George Romero, director of zombie classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, died on July 16 of lung cancer. His death was a tremendous loss not just to the horror community but the filmmaking community in general. He was a huge proponent of indie filmmaking ... and he invented the modern zombie genre.
But Romero wasn't just about zombies. He had a varied career as a director, writer, and producer, mostly in the horror genre. As most casual fans don't know much about Romero's non-Dead films, we've ranked his other films for you so you know where to begin your Romero education.
A few caveats:
- Again, we have not included zombie movies (i.e. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead).
- We have not included non-genre films (i.e. There's Always Vanilla, Knightriders).
- We have not included films that Romero didn't both write and direct (i.e. Creepshow, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie).
Okay? Here we go ...
The Dark Half (1993)
My biggest issue with The Dark Half is that it is dull and predictable. A kid suffers from sudden blinding headaches and it's discovered that he has a few pieces of a parasitic twin in his brain that suddenly came to life. The assumption is that the teeth, nostril and moving eyeball were removed. The kid, Thad, grew up to be a writer, one who just finished his first literary novel. He is a best-selling author under the name George Stark, who pens violent, trashy pulp novels. When somebody finds out his secret and blackmails him to prevent the revelation, Thad decides to go public with George Stark. People around Thad begin dying. Though it is obvious what is happening, the movie is nearly half over before we see that George has come to life and is killing those who tried to "kill" him.
I never read the Stephen King novel the movie was based on. Maybe in the novel there was more subtlety. Maybe there was more clarity in the George Stark/parasitic twin connection. But the whole thing felt disjointed, like my mind was filling in obvious gaps. The one bright side is that George beats a man to death with his own wooden leg, which is something that I always find amusing.
Bruiser and The Dark Half are more or less even in my mind. Bruiser sneaked ahead because it was an original script from Romero. An all-around nice guy, Henry, is getting fed up with being walked all over - but he is too nice to do anything about it. No one listens to him at work, his wife treats him like crap and is having a none-too-subtle affair with Henry's boss. At a work party, people are encouraged to paint blank masks to represent themselves. Henry doesn't know what to paint on his. The next day, he wakes up and discovers that the plain white mask is now permanently attached to his face.
With the mask on, Henry is empowered to stand up for himself, which includes murdering his housekeeper (who is stealing from him), an old friend (who is stealing from him), his wife and his boss. With the final murder of his boss, Henry is 'freed' from the mask and leaves town to go live as a hippie mail clerk. Until he hears his new boss insulting some co-workers ... and the mask returns.
I get it - the mask is symbolic, everyone hides behind masks, yadda yadda yadda. It's not exactly subtle, and subtlety is something I have come to expect from Romero.
Two Evil Eyes (1990)
Two Evil Eyes was the brainchild of Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. Originally planned as an Edgar Allan Poe anthology with John Carpenter and Wes Craven, various conflicts caused Argento to limit Two Evil Eyes to two segments: one from him, and one from George Romero.
Romero's segment, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," is about a woman who is conspiring with her ailing husband's doctor (with whom she is having an affair) to have him sign all his assets over to her before he dies. The doctor has the husband under hypnosis to make him more malleable, but before he can sign the documents, he goes into cardiac arrest and dies. The couple stores him in a freezer until they can forge the documents, but the wife can hear him moving and talking. She eventually shoots him, and while her boyfriend is digging a grave in the yard, she and her former husband get into a fight. She is killed, and when the doctor finds the walking corpse, he tries to free him of his hypnosis. This doesn't work, and the doctor goes home, where the husband and "the Others" (ghosts, I suppose) find him, kill him and inhabit his body.
Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear (1988)
Monkey Shines was Romero's first studio film and as such has some drawbacks. For one, it has that slick studio shine as opposed to the gritty indie feel that I love so much. For another, the studio made a lot of demands of Romero, including a silly "happy ending" that drove Romero back into the arms of indie filmmaking.
In Monkey Shines, a marathon runner suffers a tragic accident and becomes a quadriplegic. After a suicide attempt, a friend, Geoffrey, sets Allan up with a woman who trains monkeys to assist quadriplegics. Geoffrey has been secretly experimenting on this monkey, Ella, to increase her intelligence. Naturally, things go awry and Ella becomes violently jealous of anyone who tries to get close to her beloved Allan.
The movie starts with a card assuring viewers that all the monkeys were properly trained and cared for on this shoot. You can even see some monkey puppet hands for close-up shots where Ella is trying to inject someone with a hypodermic. In our current movie climate where computers can generate any creature, it is refreshing to see a real monkey on the screen.
Season of the Witch (1972)
Romero's take on feminism focuses on a deeply unhappy housewife in a time when women were expected to be pretty things who raised children, kept the house clean and put on a big smile at cocktail parties. Joan's visits to a therapist don't seem to help her violent and sexual nightmares, so she goes with a friend to get a tarot reading from a local witch. While there, Joan becomes interested in witchcraft and soon after starts dabbling. Her spell draws her daughter's boyfriend to her and the two engage in an affair.
Joan's nightmares become more violent and her involvement in witchcraft becomes darker. Joan kills her husband one night when he comes home unexpectedly from a business trip and she mistakes him for a demon from her nightmares. Cleared of his murder, Joan officially joins the witch's coven and rejoins her social circle, where she takes great pride in telling people she is a witch. Her smile is no longer fake.
The Crazies (1973)
I may have a soft spot in my heart for The Crazies, as this was the first non-zombie Romero film I ever saw. The Crazies involves a secret government biological weapon that is accidentally released on a small town. The toxin causes people to literally go crazy: extreme rage, unpredictable behavior, rambling speech, irrationality. The film offers a commentary on the industrial military complex when the military rolls into town and institutes martial law. The infantry, who are "just following orders," clearly makes the situation worse because they are kept in the dark about the finer points of what, exactly, is going on. Ultimately, the scientist who believes he has found a cure is mistaken for one of 'the crazies' by the military and killed when confined with those who are actually infected.
I'm not a fan of vampire movies, so I avoided Martin for a long time. After seeing it, I am very sorry I did. One of Romero's best films, Martin centers on a young man who goes to live with his great uncle. He believes - and his uncle believes - that he is a vampire. Martin doesn't bite necks; his preferred method of blood collection is to drug an attractive young woman, slit her wrist and rape her while drinking her blood.
It is never confirmed if Martin is actually a vampire or if he just buys into his family's Old World superstitions. Martin's 'troubles' could just as easily be explained by sexual dysfunction: he calls into a radio talk show and describes his discomfort with the "sexy stuff" unless the woman is unconscious. Once he does have sex with a conscious, consenting woman, his interest in bloodletting diminishes significantly. Is he really a vampire, or is this just the guilt that comes from living in a religiously superstitious family?