Celebrate the work of a titan of horror with some thoughts and musings on several of Romero’s films beyond his Living Dead series.
The prolific George A. Romero died back in July of 2017 and left a very large hole in the horror community. He was a figure that loomed large in both film, TV and pop culture for decades, often being cited as the godfather of the zombie film. There would be no The Walking Dead; there would be no Resident Evil franchise; there would be no Lucio Fulci spin-offs; there would be nothing of the zombie as we know it without Romero. He was, without a doubt, the creator of the modern zombie who, along with other contemporaries at the time like Fulci, positioned the monsters as modern-day allegories for our drone-like consumerism.
After beginning his career making commercials, Romero – with a group of friends and a shoestring budget – filmed his horror classic Night of the Living Dead, which became a cult phenomenon that introduced man-eating zombies to a generation of movie fans. Made in 1968 for just $114,000, his cult classic Night Of The Living Dead is responsible for the unrelenting parade of zombie movies and TV shows.
It was his low-budget approach to Night Of The Living Dead that inspired future generations of filmmakers such as Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter that to generate big scares didn’t require big budgets. More so, Romero’s approach to the horror genre is even longer-lasting. His ability to mix thrills with social satire, shining a spotlight on the outright militarism he was noticing around him.
Romero’s 1978 sequel Dawn Of The Dead (still probably the greatest Zombie movie ever made) was made for $1.5 million and grossed $55 million. He followed that by writing and directing Day Of The Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary Of The Dead (2007) and Survival Of The Dead (2009). His Living Dead series earned him the moniker Father of the Zombie Film.
However, Romero was more than just the “zombie guy.” As a producer, Romero delivered TV’s seminal 1980s horror anthology Tales From the Dark Side, and also directed one of the oddest but equally amazing vampire film, 1978’s Martin, as well as 1973’s The Crazies, 1981’s Knightriders, 1982’s Creepshow, 1988’s Monkey Shines, 1990’s Two Evil Eyes, and 1993’s Dark Half. His legacy goes far and beyond just the zombie film. It’s these other endeavors that yours truly thought about lamenting on. Today, let’s focus beyond the Living Dead and take a closer look at some of Romero’s zombie-less films, which are nevertheless just as enthralling, entertaining, and thought-provoking.
The Crazies (1973)
After Night Of The Living Dead, Romero followed up with stint of smaller, lesser known films. The Crazies, released in 1973, revolves around a zombie-like outbreak caused by a nerve gas spill. Like many of Romero’s other movies (the “Living Dead” saga being the biggest), his characters can only understand a small glimpse of what is happening to them. A small farm house in rural Pennsylvania in Night of the Living Dead, a busy inner-city apartment complex—later a deserted mall—in Dawn of the Dead, and an underground military base off the coast of Florida in Day of the Dead to name just a few.
The Crazies marks a departure of Romero of sorts. We know that even the gas-mask-wearing soldiers are human but he humanizes everyone else but them, often turning the government soldiers into mindless grunts; sentinels only taking and following orders. The Crazies may not be an out-right zombie film but Romero’s antagonists show just as much of his disdain towards militarism and government institutions as any of his other films. Here, he depicts the gas-maskers as drones, people who have lost their individuality.
The Crazies remains one of Romero’s earliest and best films, one that clearly was a stomping ground for the breadth to come throughout the late seventies and early eighties, all the way until his mainstream movie to date, Universal Studios The Dark Half (the same studio he would later have his largest budgeted movie overall, 2005’s Land Of The Dead).
Employing 16mm film stock, Romero’s Martin deliberately plays against much of the vampire genre’s expressionistic imagery. The film follows the titular Martin, a young man who believes himself to be a vampire and goes to live with his elderly and hostile cousin, “Tata Cuda.” Martin dwells in small Pennsylvania town where he tries to redeem his blood-craving urges by murdering residents of the small North-East town. Set in contemporary 1977, the grainy, quasi-documentary quality to the visuals are juxtaposed with Martin’s dreams, where he thinks himself a vampire in the classic sense, complete with a Gothic, fog-draped castle setting, pursued by pitch-fork wielding villagers as he preys upon a bosomy female victim as he is dressed and dressed in a cape, frilled dress shirt, and fangs.
