Monday, July 7, 2008

George A. Romero's Finest Achievement: His Legacy

While unfortunately I was on vacation when this happened, I wanted to point out that the 21st of June was officially the 40th anniversary of the events depicted in Night of the Living Dead. Yes, I suppose actually mentioning this during the month of June would have had twice the impact, but, I've been busy...doing...well...nothing. I've been writing music with my friend Sebastian's effects pedal and trying to record my band's debut, so, you know, cut me some slack. Anyway, I thought a fitting close to my tribute to George A. Romero would have to be the best example of his influence translated to modern times. A film that pays tribute to all of his films while rewriting the book on zombies. A revisionist zombie film that has colored all of my creative habits since I saw it in 2002. It's one of my favorite movies of all time and I think it's proof that not only is there still gold to be mined in the zombie genre, but also proof that everyone who thinks that all the good ideas have been used isn't paying attention. In late 2002 I was at a casting call when the woman across from me started talking about movies. One of her sons had auditioned to be in the remake of Sleepaway Camp (production delays and the fact this is a shitty idea have since prevented the film from ever being made). We then got onto the subject of 28 Days Later, which she felt was a rehash of Night of the Living Dead. This is a habit of stupid people, when they mistake the occurrence of a common theme for a lack of ideas. "I felt like I was watching the same movie." She explained. I wanted so desperately to harm this woman in front of her children, but, as I was all of 13, I didn't do that. When people insult good ideas, most especially good movies, I get angry and fantasize about taking revenge on behalf of artists and intellectuals everywhere. When good ideas fall into the wrong hands, they become powerless and are made cheap. This offends me as much as when bad ideas fall into the wrong hands and out comes The Gingerbread Man starring Gary Busey. Anyway, my leftist rage aside, I present to you one of my 100 favorite movies and the close of my loving look into the life and work of George A. Romero, a film that has both spawned a remake of one of Romero's own films and a pretty decent sequel. Thanks for everything, George, we won't soon forget everything you've done for us.

28 Days Later
by Danny Boyle

Horror films as a whole have a bad reputation; I’ve never understood this, because they’ve always been the things that have spellbound me since childhood. It is for this reason that I’ve become the harshest critic of horror movies that I know. Whereas others will let the majority of today’s horror output get away with artless depictions of graphic violence and torture, I remain the one pretentious aesthete among all my b-horror friends and the one deviant among my art-film friends. The route of this divide comes from one film that straddled the line between beauty and filth like nothing I had ever seen before. The tradition of art horror, specifically the potential of making a revisionist zombie movie as much Terrence Malick as George A. Romero, has since been the major driving force in much of my writing and viewing. The majority of my creative output in the years since 2002 has been the direct result of watching Danny Boyle’s sensational 28 Days Later.

Most legendary horror films are marked by their sucker-punch openings; this film boasts two. First we see eco-terrorists arriving at a lab performing experiment involving the exposure of monkeys to violent images; they want to set the animals free and get their wish. They do not believe the lab tech’s warning that the creatures have been infected with rage; would you? One of them is bitten, and then she vomits blood into her partner’s eyes, soon they’re all infected. We are forced into the future where a bicycle courier named Jim wakes alone in a hospital. Not only does it seem that he’s the only man in the building, he seems to be the only man left in all of London. When he meets the others, things take a turn for the worse. The only people he meets who don’t appear to have mentally deteriorated to the functionality of bloodthirsty zombies are the cynical Mark and Celina, who are much the worse for having survived the ordeal. It seems that the virus spread from those four people in the laboratory to perhaps the rest of the world. Jim has a lot to come to terms with; the death of his parents, the end of civilization, and the possibility that the only thing resembling help lies in a military unit stationed outside the ruins of Manchester.

28 Days Later was an unprecedented event in my life when it was released. I watched it once and then snuck back into the theatre and watched it again with my best friend. It typified everything that frightened me and that I would come to love in films. There were frightening images, character arcs that had been missing from most post-apocalyptic films, enthralling soundtrack, then-ground-breaking digital cinematography, break-neck editing together with breathtaking long takes, and it’s all driven by Danny Boyle’s hyper-hip direction.

