As everyone is likely already aware, George Romero passed away recently.
The director was best known for the zombie series spawned by Night of the Living Dead. If nothing else, it's nice to have a series in which every movie is directed by the same guy. However, it's also nice to have a reminder that Romero did several movies that don't have any zombies in them (or at least fewer than the Dead set). Some remain great (Creepshow), while others are dated (Season of the Witch) or just plain bad (Bruiser). Overall, however, the man had an impressive career.
As of this writing, the conversion of the Movies section of 8sails is still a work in progress. The old site featured a filmography of 8sails reviews of all the movies Romero directed, which I'm blogging here (in the order in which the movies were released).
Night of the Living Dead – Here’s the film that started it all, the great-granddaddy of the flesh-eating zombie genre. Production values are pretty much nonexistent; the whole thing is drastically over-exposed and must have been done exclusively using sound-on-film (aside from occasional soundtrack music). Despite all that, it’s still a must-see for fans of horror movies in general and zombie flicks in specific. Truth be told, Dawn of the Dead is probably a better film, but that does nothing to diminish the importance of its predecessor in the Dead series. Even those who don’t care for horror might still find this interesting as an example of the ability of then-independent director George Romero to create a film with almost no budget and still have it go on to become a cult classic. Buy it (especially because it isn't copyrighted, which means you can get a copy dirt cheap)
Season of the Witch – Like Martin, another mid-70s offering from George Romero, this one’s better in theory than it is in practice. The plot is ever so much a creature of its time, sort of a half-baked combination of free love and Faust. A bored housewife dabbles in the occult, with initially good but ultimately disastrous consequences. I’m willing to sit through a certain amount of the experimental “artiness” typical of the period. But some of the pacing and a lot of the writing are downright bad, regardless of when the picture was made. Further, Anchor Bay gets the show off on the wrong foot by starting the DVD with an apology for the terrible quality of the print (though for what it’s worth, it was pretty terrible). Incidentally, I’m listing this under its video release title rather than the original theatrical release title – Hungry Wives – in part because I saw this on video rather than at the theater and also because Hungry Wives is a far dorkier thing to call a movie. However, in many ways the original title was more apt. Mildly amusing
The Crazies – Though in retrospect this comes across as sort of a dry run for Dawn of the Dead, it’s got a lot more going for it than just that. The basic premise – townspeople driven mad by biological weapon accidentally unleashed by Army that then descends on the town in an attempt to contain the problem – isn’t entirely dissimilar to Romero’s zombie pictures. But the really intriguing part of this movie is the struggle of the protagonists not only to escape the doomed town but also to determine who among their number has come down with the insanity plague (as opposed to merely behaving abnormally due to the abnormal situation they all find themselves in). George Romero isn’t exactly the master of subtlety, and to be sure most of the entertainment value to be found here relies on gore or other cheap thrills. But here and there this outing’s got a little more going for it. Mildly amusing
Martin – I’ve seen this movie three or four times now, and the thing that keeps bringing me back is that I want to like it more than I do. This is a post-Night and pre-Dawn offering from George Romero, but here we’ve got a vampire rather than zombies. Or do we? Martin (John Amplas) has an obsessive thing for blood, but otherwise he’s more of a garden variety psychopath than a supernatural creature of evil. Indeed, Romero deliberately flaunts vampire conventions throughout the story. This bloodsucker doesn’t even suck blood. Lacking the hypnotic charm of a Dracula, he can only get victims by injecting them with sedatives and then bleeding them with a razor blade. The production has a working-class Pittsburgh look and feel, further departing from the European flavor of the traditional, goth vampire. I dearly love the concept. I’m just left somewhat flat by the execution. Mildly amusing
Dawn of the Dead – One of my all-time favorites, the sort of film where I can do the dialogue while I’m watching, and the best of Romero’s Dead movies (with all due respect, naturally, to the immortal classic Night of the Living Dead). I honestly believe that if American society ever really did collapse (with or without the assistance of flesh-eating zombies) that the result would closely parallel the action in this movie. I could say a lot more about Dawn, but that would sort of defeat the purpose of doing a capsule review. Side note: the first version I bought of this was a two-tape set. My current copy is a three-disc set that includes the theatrical release, the re-cut for video release, and the European version. The boxed set is a must-have for serious fans of the movie, but even more casual horror fans may wish to add a single version to their collections. Buy it
Knightriders – This looks like it was more fun to make than it is to watch. Ed Harris heads up a cast of George Romero regulars playing a troop of Renfest-motocross-combo performers who seriously live the whole Camelot thing. Eventually the group breaks up, with some sticking to the old, non-commercial ways while the de-hippified folks pursue bigger deals elsewhere. If the movie had left off there, it might have been emotionally satisfying in an end-of-the-70s way. But then the band gets back together for a half-hour-long tournament, ending the picture on a taking-it-too-seriously note. Still, if you like watching people ride motorcycles and hit each other with sticks, then this is certainly the picture for you. Mildly amusing