It’s the spare style that has always stayed with me in Romero’s Martin. Its bizarre electronic score that works against the hyper realistic staging is a stark reminder of Romero’s ability to blend many different aspects of both past and present-day films. Martin begins to attack his neighbors and it is during this second attack sequence that the film hits one of its most memorable set pieces. No fangs, just a syringe and some breaking & entering. Martin finds its a lot harder to kill someone and drain their blood than he may have thought. Stalking a lover carrying on an affair during her husband’s absence, Martin enters his victim’s home only to have to elude the woman’s burly lover. The scene feels inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain in which Paul Newman and an accompanied farmer try their best to dispose of a baddie in an incredibly drawn-out murder scene (knives break, people trip, and suffocating someone takes what feels like forever).
Martin culminates with an act of modern day violence as he is caught in the crossfire of a gunfight between police and a gang of drug dealers. Romero was never far from his commentary on state policing and cultural discrimination within inner cities (just look at the opening moments of his next film, Dawn Of The Dead).
What sets this film apart from any other vampire film is that Martin’s vampirism is treated more as an addiction. he isn’t even a vampire of supernatural origin, he simply believes he needs the blood of others to survive. The fact that he meets his demise at the hands of his “Tata Cuda” because his old world beliefs convince him his nephew is indeed Nosferatu is all the more troubling. Surviving a modern day of random violence to only be disposed of by a family member in such a barbaric and shocking way is the exclamation mark on the film that Romero considered one of his favorites.
A labor of love for the director, Knightriders is a semi-autobiographical story about a Renaissance troupe led by Billy, a King Arthur figure played by Ed Harris in his first leading role. Billy and his Queen (Amy Ingersoll) lead a troupe who mount tournaments for motorcycle-riding jousting knights in armor. When promoters, fans and money concerns begin to warp Billy’s ideal utopia, the film takes on that incredible Romero aspect of commercialism invading a space built around individualism.
Knightriders also displays Romero’s old stomping ground, Pittsburgh. What Baltimore was to John Waters, Pittsburgh was to George A. Romero. He was the local auteur, and collected a group of loyal cast and crew that became more like family than a job.
The film did not fare well at the box office and, unfortunately, it re-affirmed the fact that Romero would have to return to the world of the horror genre once again. Stephen King performed a cameo in Knightriders, and collaborated closely with Romero on his next film, the horror anthology film Creepshow, which King co-wrote the screenplay for and was the second film for United Film Distribution—the third United Film Distribution movie was Day of the Dead.
The Dark Half (1993)
The Dark Half represented another collaboration between Romero and prolific novelist Stephen King. The story revolves around a writer’s fictional alter ego wanting to take over his life…at any price.
The film contains one of the all-time best reveals of any Stephen King adaptation. Beaumont (the film’s protagonist played by Timothy Hutton), is set up as an incredibly gifted individual, capable of great things, especially when it comes to the written word. However, he suffers headaches and seizures. When doctors determine it must be the cause of some sort of brain tumor after they find something on his X-Rays. They open him up, and while probing the surface of the cranial tissue they discovery an abnormality. While probing further, the abnormality all of a sudden moves, revealing a large eye that opens and stares at them.
The Dark Half promises a terrific premise of a thriller that may not always deliver by the end credits but still represented Romero’s accumulation of delivering a studio-funded film of sizable proportions. During The Dark Half‘s third act, the two characters, both played by Hutton, fight one another for supremacy. Romero delivers on some particularly impressive visuals including a murder of crows descending upon the evil “twin”, George Stark.
The film exists more as a predilection of author Stephen King’s obsession with depicting the writer-in-turmoil than Romero’s a-typical satirizing of human vices. However, the film works on the power of its performances and the dedication to its set-pieces. For all intents and purposes, it’s one of the more successful Stephen King adaptations put to the big screen.
A brand new 4K restoration and Criterion Collection release of Night of the Living Dead was released in 2017. This presentation will finally showcase the film in a format that it has so deserved. Martin is unfortunately tied up in huge legal battles and can only be found in very sub-par presentations. Many of Romero’s other films are available across several streaming platforms, and even more are available on DVD and Blu-ray.
George A. Romero is, and forever will be, a titan of horror. His passing will leave a void hard to fill and his films will stand as a testament to his rebellious nature, satirical edge and warm love of the genre. The horror community lost a true legend but his work and art lives on.
Sources: Warner Bros., Universal, Pittsburgh Films, Laurel Entertinament, Dmension Films, UA, Image Comics