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Shine On, George: A Tribute to the Father of Modern Horror

It’s been almost two weeks since his passing, but the sense of shock still remains. There’s no denying George A. Romero (4th February 1940-16th July 2017) was one of the founding fathers and true masters of modern horror. He was an independent. A maverick. Someone who understood how to translate our fears to cinema, and make them real. He changed the way we think about horror film, and the way it was made. He inspired generations of independent filmmakers. And, most importantly, he did it on his own terms. So, join with us at Diabolique Magazine as we celebrate some of the director’s most loved films, and honor his legacy and spirit, which will always remain at the very heart of the genre: forever to be imitated, but never likely to be surpassed.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

By Joseph Dwyer 

George Romero’s first film is one of the greatest of all time. Nevermind its designation as a genre classic, pigeonholed into the horror category, Night of the Living Dead stands as a formidable independent film with themes of government control, monotonous uniformity, and racial tension. Romero is an excellent example for all aspiring filmmakers, particularly those who choose to use a horror or dramatic framework—in actuality, Romero in part created this framework. His career shows the practical use of technical filmmaking as an excellent prerequisite for quality low budget cinema; a young auteur director may have the cerebral drive to create art, but when it comes to saving time, money, and confusion, knowing how to use a light meter is often far more useful. Made for just over $100,000, Night of the Living Dead will always be a beautiful example of independent cinema.

By withholding the motive or cause for why the dead are rising to eat the flesh of the living, Romero allows for ambiguity to work in his favor. The audience can speculate as to why this phenomenon is occurring, inviting any number of socio-cultural or scientific reasons. The Crazies (1973), a similarly plotted Romero film from a few years later, gives a reason for the mass insanity—”it’s in the water!”—but this more overtly political film falls short of Night of the Living Dead’s greatness. Reanimation could be happening because of irresponsibly handled scientific advances. Zombies could be a metaphor criticizing the ‘squares’ in a countercultural landscape full of beatniks, and hippies soon enough. Or much like in Romero’s later film Dawn of the Dead (1978), zombies could be akin to the mindless consumerism affecting more and more of the US population.

Regardless of Romero’s motivations, the racial tensions that had recently rocked the country—most historically evident by the assassinations of Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King Jr (which occurred in April of 1968, in between the shooting and release of Living Dead) manifested themselves in Ben, the African-American lead character played by Duane Jones. Race is never mentioned in the film, a happenstance that is just as fantastic as the dead coming back to life, especially when implied racism is practically coming out of antagonist/ally Harry Cooper’s (Karl Hardman) pores. As the sun rises after the night in question, we see a group of average American white men patrolling for zombies, heavily armed. The appearance of this lynch mob and their frank murder of Ben makes the scene even more hopeless and unnerving within a racial context. Romero claims that racial commentary was not what he had in mind when making the film, but I have difficulty imagining him being so naive.

Aside from the economic prowess and political complexity of the film, it is also imperative to mention the obvious—Night of the Living Dead is a fun and captivating movie to watch! For a first-time filmmaker, Romero reveals a gifted knowledge of narrative progression and mounting suspense. Indeed, he created a solid framework to be lifted by countless films to come, whether they deal with zombies or survival in a hostile and aggressive community.

Dawn of the Dead (1979)

By Samm Deighan

A decade after Night of the Living Dead—truly a watershed moment for American horror—Romero raised the bar yet again with his return to the zombies with 1978s Dawn of the Dead. This apocalyptic masterpiece was set on a much larger scale than his previous films, breaking out of the lonely rural spaces of Night of the Living Dead and the claustrophobic small town environs of Season of the Witch, The Crazies, and Martin. Where these earlier, perhaps more intimate films found a balance between the personal and the political, Dawn of the Dead is a glimpse at apocalypse, with the implication that humanity has driven itself inevitably, relentlessly towards this brink with its tagline asserting that “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

