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George Romero

Blu-ray: ‘Night of the Living Dead’ at 50

Criterion Collection

Night of the Living Dead (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Fifty years ago, commercial filmmaker George Romero marshalled the resources of his production company Latent Image and the talents of friends and colleagues to produce a low budget feature film in Pittsburg, PA. The rest is, as they say, history. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the Gothic horrors that defined the sixties, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture.

The plot is ingeniously simple: dead rise from their graves and feast on the living. There’s no exposition to frame it and the unstoppable army of flesh eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation; they literally come from nowhere. Barbra (Judith O’Shea) flees a stumbling ghoul in a panic to an abandoned farmhouse and becomes nearly catatonic as another survivor, Ben (Duane Jones), takes refuge and then takes action, boarding up the place as more of those shambling creatures gather outside.

The casting of Duane Jones as Ben is one of the great moments of color-blind casting in American cinema.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 21

Good Morning is inarguably the least loved and least representative in the Ozu oeuvre. But as is often true of early comedy in more or less anybody’s oeuvre—whether or not they’re known as comic artists—Good Morning is one of the seeds from which Ozu’s later works grow, a sort of first principle. It is perhaps a more intricately structured investigation of what we can say through the walls of time and age and experience erected even between parents and children, siblings, lovers. It is a chamber piece for all the human linguistic instruments: fart and sigh, small talk and drunken ramble, all the possible declarations of weakness, suspicion, compromise, and love of which you could conceive.” I’d say Annie Julia Wyman’s initial statement up there is much more than arguable, but past that her praise of Ozu’s celebration of the wordless means by which we convey love—including, yes, farts—is spot on.

“It might seem rather a cliché to insist that film is a visual medium, but surely what is not spoken is just as important, in the total effect of this movie, as the articulation of its earnest ethical strivings. Tarkovsky seems to have found a way of photographing the human head—animated and in repose—as it had never been photographed before. He makes it monumental: sculptural and philosophical. Granted the chaotic interruptions to the pro­duction process (of which more shortly), the concentration of effort he achieved here strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. Naturally, these human heads had to be extraordinary in the first place: not just that of the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) but the Writer’s and the Professor’s as well. How hypnotically the camera inves­tigates them!” Mark Le Fanu traces the oppressive state of mind under which Tarkovsky conceived Stalker as a hidden religious allegory, and briefly recounts the horrifying ordeal of the shoot, in which the third time (filming the picture) might have been the charm but also the reason so many of the crew, director included, succumbed to cancer.

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George Romero Surveys the Dead

[I conducted this phone interview with George Romero on October 5, 2005, in anticipation of the DVD release of Land of the Dead. It was originally published on GreenCine on October 18, 2005.]

36 years after shocking audiences with the unprecedented Night of the Living Dead and changing the face of American horror for good, and 20 years after his ambitious but budget-starved third installment Day of the Dead, George A. Romero returned to the genre with the fourth film in his epic series of society as we know it devoured by the hungry dead: Land of the Dead.

Though Night of the Living Dead and the sequel Dawn of the Dead are best know for pushing the boundaries of onscreen gore and reducing the body human into so much meat, gristle, and blood to be devoured by the hungry hordes, Night also connected with audiences when the horrors of Vietnam were first being seen on TV and Dawn evolved into a biting satire of consumer culture. In other hands, a zombie movie is just a zombie movie, but Land of the Dead, a horror film laced with rife with social commentary, political satire, and black humor, is not just a return to the genre he practically single-handedly created (or at least definitively redefined), but a return to form.

Romero’s commentary is pointed, to say the least. He sets the film in a literal gated community called Fiddler’s Green, a veritable feudal kingdom where class structure is strictly enforced and businessman warlord Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) rules. Brutal games and circuses are provided to distract the disenfranchised in the slums around the glowing glass tower where the rich and powerful live in luxury, and a militia keeps the poor contained as well as the city protected from the stenches. You can only take the metaphors so far, but loaded dialogue like “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” (bellowed by Kaufman when he’s extorted by a former thug that he’s just fired for daring to step up in class) keeps the satirical edge front and center. It may not be subtle, but how then how subtle can you be in a film that features scenes of mankind devouring itself?

