Picture this scene: It’s the cold, grey hour before dusk, and a car approaches a lonely backwoods cemetery. Inside the vehicle are brother and sister Johnny and Barbara, who have travelled hundreds of miles to lay a wreath on their father’s grave, an odyssey which is to end in death… and much worse. Something is wrong with the radio, and a lone figure shambles toward them among the gravestones. “They’re coming to get you Barbara,” teases Johnny, sensing his sister’s apprehension. “Look: here comes one of them now!”
Then suddenly it’s no joke. The wild-eyed creature grabs hold of Barbara and begins to chomp down on her arm! Johnny rushes to her rescue and has his brains beaten out on a tombstone for his trouble. Unable to start the car, the hysterical Barbara flees through the countryside to take shelter in a small, apparently deserted farmhouse, closely followed by the glassy-eyed zombie, who has now been joined by dozens of others like him. The Night Of The Living Dead has begun.
It began for me back in the early 70s when I first came across this horror movie masterpiece playing second fiddle to a softcore sex epic called Curious Female in the very same Piccadilly Circus cinema where John Landis’s American Werewolf later went on the rampage (just my luck to go on a quiet day!).
Casting my eyes over a lurid poster which proclaimed it to be “George A. Romero’s Sado-Horror U.S. Cult Classic!” my initial reaction was to ask: “So who the hell is this George A. Romero?” Even in those days I prided himself for having an almost photographic memory for movie credits, but I couldn’t think of one other film I’d seen by this guy. Then again, why should I waste money on an obviously low budget black and white schlocker when there was a brand new technicolor Hammer horror playing just round the corner?
But curiosity got the better of me.l paid my money and emerged 96 minutes later (I didn’t stay for the main feature, honest…) with the cry “shoot ‘em in the head” ringing in my brain, and in roughly the same condition as the spaced-out zombie from the film’s opening scene. I’d never seen a horror movie like this before: set in the modern day rather than the cosy gothic fantasy world of Hammer, it grabbed the viewer by the throat and shoved him face-first into a welter of guts and gore.
Okay, so some of the acting was amateurish, and a great deal of the dialogue had an off-the-cuff improvisational quality, but this only added to the film’s compelling, documentary-like flavour. And as for that bleak, sledgehammer punch of an ending, well it sent me out into the street reeling, and once more asking myself the question: “Who the hell is George A. Romero?”
Nowadays everyone knows who George is. The bearded, bear-like guru of grue has gone from being an unknown Pittsburgh filmmaker to the position where he’s now regarded as something of an icon of modern horror cinema.
Bronx-born Romero was 28 when he started shooting Night Of The Living Dead for the ridiculously low sum of $150,000. Everyone working on the film did so virtually for free, including the zombies themselves, who were recruited from the star-struck local populace. But Living Dead wasn’t just another low grade schlock piece, and pretty soon people with a bit more critical sense began to take notice, hailing the movie as a terrifying modern day classic of the genre. A couple of years after its initial release it found a niche in the midnight matinee market and began to make a great deal of money.
This should have been very good, news for Romero and his fellow investors, but as often happens in the movie business they got ripped off. After various “expenses” had been taken out by the film’s distributors they barely got enough back to finance a second movie, a modest little love story entitled There’s Always Vanilla (also known as The Affair), which to this date has never been released in this country, and nowadays Romero doesn’t even include the title in his own filmography.
Romero’s next movie was equally disappointing: Hungry Wives (1973) was a massively overlong (130 minutes) black comedy about a sexually frustrated housewife (Jan White), whose life changes for the better the day she picks up a book called How To Become A Witch! By this time most genre buffs were beginning to think that maybe George Romero was a one-hit-wonder. But with The Crazies (1973 – also known as Code Name Trixie) he did at least partly get back to Living Dead basics, constructing an often intensely exciting fear-fable.
Confused plotting and too much shouting and screaming between the principal players prevented it from achieving the power of Romero’s earlier horror classic and The Crazies came and went, proving only a modest box-office success. Meanwhile Night Of The Living Dead was going from strength to strength raking in big audiences wherever it played, particularly in Europe, where the film had by now gained a huge cult following. One of the its biggest fans was Italian horror expert Dario (Suspiria) Argento, who in the early part of 1977 approached Romero with the prospect of doing a colour sequel. Having apparently always planned a trilogy of Living Dead movies Romero readily agreed.
