Posts Tagged ‘george a. romero’

Sifting through the veritable mountain of tributes that have been flooding the internet since the announcement that the film world lost one of its truly great auteurs today, it seems to me that almost all of them miss a vital point : sure, the man, myth, and legend that was George A. Romero is among a small handful of people — King, Carpenter, Craven, Wrightson — who re-defined and frankly revolutionized horror across all media in the late 20th/early 21st centuries; he was beloved by fans for not only his staggering body of work but also his warm and engaging personality and infectious, perpetually-youthful enthusiasm;  and there’s no doubt that he will forever be regarded as The King Of The Zombie Movie in the same way Elvis will always be remembered as The King Of Rock N’ Roll and Jack Kirby as The King Of Comics. These ae all givens. But what most people fail to remark upon — perhaps because the aforementioned alone are more than enough to cement a legacy that, like his zombies, will never die — is that Romero was also one of the most important, and trailblazing, independent filmmakers of all time.

I’ll tell you who never lost sight of that fact for a second, though — all the celebrated indie directors who followed in his wake. Go on, ask folks like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith where they’d be without the road map Romero set out for them, they’ll tell you : nowhere. When a guy with a background in commercial and industrial film production hustles up $114,000, heads out to a Pittsburgh-area cemetery in 1968, and makes a flick that not only changes the face of a genre forever but plays both drive-ins and “proper” movie-houses for literally years on end, it fundamentally alters the definition of what is possible, and gives birth to the notion in many eager young minds that, hey, maybe they can do this one day, too.

Here’s the damndest thing of all, though — Romero affected this fundamental shift not just once, but twice.  Ten years on from Night Of The Living Dead, he doubled-down on his claim to cinematic immortality with Dawn Of The Dead, a rising tide that lifted any number of boats along with it. Just ask Tom Savini. Or Ken Foree. Or Goblin. Sure, they’d all done fine work in the past — and would continue to do so — but would any of them have risen to legendary status absent their involvement with Romero’s masterwork?

While we’re at it, let’s try to imagine the contemporary horror landscape had Romero never happened : there’s no 28 Days Later, a film that made its mark by dint of its open flouting of Romero’s unwritten-but-so-effective-everyone-else-followed-them “rules.” There’s no Zombie (or Zombi 2, if you prefer). There’s sure as hell no Walking Dead.

Like any number of artistic standard-setters, then, Romero gave birth to a veritable slew of either outright imitators on the low end or more slick, mass-audience-friendly progeny on the high, and surely others (thanks to an infamous copyright indicia oversight) profited from the fruits of his imagination, either directly or indirectly, more than he ever did himself — but if he let that bother him, he certainly never showed it : George was indie to the core, and while he did some damn fine work for the studios intermittently over the years (The Dark HalfMonkey ShinesCreepshow), after returning to the by-then-an-industry he’d created with  Land Of The Dead (by my account still the best John Carpenter movie of the last 20 years even if it wasn’t, ya know, directed by John Carpenter), he couldn’t wait to get back to his low-budget, DIY roots. Diary Of The Dead and Survival Of The Dead may not have been as well-received as Night or Dawn or Day Of The Dead, but do yourself a favor in the coming days as you program your home-viewing Romero marathons : watch ’em again with an open mind and tell me that they don’t feel like the work of a guy who’s absolutely in his element, making the kinds of movies he wants to make, saying the things he wants to say, with an admirable lack of concern for commercial considerations.

And while you’re perusing through his unjustly-less-celebrated works, don’t forget to give Martin a go and silently weep for what the vampire genre could have become if it had chosen to follow Romero’s lead rather than Anne Rice’s; enjoy the ethereal and intriguing admitted near-miss that is Season The Witch; frighten the living shit of yourself with The Crazies, a film every bit as prophetic as his zombie tales; check out Knightriders for proof positive that he could step outside horror altogether and produce a damn-near-sprawling moody character-driven drama tinged with understated melancholy. There’s a lot to choose from, and all of them are “master-class” offerings on how to do a whole lot with very little by way of resources — other than the two most important, vision and will.

Others have commented — and will continue to do so — on the expert analysis Romero offered on subjects ranging from racism to consumerism to sexism to Cold War and post-9/11 “security state” paranoia in his films, and it’s no secret that he proudly wore his “social justice warrior” bona fides on his sleeve well before that term became either a badge of honor or an intellectually lazy, reactionary insult, depending on who’s using it. Suffice to say, though, that even the most politically conservative viewer would have to admit that what Romero’s perspective revealed was a guy who understood that horror is most effective when it’s rooted in the world we know, and when it both reflects and lays bare certain uncomfortable truths about our society, indeed or reality, that we’d rather not talk about. George understood, intuitively it seems, the words of the late, great Walt Kelly — “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

In today’s early morning hours, then, this writer would humbly suggest that we lost a whole lot more than the father of the modern zombie movie. We lost a pioneering independent filmmaker, an insightful social and political commentator, and a singular artistic talent. We lost the best there is at what he did, and I don’t think any of us would begrudge him getting back up from the dead for a minute in the least, if only to take a well-deserved victory lap.

