-concept as Romero ever got, he just didn't quite have the money and the backing to get it done.
It can be a little easy to dismiss the The Crazies as it’s essential Night of the Living Dead with “crazy” people, but it finds a unique identity and voice well enough despite not being one of Romero’s better-made efforts.
The fact is, The Crazies came at a very difficult time in Romero's life. A lot of behind the scenes and personal issues, a young filmmaker trying to find his way, a marriage in trouble, debt, in fact if you want to read a really good article only about The Crazies in detail, this one is great. But while the Crazies might have been a bit of a messy movie and with a ton of anguish behind the camera, it led Romero to do something completely different next, and it might just be Romero's most interesting, original and overall brilliant movie. Not to mention what is arguably his most personal one.
Romero’s Martin (1978 ) is, for some, his best movie. While I’m not in that boat entirely, it’s not something I necessarily disagree with either because it is, without question, his most ambitious in terms of concept and artistic in terms of execution - a more subtle, sad, introspective approach than something necessarily about big-concepts and broad themes. Romero had already been dabbling in exploring the human condition, but it’s been pretty basic as an element in a backdrop of a larger social scope. Here, it’s far more internal and, perhaps, far more personal and reflective to Romero himself.
John Amplas is astounding in the title role, plus you had Romero and Tom Savini meeting for the first time and that leads to Dawn of the Dead and...well we can go on and on here.
Martin is about a vampire dealing with the fact he’s a vampire in a modern (then 1970s) society. Martin is a confused man who doesn’t fit in and, as it turns out, may not be a vampire at all. He just thinks he is because that’s the only explanation he can give himself (convince himself) as to why he has hallucinations and murders people. Truth is, it’s never really stated and you kind of draw your own conclusions as to whether or not Martin is a vampire or if he’s just a nutcase.
Knowing the cynical nature of Romero, I’d probably think the latter - a sad man with a mental illness who thinks he’s a fabled vampire fits more in line with Romero’s style than the simple excuse of him being a vampire. In other words, Martin’s demons are inside him, not an external expression of simply being a vampire, he says he’s a vampire to make those internal demons make sense to him.
Martin is a very self-aware movie, well ahead of its time, that takes a deconstructive look at the vampire myth as it pertains to a modern-day mental state. He is absolutely a tragic figure, whether he be vampire or deranged, and the more the movie picks apart the vampire myth the more we come to really see Martin in this way. Like his follow=up film Dawn of the Dead, Romero is working on some next-level thematic realms here, taking in ideas of self-fear and self-loathing, afraid of who we are or what we may be, celebrity culture as Martin becomes somewhat famous on the radio and people are fascinated by him (again, another theme Romero will explore again 20 or so years later), and elements of morality versus the need to live.
After Martin, Romero returned to the zombie genre, which I already covered, so let’s take a little leap and head to the absolute non-horror thing that is Knightriders (1981).
Oh….Knightriders. It’s hard to know where to start on this one, so a trailer helps sum it up.
Now here we have some elements that is no-doubt Romero. A group of unique peoples fighting against a larger authority that’s trying to persecute them in some way. That’s a Romero trope if there ever was one. What isn’t, though, is that it’s about Biker Knights. Sure, we saw some bikers (and Tom Savini who returns here) in Dawn of the Dead, but an entire movie about bikers that re-enact jousts and fights at a biker-themed renaissance festival…yes it is all this and more,
Knightriders has Ed Harris as the leader of this biker…knight…group…that go around and put on shows for local towns. Of course, some local town authorities don’t like that, you have people within the organization getting upset on the direction the trope is going, there’s issues of money, Harris rejects any sense of promotion and you have not-Scatman Crothers doing a hell of a Scatman Crothers impression as Merlin the magician.
A movie with Ed Harris and Tom Savini and bikers in armor…that also has Stephen King in the audience as a chubby asshole? (Note: this will be relevant) Sign me up.
Knightriders isn’t a bad film. Hell, it’s better than it probably deserves to be given the time, budget and concept. It’s just a little weird and certainly a product of its time. Still, there’s a lot of solid storytelling that transcends its odd concept and bikersploitation. It has a campy goofiness to it that may or may not be intentional - as though it’s playing a joke on its super-serious self and it doesn’t quite realize it.
Knightriders was an odd way to kick off the 1980s. It was a movie that felt lost in time, as though if it were 1971 instead of 81 it might feel more in place. Romero decided to kind of keep that “old school” idea flowing as his next movie was easily one of his best, and it teamed him up with horror author Stephen King to really deliver a unique experience. While not horror for our purposes, it certainly is a unique enough entry to warrant a nod and it's element of "throwback" is kind of relevant as we segue into Romero's next, and one of his best.
I imagine they all had a lot of fun doing this movie.
Back in the 1950s, there were a lot of horror comics on shelves. Tales from the Crypt. The Vault of Horror and the Haunt of Fear were EC Anthology comics about twisted stories of horror and suspense (and sometimes science fiction). They were pretty awesome and also pretty ahead of their time.
Not to get into comic history, but these were the types of comics before the "comics code" that were popular in the 1940s and 50s. Hard boiled noir, tales of suspense and horror, monsters and gore, comics with sex. You know...good times.
Creepshow (1982) is full of short stories, much like those old comics, all written by Stephen King. Some are adapted, some completely original, but in the early 1980s King was THE (and some would say still is) horror icon of the time. His books sold insanely well and this being after Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Stand, The Shining and Cujo, not to mention an handful of short stories and work under the pen name “Richard Bachman” he was incredibly prolific.
King had met Romero on the set of Knightriders. Now how that happened I can’t seem to find a clear answer on, I just know he and his wife were there and had cameos. Romero tends to work east coast and maybe somebody knew somebody, King was in the area and he stopped in. Either way, that had to be the start of “Hey, you’re a horror a guy, I’m a horror guy, let’s think of some ideas together.”
