Monkey Shines (1988)

Monkey Shines (1988) movie poster

director George A. Romero
viewed: 09/26/2018

Monkey Shines is a well made piece of junk with a certain level of absurdity to all the proceedings. Generally speaking, capuchin monkeys are cute and not overly terrifying, but good for George A. Romero for trying.

Despite its 80s pedigree, it feels more a 70s film in concept and execution (It’s even got Joyce Van Patten in it!) And psychic connections, animal testing, a quadriplegic protagonist, and Stanley Tucci with hair.

Kudos goes out to the animal actors in this one. Boo, the capuchin, is a major character and is really quite impressive. The people actors deport themselves well too.

I know there are other human-monkey/ape love stories out there, but there is something decidedly odd in this one.

“It’s unnatural, you and that monkey.”

Creepshow (1982)

Creepshow (1982) movie poster

director George A. Romero
viewed: 06/13/2015

After watching Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990) a couple weeks back with my daughter, I thought that the kids might enjoy my favorite of these anthology horror films of my era, George A. Romero’s 1982 Creepshow.  I’ve long had a soft spot for Creepshow.  My best friend of the time and I were into comic books and we’d read the Creepshow comic book/graphic novel, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, several times over in bookstores and comic shops prior to seeing the film.

I had even regaled my kids with the story of how my friend and I went to see the movie and, sitting next to me, my friend said, “Right here, here’s when the hand bursts out of the grave!” followed by a shriek of his own, still pent up despite knowing what was going to happen.  I’ve often fondly remembered that moment.

Steeped heavily in the lurid tones and aesthetics of EC Comics, Creepshow is a wonderful paean to the scary, super-dark horror comics that it emulates.  Clara really enjoyed the way that some scenes shifted to drawings and comic panels, or even multiple scenes played in comic panels, echoing the comic book from which the stories meant to arise.

Creepshow features a great cast, the likes of Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Leslie Nielsen, E.G. Marshall, and a young Ted Danson.  It also features some awesome traditional FX from master Tom Savini.  It’s pretty darned entertaining.

I’ve always been partial to the 4th story in the set, “The Crate”, in which a long shelved primate with huge teeth is discovered in a box under a university science department’s stairs, and kills with hungry aplomb when he’s finally given freedom.  I think I had more mixed feelings about each installment, but now, decades since I last saw the film, I think the whole thing is just peachy.  In fact, I liked it so much I’m even considering checking out Creepshow 2 (1987), which I never did see (and think isn’t supposed to be nearly so good.)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968) movie poster

director George A. Romero
viewed: 10/25/2013

I really am not trying to scare the hell out of my kids.   I have to admit that after watching Poltergeist (1982), that I was highly amused at their reactions.  And I did show them a few films that I thought would be frightening.  Even a few Twilight Zone episodes.  But in the end, I really was just trying to watch movies with them and horror films are a particular interest of mine.  October has become a focal point for me and horror films, so it’s a kind of natural connection.

Night of the Living Dead is indeed a classic by a number of measures.  It’s one of several fascinatingly awesome independently produced horror films, though possibly the most influential of them.  It of course launched George A. Romero’s whole career and redefined the idea of zombies from some Creole legend to the more popular, contemporary dead people seeking brains.

Most significantly, it is a pretty great film.

Shot in black-and-white on a low budget, Romero scored quite a casting coup with his actors.  While none of them became recognizable stars, they all deport themselves finely.  And the simplicity of the situation, holing up in a single house with the lumbering dead outside, the drama stays taut and keen.

The funny part to me was that as the first walking corpse accosts the brother and sister in the cemetery,  Felix said aloud that they weren’t too scary-looking.  There isn’t a great deal of make-up effects throughout.  They are just wan humans, largely,…until they try to eat you.  But it wasn’t more than 15 minutes further into it when the kids were squirming and freaked out.  The menace of the ghouls, as Romero referred to them, evolves subtly from near banality into a much more evocative horror.

Felix eventually abandoned the room.  It was too much for him.  Clara stuck it out.

The film is many things, much written about already.  It’s societal critiques, implicit or explicit.  It’s most shocking imagery, the girl eating her father’s hand.  It’s nihilistic ending:  no protagonists survive.

The consensus was that Night of the Living Dead is one of the scariest films that we’ve watched together.

