LIVING DEAD LEGEND

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Grant Peabody checks out the horror career of its zombie-obsessed director, George A. Romero.

Before George Andrew Romero came along, zombie movies were pretty tame affairs. The walking dead were pretty boring, actually, just shambling old drunks who didn’t seem to pose much of a threat. We’re talking about the creatures seen in creaky old black and white pictures like White Zombie and I Walked With A Zombie, where they just lurched around looking unsavoury, occasionally lifting up the scantily clad heroine and carting her around with unspecified motives that were never realised. These voodoo-animated characters later turned up in Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies (1966), but again they were a bit of a dead loss, scarier in look than in deed.

It all changed in 1968 when gory George, a director of commercials in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made Night of the Living Dead. Shot in grainy black and white on a shoestring budget, Romero’s milestone production concerned a bunch of people trapped in a remote farmhouse by hordes of rampaging living dead creatures who just want to eat them! The excuse for this mass graveyard exodus is nothing to do with any voodoo hoodoo, but supposedly contained in the frantic news bulletins that the people in the farmhouse watch on television – mention is made of a space probe that has returned from Venus carrying a mysterious high-level radiation.  But writer/director Romero sweeps this into the background an concentrates on seat-gripping action and suspense as our heroes try to avoid becoming “Dish Of The Day” on the zombie menu.

George completed the film on a $114,000 budget, and after a decade of cinematic re-releases, it grossed some $12 million in the States alone, and $30 million internationally.  On its release in 1968, Night of the Living Dead was strongly criticised for its explicit content, but in 1999, the US Library of Congress placed it on the National Film Registry as a film deemed “historically, culturally or aesthetically important.” Night of the Living Dead was cited by many as being a groundbreaking film; given its release during the Vietnam-era, due to perceived critiques of late-1960s U.S. society.

night_of_the_living_dead_3BIRTH OF A FEAR LEGEND

‘Grandfather of the Zombie,’  George A. Romero was born in 1940 in New York City to a Cuban-American father and a Lithuanian-American mother. In 1960 he began his career shooting short films and commercials. He and some friends formed Image Ten Productions in the late 1960s, and they chipped in roughly $10,000 apiece to produce Night of the Living Dead. Unfortunately, despite the film’s massive box office success, little of the profit filtered back to the makers. The only way they managed to make money later was with a colour remake of the film directed by makeup man Tom Savini.

The Romero movies which followed Night were markedly less popular: There’s Always Vanilla (1971) was a sentimental love story that remains largely unseen to this day, though poor quality clips of it have been released as extras on various DVDs. Jack’s Wife/Season of the Witch (1972) was a rather dull affair starring Jan White is a bored housewife who picks up a copy of a book called “How To Become A Witch, A Primer.” After digesting the wisdom contained therein, she kills her idiotic husband and joins a local witch coven. Romero got great value out of a poverty row budget with Night Of The Living Dead, but this movie looks like it was thrown together on the skimpiest of shoestrings, with rotten camerawork and amateur performances. Unsurprisingly it got little distribution.

The Crazies (1973) was also a flop at the time, despite its similarities to NOTLD. The story of this one centres around an Army cargo plane that crashes near the small town of Evans City, Pennsylvania. The plane is carrying a deadly bacteria that pollutes the drinking water and turns most of the inhabitants into homicidal maniacs. The body count really starts to rise when space-suited soldiers arrive to quarantine the place. In the meantime, a small group of unaffected survivors are trying to escape the brutal military, and a dedicated scientist struggles to find a cure before it is too late. In one particularly memorable sequence, a kindly- looking little old lady stabs one to death with her knitting needles. There’s a fair amount of gore here, but the story is uninvolving because we don’t really care what happens to the unlikeable main characters. It also has a typically bleak ending, which may help explain why it performed poorly. A big budget remake is out at cinemas now, produced by Romero.

