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A Tribute to George A. Romero (Pt. 3)

Posted on October 22, 2014 at 4:45 AM

A Tribute to George A. Romero

Part Three: Dark Halves

Read Part One Here

Read Part Two Here

It’s unfortunate, and it seems to be an often trend with horror directors, that once the 1990s rolled around that George A. Romero struggled immensely. Marketplaces and audience expectations change, and seeing as many horror movies are, more often than not, direct reflections of their time and era - conforming to new trends and styles doesn’t always work. Some can outdo it, Wes Craven managed to do some fantastic things once the 1990s rolled around, but people like John Carpenter or George A. Romero or Joe Dante really seemed to come up short.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Romero (or any of those guys really) didn’t have some solid work done in the latter half of their careers. In 1990, right after Monkey Shines, Romero collaborated with Italian horror director Dario Argento for Two Evil Eyes: a movie with two short movies within it and you know what? It's actually good. Hell, good especially considering that his movie, "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Vlademar" is probalby his most criminally overlooked flick.

Plus there's something very endearing on two horror legends doing adaptations of the works of Poe, and it puts this fact front and center right from the start. Argento (along with Goblin) helped the music direction of Romero's Dawn of the Dead a little over a decade earlier and Argento's younger brother, Claudio, was a producing partner with Romero.

I won't speak on the Argento portion of the film, maybe during the Argento Tribute next Halloween, if I were to be so bold, but Romero takes his shot at The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar written in 1845 which had been adapted before, notably by Roger Corman who adapted every Poe work under the sun in the 1960s, but really was done some justice here.

Like a lot of Poe works (and Romero works for that matter), the story is rather simple while it relishes in atmosphere: a dying man's wife convinces her psychiatrist (and man she's having an affair with) to hypnotize her husband and basically have him sign over his fortune to her. But wouldn't you know it? The darn husband dies and now the wife fears that he's coming back to life because odd noises are coming from the basement where they hid the body (yeah, this is a pretty a-typical Poe tale).

It's soon revealed that when the husband died, his soul became trapped and a lot of things happen, the husband's body comes back alive and seeks revenge (see, more zombies, so this is a-typical Romero too). Overall, it's a very solid, tight and enjoyable movie, and I mention that because if there's anything Romero has shown is that he shoots and writes with purpose. Nothing feels wasted and it all moves well. As for the quality of the tale itself, it's nothing spectacular, but it's told remarkably well and Romero casts some great mood over the entire thing that would make Poe proud.

Though I think this bit might not have been in the original tale. Because this guy...well Tom Atkins (as awesome as ever in a very Tom Atkins bit part) gets his final career undead kill that I'm aware of so I guess it's worth a silly coda like this.

I think that, especially after the issues with Monkey Shines, that this had to have been a creative relief for Romero. That's just me speculating, of course, but I would think following up a bad filmmaking experience with a collaboration with a friend and likeminded director on a beloved subject matter would have to be a good thing. 1993 Romero made one of his better, though quite uneven at times, horror movies with The Dark Half.

And a lot of what makes it good is a great turn by Timothy Hutton. He carries the entire thing.

The Dark Half has just about every staple of what makes a Romero movie a Romero movie. Working in the realm of his old collaborator Stephen King (as noted previously, they share many similar themes and ideas in their works) we again have themes of individuality struggling to shine through, the breakup and remolding of the modern family unit and a lot of, well, weirdness. Romero has shown he loves to play the psychological angle and I’d argue that The Dark Half is the best he’s explored it since his art house masterpiece Martin twenty years prior.

In The Dark Half we meet Thad Beaumont (really? that’s the name huh?) played by Timothy Hutton. Hutton had been kind of all around and up and down through the 1980s, never quite finding a solid followup to his big hit and many-award-winning role as Conrad in Ordinary People and small role in TAPS, but he had always been consistently solid despite not landing the roles on stage and screen to really push his career. In The Dark Half, we get a whole lotta Hutton really shining. He plays both straight man who thinks he is losing his mind and utterly insane hammy villain as The Dark Half, as the title implies, is about a man with a split personality.

