In our second week of Lost Legends, we’re turning our attention to the King of the Zombies himself, George A. Romero. As tempting as it would be to focus solely on his work with the undead, I’ve instead opted to look at some of his other horror work (and Dawn of the Dead because if there’s an excuse to watch Dawn of the Dead I’m taking it.)
The Crazies (1973)
Overview: A small town becomes infected with a virus that sends its citizens crazy.
Focus: A novel aspect of this film is how little it focuses upon the infected. After a grim opening in which a father with the virus kills his house and then burns down his wife with him and his kids inside, the focus of the movie splits between two other stories which mostly focus upon the nitty gritty of surviving.
The first plot follows a group of survivors as they try and escape the town while slowly succumbing to the bug. They spend the movie trying to stay one step ahead of the military, the infected, and each other as they know at any point any of them could go mad. The compelling aspect to Romero’s virus here is that it doesn’t change the physical attributes of a person, it just enhances their worst instincts. Throughout the film, it’s hard to tell scene-by-scene if a character has become infected or is simply cracking under the pressure of staying hidden, which creates heaps of tension for the viewers and the characters alike.
The other plot focuses on the military and their campaign to halt the virus. A lot of this plotline hinges upon red tape and admin as the army try to reign in the chaos of both the townspeople and their own chain of command. A running issue is a need for security voice prints anytime anyone has to make a call meaning that information passes from higher-ups to ground troops to scientists incredibly slowly.
Romero: George A. Romero has a gift for keeping the human element front and centre and showcase how quickly everyone can fall apart once the societal rules change. With The Crazies, he eloquently shows how hard it would be to contain a contagion even in a small town when faced with misleading orders from Washington, petulant scientists, and townspeople who need to be lied to and corralled like cattle. A lot of other directors go for the big set pieces over the character work but Romero keeps the humans at the fore of the story helping us to foster connections to them and hope they avoid a grisly end.
Overall: Not quite as effective as his zombie movies, The Crazies shows Romero’s skill for emotive character work, the importance of showing the nuts and bolts of survival, and his sense of scale. We get to see the contagion from a variety of points of view and it’s very clear early on how bad this outbreak is and also how hopeless the plight of the citizens of Evansville will inevitably be.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Overview: During the zombie apocalypse, four survivors take refuge in a shopping mall.
Zombie: You can’t write about Romero and his legacy with writing about the Z-word. The man was a master of the undead and even today, nearly forty years and innumerable other zombie movies later, Dawn of the Dead is the benchmark for how to do a zombie movie correctly.
The plot is simple: we begin in the midst of the zombie outbreak as society is collapsing and people are trying to maintain control any way that they can, whether it’s trying to make sure the TVs are still broadcasting up to date help or trying to enforce the law in a civilisation moments away from complete cataclysm. Much like in The Crazies, Romero has a great hold on showing how societal structures begin to collapse during a crisis. The opening scenes in the TV station showing conflicting information passing back and forth under a cloud of terror and confusion rings true, as do the scenes of trigger-happy cops storming a tenement building with some trying to keep the peace and others looking for an excuse to shoot black people and Latinos.
After these opening scenes, four survivors (two from the TV station and two of the cops) end up taking refuge in a deserted shopping mall, and this is where Romero really goes for broke.
Shopping: The mall as a setting is perfect. It is full of wide open spaces so Romero can show zombies shuffling around, but there are also a lot of places to hide so we can have some jump scares in the aisles. It is full of weaponry, food, and distractions, thus perfect for holing up until the crisis is over, and it allows for something that is both scary and immensely playful. The mall is scary because it is so hugely iconic of the USA and so familiar that seeing it filled with the undead serves as a microcosm for the state of America in the movie. It is also so familiar that it is easy to see ourselves in that setting being eaten alive or running for our lives. On the other hand, the mall lends itself to a lot of fun scenes as the survivors, once they’ve barricaded the doors with the zombies outside, play dress-up, run riot, do target practice on mannequins, ice skate, and take a little vacation from the horror in the real world. It also allows for Romero to make a comment on American consumerism in a way that’s right in your face but never feels too preachy.
Overall: This is a wonderful movie with a lot of blood and a lot of heart. Romero loves these characters and loves this setting so he gets the most out of all of it. Tom Savini’s make-up and effects are, as always, flawless and the zombies remain creepy and unsettling four decades later. Romero made six zombie movies before we lost him, and this is without a doubt the best of the lot.
