Sunday, July 14, 2013

My Heroes Have Always Been Monsters Part 36; George Romero's Dead Films

There was one Halloween in particular where the allure of horror films finally became too much for me to bear. One channel was playing Halloween 2, which I was forbidden to watch, and another was playing The Thing, which I'd already snuck and watched a little of after everyone had gone to bed. A third channel was playing some old black and white film which I didn't have much interest in, probably wouldn't have any blood.
I spent that night aimlessly wondering around the house, occasionally sneaking off to one of the back bedrooms to watch a little Halloween 2 on a tiny, 3rd hand black and white tv. By the time my parents had finally fallen asleep in front of the tv and my brothers were occupying themselves with the Nintendo Halloween 2 was almost over and I'd only seen about half of it.
I sat on the edge of the bed, pretty annoyed and started flipping channels, right in time to see a car driving up a country road and the title Night Of The Living Dead flash across the screen. What the hell, I thought. It's not like I don't like black and white movies, just wanted to see one of the slasher films I've been reading about in my friend's copies of Fangoria.
Black and white horror movies are supposed to have cheesy over acting, off screen kills, no blood, and a happy ending. This director apparently didn't know anything about making a black and white horror film; the actors seemed like real people in a documentary, kills were on screen, there was blood and gore, and a happy ending? HA!
Night Of The Living Dead rattled me and left me breathing hard on the edge of the bed. Over the course of the credits with the montage of grainy black and white photos it sunk in that I just saw
something very adult and hopeless and I probably wasn't ready for it. I didn't know the word 'nihilism' or any other word to describe how NOTLD made me feel and that was exciting. I couldn't get the movie out of my head and talked about it all the time. It had nothing to do with the zombies either, it was the characters. The zombies were background, like a storm or a flood the people were trying to survive.
My fixation was on the characters and how they fought to survive together and to survive each other. Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees were scary but Harry Cooper was willing to feed fellow humans to the ghouls to save himself and his family and yea, he was probably a bit of a racist too. Imagine having to count on that guy under those circumstances! I think Barbara was the one I identified with the most; like me she had no idea what she was stepping into when the film began then the poor girl spends the whole movie terrified and bewildered as the world collapses around her.
Director George Romero had already scared the shit out of me more than a few times with his tv series Tales From The Darkside, but I wasn't aware of directors names, besides Spielberg and Lucas. I actually didn't focus on Romero's name for a few more years until an issue of Fangoria hit the stands with some kind of special feature on '78's Dawn Of The Dead, Night's sequel. My heart raced looking at all those blood splattered pictures and the excellent writing really had me jumping out of my skin to find this movie! And to find out there was a third? I was in ecstacy.
Well, I easily found Dawn Of The Dead at our local video store, in fact had glanced over the cover weekly without ever making a connection and felt pretty stupid. I brought it home with high hopes and got more than I bargained for.
I thought I'd seen gore, I mean Robocop...The Thing...No. This was intense. Exploding heads, flesh eating, gut munching, spilled entrails. And it was smart, well written, well directed. Dawn actually evolved the story of Night rather than just cashing in. And as gory and violent as the film was it never felt exploitative.
Dawn became an obsession of mine. I literally rented the film on a weekly basis for months. It was the standard by which I would judge all movies for a long time. Day Of The Dead impressed me as well, though it took longer for me to warm up to and I don't watch it as often as Dawn. (The year Day was released Return Of The Living Dead also came out, a sort of reboot that referred to the original as a film based on fact. Great film highly recommended!) To this day Romero's original three Dead films remain among my favorite films of all time (for a comparison other top films for me include Robocop, Taxi Driver, El Topo, Apocalypse Now, Deep Red, The Fly, The Warriors, Re-Animator, Videodrome, and The Bride of Frankenstein).
Romero's other films, like Creepshow, The Dark Half, The Crazies, Martin, etc. were films I enjoyed but the Dead films spoke to me on a visceral level. It was disappointing to get all the way through the
90's without another Dead film. I'd assumed Romero had said what he had to say and had moved on. Then out of the blue Land Of The Dead was announced and there was some hints that it was going to fulfill some of what George had been unable to pull off with Day due to massive budget cuts. Ah, now we're talking!
Land Of The Dead was released in 2005, a year after Zack Snyder's better than it should be remake of Dawn. In Land the dead seem a bit more manageable, almost like homeless people and the living are getting on with their lives the best they can. Starring John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Simon Baker, and Asia Argento (Argento's father Dario produced Dawn and Day and made Two Evil Eyes with Romero), Land deals directly and sometimes heavy handedly with class. Reviews were mixed, as were my emotions. By the time Land came out I'd changed. I'm jaded, I've seen it all. Over the years I've plowed through so many zombie movies, comics, novels. I have zombie toys on my shelf, zombie t shirts. And as good a film as I think Land is, it wasn't the film that transported me back to my youth where things were still new and exciting and I was still discovering the world. I guess that's asking a lot of any film.

Watching Dawn Of The Dead was a life changing event and definitely helped shape me as an artist. I'm forever indebted to George Romero for what he taught me about storytelling and pushing the limits.

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