What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
The late George Romero did so many things for the horror genre, and American film in general. But in my opinion, Romero’s true genius shone in the way he wrested the conventions of horror away from the drawing-room-and-fireplace set and into the hands of the working and middle classes. He put horror behind the roll-up garage door and in the shopping mall, and made the Rust Belt town and the suburban nowhere as important to the genre as the romantic Carpathian mountainscape and crumbling castle had been to the gothic tradition. Though his zombie films, as well as movies like The Crazies and Martin, Romero tore down the wispy, billowing curtains and put up plastic blinds; blew out the candles and replaced them with dangling bare bulbs; swapped the cobwebbed grand staircase with the creaky basement stairs, the iron portcullis with the plywood door, the horse-drawn carriage with the Amtrak. Everybody owes him some kind of debt.
And let’s not forget that he took a genre often had at least a whiff of xenophobia—a genre that often linked the dark unknown with the foreign or rural Other—and made it blatantly antiauthoritarian. So long live the memory of Romero, his ugly houses, and his low-budget sound mixes. As a way of paying tribue this week, I ended up re-watching Martin. This is his very Rust Belt take on the vampire movie, which many of my film-crit buddies consider to be his best work. I’ve always preferred Romero’s “social,” group-based movies (the Dead films, The Crazies) to his “psychological,” single-character-centered ones, though this is easily the most accomplished and fluid example of the latter category. Thematically, it might be Romero’s most “underground” film—a direct ancestor to the likes of Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard.
It takes perverted ingenuity to turn something as eroticized and aristocratic as the vampire archetype into a study of alienated working-class boredom, and plunk it down into the unscenic, post-industrial environs of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Romero’s longtime home base, Pittsburgh. The closest thing to in Romero’s body of work is his uneven and under-seen second feature, Season Of The Witch, about a suburban housewife who begins to practice witchcraft—a pokey and imperfect (but nonetheless kind of interesting) attempt to fuse the era’s feminist concerns with the occult. Though it was made on an even tighter budget, Martin does everything Season Of The Witch tried to do much better. This time around, I was struck by the way the movie is enhanced and even ennobled by its technical roughness: the noisy soundtrack; the cramped spatial limitations of the sets; the way the movie uses some very authentic and hideous ‘70s wallpaper to both establish milieu and create expressionist, Dr. Caligari-esque backdrops.
It’s the ordinariness that makes it so claustrophobic. This points to what made Romero so special: He used the premise of horror to trap characters in the places we ourselves wish to get away from.