Creepshow – I think true appreciation of this horror anthology flick depends on one’s status as a fan of EC comics, director George Romero, and/or screenwriter Stephen King. Those who don’t meet the qualification are likely to find this too comic-book-esque and nowhere near violent or suspenseful enough to work as a horror movie. However, if you do fit the bill, you should get a real kick out of it. King fans should particularly enjoy the “Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” vignette, since the author himself plays the title role. All the stories are packed with EC-style thrills and a few familiar faces in each cast; even Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen, both of whom are better known for their comedy roles, do a good job as a woman’s adulterous lover and her very angry husband. My personal favorite, college professor that I am, is “The Crate” with its academic setting and semi-Lovecraftian sub-references. Though again I stress that it’s probably not for everyone, those who will enjoy it will probably want a copy. Buy it
Day of the Dead – This odd little apocalypse concludes George Romero’s original Dead trilogy and is the last must-see entry in the series. Though not quite as good as Dawn of the Dead, this episode stands up well on its own. With society now completely destroyed by the zombie plague, a few survivors try to hang on in an abandoned missile silo and storage caves. The small group is divided into factions, with scientists trying to unlock the mystery of the plague as they struggle for cooperation from an increasingly hostile military support staff. The result is one of those films that can be watched as light-hearted social allegory or just a plain, old fashioned blood bath horror movie. Worth seeing
Monkey Shines – Though it came out years before the fake ad on Saturday Night Live, this still comes across as “Monkey Hate Clean: The Motion Picture.” After an accident leaves him quadriplegic, our hero gets a capuchin monkey to help with his daily upkeep. Unfortunately his helper primate has been “customized” by a friend who happens to be a mad scientist. As a result, man and simian form a psychic bond allowing the cute, furry critter to harm anyone his human master gets mad at. Overall this is a perfect example of why I’m usually comfortable with adult humans who brutalize one another but would prefer that they left animals out of it. The monkey violence is too pervasive for this to have much of a chance with me. I can eke out one star just for writer/director George Romero’s sake, but this is far from his best work. See if desperate
The Dark Half – This is a finest hour for neither Stephen King nor George Romero. King’s source story puts a novel spin or two on the old evil twin thing, but in exchange we have to sit through a lot of annoying parallels to the whole Richard Bachman thing. Timothy Hutton does a solid job as the good family man novelist, but he falls flatter than flat as the guy’s sinister alter-ego. And sparrows should probably be added to the list of horror movie elements that are too cute to inspire a lot of fear. Overall this isn’t a terrible movie, but it doesn’t belong on anyone’s trophy shelf either. Mildly amusing
Bruiser – What happened to George Romero? At one point he was at the cutting edge of the horror movie business. Now he seems content to work only occasionally, and if this outing is any indication of what we can expect from him in the future then he might want to consider staying retired on a more permanent basis (sorry George, but Dawn of the Dead was apparently far behind you). This is the ham-handed allegorical tale of a white, middle-class guy who wakes up one morning to find that his face is gone. Thus liberated from his identity, he goes on a killing spree that plays like an arty version of Falling Down. Despite a nod or two to Poe in the end (and a cameo by the Misfits), this outing’s a pale shadow of Romero’s former brilliance. See if desperate
Land of the Dead – In an interview a couple of decades ago, George Romero said that zombies were the working class of the monster world. Now at long last he makes a movie that exploits class struggle as a plot point. This episode in Romero’s Dead series picks up somewhere around where the last one left off. The last remnants of non-zombie humanity are walled up in cities ruled by the wealthy. While the upper crust continues life as pre-catastrophe usual in their luxury high-rise, the dwindling middle class ekes out a living on the streets. And outside the barricades the walking dead are getting smarter, not to mention hungrier. Though the characters don’t amount to all that much, the premise, the story and the effects are enough to carry the production. This episode isn’t as ground-breaking as the first or as good as the second, but it’s still a suitable addition to the saga. Worth seeing
Diary of the Dead – What a dreadful disappointment. The first two entries in George Romero’s Dead series are genre classics, and the last two – though not quite as good – are at least entertaining. This one, however, is almost nothing but Cloverfield except with zombies. Romero is a more talented director than the boneheads that made Cloverfield, but that just makes his mindless preaching about media addiction all the more annoying. See if desperate
Survival of the Dead – At least it wasn't as disappointingly dreadful as the previous entry in Romero's dead set. That's thanks in no small part to the decision to abandon the pseudo-documentary format and return to a straight narrative format. Sadly, what I suspected at the end of Day of the Dead continues to prove true: Romero already took the zombie thing as far as he was going to, and subsequent productions -- however entertaining -- simply don't add much to the saga. This time around Army freebooters link up with one of two feuding factions trying to eke out a post-zombie-apocalypse living on an isolated island. Mildly amusing
A note or two on some missing stuff. As of this writing, There's Always Vanilla isn't available on DVD or to stream. If I get the chance someday I'll watch it and add a review. Romero only directed half of Two Evil Eyes. His half is a mediocre rework of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," and the other half, based on "The Black Cat," features two banes of my existence: animal torture and Harvey Keitel. So I'm unlikely to sit through it again anytime soon
He also directed some shorts and some TV shows, including 1974's "OJ Simpson: The Juice Is on the Loose!" I couldn't bring myself to watch that even if it was available to stream, which it doesn't appear to be.