I posed it as “one of the best horror films of all time” in opposition to our planned film for the next night, Ed Wood, Jr.’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), as “one of the worst horror films of all time”, perhaps one of the worst films of all time, to which it is popularly referred.  Both films about resurrected dead.  The kids appreciated this idea.  Though Felix I guess knows his limits.

I really am not trying to frighten them or show them stuff that is too explicit.  But again, here, in this grainy black-and-white, the zombies munching on supposed human entrails and such, Felix noted that it was a more graphic horror film than we have perhaps watched before.  And maybe he’s right.

Well, however it goes, our October horror selection is running out and we’ll switch over to other fare for a while.  Hopefully that will allay any guilt feelings that I develop as to whether I was selecting appropriate material of not.

If I measured it by Clara, who is still only 9, I might still think I was doing okay.

Survival of the Dead

Survival of the Dead (2009) movie poster

(2009) director George A. Romero
viewed: 12/02/10

With Survival of the Dead, writer/director George A. Romero now has completed his second trilogy of zombie movies.  His original trilogy, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) are the core structure of his status as a major American film-maker.  The later trilogy, Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and now Survival of the Dead won’t do anything to cement that earlier reputation, but also won’t entirely erode it either.  This latter series of films, in fact, have gone from mediocre to pretty bad, and at this point seem to have lost the plot to an extent.

Survival of the Dead is a real mish-mash of a movie.  Part comedy, part Western, part zombie movie, it’s not committed whole-heartedly to any one direction.  While it sort of follows the time frame of the prior two newer zombie films, even picking up a character that appeared in those films to follow in this one, it’s also a free-standing story of its own.  On an small island off the coast of Delaware, a long-standing family feud between two Irish-American clans plays out in the post-Apocalyptic universe in regards to what to do with the zombies.

Kenneth Welsh plays Patrick O’Flynn, who thinks that the zombies should be most mercifully re-killed and buried, while his nemesis, Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), thinks that the zombies should be cultivated, trained to eat things other than humans, and potentially rehabilitated.  That and they just plain hate each other.  Enter a small roving National Guard militia, headed by Alan van Sprang, who are drawn to the island, and dragged into this Hatfield and McCoy-like feud, alongside the non-partisan zombies, and we’ve got the bulk of the story.  Even with that rather convoluted center, there is a lot more: a teenage hipster, O’Flynn’s alienated daughter who is tired of the feud, her horse-riding zombie twin, and the ranch hand who loves her.

The film employs a number of creative ways to dispose of zombies, from flare guns to fire extinguishers.  And the film also takes many opportunities for humorous zombie moments, where either the creatures are dumbly trying to maintain their functions as living beings (mailmen try to deliver the mail, farmers chop the wood, drivers drive their cars) or their lumbering attacks on the living.

But the film is just plain all over the place.  The most effort, though probably still well below a majority percentage, is focused on the O’Flynn-Muldoon feud that leads up to a good old fashioned Western-style shootout, perhaps inspired by the 1958 film The Big Country.  But it’s sloppy, unfocused, and generally just a hodgepodge of ideas.  And while not lacking in entertaining moments, it’s hard to figure out if there is any real point to all this stuff.

Interestingly, the latter trilogy of zombie films saw Romero showing greater sympathy for the zombies.  While Land of the Dead showed the continued callowness of humanity against the potential humanity of the zombies, Survival of the Dead, perhaps even in its title, plays out the question of an evolution of the living impaired.  While they can’t necessarily “evolve” since they aren’t procreating, they can develop, be cultivated.  But like so much of this film, the ideas are muddled beneath layers and layers of other stuff, never really developed themselves, and ultimately just left to hang there, much like a chained-up zombie with nothing to really do.

Will Romero make another zombie film?  Who knows.  Maybe he already is.  One would hope that whatever he does, that he perhaps puts a little more thought into it next time.  Nothing can take away from his original trilogy, but these later films continue to muddy the waters and tire out the concepts.

Season of the Witch

Season of the Witch (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. George A. Romero
viewed: 11/09/08

Season of the Witch is an obscure early film by cult director George A. Romero who is best known for his zombie films, including the classics Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) as well as several others.  While I haven’t seen all of his films, I had always liked Martin (1977), as well, and I’ve been slowly adding his films to the bulk of the films that I am watching.

