Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Director's Report Card: George A. Romero (1993-2005)

12. The Dark Half
Taken as a part of Romero’s body of work, this represents something interesting. Unlike his most well known and well regarded work, “The Dark Half” doesn’t appear to have any sort of sociological subtext. Instead, Romero fills the film with visual layering. There are so many symbols used here. The pencils, twins, the switchblade, the car, the birds, even a roasted turkey seems to hold some symbolism, seems to further dive into the theme of halves. This leads to some truly interesting replay value.

The story itself is fairly predictable. It uses what I like to call a reverse twist in that what seems like the obvious twist isn’t actually the case. The movie doesn't go down the "
split-personalities" route you'd expect. Instead, the story goes into more interesting supernatural territory. But just because it’s predictable doesn’t mean it isn’t good and the film still manages to build quite a bit of suspense. I can’t help but think that George was taking some cues from his buddy Dario Argento, as the murder sequences here are more elaborate then you’re use too.
Timothy Hutton is good in the lead(s), though when Thad Beaumont starts acting tough towards the end, he comes off a bit silly. Amy Madigan gives a very good performance, showing a lot of emotion, and Michael Rooker brings some weight to a thin role.

The bird imagery is obviously a Hitchcock homage. Sadly, the birds here look about as realistic as Hitchcock’s did. This is some awkward early CGI. And the film pushes it a bit in the finale and comes off kind of silly, even if it does lead to some juicy gore. Julie Harris’ character isn’t very good and seems to exist solely as a wobbly exposition mouthpiece. All and all, this is a solid King adaptation and a solid Romero picture. It's not a great film, but if this is an example of what a work-for-hire Romero would have looked like, I would've been okay with it.
[Grade: B]

13. Bruiser
“Bruiser” is odd and off-center. The main character’s face becoming an expressionless mask seems to say something about the dehumanizing effect of today’s workforce. However, this angle isn’t followed through on at all. Instead, the movie seems to be about loss, and then the regaining, of identity, taking bloody control of your life back... I think.

Subtext isn't the focus here. The movie seems more interested in the routine, campy revenge story then anything else. Said revenge story is nothing special but at least has some momentum to it. There's at least one really good kill here, a fancy strangulation. (Is it just me, or does Romero seem very uncomfortable
working in the slasher sub-genre?) However, in the last act when the action shifts to a rowdy Hollywood party for some reason, everything falls apart. The mood becomes shrill and annoying, characters start making irrational decisions, our suspension of belief is stretched too far with the whole laser thing, and we never really get a proper climax.
The oblique nature of many of the story’s aspects, not to mention that it’s a Romero movie, would make you think there would be some meaning or subtext behind the action. But there doesn’t seem to be… “Bruiser” ends feeling very hollow and, well, pointless. His heart just wasn't in this one, I suspect.

Jason Flemyng is decent in the lead and at least knows what he’s doing with his character, even if the movie doesn’t. Peter Stormare is irritating and way too broad. Tom Atkins shows up and does his cop thing but doesn’t bring much energy to his role. And why is so much attention paid to the presence of horror-punk band The Misfits? I mean, I like The Misfits and all but did the movie have to become a music video for a few minute near the end? This is Romero’s strangest film and, sadly, one of his worse.
[Grade: C-]

14. Land of the Dead
“Land of the Dead” disappoints. Horror fans waited through the nineties, hoping Romero would return with the epic conclusion to his Dead cycle, a “Twilight of the Dead” if you will. He talked about it for a long time, how it would be about humanity moving on, about the undead rotting away and society reforming itself. He also promised an epic even wider in scope then “Dawn.” “Land” doesn’t deliver on those early promises. First off, no satisfying conclusion to the “Dead” story is anywhere in sight. Secondly, the dead/living conflict is hardly resolved. I suppose there’d be no real way of doing that, but I would’ve liked something more then the shrug we get.

It’s easy to criticize “Land of the Dead” for what it isn’t. So let’s criticize it for what it is. The weakest element is its characters. Hero Riley is wildly uninteresting. How much of this is the writing and how much of it is Simon Baker’s white-toast turn, I can’t tell. John Leguizima gives an okay performance but, if Cholo was an attempt to create another Peter, it failed. The character isn’t that charismatic or exciting. Dennis Hopper, God rest his soul, gave an odd performance. His stilted speech makes it seems like he’s almost going for comedy. The only likable characters in the film are Robert Joy’s Charlie and Asia Argento’s Slack. Joy makes Charlie as lovable a misfit as possible while Argento could make reading the phone book seductive. I don’t know if you could’ve built a movie around them, but it probably would’ve been a better one.
Now the other major problem. The evolution of the zombies’ personalities was clearly set-up by Bub. However, it’s taken too far. Big Daddy has more personality then most of the human cast, but the image of him ordering other zombies around, planning strategies, shooting guns, and setting off explosives is too much.

The politic subtext is obvious. The movie might as well have been called “Eat the Rich.” The zombies are the put-upon, lower-class citizens. The poor and the downtraught, and probably blue collar workers. (Big Daddy is a gas attendant and another notable zombie is a butcher.) The rich literally live in their towers, shielded off from the world, with all the best life has to offer, while the poor toil with the zombies. Naturally, the zombies, the lowest on society’s ladder, revolt and raid the castle. After all those evil rich people are eaten, the poor people can live in peace and the zombies march off. Its ham-fisted, obvious, and a case of the politics getting in the way of the movie. Hopper’s Kaufman is obviously a Bush figure and the talks of terrorism don’t go anywhere. And, perhaps, I’m reading too much into it, but the way everyone talks about going to Canada like it’s the promise land… It makes me wonder if that’s another political point.
So what does the movie do right? The gore is great. And I mean the real gore, not that CGI shit, of which there’s far too much of. But when it focuses on creative gruel, it shows some skill. A zombie pulls a tongue out, an arm is split down the middle, a belly-button piercing is pulled out, a solider pulls the pin on a grenade only to have his arm cut off, causing the bomb to go off right under him. A zombie’s head is severed by gunfire, its eyes still blinking. Another zombie’s head is connected only by a spine. Moreover, the KNB provided zombie designs are also fantastic. The undead’s raid on Fiddler’s Green is pretty satisfying, while the Dead Reckoning itself is a threatening piece of machinery.
Out of the whole series, the film’s world does feel the most foreign. It certainly feels like some sort of post-apocalyptic world. Romero used his big, studio budget well there, creating a genuine sci-fi setting. An earlier scene involving a suicide is very well done, as is the scene that introduces Argento’s character. Savini’s cameo is a great fan boy moment. If he wasn’t willing to satisfactorily wrap up his series with a proper ending, couldn’t George at least focus modern anxieties into a tight horror tale? “Land of the Dead” isn’t a total dud but it’s far from the triumphant return we all hoped for. [Grade: C]

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