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Monday, October 4, 2010

Director's Report Card: George A. Romero (1968-1971)

So, here it is, after much delay, is the George Romero report card. I've often refer to Romero as one of, if not the, greatest horror director of all time. Let's see how that opinion last as I sit down to watch all of his films.

1. Night of the Living Dead
So much has been written about “Night of the Living Dead” that one has to wonder what hasn’t all ready been said. One important question that isn’t asked often enough is, how did such a ramshackle, micro-budget movie forever change the horror genre as we know it? Oh, yes, they’re other important pictures that help bring the genre forcefully into the present, but “Night” cemented the deal. It didn’t cut away and showed all the violence and destruction in graphic detail. There was no going back and gore has dominated the genre ever since.

But let’s give things an objective look. This is hardly a flawless film. The low budget often shows in the sometimes shaky camera, not always smooth editing, and occasionally blurry focus. The stock music bombastic B-movie serial score certainly isn’t the most memorable aspect of the production. And Barbara is far from the most assertive horror heroine. She spends most of the movie catatonic. (Her character is the only definite improvement made in the 1991 Tom Savini helmed remake.)
It’s impossible to deny the social vain the story tapped into. There are so many different concepts that can be gleamed from each viewing. What is “Night of the Living Dead” about, really? The movie is generally accepted as a metaphor for the changes the country went through at the tail-end of the sixties. The movie takes the ideal of the new culture emerging and cannibalizing the old culture and makes it viscerally literal.I prefer the theory that this is a metaphor for the national lose of innocence of the time. Instead of the terrible acts taking place far off in the gothic castles of Europe, the horror is right in our backyard. The nightmare is real and it is here. I can’t help but feel that Romero took in the chaos of the time and vomited it back at us on the screen. The grainy footage of the zombies feasting purposely recalls Vietnam news reel while the helpless reporters on TV reminds me of the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. And even if Duane Johnson was simply the best actor for the part, there’s no way his presence can’t bring the civil rights movement to mind. Either way, it’s about society entering a world were the rules don’t matter anymore. The dead walk. Children are rising from the grave and devouring their parents. Life has been turned upside down and there’s no escape.Despite all the obvious social commentary that can be read between the reels, Romero’s point here is ultimately more simple and fatalistic. Basically: Humanity is fucked. Even amidst the chaos of such an event as this, we still can’t put aside our petty difference and work together. If the people locked up in the farmhouse stopped squabbling over tiny little things that don’t matter anymore, they might have survived. If we could just stop being assholes for one minute, we could achieve something. But, nope, that’ll never happen because humans are fatally giant assholes. The final nihilistic message doesn’t show any heroes coming to save the day, just a bunch of trigger happy rednecks who’d use any excuse to go out and shot things. Even without the zombies, it’s inevitable that we’re going to destroy ourselves.

Meanings aside, the stark black-and-white direction creates truly chilling images. The scenes of violence are shot in such a furious manner that they are overwhelming, especially when aided by the droning sc
ore. The cast is capable. It’s a shame that Duane Johnson’s career never took off. He carries a natural gravitas and strength. Karl Hardman and Keith Wayne also give solid performances. Simply by acting beneath the radar and following their own subversive attitudes, Romero and company created probably the most important horror film of all time. [Grade: A]

2. There’s Always Vanilla
“There’s Always Vanilla” is Romero’s “lost” movie. As far as I know, it’s never been released on home video until recently. (And only then as a double feature with “Season of the Witch.”) Romero has gone on record as saying it’s his worse movie. Do I agree with that assessment? Yeah, sadly, though it’s running neck and neck with “Bruiser” for that dubious distinction.

The biggest problem is there really isn’t much of a story. Oh yeah, things happen but few of them lead anywhere. The story, which is sort of a hippier take on “Five Easy Pieces,” just kind of wanders around for ninety some minutes. The movie was apparently shot more as a series of vignettes and it had to be tied together in the editing room. That is all too evident.

Even the editing, something George is usually pretty good at, is weak. The cuts are far too sudden and often abrasive. Like the ending which doesn’t make a lot of sense. The music is also really terrible, fluctuating between tinny elevator music type stuff and really bad seventies indie rock.

There is some light praise I can throw around. The performances are pretty solid, especially from Ray Laine, who’s connecting monologues is one of the few high points, and “Night of the Living Dead’s” Judith Ridley does a decent job. Some of the more artistic montages, like a certain love scene, are pretty to watch. A chase scene in an abortion clinic is mildly exciting. The bits that deal with what goes into making a commercial are interesting and certainly something Romero and his crew would know about. Finally, I do like the opening and the public’s musing about the “ultimate machine.”

So “There’s Always Vanilla” is a weak, boring, confusing, wandering attempt at seventies art. It really should only be sought out by completist of the director.
[Grade: D]


Sean Catlett said...

Interested to see how the late-end Zombie films hold up. I couldn't get through five minutes of Survival. I mean, I'll save it for later and all, but JESUS

Bonehead XL said...

*spoiler alert* I thought "Survival" was actually something of a return to form.

Kernunrex said...

Nice analysis of Night.

I'm one of the few people I know who liked Diary... I'm expecting the same to be true for Survival, which seems to have gotten wretched reviews. Whatever the case, I hope George makes a non-zombie movie next. Be nice to see him try something Martinesque again.

Bonehead XL said...

I think the reason George is only making zombie movies these days is because he wants to keep working and zombie movies are all anybody will give him any money for. I'm sure we all remember the hiatus between "Bruiser' and "Land of the Dead" were lots of projects were announced only to never get made. I'd embrace a return to "Martin" territory but I don't see it happening.

Also, thanks for the compliment, Kernunrex. I feel lots of times my long-winded, film-student ramblings don't really connect with anybody.