And so it was that on November 13th, 1977 the cameras began turning on Dawn Of The Dead, a film that would have almost as great an impact on the genre as the original. “It was obvious a sequel had to be made,” said Argento at the time. “You see, George left the ending of Night open. Although the main characters themselves didn’t make it, human society still appeared to be in control, the sheriff was out there cleaning things up. The ending of this one will leave you feeling not really sure at all that society is operative any longer. I eventually want to do a third, entitled Zombies In The White House….’ (of course we now know that this never happened, but we DID get Bill Clinton).
Dawn of the Dead begins where the first movie left off, with the country in the throes of a ghastly epidemic that sees the dead returning to life as flesh-eating ‘ghouls’, the only way to stop them being to shoot ‘em in the head. A group of survivors hole up in a vast shopping precinct where, as in the first movie, they fight themselves as well as the flesh-munching zombies. Here the tone is even more ferocious, as we can see from an intensely bloody sequence near the beginning where a SWAT team storm a sleazy tenement, kicking down doors to blast the living and the dead indiscriminately.
When the first victim’s head turns into flying tomato puree after being hit at close range by a shotgun blast we know immediately that this movie is not going to show any mercy. Its most valuable asset is the make-up expertise of Tom Savini (who also appears in the film as a vicious biker), which provides an endless display of eye-popping gore effects. Taken as a guts and gore opus it’s hard to beat, but what makes it so memorable, are its disturbing allegorical overtones: the zombies can be taken to represent American society as a whole, greedy, selfish, anxious to consume everything in sight.
The Japanese laserdisc contains both Romero’s version and the shorter (but more violent) Argento cut, plus a very funny interview in which a bunch of jabberingly enthusiastic Japanese invade his home. When I interviewed Romero in 1998 he bemoaned the fact that, “I’ve never been able to get a copy of that. They said they’d send me one but they never did. I do, however, have the new Elite laser version, and I really love it, because it brings back old times. The so-called Director’s Cut is a print we made of the film before it was shown anywhere, and it was used to attract distributors. There are only three or four cuts of Goblin music in it, and the rest is off-the-shelf library stuff. It’s a little longish, it plays long here and there. But it works pretty well, I think.”
George also explained to me why it had taken him ten years to get round to making Dawn, when the original Night had been such an amazing success. “Well people had been throwing money at us for years to do a sequel,” he said, “but initially I didn’t want to get locked into it. Dawn eventually happened through an Italian producer who was distributing my film, The Crazies. He introduced me to Dario Argento, who said he was a big fan of mine and was willing to put up some dough. That was right at the time when we were trying to raise some private financing here in Pittsburgh, and people that have since become our friends owned the shopping mall. A guy took me on a tour of this shopping mall and I thought, here’s this cathedral to consumerism, and yet there’s also this bomb shelter there with civil defence supplies, and I thought, boy, this is really what the world is like now…” The massive success of this movie (so far it has grossed around $70 million at the box-office) gave Romero the room to breathe and concentrate on such interesting projects as Martin, a low key chiller about a disturbed youngster (John Amplas) who thinks he’s a modern-day vampire and preys on his victims with the aid of a razor blade and hypodermic. In many ways one of Romero’s best, and sure to be regarded as a classic in years to come. Tom Savini appeared in the film, and Romero was so impressed with the make-up man’s performance that he gave him a star role in his next production, Knightriders (Warner), a strange drama about a travelling commune of motorcyclists and craftsmen who make their living by staging medieval style jousting tournaments on their Harleys. The film championed a hippy lifestyle about ten years after such a thing had gone out of fashion, and predictably did not fare well at the box-office.
After being short-listed to work on Salem’s Lot, Romero eventually got to work with horror writer Stephen King on Creepshow (Warner), a colourful anthology of terror tales penned by King in the style of the EC horror comics of the 50s. It came closer to the feel of the originals than earlier British adaptations (like Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror). But though the film was a box-office success, on the whole it was a minor effort for Romero. Similarly disappointing was Romero’s much-vaunted television series Tales From The Darkside. Fans assumed that gory George would be able to produce something very special for the small screen, even if he did have to clean up his act a little. But as it happened there was very little to startle audiences in this sub-Twilight Zone anthology series which featured mediocre adaptations of such popular yarns as Robert Bloch’s A Case of the Stubborns and Stephen King’s Word Processor. Romero’s pilot show, a self-penned frightener called Trick or Treat, was pretty ineffectual and what on earth possessed him to lumber each episode with a long opening narration by Patrick MacNee? It put the viewer to sleep rather than in the mood to have his spine tingled…
In fact what really happened here was that Romero the film-maker was overruled by Romero the businessman. Having successfully pre-sold Darkside in most international markets, Romero and his partner Richard Rubinstein were faced with a deadline to deliver so many episodes by a certain date. Getting them done on time became the main priority, and the maxim they adopted was “never mind the quality, feel the width…”
In 1985 Romero began putting all his efforts into writing the screenplay of Day Of The Dead. Easily the very least of the trilogy, it is a sombre, slow-moving tale peopled with unsympathetic characters who spend too much time shouting and swearing at each other (reminiscent of The Crazies) . Day Of The Dead does however have some interesting things to say about the brutal nature of humanity, the human cast gleefully tormenting the often-pathetic zombies as they cage them for their experiments. The effects are some of the most grisly that Tom Savini (or anyone for that matter) has ever done, though they really only come into their own during the horrendous last twenty minutes where we are treated to the sight of the worst baddie being pulled in two while screaming “choke on it” to the living dead gourmets about to feed on his entrails!