Romero and King hang out on set, King starring in one of the shorts himself.
I find Creepshow a masterpiece of pulp horror. It’s everything you want an anthology horror movie full of short stories with character actors to be. It has variety in content and style, showing Romero’s ability to be diverse in how he approaches various materials, and feels incredibly polished and focused. It’s a great, great movie and a staple of genre though, unfortunately, it rarely gets acknowledged I feel. In fact, I sometimes feel anthology horror movies and tv shows don’t get acknowledged at all, but I would put “Something to Tide You Over” with the best of The Twilight Zone and “Father’s Day” with the best of any feature-length horror movie that begs for more of an expansive story to go with it.
Creepshow isn’t always doing something new, however, which is odd considering Romero was always wanting to push envelopes. It’s pretty standard “Tales of Terror” type of stuff, but so were the old comics which is kind of the point. They’re just well done tales of horror with a lot of style, emulating a “comic book” approach well before it was a trend and influenced generations of movies and television from it. It showed there’s a market for the really dark and weird and occasionally funny approach to this type of material. It wasn’t the first anthology movie of horror, but it’s the one that seemed to really get everything right.
The comic book style is gorgeous and gives Creepshow an identity. It was trying to emulate comics well before comic books movies were a "thing."
The bookend scenes are pretty typical for an anthology series, despite them having the legendary Tom Atkins (and a cameo from Tom Savini on the tail end) in them. The main shorts are Father’s Day, a well done though forgettable movie about an old man rising from the grave to get his “cake” on his father’s day. It also has a super-young Ed Harris again. That’s followed by the Stephen King starred as dumb Jordy in The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill. It’s over the top and campy with a sad ending. Then we have Something to Tide You Over, starring Leslie Nielson as a villain and Ted Danson, that’s pretty much a classic revenge/guilt story about a man killing his wife and her lover (and I would say the strongest out of all these). Then you end with the Hal Halbrook and Adrienne Barbeau short, The Crate, which is about a monster in a crate and a husband on edge with his wife followed by the very short and grows They’re Creeping Up on You with EG Marshall obsessed over cockroaches in his otherwise sterile apartment.
Is there a running theme in all these? Yes and no. I think you could draw a lot of connections about family versus loneliness, or just the breaking apart of family and marriages and so on, but it’s all very loose despite it being very Romero-esque (he and King were obviously on the same page thematically it seems). But really, the strand of “pulp horror” is what ties them all together the best: easily digestible, solid stories that make Creepshow an absolute stylish classic.
Insert Day of the Dead here, because we’ve already talked about it. So check out Part One for the zombie stuffs. Let's go on...
After Day of the Dead kind of fell on its face, which is unfortunate because it’s quite good, Romero went independent. He left Laurel Entertainment and decided to end the 1980s with one of the strangest and most bizarre horror movies that I’ve seen with a team up of genre-staple Orion Pictures that was near the end of its own lifecycle as a distributor.
Released in 1988, Monkey Shines is about a paraplegic man named Alan who gets a helper monkey and through experiments that the monkey was receiving he shares his “thoughts” with the monkey. Said monkey goes out and starts killing people until, well wouldn’t you know it, it starts threatening people Alan cares about because the monkey is jealous and wants Alan all to herself.
There’s some weird subtext going on in this movie, that’s for sure. It may never fully come to be realized, but elements of psyches (something Romero will do a better job exploring in his next film) and there’s still that “individuality” theme...it's as psychological as Romero had been since Martin.
I think what’s disappointing about Monkey Shines, besides the fact the studio forced a new ending and recut the thing, is that it’s really not all that scary. It has a decent atmosphere, mainly taking place in Alan’s home, but it’s almost too weird and strange to really get scared by it. It tries to play the psychological horror game but doesn't quite nail it. Jason Beghe is great as Alan, though, and the monkey is certainly well trained and great as well. Hell, you buy their relationship, that’s for sure.
But you have a series of annoying people Alan doesn’t like and the monkey kills, you have a very odd subplot with a scientist that never really gets off the ground, and an ending that feels really forced for the most part that was probably less to do with Romero and more about studio intervention. Still, even the parts that are certainly Romero never feel right. It never feels threatening or ominous, just weird and occasionally unintentionally funny.
The problem with Monkey Shines is despite the sense of dread, it's a little goofy and too hard to take serious sometimes. Plus, it just ends up a little forgettable, and "forgettable" for Romero is a sad thing.
After the monkey flick, Romero seemed to become a bit of a wayward filmmaker. He did the indie gig for decades, then had this really bad experience with Orion then he seemed uncertain what to do. The 1990s and beyond were going to be an odd few decades for him as we’ll soon be seeing, but as for the first chunk of his career, there’s no denying it was a bit up and down. Sometimes Romero was absolutely brilliant (Creepshow, Martin, The Dead Trilogy) sometimes odd but interesting (Knightriders, Monkey Shines) but never was he outright awful, his early dips into more dramatic film aside. Even The Crazies, arguably his weakest "mainstream" movie up to this point, had some solid elements he was working with.
Romero, for over twenty years by this point, had established himself as a genre filmmaker that’s willing to not just make horror, but have something to say through the genre as a whole. Throughout the 1980s and some of 70s, once he got his bearings on a career path it seems, he was, overall very consistent and doing unique things in the realm of horror and suspense, not to mention defined the zombie sub genre all on his own. But, like so many of the 1970s and 80s, once a new decade approached, new audience expectations and financing pathways began to come to be, Romero struggled to remain relevant.
Next week: Part Three: Dark Halves