This has been a rough week indeed for comics fans. Already reeling from the too-soon departures of underground legends Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, just hours ago news broke of the death of Bernie Wrightson, whose lavishly creepy illustrations haunted the imaginations — and found their way into the nightmares — of generations of readers. Arguably (hell, maybe even inarguably) the premier horror artist of our times, the esteemed Mr. Wrightson was a pre-eminent innovator and consummate craftsman whose painstaking attention to even the smallest of details made all the difference in the world and elevated his work from being “merely” great to being both great and memorable. But don’t just take my word for it, feast your eyes on some of his grimly lush renderings and decide for yourself :

As you can clearly see, Wrightson (who for many years omitted the “e” at the end of his first name and signed his work “Berni”) was a master of all mediums, from the brush to gray markers to pen-and-ink to washes to duotone paper to painting — you name it, he tried it, and always with resounding success. He really was just that good.

Wrightson began his professional career in 1966 working as an illustrator for his hometown Baltimore Sun newspaper, but after meeting legendary comics and fantasy artist Frank Frazetta at a convention he felt sufficiently inspired to give comics a try, and in 1968 was hired on by DC, where his work began appearing regularly in the House Of Mystery and House Of Secrets horror anthology series. Similar work for Marvel followed on “of-a-piece” titles such as Chamber Of Darkness and Tower Of Shadows, but his “big break” came in 1971 when he and writer Len Wein created the most famous “muck monster” character of them all, Swamp Thing, for a one-off Victorian-era story in House Of Secrets #92.  The strip proved to be so popular that Swampy was given his own series, complete with a revamped, then-modern origin, and Wrightson illustrated the first ten issues of Swamp Thing before signing on with Warren Publishing in 1974, where he put his then-positively-exploding talents to use on both original stories and adapted works (most notably of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft) for legendary black-and-white mags such as Creepy and Eerie.

The mid-’70s ushered in a new chapter, with Wrightson and studio-mates Jeff Jones, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Michael W. Kaluta expanding their reach beyond comics and into commercial art, but he never left the funnybooks behind completely, and his 1983 graphic novel adaptation of George A. Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow led to a sustained and productive working relationship with King that saw him produce original illustrations for the books Cycle Of The WerewolfWolves Of Calla, and the restored edition of the classic The Stand. 1983 also saw the publication, via Dodd, Mead, and Company, of a deluxe edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein complete with nearly 50 pen-and-ink illustrations that Wrightson had spent seven years producing and that many consider to be the pinnacle of his masterful use of line and shadow. Here’s just a sample :

In 1985, Wrightson and writer Jim Starlin oversaw Marvel’s Heroes For Hope, an all-star “jam” benefit comic for African famine relief, and in 1986 they did the same for DC with Heroes Against Hunger, beginning a long and fruitful collaborative partnership that saw them team up on the highly-regarded mini-series The Weird and Batman : The Cult for DC and The Punisher : P.O.V. for Marvel in ensuing years. A wide range of card game, film design, and commercial work followed on from there, as well and continued comics work for publishers such as Heavy Metal (the character of Captain Sternn in the Heavy Metal film was a Wrightson creation), Dark Horse, IDW, and Bongo until his retirement this past January due to health issues following brain surgery.

Bernie Wrightson — incomparable talent, winner of too many industry awards to mention, and delineator of gorgeous grotesqueries for  a half-century — lost his long battle with brain cancer on March 18, 2017, aged 68. He is preceded in death by his first wife, undergound comix cartoonist and “Big Two” colorist Michele Wrightson, and is survived by wife Liz, sons John and Jeffrey, and stepson Thomas. He cast a long and darkly beautiful shadow over the lives of comics and horror fans around the globe, and his untimely passing casts the longest one of all. Thank you, good sir — may you rest in peace as surely as your work will continue to cause sleepless nights for years to come.

And hey, since we’re on the subject of shitty direct-to-video zombie flicks —

Honestly, folks, they don’t come much worse than the 2008 “remake” (and I use that term very loosely) of George A. Romero’s classic, Day Of The Dead.