Set just a few weeks after the outbreak event of Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s microcosm of civilization is made up of a small band of survivors luckily enough to have access to a helicopter: a pregnant television studio employee (Galen Ross) and her brusk pilot boyfriend (David Emge), and two rogue SWAT officers (Scott Reiniger and Ken Foree). They take refuge in a shopping mall, which at first seems to be an oasis in the eye of the storm, but is not safe from attack—by humans or zombies—for very long. The bleak film also takes the foursome from the disintegrating urban world, where Romero depicts racial violence through an attack on a housing project whose denizens are determined to protect their (dead) loved ones, into a temporarily private idyll where they are plunged into hedonistic excess. In a bitter critique of capitalism and the horrors of materialism, the shopping mall transforms them from hardened, vulnerable survivors; they become gluttonous, self-absorbed, and bored with the illusion of security and comfort.

This somber tone is bolstered by incredibly gory—and often inventive—special effects from legendary Romero collaborator Tom Savini, freshly returned from the Vietnam War; his experiences there seem to have had an influence on the look of the film’s violence and its colorful, sometimes cartoonish zombies exist in a seemingly different world than the shuffling black and white hordes of Night of the Living Dead. They certainly provide a dramatic contrast to the colorful scenes of consumerism and Romero often uses the expansive mall as a place of terror and claustrophobia. But ultimately the film takes on a positive and perhaps unsurprisingly political conclusion through the unexpected transformation of Fran, the lone female character, whose movement from cowering girlfriend to the de facto leader of the group is subtle, but astonishing. She insists that they become prepared to leave at a moment’s notice—even if she has to do this alone—and learns to fly the helicopter, heading towards an unknown future. Romero’s parting shots of a pregnant woman and black man flying into the distance symbolize what made him such a foundational, but also revolutionary presence in modern American genre cinema. His insistent, fearless inclusion of political and social themes in his films, combined with a focus on non-traditional genre protagonists, has become part of the DNA of American horror.

Day of the Dead (1985)

By Rob Talbot

Romero’s follow up to Dawn of the Dead (1978) takes a place a few years on from the initial zombie outbreak, and finds tensions running high in an underground research facility inhabited by a handful of the last survivors. A diminished unit of soldiers led by the obnoxious Rhodes (Joe Pilato) barely tolerates the presence of the even smaller group of scientists that they were originally assigned to babysit. This subterranean pressure cooker seems ready to explode from the outset, and when Rhodes discovers that chief lab coat Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) has been using his fallen comrades as research subjects the gloves are off and this tentative safe haven is set to be blown wide open to the flesh-hungry hordes clawing at the gates.

The main thrust and excitement of Day of the Dead comes more through the knife-edge tension between the two groups than the daring smash and grab raids and narrow escapes of the last film. The living dead may be terrifyingly out in force, but the real villains here are the monstrous Rhodes and his feckless thugs, along with our ‘mad scientist’ Logan, who the soldiers tellingly refer to as ‘Frankenstein’. We have a strong female lead holding everything together, still highly unusual at the time (and a year before Aliens, of course, which tends to get all the credit), in the form of Sarah, excellently portrayed by Lori Cardille. In fact, all of the actors here are note-perfect in their roles, despite the show-stealing (albeit incredibly entertaining) histrionics of Pilato and Liberty. Romero’s script is tight and to the point, the location claustrophobic, the gore spectacular (Tom Savini has never been better), and the subgenre gains a new poster-boy in the form of the screen’s first ‘sympathetic zombie’, Bub (Sherman Howard). Could anybody reasonably ask for more than this?

It is understandable today why many horror fans were disappointed with the film on its initial release. It had been seven long years since Dawn of the Dead and Romero refused to create a carbon copy of the last entry. It was also common knowledge that it was far from the film that Romero had set out to make, thanks to studio demands and its budget being slashed almost in half. It was considered too dark, too bleak, too small, and, on top of all this, back then its completion of what was thought to be a trilogy suggested that this was to be the last hurrah for Romero and his hordes of shambling intestine-munchers.