Season of the Witch is most like Martin in that its supernatural aspects are conflated with natural explanations.  In Martin, for instance, Martin believes himself to be a vampire.  But is he?  Or is he just crazy?  It’s a clever conceit, an effective portrait of an outsider whose attempts to become part of the world become bizarre and nightmarish.

In Season of the Witch, the story is about an upper middle class housewife in Pennsylvania in 1973, bristling under the constraints of her chosen or enforced role.  It’s explicitly a feminist film, about a woman taking power of herself amidst a changing culture of conservatism to one of outright wantonness.  Her world is one most comprehensively understood in her surreal nightmares, which Romero plays out with some of his most avant-garde direction (also rather campy and amateurish).  Her struggle for empowerment, which she seeks in psychoanalysis, in a brief affair with a young radical, and ultimately in witchcraft.

Unlike in Martin, where the question of real vs. imagined is never fully explicated, the housewife’s concept of her supernatural abilities is depicted as most likely a fantasy.  While elements of possibility remain, such as a strange black-and-white cat entering her house as she attempts to conjure a demon, nothing explicitly fantastic actually ever takes place.  The possibility remains, but is unlikely.  In many ways, this is a much more naturalistic tale than one is used to from Romero.  But it seems, after his initial splash with Night of the Living Dead, he did attempt to branch out of horror, and while this film is not utterly successful, it has some qualities.

The dialgoue is interesting.  Very lively cultural discussions about a woman’s place in the world, in the changing world.  As a woman aging, with her children “leaving the nest” as it were, remaining attractive and sexual.  It’s intelligent discussion, even in a less powerfully constructed film.

It certainly adds to one’s understanding of George A. Romero’s ideological stance, one that he seemed to have more success in depicting via the horror genre rather than in a more naturalistic setting.  It’s also a low budget exercise, from a good director still feeling out his strengths.  I would only recommend it for more hardcore Romero enthusiasts.  Because, while it’s interesting to a degree, it’s also not the most enthralling of films.  One of the last two left of my Halloween collection.

 

Diary of the Dead

Diary of the Dead (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. George A. Romero
viewed: 06/20/08

George A. Romero has long established his place in American cinema, not just the horror genre in which he wound up working in almost exclusively and influencing and creating.  From his zombie films, starting with the amazing Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) and his fantastic vampire film, Martin (1977), Romero not only created intellectual and scary horror films ripe with social commentary, he was a unique voice.

What happened to his career after the 1980’s is probably a combination of things, with a few decent and probably a few out-and-out bad things.  When his career got “brought back to life” with remakes of his more classic films, and he was given the opportunity to direct a zombie film again, he brought out Land of the Dead in 2005, reinventing aspects of his series, showing that he still had some commentary left for society, even if his actual film was a not up to the level of his earlier work.

So, when Romero returned yet again with another re-take on the genre with which he is so specifically affiliated, this time back to the low-budgets and largely unrecognizable cast, one has to imagine that the “old master” had truly renewed his flame.  But this time, he makes the explicit mistake of taking a “viewer-shot” approach to the film, not unlike last year’s giant monster film, Cloverfield (2007), which also used a semi-found-footage approach to showing a traditional type of monster movie.

The conceits and the goals are the same in some ways.  They both seek to comment on the technology that has put cameras and the means of production into the hands of “users”, or average people.  No doubt the proliferation of the camera eye in society and the changes to consumption and production are altering culture in strange and unusual ways, perhaps profoundly, but neither film really manages to really do anything other than point that out and then rely on the contrivance of a narrative shot with hand-held cameras, with lots of cameraperson voiceover.  And of course, this pretense is a pretense because these films were not really made the way that they are meant to look like.  Diary of the Dead goes even further from believability in so explicitly making the student filmmakers so self-aware of their process and self-criticism, commentary, and ultimately, even the act of editing, showing the “strings” behind the puppetry.

It’s too bad.  I think this film could have been pretty decent without that approach.  There are a few good moments of zombie gore.  The eyes bubbling out and popping from the sockets of a zombie who got zapped with an electrical appliance, the zombie clown at the kids party (actually quite funny), and the highly corny death of the mute Amish guy who scythes his head to get himself and his zombie pursuer.  Actually the Amish farmer is good for several gags.