I remember in the time between when this project was announced (sometime in 2006, if memory serves me correctly) and it landed like a thud on video store shelves, Netflix, etc., most hard-core horror fanatics were — skeptical, to put it kindly. Sure, the budget was okay (estimated to be around $18 million, and filmed in Bulgaria to make those dollars stretch even further), and Steve Miner was attached as director, a guy who had earned a certain reservoir of goodwill for Halloween : H2O. The cast list didn’t look to bad, either — Mena Suvari was set to star, Ving Rhames would be in there for a (brief, as it turns out) cameo as a military commander, Ian McNeice was going to play a burned-out ex-hippie DJ, Nick Cannon (before his career seriously took off thanks to who he married) was in there someplace, a pre- 90210AnnaLynne McCord was on board — surely it couldn’t be as bad as we all feared, could it?

As things turned out, the finished product was actually much, much worse.

First off, let’s get one thing straight right away — 2008’s Day Of The Dead isn’t a remake of the Romero original at all. It’s not even “based on” that film as the credits proclaim. The only vague similarity between the two is that the first one had a semi-intelligent zombie who was capable of learning named Bub (in a legendary performance by the great Howard Sherman), and this one’s got a vegetarian zombie (yes, you read that correctly) named Bob.

That’s it. Seriously. Oh, and this one’s got a secret underground military base, as well. But they don’t get to it until about the final 30 minutes of the film.

So no allusions to Cold War paranoia. No attempts to educate the zombies for domestic use/possible co-existence. No mad doctor. No questions along the lines of “what price will our possible survival come at?”

No, friend,s all of that would require brains and heart, and this film has neither. Hell, Miner and company can’t even decide if they want their zombies to be slow shamblers or the new, speedy, 28 Days Later model, so they give us both (as well as a mix of live-action and CGI creatures, with extremely mixed results). instead all we’ve got here is the story of a by-now-typical zombie outbreak that first looks like a virus but turns out to be much worse plaguing the scenic mountain town of Leadville, Colorado (and to this flick’s credit Bulragia does, indeed, look a bit Colorado-ish) that our heroine, army private ( I think, although maybe she was a corporal, I can’t remember and don’t care) Sarah Bowman (Suvari) just happens to call home.

And I think I’m just gonna leave it at that because, honestly, there’s just no reason to see this movie. A pretty decent cast turns in listless, one-dimensional performances all around, which is what I would probably do in their shoes as well if I’d read this mind-numblingly lifeless script. There’s no tension, suspense, or even anything really interesting going on. The best thing I can say about the whole thing is that it’s over in a truly mercifully short 86 minutes.

Day Of The Dead , 2008 incarnation, is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from First Look Pictures. It’s got a sharp widescreen transfer, 5.1 sound, a commentary with Miner and several of the cast and crew, a making-of featurette — all the bells and whistles. But it still sucks. Royally. But hey, if it just had another title — any other title — what we’d be looking at here is yet another lousy DTV living dead flick. Stand in line and take a number.  By trying to hitch itself onto Romero’s wagon, however, it shows itself to be not just bad, but shameless and disrespectful, as well. Avoid at all costs, I beg you — please!

If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the notoriously disparate horror community, it seems to be the belief that George A. Romero, creator of the modern-day zombie movie, really fucked up with 2007’s Diary Of The Dead.

Is this a universally-held opinion? Of course not, there’s literally no such thing. But somewhere in the neighborhood of about 75% of the hard-core horror fans out there , including even some of Romero’s biggest boosters, either think this thing is an unmitigated piece of garbage or, if they’re feeling more generous, a regrettable misstep from a guy who maybe just doesn’t have “it” like he used to.

As is my custom, I’m here to say “pshaw” (or however you spell that) to all that. Diary Of The Dead is no masterpiece, to be certain, but not only is it nowhere near as bad as its sizable legion of detractors would have you believe, it’s actually a lot more relevant and insightful than the vast majority of the other “hand-held horrors” out there made by much younger, much more”with it”, but ultimately less talented filmmakers.

Essentially what Big George is doing here is going right back to the beginning of the entire zombie apocalypse — the first “Night,” if you will — and viewing it through a fresh and contemporary lens. Disenchanted with big-budget Hollywood moviemaking after “Land Of The Dead,” Romero wanted to go back to the basics — low budgets, inexperienced actors, new guys doing the gore FX, etc. He was yearning for his independence after spending a few years in the belly of the Hollywood beast, and figured (quite rightly, too, I might add) who better to re-examine the roots of the modern zombie phenomena than the guy who got the ball rolling in the first place?