In an all-too-brief phone interview, arranged in conjunction with the DVD release of Land of the Dead, we discussed his new film, the origins of his epic zombie series, and the marriage of horror and political commentary.

What’s different about the new “Director’s Cut” of Land of the Dead on DVD?

It’s not that remarkable, I’d have to see. I think the fans will be pleased because there are obviously a couple of gore effects that Greg [Nicotero] threw in there that I wouldn’t even have tried to get past the MPAA with an R. But mostly it’s the same film. I think that what’s the most fun about it are the extras. The guys from Shaun of the Dead came and shot a little film while they were on the set and Leguizamo made a little film of his own while he was on the set. I think that’s really the most fun, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. The intention of the film itself hasn’t changed. There are a couple of scenes that run a little longer, a couple of gore effects that we had to trim to get the R—the MPAA will never tell you to cut a scene, they’ll only say to cut some framage—and there are couple of scenes that we didn’t even try to put in the R because we knew they would never get through. But the intention of the film hasn’t changed. I was actually very happy. I keep saying I think I got away with murder. We defied the MPAA this time. The film was pretty much what I wanted it to be even in the theatrical release.

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Review: Dawn of the Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Part Two of George Romero’s projected Dead trilogy begins almost literally where Night of the Living Dead left off, though it is stylistically closer to the comic-book look of The Crazies. This time Romero’s plunging in media res is even more violent and merciless than before, the fast-paced editing pulling us into shock after bloody shock before we quite understand what’s going on. We’re grateful for the first breathing spell, about ten minutes into the film. A SWAT team has just wiped out a basement full of cannibal zombies in an urban apartment building, the result of residents’ defiance of orders to deliver their dead up for burning to help authorities stomp out the plague of zombie ghouls that began in Night of the Living Dead. “Why did they put them in there like that?” someone asks, and gets the bitter reply, “They still believe there’s respect in dying.” Later, up country, where clean-up teams roam the fields picking off zombies as if in a shooting gallery, there’s a telling moment when one of the SWAT guys lines up his riflesight on an approaching zombie. As he takes aim, a quick rack-focus reveals another rifleman lining up to shoot the same zombie from 180 degrees opposite. The first guy ducks away just in time to avoid getting shot by his comrade-in-arms. There is, at this point in the film, still a difference between shooting the dead and shooting the living.

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The Light That Failed: George Romero’s “Dead” Rock On

[Originally published in Queen Anne News, July 5, 2005]15

“Send some flowers to the cemetery,” growls the head honcho of a zombie-killing expedition at the beginning of George Romero’s Land of the Dead.

“Land of the Dead” zombie squad: John Leguizamo, Simon Baker and Robert Joy

Then scarlet fireworks bloom in the sky and every shambling corpse in what used to be a Smalltown, USA—complete with rotting park bandstand and picket fences—turns his/her/its milky eyes upward, mesmerized by … what? Images that trigger a half-remembered Independence Day, when American history and holiday pleasures were surely celebrated in that very park? Or do those bursts of light simply mirror the random, involuntary firing of synapses that so mysteriously reanimate the dead in Romero’s cemetery movies (previously, Night of the Living Dead, 1968; Dawn of the Dead, 1978; Day of the Dead, 1985)?

The zombie-maker’s movies have always operated as a kind of termite art, chewing away at the surface fictions that make it easy for us to coast happily through our July 4th, secure in Fortress America, full of faith in family values and the belief that the disenfranchised can always be “rendered” harmless. Romero flays our pretty pictures to the bone, exposing nasty stuff like racism, class warfare, Darwinian appetite, unbridled materialism. And on the spiritual front, Romero’s erasure of death as an ending or transition undermines the promise of something more than solitary, eternal confinement in flesh, perpetually driven by the need to consume.

