George A. Romero

George A. Romero

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Night of The Living Dead (1968)
The Crazies (1973)
Martin (1977)
Dawn of The Dead (1978)
Knightriders (1981)
Creepshow (1982)
Day of The Dead (1985)
Land of The Dead (2005)
Diary of The Dead (2007)

Overview

George Andrew Romero (born February 4, 1940) is an American director, writer, editor and actor. Born to George M. and Ann Romero in New York City, Romero spent his childhood years growing up in the Bronx, New York. As a teenager he received an 8 mm camera as a birthday gift from his parents, and soon was filming everything in sight. After completing high school, George Romero moved to Pittsburgh to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) where he studied art, design and theater. and developed an interest for movies after seeing the old Universal horror movies that were being re-released in theatres. He attended Carnagie-Mellon University, and at the same time developed close ties with many Pittsburgh news editors and cameramen. It is here where he honed most of his filmmaking skill in both structure and editing. After graduation from Carnagie-Mellon University, he alongside John A. Russo and Russell Streiner formed Image Ten Productions. They specialized in small budget commercials, and most knowingly they directed a few Mr. Roger's Neighborhood episodes.

In 1968, they would soon create one of the most important and iconic independent films of all time. Night of the Living Dead, sparked not only George A. Romero's career, but it also sparked controversy amongst critics and audiences alike. Night Of The Living Dead was filmed in Pittsburgh and was the first major motion picture that was ever filmed in that city with a very small budget. "It was real guerilla filmmaking" - says Romero. The movie wasen't successful right away, it was left alone for about a year before being re-discovered by critics abroad, who did not dismiss this as just another scary movie, but a witty film that reflects on our society, it was until then that Romero received many offers to make more horror movies for the big studios. "I was just resisting, I didn't want to get typecast." And surely enough his next film Everything's Vanilla (1971) was commercially unsuccessful and bashed by critics. Romero on Everything's Vanilla - "The screenwriter was lazy and the budget really got in the way of production values", Romero later dismissed the film as "Another piece of crap".

A year later, Romero returns with Season Of The Witch, also known as Jack's Wife (1972). The film like his previous effort also suffered from budgetary constraints, but was recently hailed by auteur filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino as "one of the greatest character studies in cinema". The film received mixed reviews and also made very little business. Currently there is very little distribution on this film. Romero, fell under the radar and returned to directing/writing for TV. His next effort would come a year later, and it was known as "The Crazies" (1973). It's about a biohazard leak with a chemical known as "Trixie" - which transforms its victims into depraved, vicious people. The film had very little distribution and promotion, and it was unfortunately, unsuccessful. The film was later rediscovered in home video and is currently in wide distribution, thanks to Blue Underground. Romero considers this as the movie where he grew as a genuine director.

Four years later, after doing mostly TV episodes, he returned with Martin (1977). It starrs John Amplas, as Martin a homeless and disturbed young man who beleives he is a vampire. The film is currently a cult classic and considered by most to be the best vampire movie ever made. The movie certainly is a new take on the genre. To me Martin isin't a just a vampire movie, it's about a kid who is transfomed into a monster by systematic abuse, he becomes what people say he is. Unfortunately at the time the film was a financial bust. But like most of his films it was rediscovered and is now a cult classic. Romero, finally decided to go back to the genre that he created, it's a little movie that he called Dawn Of The Dead (1978). It is his most ambitious and best effort to date. The film grossed more than 50M dollars world wide and was hailed as "The best horror movie ever made" by Pulitzer price winning critic Roger Ebert. The meteoric success of Dawn established Romero as one of the best horror directors of our generation - and the film also spawned many other zombie films and established an entire new genre that is still popular to this date.