So George headed for Canada with about three million bucks, a company of unknown actors, some raw but talented behind-the-scenes folks, and emerged with exactly what he was he was trying to make — a film that, for good and bad, has all the immediacy, earnestness, and yes, warts, of a first-time cinematic effort.

We’ll focus on the warts first, just to get them out of the way. The acting in this thing is uneven at best, atrocious at worst. Nobody involved in front of the camera has really achieved much career-wise, and there’s a good reason for that : there’s just not a single standout performance in the bunch. In fact, moments of genuine competence feel like a breath of fresh air, so entry-level is most of the thespian work on display here. Which isn’t to say that the majority of the performers are actively bad, but most are pretty clearly in the earliest stages of honing their craft.

Now let’s move on to the good. Most of the effects work, a mix of both live-action and CGI, is pretty solid for a movie with this sort of budget. The zombies seem menacing (and yes, George is still sticking with the slow-shufflers variety here, more power to him) and numerous gore effects are well and truly grisly. The cinematography is great, the location work is superb, and the atmosphere is both tense and realistic (as far as these things so).

What about the story, you ask? Well, as with all Romero films, this is a work of social commentary first and foremost and a horror film second. The zombies are largely there to serve as a grotesque mirror held up to our own selves, and more specifically to our societal obsessions. George’s target here is the “culture”of YouTube and other so-called “emerging media,” and what our insatiable appetite for instantly documenting everything says about us. It’s clear from the outset (because his surviving girlfriend says so) that the character who supposedly shot the “found footage” (and just how “found” a lot of this stuff really is just so happens to be one of the big questions this film is asking), a film student named Jason, is long since dead. His former lady-love has spliced the best of his work together, added in some music and what have you to give it a more “professional” feel, and the end result is her cobbled-together-on-a-computer tribute to her late beau.

As with other filmmakers who have gone down this road, this gives George as easy out in that a lot of the less-than-professionalism on display feels “right” since this supposedly isn’t the work of a skilled movie veteran. Fair enough. It also negates the need to explain everything that’s going on, because a group of film students out making a homemade movie who just so happen to stumble upon the opening rounds of an actual zombie invasion aren’t going to be in position to understand, much less explain to their audience, just what the hell is exactly happening and how it all came to be. We’ve seen this sort of intentional confusion as to what’s being portrayed on screen used as a plot contrivance/necessary short-cut around exposition in everything from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to REC and its American remake Quarantine to the Paranormal Activity films to — well, you get the idea. The list is verging on the endless at this point.

What sets Diary Of The Dead apart from the other entrants into the not-really-homemade horror subgenre, though, is Romero’s eagerness to use the hand-held DIY craze as a way of commenting right back on said craze itself. Granted, subtlety has never been one of the man’s strong suits, and sometimes it feels like he’s hammering us over the head with his point that this sort of high-tech voyeurism and the desperate need to be noticed even as we’re supposedly the ones doing the noticing that it entails is ultimately of questionable (at best) value to humanity as a species. But hey, that sort of overzealous earnestness is exactly in line with what you’d expect from a first-time filmmaker determined to take the world by storm, rather than a 71-year-old (at the time) veteran of scary movies. Romero is tackling his material with gusto again, and training an decidedly youthful set of eyes on a story that’s pretty old by this point.

For good and bad, Diary Of The Dead (and for the most part it’s good), this feels like a flick made by a first-or-second-year film student with no money and his only his friends to serve as cast and crew who just knows in his heart that he can make a better zombie movie than the great George A. Romero. Even the ending is little more than a heavy-handed reprisal of the same point Romero himself made at the end of the original Night Of The Living Dead. And, of course, like all first-time efforts (even ones that aren’t real first-time efforts) it bites off way more than it can chew and its reach exceeds its grasp. But damn if it doesn’t pull it off against all odds enough to keep you watching. Oh, and it’s got a deaf Amish guy, so how can anybody really hate it all that much?

Diary Of The Dead is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the Weinsteins’ “Dimension Extreme” label. It features the sort of essentially perfect widescreen picture and 5.1 sound you’d expect from a new release on a big label, and there’s a nice little “making-of” featurette included as well as a feature-length commentary track with Romero holding court with several of his cohorts from both sides of the camera that’s a damn interesting listen and never veers into the self-indulgent, self-congratulatory territory that so many new release commentaries do.  It’s also playing intermittently on AMC over the next couple of weeks beginning tonight, where it’s being hosted by Big George himself, so that should make for a fun watch. Give it a try and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Hell, if it was the work of a a real, rather than  fictional,  first-time filmmaker, you’d probably find yourself saying this Jason guy has a pretty bright future ahead of him.