The director returned to form in 1977 with the critically acclaimed arthouse success Martin (1977), a film that strikingly deconstructs the vampire myth. One of Romero’s best movies, this intriguing mixture of horror and social satire tells the story of the highly disturbed 17-year-old title character (played by John Amplas), who is convinced he is an 84-year-old vampire. Lacking the traditional fangs, he resorts to bleeding his victims dry by razor and hypodermic needle – an operation shown in gruesome detail in the compellingly grim opening scenes. He’s egged on by a local radio talk show, to which he is a regular caller, but nobody believes Martin’s unhealthy fantasies apart from his deeply religious grandfather (Lincoln Maazel), who plots to destroy his “Nosferatu” grandson in time-honoured fashion. Romero himself appears as a disenchanted Priest, his real-life wife Christine Forrest turns up as Martin’s cousin, and Tom Savini (who also did the realistic effects) plays Forrest’s fiance. The movie neatly contrasts the traditional “romantic” image of movie vampires (seen via monochrome flashbacks) with the gory reality of Martin’s murderous antics. Though technically rough in places, this is genuinely horrific, and Romero’s direction is excellent.

But Martin was hardly a boxoffice bonanza and so he returned to his favourite subject, zombies, with the 1978 Dawn of the Dead. It’s a toss up between this and NOTLD as to which is the best zombie film ever made. Night is scarier, but this is more gruesome and solidly entertaining on a kinetic level. Some bits have dated badly – I can’t take the helicopter zombie with the flat head very seriously – but for the most part it rockets along taking the audience on a thrilling post-apocalypse ride. And who wouldn’t like to go gun crazy in a shopping mall?  Though it was shot a decade later the film picks up where the original left of, with four people escaping Philadelphia on a helicopter and setting down in the Monroeville Mall. Once they clear out the living dead they can use the mall as the perfect hideaway. But a bunch of Hell’s Angels types (led by make-up man Tom Savini) come to the party and set the scene for the blood-splattered climax. Good performances, an intelligent script, and lots of stomach-churning effects – what more could you want? When released in the UK (as Zombies), the censor cut the famous head-exploding scene at the beginning, as well as a machete-chopped zombie often shown in stills in horror mags. The excellent music score was created by The Goblins and Dario Argento, who was one of the producers of the film.

The film was shot on a budget of just $500,000 (the producers gave a false figure of $1.5 million to help their negotiating position with distributors), and earned over $55 million worldwide.

CHOKE ON THIS

After Day, Romero made Knightriders (1981), another festival favourite about a group of modern-day jousters who re-enact tournaments on motorcycles, and the successful Creepshow (1982), written by Stephen King, an anthology of tongue-in-cheek tales fashioned around 1950s horror comics. This film kicks off on a stormy night when an angry father discovers that his son has been reading a trashy horror comic. He throws it into the street and the pages blow open to reveal the first of five stories. There’s one about a father who returns from the grave to look for his “Father’s Day” cake, murdering every relative he meets on the way. Then in “The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill,” King himself appears as a hapless backwoods farmer who gets turned into a plant when he meddles with a meteorite. There’s a story about a vindictive husband (Leslie Nielsen) who buries his faithless wife and her lover in the sand of a beach just as the tide is coming in, and a goodie about a toothy Tasmanian Devil who lives in a crate. The best is probably the one about an army of cockroaches who invade the sterile white apartment of bug-hating millionaire E.G. Marshall. Though it’s a shame that none of the stories have surprise endings, they are all entertaining enough in their own way.

A followup to Dawn was inevitable, and this came in 1985 in the shape of Day of the Dead. Though somewhat of a disappointment after Night and Dawn, the third in Romero’s zombie trilogy is nevertheless much stronger meat than most other modern day genre offerings. Well-made and unrelentingly grim in tone, it’s mainly set in an underground complex (supposedly a Florida missile silo), where scientists and military bicker as the “ghouls” gather on the surface. The military (led by psychotic Joe Pilato) want to blow the zombies away en-masse, while the boffins are trying to find a way to control the creatures. Guess who gets their way? Lori Cardille is good as the strong-willed heroine, and we get the token black hero who is laid back despite the situation and luckily enough can fly a helicopter. All the other characters are either unpleasant or crazy, and so obviously being set up as zombie food that it’s hard to get involved in their plight. This actually resembles Romero’s The Crazies, where people seemed to be shouting at each other for 90 minutes non-stop. It could have done with some humour to lighten things up. But Tom Savini’s effects are superb – “Choke on ‘em!” cries one doomed character as zoms pull him apart to tuck into entrail brunch! – and it’s a shame that the director’s own script doesn’t do more with the character of Bub (Howard Sherman), the sympathetic zombie who reads Stephen King books and enjoys listening to a Walkman. Mind you, legend has it that gory George had to revise his script at the last minute because the budget was dramatically reduced.