After receiving offers to make a sequel Romero refused, and later came Knightriders (1981). Knightriders has been considered as Romero's atypical effort, seeing that Dawn established him as a master horror director and to abruptly jump out of the genre was considered by most, well...stupid. Why would a filmmaker who's had meteoric success in his last picture do something so strange? - This movie is Romero's most personal film, it establishes a parable of how, at the time, Indipendent studious were being bought by larger studios. The film is about integrity if you ask me, maintaining your ground in something that you love to do that cannot be taken away by someone else and then stomped on. The film had some success, and has also become a cult classic. Anchor Bay has distributed copies world wide and can be found anywhere.

Creepshow represents Romero's most explicit appropriation of the visual style associated with the EC Comics tradition of the 1940s and 1950s. Titles such as The Haunt of Fear and Tales from the Crypt influenced the young director in terms of cinematic style and the narrative structure associated with popular horror film. Like many of Romero's works, however, the graphic nature of these comics would ultimately face attacks from various censorship forces such as Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code Authority. This influence is evident in many of Romero's films including The Crazies and Dawn of the Dead, but Creepshow contains its most literal representation.

Working alongside horror novelist Stephen King, Romero constructed Creepshow to reflect the anthology format of those earlier comics. True to comic book form, the film contains five individual chapters book-ended by brief opening and closing segments. Romero actively references the visual style of the EC Comics tradition throughout the film, employing such devices as comic panels and captions within the cinematic frame. The film also utilises bits of animation between chapters and creative uses of lighting and colour within the live action sequences, positioning the action even further within the comic book context. Though it inspired a sequel featuring a screenplay written by Romero and television series such as Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt, Creepshow remains largely unacknowledged as a serious work. This may be partly due to the fact that the film does not contain the explicit sociopolitical tone of many of the director's other works, opting instead for a more straightforward approach to the horror genre. However, Creepshow still bears significance in its illustration of Romero's visual style and in its contextualisation of several of the director's thematic interests.

Day of the Dead

Romero returned to the zombie tradition with Day Of The Dead (1985), a successful critique of Reaganomics and the politically reactionary 1980s. The film depicts the inevitable evolution of the zombie as a powerful force which threatens to overshadow humanity if necessary actions are not taken. Romero employs a much darker visual tone, contrasting that of Dawn of the Dead, to emphasise the ideological corruption of certain of the film's human characters. Original screenplay drafts reveal Romero's desire to construct a much larger and more detailed vision of a world facing possible extinction from threatening forces, but due to logistical and financial studio restraints this became impossible. Yet, the film stands alongside Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead as a major cinematic accomplishment.

Following the success of Day of the Dead, the director broke from his involvement with Laurel Entertainment. Romero's first product as an independent artist was Monkey Shines, a film that shares with Creepshow a reputation as a minor work. However, despite certain structural inconsistencies involving the addition of a traditional “happy ending” uncharacteristic for a director who generally prefers to end his films more ambiguously, Monkey Shines is still a work in need of recognition.

Like Creepshow, Monkey Shines neglects several of the strong sociopolitical themes informing many of Romero's other works, but it does contain certain key narrative elements anticipating The Dark Half (1993). Runner Alan Mann (Jason Beghe) is forced to assume new life as a quadriplegic after a debilitating accident. He undergoes a negative ideological transformation as his frustrations with his present physical condition and the behaviour of those individuals surrounding him become translated into the murderous activities of his trained monkey Ella. Though Alan does not initially take credit for Ella's actions, he soon realises that the bond between them is stronger than imagined. This relationship actively references the psychoanalytical concept of the “double” as defined by the writings of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank. Ella represents the dark half of Alan's psyche, physically enacting the hostile desires evoked by her master. Just as the zombies act as reflections of their human counterparts in films such as Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, so does Ella embody a part of Alan.

The film also suggests evidence of the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family as featured in many of Romero's works. Alan's mother moves in with him after the accident, bringing with her a persistent nagging suggesting a frustrated woman lacking self-awareness. She attempts to place Alan in a position of subservience, relegating his limited physical state to that of a helpless little boy in need of his mother. However, her inability to set aside her own selfish pride and provide the sincere attention that her son really needs inevitably results in her death by Ella. Monkey Shines does not belong to the same category as Romero's politically progressive zombie films, but it does stand as an important work containing its own cinematic strategies.

