Staff Picks: The Grand George A. Romero

To celebrate the Shudder premiere of the rediscovered 1973 horror The Amusement Park on June 8th, we at A Fistful of Film would like to look back at the work and legacy of its director, the late great George A. Romero. In his life, Romero revolutionized the American horror picture through his 1968 landmark Night of the Living Dead, and over the course of decades, experimented and explored many arenas of the horror genre. In honor of this tremendous legacy, we have selected a handful of his films to help contextualize this recently discovered gem within the director’s canon.

The Crazies (1973): By David Alkhed

If there’s one thing one will always take away from virtually every film George Romero made, at least in the 1970s, is the recurring motif of social commentary. That shouldn’t be too surprising, not only because it’s been so vital in discussions regarding Romero’s work it’s impossible to miss it, but also because Romero wasn’t the most subtle when it came to depicting it. But nevertheless, he drove the message he wanted to get across home most of the time. And even if Romero could be a relatively sloppy filmmaker on the technical side, his films still hold up thanks to their energy and relevant social themes. One of those films is one of his more forgotten films, The Crazies from 1973.

With The Crazies, adapted by Romero from an existing screenplay by friend Paul McCollough, he hits two birds with one stone and makes a film that functions both as antiwar commentary on the, at the time, still raging Vietnam War with images of a military takeover of a small town met with local resistance (and in case the Vietnam connection wasn’t more obvious, there’s a priest who sets himself on fire in symbolic protest, get it?), but perhaps most crucially, a film about a pandemic and the handling of said pandemic. Yes, who would’ve thought nearly fifty years later this shit would be relevant? It paints a very disturbing yet sadly accurate depiction of the spreading of a virus and military takeovers as a necessity to control and hide a military-authorized toxin (I don’t want to spread any conspiracy theories, but with ongoing rumors of the Coronavirus being manufactured in a Chinese lab it does ring a few bells). Yet even when the military’s purpose is to defend and protect civilian life, this film goes a way to show how that is the opposite of what often happens when the military and martial laws are implemented.

As you might’ve guessed, the title of the film is purposefully ambiguous. Who really are the titular crazies? The civilians, the infected ones, the military, or the higher ups responsible for the whole mess?

Martin (1978): By Saoirse Selway

In many ways, Martin is the Romero fan’s Romero film. This being due to the fact it combines many of Romero’s best and most interesting aspects from his whole career. It has visceral thrills, a deep sense of melancholia, and a deeply subversive and thematically minded approach to common mythology. 

The period between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead was a period of fervent experimentation and development for Romero. He hadn’t yet been picked up in a major studio contract and wanted to break away from his genre ties. This resulted in him constantly pushing the boundary of what people thought he was capable of, and thus he made some of his most daring films. This lo-fi downer aesthetic culminates in Martin, Romero’s last film of this era, and one where you see the identity he would make hit after hit out of come to fruition. 

Martin follows a young, withdrawn, mentally disturbed boy as he returns to live with a relative who decries him as Nosferatu, intends to save Martin’s soul, and then destroy him. 

I can imagine for Martin that this is, psychologically, a lot to deal with. 

We see his flashbacks to religious abuse he suffered as a kid in the same stark black-and-white as the romanticized visions of his murders, where he imagines himself as a more traditional, romantic vampire like Dracula. We in fact see a vision like this in the opening, one where he envisions himself bursting in and taking a woman in the night, but as soon as it’s done, it hard cuts to him forcefully subduing a woman with sedatives in a full, very unglamorous facemask, before bleeding her with a razor.

The whole film dances around his idea of the mythical versus the real, and the idea that maybe all of this is just some twisted form of cyclical abuse, and it does it in really interesting ways as the people Martin meets outside of his religious abuse change him and help him grow. The film is ultimately one about the terrible things non-magical people do to each other, both for religious reasons and personal ones, and how we’re all somewhat doomed to our own individual tragedies. 

It’s a really beautiful thing, ironically. 