The director’s much more ambitious and sprawling original treatment did indeed have to be pared down into the smaller story that we know today. But necessity is the mother of invention, and ultimately it’s what he did with these reduced resources that counts, not the ‘Raiders of the Lost Zombies’ blockbuster that it could have been. Just as it is, Day of the Dead stands now as a grim dystopian SF/horror masterpiece and perhaps, for this writer at least, the perfect zombie movie.

Survival of the Dead (2009)

By Peg Aloi 

Despite making a number of other films outside his “dead” franchise, Romero continually returned to it, focusing on it almost exclusively in the years before his death, when his rapidly failing eyesight compelled him to work faster to develop and make manifest his stories of social collapse. The final film in this legacy, Survival of the Dead, offers a logical ending that poses new possibilities for a future under zombie threat. Four years prior, Romero began work on the first of his final three films, after twenty years away from the franchise. The film many consider the most savvy and prescient of the series, 2005s Land of the Dead, featured a compelling setting: urban streets are filled with people living on the edge of poverty and comfort, while the rich live in fancy high rise towers, safe from the hordes of zombies surrounding the city. This is economic inequity writ large, greed and entitlement overshadowing compassion: Romero understood fully the powerful social parallels his stories expressed. Diary of the Dead (2007) used social media and internet obsession to tell a story of survival that might or might not be witnessed by millions on their electronic devices. Does the zombie apocalypse happen if no one blogs about it?

2009s Survival of the Dead saw Romero trying a new marketing scheme: it was the first film he released with a Pay Per View option that allowed some reviewers to weigh in immediately upon its release. Sadly, since there are a large number of writers in the horror genre who are not necessarily terribly thoughtful critics (present company excepted!), there were some negative reviews that affected the film’s reception and hurt its overall ratings. Perhaps because the two films made just previously were so squarely set in a plausible future, with urban and technological signifiers that spoke to our own current angst, Survival of the Dead felt somehow quaint and timeless. It’s an odd story, to be sure: two feuding rural families let their personal antagonisms affect their ability to subdue the living dead, who are apparently less commonly encountered in this remote enclave. It’s not clear where we are: Nova Scotia? There’s an old world Celt vibe to one family’s speech, and their farming practices make us wonder if we’ve gone back in time, or if circumstances have forced a return to the old ways.

But mainly Romero seems to be exploring the logical outcome of the zombie invasion if the cities are all abandoned. How will people survive? Will moving to the remote countryside provide safety? One young woman who enjoys riding horses appears in a chilling scene that explores the possibility that animals as well as humans may soon be part of the hordes of the living dead. Thus nature is overtaken by humankind’s errors and hunger runs amok. Romero’s ghoulish dead are always Other (hippies or the Viet Cong in the original Night of the Living Dead) and this conceit is spun to an even more disturbing extreme here: this human malady may yet spread to non-human creatures. All of life becomes a slavering, destructive, malevolent force. Maybe.

Survival of the Dead posits an outcome that is both symbolic and eerily plausible, a swan song statement that captures the evolving zeitgeist of alienation and paranoia. The film’s final shot is iconic and provocative: in profile against a rising enormous full moon, two men, presumably at a place as far north as it is possible to get, stand in a field pointing guns at one another. They may be reanimated from the dead, chained to posts for eternity, still locked in their eternal feud. No matter how far they go, to the ends of the earth, their basic nature remains intact. Even after death, their instinct is to kill or be killed. The human apocalypse is surely coming; Romero did his level best to prepare us for it. Perhaps a day will come when we will put his lessons in bravery and survival, in compassion and invention, to good use.