Two Evil Eyes

After contributing the brief “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” to Two Evil Eyes (co-directed by Dario Argento, 1990), King and Romero returned to collaborate on The Dark Half. Though conceptually a very complex work, The Dark Half stands beside There's Always Vanilla as one of Romero's most technically and structurally flawed films. The work continues certain narrative elements of Monkey Shines in its depiction of creative writing professor and pulp novelist Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) as an individual sharing psychological kinship with a violent nonhuman force. The Dark Half also delves more deeply than that previous film into the concept of the “double” and its relation to the human psyche. In an early scene, Thad stresses to a classroom audience the importance of discovering one's inner being as necessary element of serious creative work. Ironically, it is Thad's inner being, George Stark, who ultimately proves to be a destructive and debilitating force.

The Dark Half resembles Creepshow in its attempts to formally reflect the atmosphere of the EC Comics tradition. The film utilises expressionistic forms of colour and lighting, particularly during sequences featuring Stark, providing a comic book texture which works to reinforce the psychological nature of the narrative. In an early scene, Romero even makes fond reference to EC as the camera reveals an open comic book with a story titled “Slow Death” beneath one of Thad's notebooks. Despite such factors, however, The Dark Half remains an artistic failure lacking the structural depth of many of the director's earlier works.

The film ends upon a rushed and ambiguous note containing an overindulgence of special effects uncharacteristic of the director's style. Like Monkey Shines, The Dark Half cannot be considered among Romero's major works. Its structural inconsistencies and poor critical reception prevent its comparison to films such as Dawn of the Dead, but it does contain certain important narrative features reflecting the state of Romero's creative evolution at this specific point in time.

During the decade following the release of The Dark Half, Romero would direct only one film. Bruiser (2000) is an important and relevant work possibly reflecting the director's disillusionment with the loss of artistic identity within the monolithic studio system structure. Corporate conformist Henry Creedlow (Jason Flemyng) awakens to discover his face replaced with a featureless white mask. The anonymity provided by this physical state allows Creedlow to enact revenge upon those he deems morally and socially corrupt. Like the characters of Martin and Monkey Shines, Creedlow undergoes a negative form of ideological transformation which actually prevents any real social progressivism. His desire to break from the constraints of late-capitalist conformism is one which many of Romero's characters face, but Creedlow's violent logic lacks the awareness needed to stimulate any form of effective radical social change.

Stylistically, Bruiser is very different from many of Romero's other works. The film contains a sterile, almost minimalist, formal approach reflecting the conformist state the film's main character initially embodies. Despite its strong continuation of the director's thematic concerns, Romero has stated that “nobody gets Bruiser”. However, this is a problem symptomatic of the lack of responsiveness on the part of modern audiences rather than the effectiveness of Romero's socially conscious films. With Bruiser, Romero has chosen more challenging creative avenues to voice the necessity for personal awareness and social critique than what many other modern American horror films tend to offer.

Romero's newest film is Land of the Dead (2005), an effective return to the zombie tradition that originated with Night of the Living Dead. A strong critique of the current corrupt American sociopolitical scenario involving Romero's reactions to George Bush and the “War on Terror”, Land of the Dead proves that the director's films still provide relevant messages urging radical political change. However, Romero's cinematic vision has not always been properly understood. Films such as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead have inspired new generations of filmmakers appropriating only the basest generic elements of those works, ultimately resulting in failure to view the films within the broader cultural context to which they belong. As Romero's films demonstrate, engagement in progressive ideological transformation and rejection of social conformism are necessary elements for effective political change. Appropriately, this extends beyond the films' characters to the viewers themselves.

(Written by Biohazard - 9/25/07)

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