Welcome to Psycho Drive-In’s 31 Days of Schlocktober celebration! This year we’ve decided to present the ABCs of Horror, with entries every day this month providing Director information, Best-of lists, Genre overviews, and Reviews of films and franchises, all in alphabetical order! Today brings us R is for Romero! After a career making short instructional films and commercials, including a segment for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood about going to the dentist, George A. Romero and nine friends formed Image Ten Productions and took an old horror comedy script and repurposed it into a tale of ghouls coming back from the dead to eat the living. Inspired thematically and visually by the classic Last Man on Earth, Night of the Living Dead was released on October 1, 1968 and signaled a seismic shift in the low-budget horror landscape. Night of the Living Dead stands alongside Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the trilogy of films released between 1968 and 1974 that redefined what American horror film could achieve, and changed the face of horror cinema around the world. You can read my write-up of Night of the Living Dead at this link, but if you’re interested in Romero’s films, it’s the best place to start. In fact, thanks to a copyright error, you can watch it here, now! His next three horror films weren’t as well-received as Night, but each has its own particular personality and appeal. Season of the Witch (1972) is the least horror-driven of this set of films; a feminism-inspired tale of suburban witchcraft that was originally marketed as soft-core porn, despite Romero refusing to film sex scenes that the distributor tried to force into the project. It’s worth a look, but isn’t really a horror film per se. The Crazies (1973), however, returned to some of the themes of Night of the Living Dead to tell the story of the accidental release of a chemical designed for biological warfare that turns the inhabitants of a small town into violently homicidal maniacs. Through dual storylines, Romero’s script follows the politicians and military leaders trying to contain the spill, and a group of survivors trying to get out of town while avoiding both the military (who have orders to shoot on sight) and the infected killers roaming the landscape. As with Night, the film is bleak and brutal, but in full color this time around. Romero’s next film is, to this day, his most well-received film that doesn’t involve zombies. Martin (1976) is a very effective psychological thriller about a young man who believes he has inherited a family curse and become a vampire. Instead of fangs, though, he uses razor blades to attack his victims during monochrome fantasies of himself performing romantic vampire seductions and dealing with torch-wielding mobs. The real strength of the film is watching Martin (John Amplas) slowly become more and more unhinged as his personality cracks and he becomes more and more aggressively sexual and violent. Amplas is extremely effective straddling the line between sympathetic and monstrous, especially when Martin is dealing with his superstitious granduncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel). Having gotten screwed out of that sweet Night of the Living Dead money thanks to the accidental deleting of the copyright notice on the original prints, Romero decided to return to the world of the undead with his next film, Dawn of the Dead (1978). While Night signaled the beginning of a new level of realism and nihilism in horror, it wasn’t until Dawn that the zombie craze went worldwide [Editor’s note: we’ll have a rundown of Zombie Movies on the final day of our ABCs of Horror on Schlocktober 31st, so stay tuned!]. Still regarded as one of the most popular zombie films ever made, Dawn is surprisingly satirical in its emphasis that the zombies are essentially just a force of nature, while human beings are the real monsters. For his next horror film, Creepshow (1982), Romero teamed up with Stephen King, who wrote the script, featuring five short stories presented as an homage to classic EC horror comics. Creepshow was one of the most successful of the Eighties anthology horror films, with cameos by Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Leslie Nielsen, Ed Harris, E.G. Marshall, Ted Danson, and Stephen King himself. Day Of The Dead (1985), the conclusion of the original Dead Trilogy (which had never been explicitly planned as a trilogy), is one of my favorite Romero films. It’s a lot less silly than Dawn of the Dead was, and doesn’t skimp on the horribly oppressive end-of-the-world nihilism that I crave in my Zombie Apocalypse stories. Plus, it has my favorite zombie of all time, Bub (Sherman Howard). I won’t go into too much detail, but it takes place in an underground military base and the main drama comes from personality and communication conflicts between the science staff and the soldiers who are still holed up together. Our man, Adam Barraclough covered it better than I can in his review of the Blu-ray release of Day of the Dead, here. Needless to say, of Romero’s zombie films, the original trilogy is required viewing. Monkey Shines (1988) was Romero’s first foray into studio filmmaking, with Orion Pictures picking up the tab. Unfortunately