Overview: An anthology of creepy tales inspired by EC’s range of horror comics.
King and Comics: When I was growing up I had a stack of the old EC Comics titles like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. They were all quick stories that took a few minutes to read and, depending on the story and the writer, could be scary or funny or gross or all three. The artwork was charmingly rough and the monsters grotesque and real. Some of the stories had happy endings but most of them ended with twists or screaming faces. To a slightly morbid kid with an overactive imagination, they were the greatest thing in the world and probably the first steps towards a lifetime love of horror.
Once I left school for university I had developed an all-consuming addiction to Stephen King. I couldn’t get enough of his books and short stories, and devoured everything I could get my hands on. My all-time favourites are still his first two short story collections: Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. I read these books cover to cover many, many times. I read and told stories from these books to flatmates, girlfriends, girls I wanted to be girlfriends, and tried to imitate King’s style in my creative writing courses. I was hooked.
Creepshow: George A. Romero’s Creepshow was written by King and seeks to emulate both the style of the EC Comics range and King’s own stories. It is like my birthday fell on Christmas day and got twice the amount of presents. The movie is made up of five short films with a wraparound story featuring Stephen King progeny and Locke and Key author Joe Hill. The stories are fun, gross, scary, jumpy, and just the right length. They range from tales of madness, revenge, deceit, the risen dead, and creatures locked in boxes who find their way out.
Romero, working alongside longtime collaborator Tom Savini, crafts wonderful images that feel like comic strip panels come to life. The monsters are perfectly rendered by Savini and Romero lets his camera linger on them because there’s no worry that they’ll look cheap or fake when Savini is on his top form.
Overall: The best two stories of the collection are The Crate and They’re Creeping Up on You, two wonderfully macabre stories, one about a yeti-like creature and a downtrodden husband, and the other about a Howard Hughes-esque recluse and the bug infestation that takes over his penthouse. Both stories are grotesque, scary, and amusing but in different ways. They are both a perfect mix of Romero, King, and the source inspiration that they both clearly have a lot of love for.
Monkey Shines (1988)
Overview: A quadriplegic man gets a helper monkey with murderous consequences.
Everyday Items: Monkey Shines typifies for me the joy of a horror movie. Unlike a lot of other genres which are tied to certain themes and settings, horror has always had that wonderful hook wherein a person couldpoint to any mundane, everyday object and ponder ‘And what if that thing started killing people? Then you have a horror movie.
This movie hits the ground running with Alan Mann (played by Jason Beghe), our rugged, physically able hero, getting knocked to the ground by a truck while out running. The accident renders him a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair and watched over by a surly nurse with an annoying bird. At the same time, Mann’s friend Geoffrey (played by John Panchow) is developing a way to make monkies smarter by injecting them with pieces of brain. The two ideas coalesce when Geoffrey, seeking to test how smart his experiment has become, has the monkey trained to help Mann out. However, the injections have caused a weird effect and Mann and monkey become psychically linked. This causes Mann to become more animal and primal, and it means the monkey, Ella, begins to eliminate Mann’s enemies.
Body Horror: This movie probably didn’t need to be two hours long, but Romero spends a good hour getting us into Mann’s head and showing us a life with no movement below the neck. Even without the monkey element, these scenes are scary enough and Jason Beghe plays it brilliantly. He’s not overdoing it and really makes us see his frustration and pain at being confined to the chair and at the whims of the people around him. For a majority of people, the idea that something will happen that essentially traps you in your own body is terrifying, and Romero is very careful to make us see exactly how little Mann can move and how helpless he is before the arrival of Ella.
This is Romero’s first studio movie and you can tell. It lacks a lot of the gritty lo-fi charm of his earlier work and needs a bit more blood and playfulness. Panchow provides some laughs but for long stretches, the tone is quite sombre. Even when Ella begins her rampage it lacks the subversive charm of The Crazies or Dawn of the Dead, and is played straight with a ‘the killer is inside the house’ vibe that we’ve seen done a million times.
Overall: Not the terrible movie that the internet would have you believe, Monkey Shines is not perfect but it does have a lot to like with some great performances, a cute as the dickens monkey, Stephen Root in his first big screen role, a quadriplegic sex scene, and a shirtless Stanley Tucci in his prime.
Featured Image: United Film Distribution Company