Well…kind of. It’s a little more than that, has to do with a brother and an eyeball in his brain but that’s just weird Stephen King stuff with pretty darn good effects.

The problem with The Dark Half isn’t the directing or the acting, that’s for sure, but the rather uneven script that feels forced to reveal things too early and we’re left with a rather dull second half that just isn’t as interesting. Romero, as writer, seemed to want to do one approach but, perhaps, fell into the trappings of having to be faithful to Stephen King’s book in some way. Like its protagonist, The Dark Half is a conflicted film that wants to be about a killer, wants to be about the writing process, wants to be about family, wants to be about inhibitions and wants to be a psychological exploration but never really settles on one major element to be a through line to really hold it all together. As good as Hutton is, and as great as Romero directs him and shoots the thing, it never really comes together for a satisfying end and the result is a pretty unsatisfying mess.

That being said, you can certainly tell that Romero had an affection towards the material. The screenplay may lack the punch or depth that it struggles for, but there’s some fantastic moments in this movie: it plays far better with what we don’t see than what we do see. It works well in small chunks (in other words, its parts are arguably better than its sum). Though not a great film, it at least manages to be interesting thanks to the atmosphere and Hutton’s performance.

After that, Romero went away for a while. He bounced around here and there, did a Resident Evil video game commercial in Japan, lost out to Paul W.S. Anderson to kick of that franchise in the film realm, and really seemed to do little personally or professionally during that time. It’s odd that I could find so little between 1994 and his eventual return to film with Bruiser (2000) Perhaps it was a time of reflection, perhaps he was just tired of it all. Either way, I wasn’t surprised going by others like Dario Argento or John Carpenter, that also tended to fall off by this time.

So when Bruiser came out, you might think there was a bit of fanfare. After all, it’s not as though The Dark Half or his small bit with Two Evil Eyes  were awful and he ended as a failure. But Bruiser, it turns out, is a difficult and challenging film to really sit and watch. It’s not bad, in fact it’s very much a classic minimalist Romero film in the vein of Martin as a character study, but it’s not one I can comfortably say is “good” either. Still, though, it’s interesting and manages to get Romero back on track in terms of filmmaking to the audience looking beyond the simple plot and think about what it’s really about.

It was called his "comeback" movie. In one way, it was because it got him back to making movies. In another, it wasn't as it wasn't exactly the best fresh foot forward.

That plot is about Henry Creedlow, stuck in a horrible relationship and job, waking up one day to find a white mask stuck to his face. This mask, then, brings out the elements of Henry’s psyche that pretty much allows him to “kill” that old life he had. Some of that is figuratively, most of that is literally as the body count rises. It’s a man “stuck” in a life he doesn’t want and fighting to get out.

So yeah…that’s Romero all the way, both in a traditional sense of themes of individuality and conformity as well as with Romero personally as he was certainly struggling to find that creative flow again. It’s at the very least an original Romero flick that asks a lot of questions and deals with a lot of themes showing he still had a lot to say despite being abscent from the medium for so long.

Visually, there’s very much an Italian Giallo feel to the whole thing, as though it’s some lost foreign mystery/slasher flick from the early 80s.

Bruiser isn’t a very good film. While the themes are its core structure, the characters and plot really never come together to get you to invest in anything going on. It’s a great characters study and social commentary, but not necessarily a good story being told which, for Romero, is disappointing. He’s always been able to balance those relatively well, offering, if anything, a minimal plot and solid characters to structure the satire or commentary around. Here, it was reversed: he wanted to say the message before telling the actual story and it all ends up tripping and stumbling to make that happen.

Thankfully, Bruiser, if anything, got Romero back into making movies because his next is, I feel, a seriously underrated flick. Much in the same way it took 20 or so years for people to really appreciate Day of the Dead and what it was trying to do, I think, in time, Land of the Dead (2005) is going to be looked at the same way. It’s as strong of a social commentary of a zombie movie Romero had ever done, but he also build and creates a world around it that we haven’t seen yet and manages to stick in some memorable and interesting characters along the way.