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Review: Martin

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

“All aboard!” cries a voice at the opening of Martin and, as in The Crazies, George Romero’s fast cutting draws us in and pushes us forward on this crazy train ride. In Martin Romero uses closeup detail—more of objects than of people—to create a pattern of images, seemingly disparate but forming (as in Nicolas Roeg’s films) a unified impression of a single mythic event. This jarring joining-together of apparently incidental details creates a disorienting, genuinely threatening atmosphere, even while Romero’s modern vampire tale unfolds with tongue firmly in cheek. Martin demonstrates once again that Romero is a comic-book film stylist of the first order, with a riveting command of color and a knack for the comic juxtaposition of Old World Gothic horror with 20th-century American plasticity. The first thing we see teenaged Martin Matthias (John Amplas) do is murder a woman and drink her blood; yet Romero manages to get us on the boy’s side and keep us there throughout his battle with an elderly relation intent on destroying the nosferatu that has come to live in his house. In the train murder Romero puts us off guard with his emphasis on Martin’s clinical procedure: a hypodermic syringe of sedative, to keep the victim calm; a sterile razor blade, not teeth, to open the veins; the sexual aspect of a process we at first take to be rape heightened by the boy’s nudity, which is more utilitarian than sensual, a safeguard against bloodstained clothes.

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Review: The Crazies

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

A hand unscrews a series of lightbulbs. A switch is flicked on and the room stays dark. Shadows and forms dart out of vision before they can be made out. A pretty little girl clutching a stuffed toy protests, “Billy, you’re trying to scare me!” Then there appears on the wall the shadow of a man lifting a tire iron, about to strike, and we are suddenly back in that riveting, unpredictable world of Night of the Living Dead, where make-believe horrors quickly give way to unspeakably real ones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. For the first couple reels George A. Romero’s The Crazies builds overwhelming suspense, and teeters its audience breathlessly on the brink of the kind of shock orgy that made Night of the Living Dead so memorable. But what is threatened never actually materializes—at least not in any way that makes The Crazies a successfully affecting horror movie.

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Blu-ray: ‘Knightriders’

Three years after the success of Dawn of the Dead, George Romero stepped out of his defining genre to direct something more unexpected. Based solely on the film’s original poster, painted by famed fantasy illustrator Boris Vallejo and featuring Ed Harris striding a motorcycle in medieval armor, handlebars in one hand and a spiked flail in the other, you might expect Knightriders to fall in line with the Roger Corman drive-in genre of futuristic barbarian movies, an upscale Deathsport with a middle-ages theme.

Romero’s film couldn’t be farther from it. Knightriders does indeed offer riders in suits of armor over tunics and tights, jousting on motorcycles and battling with swords, maces, ornate axes and other ancient weapons, but it’s part of the spectacle they provide for local audiences with their traveling Renaissance Fair. To the crowds it’s just a show but for this community of cycle-riding gypsies and old-school artisans and craftsmen, it’s a good-natured competition undertaken in the spirit of their Arthurian inspiration.

The screenplay echoes the King Arthur legend but stops short of attempting to recreate it in literal form. Ed Harris took his first leading role as Billy, the benevolent king of the troupe and an idealist who aspires to the chivalric code in the modern world. He created this scruffy nomadic community and struggles to hold on to his singular vision as the troupe grows. The supportive Merlin (Brother Blue) is the troupe’s medical doctor, a man who dropped out of the traditional medical culture to be a healer, shaman, storyteller, and Billy’s most trusted advisor. You can pick out a Guinevere in his Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll) and a Lancelot in the loyal Alan (Gary Lahti), the heroic and handsome right-hand to Billy, but there is no betrayal of vows between them. There’s a Percival in the silent Native American local (Albert Amerson) who challenges Billy during an exhibition and then becomes his devoted shadow and protector. There is even a fall of their Camelot in the form of the temptation of money and fame, which draws out a faction of riders led by Morgan (Tom Savini), the resident black knight who undertakes every competition with a little more competitive aggression and physical gusto than most.

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