Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Director's Report Card: George A. Romero (1977-1978)

5. Martin
“Martin” is more relevant now then when it was first made. In today’s “Twilight” world, vampires are so cool among the kids. Long before a sub-culture came into existence, George Romero was all ready there to knock some sense into it.

“Martin” is ultimately about two things. Mainly, an expansion on the themes of “Season of the Witch” in that beliefs only have the power that people assign them. Tada Cuda is a religious fanatic who believes in family curses, vampires, and exorcisms. Despite being presented with plenty of proof to the otherwise, he continues to insist that Martin is undead.
Martin claims not to believe in magic and yet, by the same accord, believes himself to be an 84 year old vampire. He dismisses most of the conventions and common beliefs about vampires. He has an uncontrollable hunger for blood but no fangs, so he slashes his victims’ wrists with a razor blade before drinking. He has flashbacks to gothic Europe and being chased by crowds of angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks. The film is meant to be ambiguous in wither Martin is a true vampire but the intent is clear. He dons a cape, make-up, and plastic fangs to frighten his uncle at one point but quips afterward, “There isn’t any real magic.” Martin isn’t a vampire but a disturbed kid, alienated by an uncaring world and a superstitious family. After being told for years that he is nosferatu, he’s bought into it and now uses this fantasy as an escape from his regular life. His flashbacks are simply dreams and imaging, influenced by the movies he’s seen.

When Martin enters into a happy relationship, his bloodlust weakens. He isn’t hungry for blood but for what every lonely teenager wants: Acceptance and love. And sex, least we forget that. While the sexual aspects of the vampire myth are only implied, for Martin, drugging his victims and having his way with them before feeding is part of the ritual. He’s ashamed of his own sexuality and is hesitant to even use the word, but the safety of the vampire concept gives him carte blanche to explore his darker desires. He also longs for attention too and, by talking to a radio deejay, he is given a chance to share his fantasies with others.
In another way, the movie is also an examination of the vampire myth. Martin’s gothic flashbacks are in stark contrast with the reality of the situation. He doesn’t drawl any fair madams into the night with his dark mystique. He can’t hypnotize girls, he has to drug them. At one point, Martin breaks into a victims’ house to find another man all ready there. What follows is a real cluster-fuck operation and it’s only through quick thinking and luck that Martin isn’t caught. Later on, an attempt to feed on a homeless man goes horribly wrong and explodes into violence. (This sequence actually feels a little out of place.) He doesn’t stalk the castles of Europe but the industrial suburbs of Pittsburgh. Instead of being ruined with age, the town is ruined by economic depression. The final image of the movie is ironic. It doesn’t matter if you’re a real vampire or not. A stake through the heart will do the job, regardless.

Ultimately, more then any of this, “Martin” is a character study. John Amplas’ lead performance is essential to the movie’s success. He embodies the character and m
akes Martin a real person. Lincoln Maazel is convincing in his part. Christine Forrest is likable and cute in a part that really requires those qualities. Also watch for small parts from Tom Savini and Romero himself.

Speaking of Savini, the gore effects are phenomenal. That thick crimson blood, like “melted crayons” Tom says, looks great on camera. As a character study, the movie lacks a forward story, has a slow pace, and does drag its feet a bit towards the end. However, it’s a great film, one of Romero’s best, and a truly overlooked masterpiece.
[Grade: A]

6. Dawn of the Dead
“Night of the Living Dead” changed horror. “Dawn of the Dead” changed it again. It spawned an entire genre in Italy and shaped the zombie film and the modern gore fest as we know them.

Romero took everything from “Night” and ramped it up, most importantly that film’s theme of people being unable to get along and let go. The zombie apocalypse shambles on, but the living masses refuse to get their shit together. This is displayed brilliantly right in the opening scenes. The chaos of the newsroom provides expositions for new viewers while also introducing us to half of our main cast. We then jog ahead to the SWAT team taking on an armed apartment complex. This scene furthers the theme with the belligerent racist cop and the projects dwellers that have dropped their undead relatives down the laundry shoot. We also meet the other half of our main cast.