Like all of his past zombie movies, Romero’s Land of the Dead is a reflection of its era. The politics. The culture. Society as a whole. Romero hadn’t visited it twenty years, and boy did he have a lot to say. It pretty much says this: The United States, as a whole, is utterly corrupt and it will eventually destroy itself thanks to its own arrogance.

Though not listed as the "main" character, Leguizamo as Cholo is the most interesting and has the most to do - a good character actor (though he's a little more diverse when need be) can really make a movie. Land of the Dead is a nasty, cynical movie that manages to have that bit of satiritical comedy, and lot of it is helped in Leguizamo's handling of his snarky personality.

Yeah, that’s heavy. But if you look at the line drawn from Night of the Living Dead all the way to Land of the Dead, it is the natural and most obvious end to it all - though this won’t be the last of Romero’s zombie flicks, it felt, thematically, he has said all he needed to say. Like Day of the Dead, the world is pretty much gone by the point in our movie. Unlike Day of the Dead, though, a new society has cropped up and built upon a foundation of fear and intolerance (getting those Bush-era vibes yet?) There’s a lot going on in terms of character and plot that is actually a little difficult to sum up, but basically Cholo, played by John Leguizamo, has been working as a part of a unit called “Dead Reckoning” which is basically a big gun-filled tank of a machine that heads out of the walled city area of Pittsburgh to kill surrounding zombies so they don’t get overrun.

Eventually, the leader of this city, Paul Kaufman played by the late Dennis Hopper (who is wonderful here I might add and has the best line in the entire film) denies Cholo his entry into the luxurious area of the walled city. Cholo, still stuck in the low-end areas pretty much sets out to bring it all down. That’s the main plot, but there are other character stories as we go along including the “evolution” (for lack of a better word) of Bub from Day of the Dead as we follow a zombie only known as “Big Daddy” and his learning and actually using critical thinking to overtake the city as well.

There’s also a parallel story with Simon Baker that is completely forgettable, basically he has to go and hunt down Cholo then zombie stuff happens. He and his story is not not nearly as interesting as Cholo. Hell, Big Daddy (our lead zombie) has a better character arc than this guy.

It all comes to a head in the biggest zombie outbreak and city-destorying scene Romero has probably ever shot, at least since the bikers-meet-zombies-meet-surivovors of the final third of Dawn of the Dead. And it’s a lot of fun with some of the best gore and special effects you could ask for in a zombie flick. More surpassingly, though, is how well it was received. Perhaps it was the obvious political undertones or maybe the fact that the remake of Dawn of the Dead the year before seemed to lack that Romero “feel” but whatever it was, critics actually dug it and gave it pretty positive reviews. It seemed to just come out at the right time and it had something to say beyond “look zombies” and that, I think, appealed to the more headier horror fans and to critics who are secretly horror fans but would probably never actually admit it.

Land of the Dead is a slow paced but incredibly satisfying post-apocalypstic romp through zombie-infested waters. It’s not slick like the Dawn of the Dead remake the year prior, so perhaps that’s why it didn’t set the box office on fire, but it did still make 40 million or so after a 15 million budget and brought back a heralded director who literally created the entire zombie genre of horror as we know it today.

Now if Romero hung it up permanently after Land of the Dead, that would have been fine. He would have went out on a high note. But when you have creative minds wanting to get back into the thick of it, naturally he wants to do more. That more was two more zombie flicks that don’t get near to what Romero’s own standards should be. You know how some legendary athletes, like your Joe Montanas or your Michael Jordans, just go on a little longer than what is comfortable. I mean, nobody really talks about The Chiefs or The Wizards as teams associated with those guys, right? Well, nobody really acknowledges the final two zombie flicks from Romero either.

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What is especially cool about Romero making Land of the Dead is that we get to have on-set footage and the like of a legend making a zombie movie, something we really only had in small portions before.