I don’t know all of what I would advise Romero in regards to next steps.  Keep making the films.  They are still more interesting than a lot of the dreck that comes out.  Do stay away from the hand-held, first person director stuff.  Just keep doing what appeals to you.  There is some decent stuff here.  Overall, its pretend self-awareness depicts a lessened self-awareness.  It seems that the reflexive qualities would be more apt to recognize its true means of production.  Wes Craven “discovered” post-modern self-commentary back in the 1990’s with New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), but he also showed how shallow all that could be without anything really interesting to say.

 

Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. George A. Romero
viewed: 07/13/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

As a big fan of zombie films and of George A. Romero’s preceding Dead trilogy, I was pretty excited to see him get a shot a doing a new zombie film. Romero really had not done much since his last film in the series, 1985’s Day of the Dead, a time period spanning 20 years, and I was a little dubious that he could still pull off a good flick.

The idea in this film, that 20 years have passed since the original series’s narratives, was pretty clever. Not just picking up where the last ones left off, but evolving the whole world beyond its original universe. Romero has always used these films for social critique and certainly takes aim at contemporary socio-political realities with the criticisms here.

In the previous films, life is largely one of survival, though by Day of the Dead, former social structures have begun to take root. By Land of the Dead, living society has rebuilt its structures in a crude version of its former self. The rich live in a luxury tower, protected by a militia that is run by the corrupt leader of the society. The militia protects the haves from the have-nots, just as much from the zombies. The poorer class live on the streets of the protected city, virtually like homeless people, though peppered with much of the crime and ruthlessness in its underground as well. The pooer people have learned how to deal with the dead, stunning them with fireworks when raiding shops for food and supplies and knowing to aim for zombie’s heads to kill them. Overall, they are less frightened of zombies and accept the dangers as part of the natural world.

But one key component of this film is that the zombies, too, have evolved, regaining the instincts of their past lives, learning to use tools (though like using a lawn mower on a parking lot surface, than anything useful). The zombies evolve a leader, one who figures out that the living aren’t just food, but a threat. He learns to use guns and other tools as weapons and is able to rally other zombies to follow him, communicating with grunts and moans.

It’s interesting to note that in the previous trilogy that an African American male was usually the main heroic lead for the films. This was particularly notable in the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), as a significant choice in a period marked by the civil rights movement. In Land of the Dead, the African American lead is the leader of the zombies, a far more sympathetic zombie, one with whom the audience is meant to identify with more than revile. It seems clear that the zombies represent another strata of a social class, a growing and evolving group, struggling to find their place in the world. This is even commented on by the hero of the living group toward the end of the film.

At the end of the day, Land of the Dead is no masterpiece. It lacks some of the low-budget charms of the originals in having name actors, Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo, where the early films had almost entirely unknown actors in the roles. Overall, it does stay true to its gruesome humor and social commentary, while still being a fairly fun adventure film. It is a solid effort, nothing to be ashamed of, for Romero, and actually quite promising for future sequels (already in development).

The Crazies

The Crazies (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. George A. Romero
viewed: 11/12/03

For Halloween, I always like to watch at least one horror film. It’s hardly a rigorous ritual, but I tried to stock myself up with a couple alternatives. I ended up watching The Changeling on Halloween and so I had George A. Romero’s The Crazies to watch a little later the next week.

For those of you that don’t know, I think that Romero is one of the great auteurs of American cinema. While that is not a reach by any means for many fans of cult cinema (in fact maybe he’s a little too mainstream for some of them), it may be a little surprising to others. I haven’t seen all of his films. This one I had never seen before, for example. But after having viewed his zombie trilogy and his vampire film Martin (1978), I was convinced that he’s one of my personal favorite directors.

The Crazies sounded quite relevant as well. A bio-chemical leak in a small town infects people with a virus that drives them insane and the world becomes apocalyptically violent as a result. Not actually a whole lot unlike Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which I saw in the theater this year. And also, this theme seems not unlike the mysterious origins of the zombie trilogy narratives, sometimes explicit, sometimes covert paranoia of the government and society. The social criticism is foregrounded significantly.

The Crazies wasn’t among Romero’s masterworks, though I would definitely include it as interesting from an auteur perspective for reasons mentioned above. It’s an earnest film, with some cheap exploitation violence and some excellent low budget production. It clearly shoots higher than it can achieve comfortably. The film has the anti-government paranoia, but a sustained humanism toward the military leaders (middlemanagement). It also bears the marks of the Vietnam era as well. Perhaps, maybe even more than his other films, it shows a sense of its period.

Not a great film, but not uninteresting.