Dead again: George Romero's "Diary of the Dead" brings more undeadliness to the Bay Area this week. (Photo by Steve Wilkie/The Weinstein Company)

Undying Love for George A. Romero

Dennis Harvey February 14, 2008

It probably wasn’t George A. Romero’s original dream to become semi-famous for movies about the flesh-eating undead. Yet arguably no American director has creatively given so much to the horror genre as he — or gotten so little back, at least in financial terms. Does he actually like making zombie flicks every few years? Or is it just the one reliable commercial fallback in a career that’s perpetually gotten the short end of the mainstream-funding stick?

He’s nearly 70 now, and not a freakazoid perma-adolescent genre enthusiast like some he may be classed with. He will never likely make a film that makes him Michael Bay-rich, or allows him full creative carte blanche. But I wish the oft-embattled Romero would get that windfall — he’s delivered so much bloody, witty, often hair-raising pleasure to fans over the last four decades, he deserves a golden parachute more than any of the bazillion mainstream Hollywood types who’ve profited from aping his ideas.

This week brings the fifth Romero “Living Dead” movie, following 1968’s legendarily trauma-inducing “Night of the Living Dead,” 1979’s splat-tastic (and consumer-culture-parodying) “Dawn of the Dead,” 1985’s somewhat disappointing “Day of the Dead,” and 2005’s underappreciated post-apocalytic “Land of the Dead.”

The new “Diary of the Dead” has divided viewers at festival screenings to date. Some (like me) think it a distressingly lame, four-years-too-late “Blair Witch” imitation that flavorlessly has generic hot slasher-flick victim youth fleeing a zombie outbreak while cam-cording it. Others think it’s one of Romero’s best ever — including some critic pals whose opinion I actually respect.

Whatever your verdict, it’s good to have him represented on the big screen once again. For the benefit of loyalists and “who’s he?” newbies alike, here’s a chronological reel through highlights to date from the man who’s scared the bejeesus out of us for four decades:

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Released directly to drive-ins without any hope of critical acclaim or cultural impact, Romero’s debut feature stealthily became a popular phenomenon — a B&W, Pittsburgh-shot cheapie whose low production values and amateurish performances only made the shockingly graphic, merciless content seem more terrifyingly real. I first saw (surprisingly uncut — the station censor must’ve been snoozing) on Western Michigan late night TV as a teenager. Halfway through I was so freaked out I turned it off. Ten minutes later I turned it back on — figuring that since I wasn’t going to get any sleep anyway, I might as well see the end. Such out-of-nowhere success should have secured Romero a fat Hollywood deal. But instead he endured years of flops and bad business deals — one of which cheated him out of all profits from “Night,” which alongside “It’s a Wonderful Life” became perhaps the most widely duplicated (often in poor transfers) “public domain” films in cinematic history.

Martin (1978) After the frustrations of “There’s Always Vanilla” (an unreleased sex comedy), “Season of the Witch” (a barely-released witchcraft tale) and “The Crazies” (an underappreciated bacterial-homicidal-mania-plague thriller — watch out for Granny’s knitting needles!), Romero made this brilliant vampire update. John Amplas plays the titular character, a shy teenager shunted off to a superstitious older cousin’s care. The latter thinks his young charge is demonic — and he’s right in the sense that Martin kills people (via razor blades, syringes and sedatives rather than fangs) to drink their blood. Is he a modern Dracula, or just a delusional psychopath? Too depressing and ironical for mass appeal, “Martin” was yet another commercial flop. But it’s one of the very best movies from a cineaste-ically sainted decade.

Dawn of the Dead (1979) This sequel was hands-down the goriest thing I’d ever seen at the time — I watched most of it then through venetian-blind fingers, cringing throughout. Years later, duly de-sensitized, I could appreciate it as the genius horror-comedy it is. Evacuees from “Night’s” crisis hole up at a suburban shopping mall where their consumerist dreams are realized even as temporarily barred zombies work at accessing their succulent live-human flesh. A perfect movie on its own terms — the non-Romero 2004 remake was good, but can’t compare.

Knightriders (1981) Romero periodically tried to escape the “horror director” trap, only to get slapped back into place. His biggest heartbreaker was this lengthy but lovely modern-day spin on the Knights of the Round Table legend, wherein King Arthur (a pre-fame Ed Harris) and Morgan (future gore FX idol Tom Savini) are jousting stars in a traveling motorcycle-stunt carnival. Natch, there’s a Guinevere equivalent they fight over, and disillusionment ultimately signals a twilight of the demi-gods. I haven’t seen this in a couple decades, but it sure left a charmed aftertaste.

Monkey Shines (1988) One of Romero’s few major-studio hires (and far superior to his subsequent, silly Stephen King-based “Dark Half”), this apeshit animal-experiment thriller is cheap pulp nonsense. But thanks to G.R., it also makes you jump again and again.

The Stand (Year of Never-Was) Amongst all George R.‘s career letdowns, this must have been the bitterest. He was slated to direct a purportedly brilliant epic screenplay adaptation (by Rospo Pallenberg) of King’s best novel, only to have it scuttled for a watered-down ABC miniseries starring the likes of Molly Ringwald, Laura San Giacomo and Rob Lowe.

There remain knowledge gaps even where dedicated Romero fans are concerned. His 2000 direct-to-DVD “Bruiser” starred Jason Flemyng as a man who wakes up sans face; it features punk-metal legends The Misfits. Has anybody actually seen “O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose,” a documentary filmed in 1974 but shelved until guess-what criminal trial prompted video release?

This man has worked whenever he can, on whatever he can. (Though he’s also turned down jobs that seemed degrading.) It’s a miracle he’s embarrassed himself so little — and so often distinguished himself under the least-promising circumstances.

He’ll never win an Oscar. But George A. Romero is still a better director than the likes of John G. Avildsen (“Rocky”) and myriad others who took the Academy’s slim golden guy home. Years from now, smart folk will still be studying and admiring “Martin,” while only camp laughter keeps alive the flame of such directorial nominees as Alan Parker (“Mississippi Burning”), Roland Joffe (“The Mission”), Arthur Hiller (“Love Story”), Stanley Kramer (several) and Mark Robson (“Peyton Place”).

They punched the clock. He’s punched the wall because the clock generally denied his card. Truly, it’s the wall’s loss.