Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: The films of George A. Romero
Why it’s daunting: Romero is responsible for a scattered filmography of genre films of varying budgets and quality. He’s made brilliant movies for no money, and junk on Hollywood’s dime, and has made so many zombie movies—all with similar titles—that anyone trying to pick just one could easily get confused as to where to start.
Possible gateway: The 1978 zombie melodrama Dawn Of The Dead
Why: In terms of Romero’s zombie oeuvre, the original 1968 Night Of The Living Dead and its 1978 sequel Dawn Of The Dead are pretty much on par. Night is astonishingly assured for a debut film—especially one in the low-budget horror genre. The black-and-white cinematography and the “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” joshing of the opening scene prepares audiences for a cheesy throwback to ’50s drive-in trash, but then Romero keeps ramping up the intensity and the gore, in a story packed with twists and vivid characterization. And Romero deepens Night when he introduces a band of hick zombie-hunters, whose indiscriminate kill-spree serves as a handy metaphor for any number of late-’60s social ills.
Yet Dawn Of The Dead may be a better gateway to Romero’s work as a whole, because it’s more in line with the kind of movies he’s made throughout his career, and specifically in his late-’70s heyday. Dawn mixes gallows humor, extreme gore effects, classic suspense beats, and lyrical interludes, in ways that transcend horror. It starts as a quasi-action movie, following a SWAT team on a raid of a zombie-filled tenement building. Two of the SWAT members peel off and join a helicopter pilot and his girlfriend as they flee the city. The foursome lands at a suburban shopping mall, which they purge of zombies and secure for themselves, creating a mini-utopia stocked with enough food and recreational supplies to last for years. Then a cadre of human ravagers storms the mall, and Dawn ends as a kind of offbeat war movie, cut with slapstick sight gags. Throughout, Romero relies heavily on a library of stock B-movie music cues, and in a way, Dawn Of The Dead is a compendium of everything Romero loves about those movies, wrapped up in a tightly scripted package. It’s a nail-biting, stomach-turning, oddly enchanting experience that maintains its momentum for more than two hours.
And beyond the bloody thrills—which by themselves would be enough to make Dawn a classic, really—the film has a distinct point of view. Dawn Of The Dead is a well-observed study of how people try to escape their troubles by building little fortresses, and how their ultimate dissatisfaction with those fortresses leads them to reach a little too far and destroy everything they’ve built. Romero has always anchored his zombie movies in the mostly heroic actions of pragmatists who think their way out of impossible traps, and who thus earn the audience’s respect for their patience and ingenuity. But inevitably, their tenuous barriers against the undead collapse, and people get eaten. Romero makes movies about individuals trying to distance themselves from the lunacy around them. Yet even those heroes screw up.
Next steps: Zombie-wise, Romero has never topped Night and Dawn, though the 1973 film The Crazies (in which “radiation-spawned flesh-eating zombies” are replaced by “virus-spawned homicidal maniacs”) explores similar themes to the Dead movies, dealing with how humanity survives—or fails to—in the face of an apocalypse. It’s a little shrill and repetitive, but The Crazies is also ruthless and unsettling in its portrait of ordinary people giving in to their basest instincts, whether they’ve been infected or not. Similarly, the 1985 zombie-fest Day Of The Dead is claustrophobic and pitched too high, but still contains moments of quiet reflection, and an ice-cold depiction of systemic breakdown. By contrast, Romero’s 2005 comeback film Land Of The Dead is so slick—with its name cast and state-of-the-art effects—that it lacks some of the director’s handcrafted touch. Strictly in terms of story and theme, though, Land is arguably Romero’s richest zombie film, touching on social inequity and the inevitable decline of empires. It holds up well.
Immediately before and after Dawn Of The Dead, Romero made two other masterpieces: the 1977 vampire riff Martin and 1981’s unclassifiable Knightriders. The former stars John Amplas as a young man who believes he’s a vampire, though he needs sedatives and razor blades to drain the blood of his victims. (That is, if he’s really killing anyone at all, and the murders aren’t just happening in his head.) As much a mood piece about urban decay and the absence of real magic in the world as it is a conventional horror film, Martin is nonetheless disturbing on multiple levels, and a potent distillation of Romero’s vision of a world divided into predator and slightly scarier predator. Fans of Martin should also take a look at Romero’s not entirely successful 1972 film Season Of The Witch, about a bored suburban housewife who dabbles in witchcraft as a way of making herself feel special. It’s sloppy and painfully hip at times, but Season Of The Witch is also genuinely creepy, with well-developed characters and a detailed sense of place. Consider it a dry run for Martin.
