Last Sunday, film director George A. Romero died at the age of 77. Thanks to Ken Trevarthan at the Sunday night news desk, an Associated Press article about this just barely made deadline for the Monday paper. With all due respect to the fine folks at the AP, I feel like I must use my allotted space this week to offer my own tribute, which is why I bring to you, from the Nov. 12, 1982, Journal Gazette, this entertainment page notice of his film “Creepshow”.
Romero was best known for his classic 1968 low-budget black and white horror film “Night of the Living Dead,” a low-budget effort shot on black and white, and minimally released to drives-ins and, according to urban legend, even some intended-for-kiddies Saturday-Morning double features. I saw “Night” for the first time on, of all places, WEIU-TV, who showed a real grubby old print of it late one Halloween night, which I watched on an ancient black and white General Electric TV in the basement, coil of old wire tied into the rabbit-ears to increase the reception, of course, and promptly got the bejeezus scared out of me. Just as it should have been.
Romero went on to write and direct a total of six related zombie films, thus setting the “rules” for zombie movies still followed to this day. 1978's “Dawn of the Dead” is just as a good, where a group of refugees fights for control of a fully stocked shopping mall against a heavily armed biker gang, with the zombies a wildcard contender. 1985's “Day of the Dead,” hampered by budget cuts, starts with the world pretty much wiped out, but with a tired contingent of soldiers and scientists hiding out in an underground bunker trying to find a way to “cure” the undead. It’s a lot of talking, interspersed by some really gross parts, but time has proven kind to it. 2005's “Land of the Dead” was his big-budget “comeback”, starring Dennis Hopper for crying out loud, an economic take on a zombie crisis with the “haves” and “have-nots” of a “safe” zombie-free city going at it in a squabble over the division of labor while at the same time the zombies outside are about to show they’ve actually learned a thing or two. “Diary of the Dead” was a 2007 “back to the independents” attempt at downscaling, presenting the “footage” shot by amateur filmmakers in the early days of the zombie outbreak. Scorned at the time by hipsters who hated the idea, I still think it’s underrated; and then finally, Romero’s final film before his death, 2009's “Survival of the Dead”, a baffling but (almost) never boring story of warring Irish families on an island off the Delaware coast arguing about what to do about the zombies on their shores. If you ever wanted to see a zombie woman riding a wild horse though a field in slow motion, here’s your chance.
Romero made other movies of course, and back in those heady and still-missed days of the mid-90s when Coles County had about seven video stores, I was able to track down every one of them. “Season of the Witch” was this weird drama about a bored housewife who turns to witchcraft to make her life interesting. The original VHS box for this actually gave away the ending, which just so happened to be the scariest part of the film. “The Crazies” was an ambitious horror-action film where the residents of a small town become violence-obsessed lunatics after the release of a chemical warfare agent in their water. A gang of unaffected try to escape the governmental crackdown, only to discover they may not be unaffected after all. Pretty intense stuff, highlighted by Illinois’s own Lynn Lowry, a lovely young lady who could have been, should have been, a movie star. “Martin,” probably his best non-zombie film, features a lonely, depressed, teenage “vampire” who moves in with his religious aunt. Turns out he may either actually be a vampire, or a total phony; a great scene on a train and a shocking ending on this one too. “Creepshow” of course was the one most people my age saw the most of; a tribute to those old E.C. comics like “Tales from the Crypt” which had an all-star cast shuffling around a whopping five horror tales, the best of which featured Stephen King getting eaten by an alien weed and E.G. Marshall eaten by cockroaches. “Monkey Shines” was a constant presence on video store shelves of the era, you know…the one with the creepy monkey toy on the cover? It was real long and featured a quadriplegic’s mental connection with a murderous capuchin monkey. I watched it with a buddy of mine who flat-out cheered when the monkey got his comeuppance at the end. And then “The Dark Half,” an adaptation of a Stephen King novel which I’m sure the author himself has forgotten he wrote about a writer’s battle with his murderous alter ego come to life. Not bad if I remember right, with a scene involving a sentient tumor suddenly opening a black, glassy, eye during brain surgery that made me jump back from the T.V. screen when I saw it. And that was pretty much it for a while. Romero chose to sit out the great horror resurgence of the mid '90s, cranking out only a weird revenge-fantasy called “Bruiser” before re-launching his zombie films with “Land of the Dead.”
There are some reading this article who, perhaps understandably, can’t help but think there has to be better ways for a person to spend their time than this, what my grandmother used to call, “slop.” You have a point. But for the teenager that I was and the teen-at-heart that I am now, I must use this public platform to note that all forms of art, even the “sloppy” kinds, have their masters. Oh, and I forgot he also directed “Knightriders” which recasts the Knights of the Roundtable as a motorcycle gang. Now tell me that ain’t art.