The first was the poorly-advised, but ultimately “ok," Diary of the Dead in 2007. I say "ultimately ok” because only until the follow up did we realize how bad it could get. But I digress, Diary of the Dead is Romero getting into the then-popular (and still kind of popular) found-footage genre of horror movies that really reached a peak in popularity from around 2007 - 2012. It’s a stripped-down zombie flick that Romero shot in a month and also uses computer effects which makes it all feel cheap and lacking a soul. The markings are there, but it’s lazily done and uninspired in its conceit

I suppose it isn't saying much that I forgot I ever even saw Diary of the Dead. Only until rewatching it for this retrospective did I even remember it. Of course, then I remembered that at the time I even thought "wow, this is as generic and uninspired as any other number of found-footage movies.”

Of course, I have to be completely upfront, I have a serious issues with found-footage movies. There’s a suspension of disbelief, that someone found this footage and spliced it all together or that people conveniently carry around cameras all the time, that I just can’t accept and separate from my really critiquing it. I think there’s too much of a novelty and gimmick happening that I just don’t buy. I just never am "sold" on the found footage concept, especially when it's like this one. I mean, your friends are getting attacked by zombies...and you're filming. Hell, on more than one occasion the bad things that happen are a direct result of one or two people with a goddamn camera up to their face and not paying attention.

There are some who feel Survival of the Dead is better, others feel it is worse than Diary. I think it's a bit of both, it's better in execution, but lacks the consistency and inspiration. It's simultenously a return to a better form but also a step back.

Perhaps this is why Romero went back to a "regular feature" with Survival of the Dead, but unfortunatly it's arguably worse. The directing is poor, shots are lazy, plot and characters completely uninteresting, the setting itself is just dull and the acting (and this goes for Diary as well) is just atrocious outside of one or two people who look like they know what they're doing. It’s about two families on an island and…you know zombies show up and shit happens.

These two look less like a horror legend directed them and more like someone who's making their first VOD flick. Even in the case of Diary, which is meant to look amateaurish, it just doesn't look and feel organic to what it's trying to do as though it's too "clean" and, in the case of Survival, there's just no sense of style and it's entirely bland. More importantly is that neither really have that Romero flare to them. Sure, they're heavy-handed, but they don't really have anything interesting to say. In other words, Romero, by this time, kind of said all he really needed to say it seems.

George A. Romero has both made some of the best zombie movies ever made, and some of the absolute worst. Look at this guy...he's still filming and someone if filming him filming while he's being attacked by a zombie. That's the logic here...and it doesn't work.

Nobody really considers Diary or Survival as part of Romero's "Dead" films. They're more like asides than anything, not really a part of the grogressive elements from Night to Land as we see things escalate. Diary was, literally, a step back as now we're back at the beginning of the zombie outbreak and Survival simply continues it. The timeline becomes odd as a result of these two movies, as though they're resetting everything, and it's why most people don't really bother with them. Well, that and they're just not very good and this "new" series Romero has begun (he plans two more supposedly) just doesn't quite have enough creatively going on to make them worthwhile.

I won't lie, sitting through them (a second time, as it turns out) was a chore. I'll just leave it at that and not bring them up ever again...thankfully.

So what does an old horror movie legend do when his better days are behind him? New mediums, of course. Not to mention marketing yourself and your name. It’s really the last hurrah an influential filmmaker can do: if the directing and filmmaking isn’t there all that much anymore, at least you are still you and nothing will ever change that.

And the man has every right to. I mean, he shaped a lot of horror as we know it today going back to the 1960s. He may not have been as prolific or diverse as, say, a John Carpenter or as “big” as a Wes Craven in name, but he’s still George Fuckin-A Romero, creator of the modern zombie genre, satirist, gore-afficiando and overall pretty beloved by genre fans even though he’s, arguably, only made one really good movie in the past twenty years or so.

Seriously, this is a guy who knows who he is and his influence and is probably loving it. And really, that’s all that matters. On the left there are two big fans, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, who had cameos in Land of the Dead.

Plus, if all else fails, just market the name. Action figures, comic books, videogame characters...he's covered and deserves it.

His influence is all over our movie screens and television to this day. Shaun of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead…pretty much anything with a zombie owes their success, and most are successful, to Romero in some form. His tale has been told and influence set in stone by this point, and whatever he does to keep being a creative mind doing something, anything, is always going to be a benefit to fans of horror.


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