Knightriders is an odder duck, albeit one with striking plumage. Ed Harris stars as the “king” of a group of modern motorcycle-riding “knights” who travel the countryside staging their own quirky version of a renaissance fair. Like actual motorcycle gangs, Harris’ bunch has strict codes and hierarchies, though Harris (like Amplas in Martin) takes them more seriously than his friends, imagining himself as the last chivalrous man in a society of sellouts. Knightriders has been read as a movie about Romero’s own troupe of off-Hollywood mavericks, doing their own thing in the wilds of Pennsylvania while trying to keep the fat cats at bay. But more than anything, it’s a damned entertaining show, with some of Romero’s most likeable characters engaging in mellow philosophizing between kick-ass motorcycle stunts.
Horror writer and Romero fan Stephen King has a cameo in Knightriders, and he played a significant role in the director’s career in the ’80s. After trying (and failing) to collaborate on movie versions of Salem’s Lot and The Stand, King and Romero whipped up the 1982 anthology film Creepshow, an homage to classic EC comics that’s better in concept than in its oft-leaden execution—though it remains an agreeable-enough bit of grotesquerie for grotesquerie’s sake. Romero and King later collaborated on the scripts for Creepshow 2 and the Creepshow-inspired TV series Tales From The Darkside, and at the start of the ’90s, Romero adapted the King novel The Dark Half into a solidly crafted, albeit somewhat punchless, thriller. The Dark Half isn’t great, but it’s true to both men’s sensibilities, and it deserves more respect from King fans and Romero fans than it’s gotten.
Where not to start: Romero’s flirtation with EC Comics-style storytelling dominates the post-Creepshow phase of his career to an excessive degree. Romero only made a small handful of films in the ’80s and the ’90s, and too many of them feel like Creepshow segments extended to feature length. Even Romero’s hourlong segment of the 1990 Edgar Allen Poe anthology Two Evil Eyes plays like a drawn-out primetime TV soap, thanks to the flat lighting, inert pacing, and wall-to-wall score. Both 1988’s Monkey Shines and 2000’s Bruiser are a little more successful—and darker in tone, which helps—but their similar stories of revenge-by-proxy lack the kind of complexity and specificity that makes Romero’s best films so much more than mere exploitation fare.
Land Of The Dead marked something of return to form for Romero—and was a box-office hit to boot—but rather than following it up with more of the diverse subject matter and profound themes of his most productive years, Romero has continued to drain the zombie well. On paper, 2007’s Diary Of The Dead sounds like a winner: a return to day one of a zombie outbreak, as seen through Internet uploads and the video cameras of a group of young film students. But the movie makes no pretense to naturalism, which means that in spite of a few good zombie gags, Diary fails conceptually, playing more like an amateurish made-for-cable movie than a truly raw, caught-on-the-fly documentary.
The soon-to-be-released Survival Of The Dead is a little better, in that it was shot at decent locations with competent actors and effects, and with a script that’s classically Romero-ian in its emphasis on how people solve their problems in stages. (Characters have to head to the thing in order to get the thing that allows them to do the other thing, and so on.) Survival has a compelling idea at its core too, concerning two long-feuding families who disagree over whether they should kill all zombies on sight, or preserve their undead family members until a cure for zombieism can be found. But Survival lacks the kind of grand theme that gives the best Romero zombie movies their oomph. There’s a little about family values and religious indoctrination, but not enough to generate any satirical heat. Plus, Romero has increasingly begun to play to the core base of fans who like to dress up as zombies at midnight shows and cheer on every clever kill. There’s something philosophically off about the recent Dead films. Romero used to court to the mavericks who peel off from the throng. Lately, he’s been playing to the bloodthirsty marauders.
Oh, and unless you’re a hardcore fan, steer clear of 1971’s There’s Always Vanilla. It’s a slack romantic comedy with some flashes of personal flavor and local color buried beneath counterculture clichés and accidental chauvinism.