This early scene, with its furious gore, exploding head, and vicious body bites, also shows us that the violence has been amped up. Romero has called this film the “comic book version” of the story and, with its focus on action and bright red blood, it certainly feels that way. (Might this be the first horror/action combo?)

The film’s biggest attribute is its fantastic ensemble cast. Romero has finally found a near-perfect balance between his character studies and fast-paced editing. Peter and Roger have an immediate chemistry together as brothers in arm. Ken Foree is perfect as physically imposing tactician Peter, while Scott Reiniger balances the friendship out as the more carefree, fun-spirited Roger. An attitude which does have major consequences, later on. As Reiniger succumbs to the infection, his sometimes doped-out, sometimes pathetic mannerisms, rear up against heartbreaking. David Emge does good work as the stoic Stephen. It’s a tricky character, seeing as how incompetent he is with a firearm. As the film progresses, Stephen becomes obsessed with the materialism of the mall setting and that obsession directly leads to the full-blown carnage of the finale. So maybe he holds the Idiot Ball a few times, but his downward spiral is shown as an honest reaction to the grim situation he’s in. Gaylin Ross is the heart, soul, and often brains of the group as Fran. She’s honestly the most logical person in the film, often displaying the calmest head in times of panic.
After a fantastically thrilling action set piece at the airport, we move to our primary setting, the infamous shopping mall. A lot has been written about the consumer culture criticism in the film. The parallel between shambling zombies and mall goers is obvious. Numerous times, when a zombie is shot, bludgeoned, or sprayed with seltzer water (It makes sense in context), the camera switches to a first-person view, placing the audience in the undead’s seat. Yes, viewer, these brain-dead mall zombies are you. It’s made even more obvious in the long middle section of the film. After a number of fantastic action sequences, in which our cast clears the mall of undead, our characters settle into their materialistic life. They count money which has no value, play dress-up in the various shops, and generally abuse the setting. But it eventually leaves them hollow and depressed. Now, logically, I’d say this has more to do with the constant reminder of their impending doom the living dead hordes outside their walls provide and less to do with the shallow, soul-crushing joys of materialism, but Romero’s point is clear. Later, when the roving gangs of cartoonish bikers invade the mall, they seem driven by some out-of-control desire for pointless stuff.

Beyond all the textbook subtext, “Dawn of the Dead” is a really fun movie. The story barrels ahead breathlessly with some of the best pacing and action direction ever seen in a horror film. When that depressing ennui sets in, it’s actually a detriment and a bump in the otherwise flawless pacing. And, yeah, as countless imitative video games have shown, killing hordes of zombies in a mall setting is a lot of fun. Zombies make the perfect fodder to be blown away, or pied in the face. Frankly, when is a zombie on an escalator not funny?
Romero is having a lot of fun too and that shows in his frantic editing. He also engineers one of the best jump scare scenes ever, with the mannequin fake-out. Goblin’s driving rock score provide these scenes with the perfect amount of punk energy. Later, when the wacky biker gang is torn apart by the undead aggressors like Chinese pork dishes, Savini’s brilliantly gruesome effects take center-stage. Even then, the movie can’t stop joking around. (The Blood Pressure Machine gag is hilarious.) And “The Gonk?” The juxtaposition between moaning zombies and cheery mall muzak never gets old. George even realized that the infectious joys of zombie blasting and mall sight gags trumped the serious minded study of consumer culture, mortality, and inevitable social decay. He nixed the suicide-filled original ending for one in which our surviving cast flies off heroically into the sun-rise. It’s a conclusion full of false hope but the right one for this movie.

“Dawn of the Dead” is a four-color zombie epic, perfectly mixing horror, humor, gut-munching gore, and social satire. Roger Ebert called it one of the best horror films of all time and I’m inclined to agree. [Grade: A]

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