Creepshow (1982): By Jacob Calta

I’ve maintained, to this day, that 1982 was single-handedly one of the greatest years in film, and the finest year for cult and genre cinema. From Conan to Blade Runner to Tenebrae and beyond, it was pound-for-pound an insanely stacked year for all sorts of cult classics and genre mainstays. And I’m proud to say that (much to no one’s surprise) that George Romero’s contribution to this keystone year was his surreal, camptastic anthology film Creepshow.

This loving send-up to classic horror bi-monthlies like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror from E.C. Comics has captivated and entertained horror hounds for decades, spinning five ghoulish and garish tales of despicable characters getting their just desserts. Written (and starring!) legendary horror author Stephen King, Romero assembles an impeccable cast of talent, including veterans like Leslie Nielsen, E.G. Marshall, and Hal Holbrook and genre legends like Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, and King, to star in this impeccably realized affair. The most impressive revelation upon viewing Creepshow is how evenly developed it all feels. Romero, having spent over a decade mastering the horror genre, has managed to pace and construct these five tales to suspenseful near-perfection. Part of this lies in King, an avid writer of short stories, conjuring tales perfectly constructed for the format. But that’s not to dismiss Romero’s execution.

The Living Dead director lets the terrifyingly amusing proceedings simmer adequately, and treats the audience to frightfully fun payoffs, be they the almost slasher-like picking off in “Father’s Day” or the breathtaking affairs in “Something to Tide You Over.” What will of course make the greatest impression on viewers is something of a departure from Romero’s aesthetically grounded, yet still striking filmography. The film is most famous for its use of a combination of stylized sets and backgrounds, colorful lighting, wayward camera angles, and even animation to capture the aesthetics of the horror comics of old. Romero tactfully employs these bursts of color and creativity to amplify the already surreal proceedings, with plenty of gruesome deaths implied, and some subtle yet entertaining sight gags. Add in Tom Savini’s exquisite effects work and Romero’s trademark use of library music alongside John Harrison’s deliciously 80s electronic score, and the spell cast remains unbroken for the film’s entire two-hour runtime. The cumulative effect is akin to friend, collaborator, and contemporary Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria; a positively captivating and over-the-top experience that amplifies the scenario through sheer intensity.

Simply put, Creepshow is everything Romero and company set out for it to be and so much more. It assembles a talented cast to perform a script penned by one of horror’s modern masters, all under the keen, efficient, and incomparable eye of one of the genre’s modern movie-making maestros. Hats off to George A. Romero for having done the impossible and made a perfect anthology film, for not since 1945’s Dead of Night has such a film of its kind worked so damn well. Silly scares and humorous horrors await genre fans in this modern classic.

Day of the Dead (1985): By Amos Lamb

While Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead have taken on a life of their own, arguably outshining the legacy of their creator themselves, the third entry into the Of the Dead franchise remains under-loved and under-talked about to this day. While it is known to most Romero fans, Day of the Dead is often left out of zombie discourse despite the fact that it is, in my eyes, Romero’s best zombie film. 

This entry places its characters in an underground bunker where a group of soldiers and scientists must determine the outcome of humanity’s war with the zombies. Instantly, the tone is set in a stark contrast to the slow-build up of Night of the Living Dead and the satirical tone of Dawn of the Dead, for the film immediately thrusts us into a misanthropic, gritty, and bleak situation. Small things like the recurring image of the calendar root the film in a different sense of survival to what we’ve seen in the previous films. It’s a clever way to evoke the humanity of the situation and adds to the growing tension and paranoia between the survivors. The whole cast is brilliant, and the staging and direction makes it feel like a neo-Shakespearean tragedy. But while Day of the Dead is the bleakest of the original trilogy, it still manages to have a lot of fun, especially with its effects. The Godfather of Gore himself, Tom Savini, puts in the best work of his career in this film for my money. From the iconic arm wall, to every single thing about Bub, to the tearing a dude in half, I adore all of the gore in this film.

While I love all of Romero’s original Of the Dead trilogy, ever since I saw it for the first time, Day of the Dead has been a standout favorite.

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