it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. The film is nice and anxiety-ridden as we follow Alan Mann (Jason Beghe), who has become quadriplegic after being hit by a truck. A scientist friend (John Pankow) offers the use of an experimental helper monkey named “Ella” and while things start out great, bad things are on the way. Ella seems to form a sort of psychic/emotional bond with Alan and when he feels slighted — whether for real or imagined — Ella acts out — sometimes murderously. Monkey Shines is a solid little thriller that ultimately falters and loses impact thanks to the interference of the studio. Rather than go with a more ambiguous ending — a key Romero stylistic approach — Orion Pictures forced a happy ending, and then after the preview audiences didn’t care for that, a shock ending was added without Romero’s knowledge. The Dark Half (1993) was Romero’s second attempt at working with Orion and while it was a better experience for the director, the film still failed to make back its budget, despite being praised as one of the better Stephen King adaptations. Timothy Hutton plays writer Thad Beaumont, who is a successful author under the pen name George Stark. But when he tries to kill off his pseudonym, Stark manifests as a physical entity and then the struggle for control and survival begins. There are a lot of good twists and turns here, and Hutton’s performance is pretty good; as is the always enjoyable Amy Madigan as his wife, Liz. The film’s not one of my personal favorites, but Romero does a pretty good job capturing the mood and energy of a Stephen King story — which shouldn’t be surprising given how long they’d known each other, and how good Creepshow had turned out. Bruiser (2000) is perhaps the most problematic film on Romero’s resume. It stars Jason Flemyng as Henry Creedlow, a man who is emasculated, abused, and bullied by everyone in his life; particularly by his wife Janine (Nina Garbiras) and his boss Milo Styles (Peter Stormare). After years of just taking it, he wakes up one day and finds his face has been replaced with a featureless white mask. The revenge that he embarks on thematically echoes similar films like Falling Down or even Death Wish, where the violence can sometimes feel like it’s slipping over into white male anxieties, rather than being that of an underdog rising up. Coming from Romero, this is surprising and seems to just be a case of tone-deaf exaggerations for dark comedic effect. But it further mars a film that was already suffering from weak performances and a poor script. This is one you can skip. From 2005 on, Romero has restricted himself to just making zombie films, expanding on the universe he created back in 1968, to lessening impact each new go-around. Land of the Dead (2005) was a popular return to the genre and while the social criticism was a little heavy-handed, when was it not, really? There are still plenty of good gore and clever innovations that make the film worth a look. Diary of the Dead (2007) is Romero’s first attempt at a found-footage approach to the genre, and serves not so much as a sequel, but as a soft reboot, taking place the first night of the zombie apocalypse, simultaneously with the original story — but in a contemporary setting. Comics readers should have no problem processing that. Diary is a surprisingly effective film, despite the limitations of the found footage style. The initial idea is a little tired, a group of film students from the University of Pittsburgh are out in the woods making a horror movie, when the news breaks of mass riots and mass murders — and the zombie apocalypse is underway! Instead of making political statements or social criticisms, Diary simply works as a horror film. Which, when it comes to Romero’s zombie work, is odd. The first person shooting also unfortunately forces him to abandon any characteristic style in order to maintain the illusion of the characters as filmmakers. Survival of the Dead (2009), his latest exploration of the zombie apocalypse, is the least well-received work Romero may have ever done. I don’t want to suggest that he’s cashing in on his reputation, but most of the reviews suggest that there’s not a lot of substance to the story here, which follows a group of AWOL National Guardsmen who appeared in Diary of the Dead, instead saving the creative enthusiasm for the gory kill shots. It ridiculously underperformed at the box office during its limited release, making back only $143,191 of its four million dollar budget. So, watch this one at your own risk. It’s the first George Romero film I haven’t really had any interest in watching. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 2 Responses ABCs of Horror Day 31: Z is for Zombies - Psycho Drive-In November 10, 2014 […] popularity of the walking dead has done nothing but grow since the initial 1968 release of George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, with zombies infiltrating nearly every level of our pop […] Log in to Reply Beautiful Creatures: Saving the Best for Last - Psycho Drive-In March 8, 2017 […] a year away from the 50th anniversary of the release of George A. Romero’s seminal classic, Night of the Living Dead (October 1, 1968). It really is hard to believe that […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.