Martin (1978)

By Kat Ellinger

Often described as Romero’s “vampire” film like it’s an embarrassing cousin or second thought — and this is especially the case for mainstream press; to be fair fans tend to know otherwise — Martin (1978) is one of Romero’s most innovative films and demands recognition as such. However, the film still tends to get overshadowed by the director’s hugely successful zombie line despite the fact it’s just as inventive as his earlier work. While the fact it was released the same year as Romero’s highly regarded Dawn of the Dead (as well as John Carpenter’s Halloween) didn’t seem to help matters either, not least when you compare Romero’s budgets between the two films — a tasty $1.5 million for Dawn, versus a minuscule $80k for Martin (the latter shot in the summer of 1976). Despite this, there’s something really quite special about Martin; especially when you consider the way in which it revives American Gothic, redefines vampire tradition and adds in some seriously interesting subtext which strays from convention, yet still manages to retain a connection to Gothic tradition.

During the latter part of the seventies, interest in classic Gothic cinema had declined to the point that producers no longer saw a market in the genre. Hammer horror had pretty much dominated from the mid-fifties onwards, eventually giving up the proverbial ghost so to speak, by 1976. Euro horror had also seen a boom and bust approach to Gothic horror that was played out by this time. As the eighties sat glistening on the horizon, with a bloody knife in hand, waiting to barge full into the slasher cycle — which would virtually take over genre cinema for a few years —  it would seem the vampire was all but dead and buried. There were a handful of rebels though, Martin being one. Tobe Hooper’s miniseries Salem’s Lot, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, and the class conscious Thirst followed not far behind, in 1979. While fellow maverick director, David Cronenberg, played with typical tropes in Rabid (1977) just prior to Martin’s release, in a film that lends itself to all sorts of readings including vampirism as a sexually transmitted disease. What’s interesting is that, if we consider when Romero’s film was shot, not released, then Martin preceded all of the above. Proving, once again, Romero was ever the trendsetter.

The most beautiful thing about Martin is the way in which it defies the idea that vampires have to be sexy. The titular character, Martin, played by John Amplas, is anything but. He’s a scrawny, sexually repressed, seriously messed up young man who sets about breaking into people’s houses, or train carriages, wherever the mood takes him, so he can drug his victims, and drink their blood — courtesy of some nasty FX work by Tom Savini in his first collaboration with the director. Everything about this is as ugly as it sounds. The victims struggle and plead before they finally give out to the medication he injects them with. The sight of the naked young man covered in the blood of his prey is seedy and disgusting. However, even though his behavior is vile, you just can’t help feeling sorry for the boy. Martin just wants to be loved and accepted, and is exposed to horrific mental abuse by his uncle Cuda who treats him as an evil entity; thus burrowing right back into the Gothic convention of rotten families as a source for deviant behaviour.

And of course the question we all want to know is: is Martin really a vampire, or a just a sick young man? Romero alludes to both sides of this question, intersecting this with Martin’s dream world where he is one of the sexy vampires from classic cinema, and leaves just enough ambiguity to keep you guessing.

Creepshow (1982)

By Sheila M. Merritt

George Romero. Stephen King. Tom Savini. Three genre giants whose names fill us with awe. Their collaboration in Creepshow is a horror lover’s dream come true. The 1982 film is an artistic delight that warrants even more reverence now, given the recent passing of Romero.

Using the E.C. horror comic books of the 1950s as a template, King’s screenplay, which includes two of his published tales, permits Romero to have a directorial field day. His directing is infused with elements that display an appreciation for the source material. The ostentatious color palate, intrinsic to the chromatic canvas of the wonderfully warped comic books, serves as a stimulus for the vibrant visuals. King’s five narratives provide a masterful mimicry of the tone of the E.C. Comics.