This month, Arrow Video celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Day Of The Dead with a special two-disc Blu-ray release that features a host of world exclusive extras, including a restored presentation of the film, a new hi-def soundtrack (the original ‘uncensored dialogue’ version, completely restored), four alternate sleeves, a double-sided poster, a 24-page collector’s booklet ‘For Every Dawn There Is A Day’, plus a very special collector’s comic – ‘Day Of The Dead: Desertion’ – featuring a brand new ‘Bub’ storyline. Also after years of ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ getting all the great documentaries, ‘Day…’ finally gets the retrospectives it deserves with the all-new ‘Joe Of The Dead’ and ‘Travelogue Of The Dead’.

Specially commissioned for this 25th Anniversary Blu-ray release of Day Of The Dead, the world exclusive 24-page comic ‘Day Of The Day: Desertion’ is written by ‘Hack/Slash Meets Re-Animator’ co-writer, Barry Keating, and ‘Halloween: Nightdance’ creator, Stefan Hutchinson, with artwork by ‘Halloween: The First Death of Laurie Strode’ illustrator Jeff Zornow. The storyline recounts the dark and disturbing origins of Day Of The Dead’s iconic zombie, Bub. Only available as part of this Blu-ray release, ‘Day Of The Dead: Desertion’ is just one of the many features that makes this release the one, must-have edition of Day Of The Dead for fans and collectors worldwide.

The Day of the Dead Blu-ray was developed in conjunction with the members of Cult Labs – (www.cult-labs.com) – a forum where film distributors interested in fan opinions spend time getting their expert feedback. One of the artwork options included in the packaging – the triple layer Night/Dawn/Day of the Dead poster was their most popular alternate choice. The main artwork is an all-new oil painting commissioned from artist Rick Melton.

ZOMBIE RESURRECTION

Next up for George was Monkey Shines (1988), a weird little chiller about a killer monkey. Then he made Two Evil Eyes (1990), an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation in collaboration with Dario Argento. This is also due on a remastered disc from Arrow shortly. Other non-zombie Romero films include the Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half (1993) and Bruiser (2000), about a man whose face becomes a blank mask. But none of these movies enjoyed the commercial and critical success of his Living Dead flicks.

In 1998 Romero directed the live action commercial promoting the Capcom videogame Resident Evil 2 in Tokyo, Japan. The 30-second live action advertisement featured the game’s two main characters, Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield, fighting a horde of zombies while in Raccoon City’s Police Station. The Resident Evil series had been heavily influenced by Romero’s “Dead” projects and the commercial proved immensely popular in the weeks before the game’s actual release, although a contract dispute prevented it from being shown outside Japan.

Capcom was so impressed with Romero’s work, it was strongly indicated that Romero would direct the first Resident Evil film. He declined at first, “I don’t wanna make another film with zombies in it, and I couldn’t make a movie based on something that ain’t mine,” although in later years he reconsidered and wrote a script for the first movie. But it was eventually rejected in favour of Paul W. S. Anderson’s version.

Universal Studios produced and released a remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004, with which Romero was not involved. Later that year, Romero kicked off the DC Comics title Toe Tags with a six-issue miniseries titled The Death of Death. Based on an unused script that Romero had previously written as a sequel to his ‘Dead Trilogy’, the comic miniseries concerns Damien, an intelligent zombie who remembers his former life, struggling to find his identity as he battles armies of both the living and the dead. Typical of a Romero zombie tale, the miniseries includes an ample supply of both gore and social commentary (dealing particularly here with corporate greed and terrorism – ideas he would also explore in his next film in the series…