Many were disappointed that the third in the trilogy was not up to the high standards set by its predecessors. “Well I have to take the blame for that,” says George, “because the version that came out was exactly the version that I wrote. It’s not the original script, but that was just too big. They said that we could have done it for seven million dollars but then it would have had to be an R-rated movie. In the original bigger budget version the grunts were living in a compound above ground, which was an old sort of condo development, and the boffins were all underground and there were more zombies. Basically the same thing was going on with a smaller group…”
The box-office failure of Day Of The Dead made it hard for Romero to get funding for his next project, which is why it took two years to persuade Orion pictures to ante up the $7 million needed to film a bizarre sci-fi thriller called Monkey Shines. Based on a novel by Michael Stewart, it stars Jason Beghe as a quadriplegic who is given an experimental, specially trained, genetically altered Capuchin monkey helpmate. After Beghe develops a psychic bond with the animal, those who frustrate or hurt the invalid begin to turn up dead under most mysterious circumstances.
Unfortunately, Monkey Shines turned out to be a box office failure, and the same fate awaited George’s next flick, a stylish adaptation of Stephen King’s best-seller, The Dark Half. This spent two years languishing on the shelf because its distributors (Orion Pictures) went bankrupt. Since then his name has been attached to a number of projects, none of which have got past the scripting stage. The most notable of these was a new version of the famous old Boris Karloff picture, The Mummy.
“We had a great script, I really loved it,” says George. “It was ready to roll, but we were tied up at the time at MGM on this other project, a thriller called Before I Wake, and they wouldn’t let us out. So the Mummy deal blew up. Two weeks later, after spending a million and a half, they canned it. It’s the typical Hollywood runaround, and completely frustrating.”
According to George at the time: “Losing The Mummy was just about the worst thing that ever happened to me. Their thinking on it was to make a hundred million dollar movie, and the only way that it can be made is if Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro decide they want to play the Mummy. I think that’s sort of unlikely…” The idea of bringing back the shuffling, bandage-wrapped monster from Universal’s golden age is one that has occupied a number of horror luminaries in recent years, with both Stephen King and Clive Barker having had a crack at a script. The screenplay that Romero nearly had the green light on was by John Sayles, and he says it would have made a superb movie. But in the end the remake fell in the lap of writer/director Stephen Sommers, whose big budget Mummy movie (starring Brendan Fraser) became one of the biggest box office hits of 1999. Of course we should also mention the colour remake of Night Of The Living Dead that George wrote and produced in 1990, with effects ace Tom Savini at the helm. “My interest in that was purely financial,” he states. “We all got ripped off first time round, and I wanted the investors on that film to finally get some money. It also gave me a chance to correct what I saw as a mistake. In the first film, the radiation scenario was the only explanation offered for the dead coming back to life, so that’s the one that is always given. That was my biggest pet peeve about the original film, because I didn’t think it needed an explanation. I don’t care why the dead are coming back to life, just lemme out of here! So in the remake we offered several explanations with a clear understanding that the people offering them don’t know any more than we do. It’s just speculation and confusion.” The only time that Romero has been behind the cameras in the last few years is to direct an expensive promo ad for the 18-rated computer game Resident Evil 2, which has a scary scenario about zombies loose in a police station. Reports have been circulating that George will be writing and directing a Resident Evil feature film which will play like a further chapter in the Living Dead saga, but so far this seems to be nothing but idle industry gossip. In fact after so many years of inactivity, George would dearly love to produce a fourth zombie movie. “Looking back on all the movies now, I regard them with great fondness.Wouldn’t it be nice to reflect the decade and reflect the changes in attitude and do them far enough apart so they can be of their era? The more time I waste on big studio projects that never get past the scripting stage, the more I ache to get back behind the camera with another Living Dead picture. In fact Zombie 2000 sounds like a very good idea to me…” It sounds like a good idea to us as well!