As with any cinematic anthology, there are segments that garner the bulk of critical praise. “They’re Coming to Get You” is the recipient of many accolades. E.G. Marshall stars as a bigoted-agoraphobic-germophobic-plutocrat whose contained environment becomes infested with cockroaches. The allegorical aspects of the yarn aren’t lost on Romero, who plays up the contrast between the orderly electronics-dominated realm of the protagonist and the wild insectoid invasion. Unlike the other stories in the film, there is no splashy application of color; the stark whiteness of the surroundings amplifies the brown hue of the bugs. In a particularly brilliant close-shot, a roach is seen perching on the latex-gloved hand of the protagonist. This is the prelude for the extended repulsion that will occur when the insects multiply in number. The pristine sterility of the atmosphere, which is filmed like a homage to Stanley Kubrick, is violated. Marshall’s character gets his comeuppance; Savini’s special effects makeup wizardry depicts the damage. Under the inspired guidance of Romero, this segment of the anthology is a tour-de-force gem.

“The Crate” also garnered positive responses from reviewers. This tale of When Hairy Met Harridan is a master class in how to construct suspense. From the build-up of opening the crate, to a rolling flashlight, to the retrieval of a bloody shoe, to the ultimate taming of a shrew, Romero shows his expertise in melding anticipation with tension. As with the other segments, the casting in “The Crate” is grand. Adrienne Barbeau revels in the role of a vicious virago. Hal Holbrook perfectly portrays her character’s henpecked professor husband, who harbors murderous fantasies. Fritz Weaver is equally fine as the head of the university’s zoology department. Rivaling the actors in scene stealing is another amazing Tom Savini creation; hirsute, clawed, and toothsome.

The sole segment edited by Romero is “Something to Tide You Over.” This story of revenge and reprisal involves a cuckold (Leslie Nielsen) who plays literal head games on his cheating spouse (Gaylen Ross) and her lover (Ted Danson.) Romero employs video cameras to exhibit the sadism, a visual that mirrors the panels in comic books. Aquatic images abound, including a splendid shot of Danson’s head submerged underwater. Romero’s editing accentuates the lovers’ anguish and their soggy retaliation.

Creepshow is another reminder of George Romero’s incalculable contribution to genre cinema.

Monkey Shines (1988)

By Lee Gambin (with a contribution by Joyce Van Patten)

Monkey Shines would be horror maestro George A. Romero’s first book adaptation and from the get-go Romero changed the setting from the UK to his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. The movie is a wonderful examination of repressed violent desires and wish fulfilment gone horribly wrong. It tells the story of Alan Mann (Jason Beghe) who is hit by a car and left a paraplegic. To help with daily chores, Alan is appointed a Capuchin monkey Ella, who has been scientifically experimented on, unbeknownst to Alan and his loved ones. Ella is charming and sweet, but soon enough, what unfolds is a tale of obsession and sickly desires. This cheeky monkey is a genie in a lamp for her newly disabled friend but at the same time she grows into a demonic force that will ultimately turn on him. Ella becomes primarily linked specifically to the characters surrounding Alan and starts to develop an unhealthy obsession with him which quickly turns deadly.

Romero is such a brilliant director and storyteller and the cast are so incredibly gifted that we start to believe in this twisted bestiality as it is so brilliantly handled with much intelligence that it is plausible. When Ella turns on Alan’s ex-lover who cheated on him – setting her and her new man on fire – we completely accept it and understand why. During the darkest moments of this film, Alan buys into this madness and even though his character starts off as a calm, understanding, patient man, he descends into a malicious violent menace. Joyce Van Patten co-stars as Jason Beghe’s oppressive mother who is ultimately killed by Ella and she recalls working with the monkeys used in the film, “The people who trained the monkeys seemed like doctors more than animal trainers. They looked after these Capuchin monkeys with such care and sweetness. They just seemed like young professionals who knew how to deal with these tricky animals. You see, Capuchin monkeys are very smart and very cheeky. We didn’t have a lot to do with each other, the monkeys and I, and although I had scenes with the main monkey the minders were always there and kept the monkey at a safe distance.”