Land of the Dead (2005) was shot in Canada, not Pittsburgh, and it differs from the previous Romero ‘Dead’ films in many other ways too. Now that zombies have taken over the world, the living have built a walled-in city to keep the dead out. But all’s not well where it’s most safe, as a revolution plans to overthrow the city leadership, and the zombies are turning into more advanced creatures. The movie had a budget of $16 million, much the highest for any of the four movies in the series. Released to generally positive reviews. Land suffers by comparison to the previous movies in the series because it’s patently the weakest. Dennis Hopper turns up as a cartoon bad guy and the Romero subtext here is about the class war between the haves and the have nots, with slimy megalomaniac Hopper paying a bloody price for wanting to have too much. The action is good, the gore is good, but Land doesn’t have the piledriver punch of previous installments. Not enough of a box office success to merit an immediate followup, it was nevertheless well received by the fans.

DEAR DEAD DIARY

It had taken George so long to get round to a fourth Living Dead movie that genre buffs everywhere were surprised – and delighted – when it was announced he was filming Diary of the Dead (2009). The fifth film contained some notable references to earlier Romero films. One example of this is the use of the same news truck from Night of the Living Dead (1968).

However, the film is not a direct sequel to any of Romero’s films. According to the man himself it was “an attempt to re-establish a profitable franchise,” and “a rejigging of the myth. The trouble is, the myth didn’t need rejigging. Diary is to our mind Romero’s worst ever Dead movie, a zombie Blair Witch for the Youtube generation that doesn’t really work in any way.

The movie is basically about a group of students who, while making a cheesy monster movie, find themselves in the middle of chaos and decide to document it. A la Blair Witch and Cloverfield. As they make their way across Pennsylvania in search of their families, one by one most of the students meet sticky ends. Apart from some good gore effects and cameos by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Simon Pegg, Stephen King and Wes Craven, Diary has little to add to the genre.

After this, expectations were not particularly high for Survival of the Dead, which arrives in DVD and Blu-ray this month courtesy of Optimum. But we’re pleased to be able to report this is a better film than Diary and possibly even slightly superior to Land of the Dead. The master filmmaker continues to reinvent the genre he created with a film that draws new battle lines between the living and the dead…

Rogue soldier Sarge (Alan Van Sprang, Diary of the Dead, Land of the Dead) leads a band of military dropouts to seek refuge from the endless chaos of the zombie uprising on remote Plum Island. Patriarch Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and his family believe the only good zombie is a (truly) dead zombie, whilst rival clan the Muldoons believe in chaining up the un-dead until a cure can be found. But there is no cure for death, and the consequences of the feud are bloody. Caught in the middle, Sarge is drawn to Janet (Kathleen Monroe), Patrick’s daughter, who tries to make peace between the two warring factions. But hope of a truce is shattered when Sarge’s best friend is killed, and the battle that follows overtakes everyone on the island, living and dead. Romero has crafted a sharp subversion of the classic Western, and continued to raise societal issues while devising new and ingenious ways to exterminate flesh-eaters! So who are you going to side with, The Living or The Dead?

This is vintage Romero which gives us a good balance of gore, action, black comedy and social commentary. The deadheads (as they are called here) are always springing out on people and getting splattered not only by close-up shotgun blasts but also pitchforks and fire extinguishers (my favourite). As for the social commentary side of things, well here it’s the tribalism of the characters that leads to their undoing. The question is, should the dead be put down permanently, or should they be “saved” in hopes of a cure?

If we had one complaint it’s that Romero has gone the route of a lot of today’s younger filmmakers and started using a lot more CGI for his gore effects. Though this works well most of the time, we still yearn for the days when Tom Savini was his one-stop shop for exploding heads and the like. It’s also Romero’s first film in the full scope 2.35:1 format and looks great on Blu-ray.

As to whether this will be George’s last zombie flick, well probably not. If you’re any kind of horror afficionado, you’ve probably either heard about or even read the script for George Romero’s Diamond Dead, one of those projects that’s been around forever. The film is a horror-comedy about a rock band called Diamond Dead whose members are all zombies and whose hot babe manager tries to use her media wiles to take them to the top despite their rather unappealing habits, like eating brains and stuff. It takes swipes at the media, Christian fundamentalists who hate the band, and various other Romero-style targets. The project has been announced for 2011… fingers crossed!