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Homogenized Horror Part III
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George A. Romero, at one time that name was the yardstick by which independent scary movies were measured. He did not climb on any bandwagon with his first feature, Night of the Living Dead, rather he started the bandwagon! Oh, yes, many people will say "Yes, but Herschell Gordon Lewis not only did explicit gore first, he did it in colour when Romero was still directing commercials." That is quite true, but we must remember that most of these people are speaking with hindsight. H.G. Lewis had audiences in stunned silence with Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red 5 years before Romero and company were even planning their premiere feature. We must also remember that, like Romero, Lewis' films got only regional release, usually in drive-ins down South and in the West and they seldom (ever?) got above the Mason-Dixon line. (A movie called Blood Feast did appear on New York's infamous 42nd St Grindhouses in 1976 but it was not Lewis' 1963 groundbreaker, it was a re-titled Italian crime drama about a serial killer.)
Believe it or not Romero did not originally pigeonhole himself as a scary movie director. Other, non-scary movies followed that almost no one noticed. These movies are just being rediscovered to-day and we can see that his talent and versatility are just as evident in drama and comedy. Ah, but people wanted scary stuff! After trying his hand at subtlety with the psychological thriller Martin, Romero decided to ressurect his zombies in what was to be his magnum opus, Dawn of the Dead.
Many people who are against movie violence derided the film from the beginning. The New York Times critic walked out after 20 minutes and wrote a scathing 2 paragraph review which included the comment "I have a pet peeve about flesh eating zombies who never stop snacking." Many people wrote angry responses to this negativity and told the woman she should have stayed for the whole movie and tried to read between the lines. The violence in Dawn has been likened to a Road Runner or Tom & Jerry cartoon. The first couple of times we see a gaping wound blasted in a zombies head we can't help but gasp but it happens so often in Dawn that we find ourselves shrugging off the same effect that had us wide-eyed earlier. Furthermore, whether he planned it or not, Dawn was a social commentary with terror film overtones. One of the most amazing comments on the film came from the Italian Communist Party who declared the movie was "A parable about the decline of the American Capitalistic society."
Made for $1.7 million, which even in 1978 was small change by Hollywood standards, Dawn of the Dead was backed by Italian director Dario Argento, who also provided distribution in Europe. Argento's edit of the film, some 40 minutes shorter than the American print, is like seeing a wholly different film. George Romero once said "Argento showed up on the location once. He looked around, liked what he saw and went back to Italy." Argento's cousin Claudio, however, said Dario actually directed several scenes but did not ask for any screen credit. Looking at the film with a wholly analytical eye it IS indeed conceivable that it happened this way because the style and execution of certain scenes is unmistakably European.
Dawn would have been hit with an X rating had it been submitted to the MPAA, so Romero did not even bother. Salah Hassenein, head of United Artists, released the film unrated, a daring step. Once the returns started coming in (DAWN grossed over $100 million domestically) he knew what a potential goldmine he had in Romero and signed him to a contract for 10 feature films. Yes, TEN of them! In a more perfect world that would have been cause for celebration. But Hollywood is far from a perfect world. The big bucks from United Artists also meant they wanted some measure of creative control which meant Romero's own creativity would ultimately be suppressed.
His next film, Knightriders, was inspired by a real life group; The Society For The Preservation Of Anachronistic Practises, and offered a group of enthusiatic if highly eccentric people who hold medieval jousting matches on motorcycles. Many people were confused bu the film and walked away not knowing whether they should take it seriously or laugh at it. United Artists saw the disappointing returns and combined the film with Dawn of the Dead on a double bill. The problem? Dawn had to be recut for an R rating so it could be screened with Knightriders. The result? BOTH films bombed! Romero's next film Creepshow was actually good if something of a Johnny-Come-Lately in the subgenre of anthology films which Britain's Amicus Films had dominated in the 1970's.
Day of the Dead, what was supposed to be the last of the Living Dead trilogy was drastically altered from Romero's original concept which, according to UA spokespersons, would have cost $120 million and run 4 hours. The gore was there, the drama was there, the conflicts were logical and the characterisations believeable...but somehow the old magic was just not there. One amusing story though goes that Joe Pilato, who played the Napoleonic Capt. Rhodes, kept approaching Romero with ideas about his character only to be refused every time. At the very end when Rhodes is being literally torn apart by marauding zombies Pilato ad-libbed the line "Choke on 'em!" as he saw his own intestines being ripped out. Allegedly Romero went to him when the shooting was over and said "So you got one in after all." Pilato was more convinced that Romero had approved simply because it would have cost too much to reshoot the scene. Day of the Dead did well but probably because Romero and his zombies were so closely allied in the minds of his fans.
Later films like Monkey Shines and The Dark Half did not do well at all. Fans who jumped for joy when "Fangoria" magazine announced something new from Romero were outraged when they plunked down $6.95 for the magazine only to read a single paragraph saying he was directing a commercial for Japanese television! As of this writing his newest film Bruiser has not been released and there is still talk of bringing the Dead-Heads back again for Twilight of the Dead.
We can all hope that somehow his creative spark has not been too dulled by the Corporate Hollywood Suits and the magic is still there. Hope, sort of like the zombies, goes on forever.