The film is most definitely a relative to the “trapped man syndrome” branch of monstrous-feminine horror; that is, that it bears massive semblance to films such as That Cold Day in the Park (1969), The Beguiled (1971), Misery (1990) and their noir ancestor Sunset Blvd. (1950). Here in Monkey Shines, our demented harridan is not a repressed wealthy spinster, sexually frustrated schoolgirls during the Civil War, nor is she a maniacal fan obsessed with a world famous author, here she is bestial – a primate in “love” with her disabled ward, and this unsettling and thoroughly disturbing undercurrent injects the film with a complex and perverse agenda. Long-time Romero collaborator and good friend Tom Savini was appointed as the SFX makeup artist and his work on various stunt Ella puppets is remarkable, while another incredible point of reference this film holds is the fact that it belongs to a varied list of movies that sparked protest. Joining the ranks of such cult classics as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Cruising (1980) and Basic Instinct (1992), Monkey Shines had protesters assemble outside the theatre premiering the film complaining about the campaign tagline. Opening with “Once there was a man whose prison was a chair…”, disability rights activists were outraged at such a sentiment – needless to say, the demonstrators never saw the film, but voiced their anger at the lyrical poem that acted as the film’s lengthy tagline. Ultimately, Monkey Shines is a knock out example of the “horror of personality” subgenre, married with aforementioned others, and a poignant display of Romero’s magnificent talent and dedication to serving character, theme and narrative purpose.

The Dark Half (1993)

By Heather Buckley

In 1993 George Romero’s The Dark Half, an adaptation of the Stephen King’s novel about the death-throes of a dangerous pseudonym, premiered in theaters. Thad Beaumont, (Timothy Hutton) stands in for King. Thad “transforms” into George Stark, writer of violent pulp. He drinks, he smokes, he is a terror to be around—but in his respectable role, as a college professor; a family man, Thad writes “literary” fiction. While Stark is a successful best-selling writer, Thad is uninspired and barely known—that changes on reveal that they are one and the same. And People magazine has Thad and his wife (Amy Madigan) on the front cover. “George Stark wasn’t a very nice guy.”

King famously “buried” Richard Bachman (The Long Walk, The Running Man), his pen name in 1985 after a D.C. Bookstore clerk noted how close the writing seemed and followed the trail to the publisher and there in the paperwork found the name Stephen King. King’s creative process involved alcohol use like Stark, but King went even further into substance abuse. In the film, Timothy Hutton plays Thad and Stark. And as life imitated art, the production was troubled due to its star Hutton acting out in a type of method that was almost catastrophic and delayed the film’s initial release.

As one is a child of light, the other dark—Romero has Thad dressed very plainly, unassuming, while Stark is a straight-razor-wielding greaser in a black muscle car hell-bent on revenge for being rubbed out of the picture. His hair black and slick (an evolution from blonde in the book), the end of his cowboy boots tipped with steel. He’s Southern and he sure is mean. While Romero masterfully relays King story down to the psychobabble of psychopomps takedown (practical effects by Optic Nerve), watching The Dark Half reveals an omission in the material.

Thad was the parasite and not George Stark. Thad moved from hard-edge noir to focus on creating “high-brow” literature—neutered, safe and without an audience as evidenced by his agent’s (Tom Mardirosian) laments. Romero himself had an ambivalent relationship to the pulp zombie genre, especially considering his early attempts to break out of the genre entirely, with films like There’s Always Vanilla and Jack’s Wife (later retitled Season of the Witch—it has occult elements, but is really more of a feminist-themed drama). Both There’s Always Vanilla and Jack’s Wife were both tepid misfires and drug Romero back into horror.

This desire for “high art,” ignores the relevance of the character’s work in genre. To come to terms with its power—much like the monster coming back for Frankenstein, it is a creature out of their control now. Though King’s lesson may be obscure, in the end Thad ceremoniously kills his genre works when he kills Stark. Stark is justified in fighting back. His creative output has a large audience and therefore far more vitality than Thad’s pursuit after “real writing.” And herein lies the ambiance of King and Romero as genre artists as well—and perhaps it is generational—a feeling that genre is either a cage to escape or the very essence of wildfire freedom—ceaselessly circling for the dominance of our dark half.

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