First of the film’s many excellent qualities are the performances by the leads. Newcomers Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harries, as well as supporting players Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston are profoundly understated and believable as the last men on earth. Absent are one-dimensional action heroes that mark most films of the genre, present are the kind of people you might actually meet, neighbors, bicycle couriers, and the dim of wit. Jim, headstrong and full of empty bravado, flounders in crisis, eventually learning to put his pride away and behave for the common good, something crucial to his survival. Learning from error and changing for the better are not character traits you often find in horror films and to see the subtle change in Jim is flooring.

Equally as flooring was Jon Murphy’s score; an amalgam of haunting arpeggios and brooding, thunderous post-rock. Despite the brilliant use of outside sources (Godspeed! You Black Emperor’s "East Hastings" playing over the opening crawl through London may be the best use of non-diagetic music in a horror picture. Grandaddy’s casio-laden "AM 180" is both expertly used, but also part of Boyle’s tribute to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. His nod to Day of the Dead is present in his use of treacherous military force. It can be said the whole film is a nod to Night of the Living Dead and the timeless quality of his work). Murphy’s music provides heavy atmosphere, without which the film’s awesome conclusion would be utterly without power. The urgency of watching a shirtless, bloody Cillian Murphy running from room to room trying to recover Celina from the arms of the brutish soldiers, all the while being pursued by the sprinting undead was absolutely mesmerizing. This scene has influenced everything I’ve ever written.

The color scheme was as vivid as I’d ever seen; between Mark Digby’s art direction and Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, audiences expecting a genre film were blindly led into a stunning hybrid. The footage of the endless flower gardens and windmills that flank Jim, Frank, Hannah, and Celina on their way to Manchester are as beautiful as the sea of deep green that surrounds the soldier’s commandeered mansion. The differences between the indoor and outdoor, the daytime and nighttime photography are staggering. Boyle has a very keen sense of how to disorient as in his opening and use of repeated montage editing. In one particularly effective scene, we see the London skyline in dusk and a sliver of something darker in the top of the screen. He pans upward and shows us Jim, Mark, And Celina resting in Jim’s living room. Not even a minute later, they are attacked. Just afterwards Celina sees a bitemark on Mark’s hand and cuts him down right in front of Jim. Though the sequence is beautiful, the dulled orange color scheme followed by the unannounced assault coated in red, masterfully accented by the editing and sound design, shows that the dusk, when man’s lights cannot protect any longer and the city becomes a dangerous place, is a time to be feared. It is man’s discoveries that have led to its demise. Like George A. Romero, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland are interested in the many implications of a man-created disaster. As the many characters muse, the problem is strictly human and never leaves the realm of a human-dominated world. It also elaborates on the difference between positive ecological/humanistic thought and negative. As a counter to the windmills is the unreasonable behavior of the animal liberation cell. Construction and deconstruction in practice make all the difference and Dod Mantle’s camera paints the picture as well as Garland’s script. This kind of appreciation for nature and man’s futile eco-consciousness wrapped in an elegy for mankind isn’t the sort of somber wake-up call a young film fan gets handed everyday. It is the remarkably pragmatic nature of 28 Days Later that will allow it to live on for generations.

It is the descriptions of the after-civilization by each of the people Jim meets, and the immediate commoditization of any and all limited resources that raises this beyond the level of suburban horror that dominated cinema during the 80s and 90s. It is the boldness of a film that introduces us to it’s villain in a church, in the form of an undead priest and the words “Repent Now The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh” scrawled in black on the wall that makes it’s peers seem inferior in ways never previously considered. One such way is the sheer practicality of this, a film about the end of the world. To put it bluntly 28 Days Later does everything right. With the absence of any higher power (government, religion), we have ordinary people trying desperately to save themselves with human nature as both their primary tool and undoing. Frank and Hannah, who have been surviving in an empty tenement building, have been collecting rainwater in dozens of brightly colored plastic buckets as the plumbing has long since stopped. Even little things like Jim lingering over the bulletin board near Churchill’s Corner where the pictures and ‘Have You Seen’s are posted haphazardly by the hundreds go a long way toward making this a complete portrait of a world-wide condition, even if we only see it’s affect on a stretch of about 300 miles worth of decimated land. Despite the small scale of the impact, the film is so well-handled, the performances so convincing, the 113 minutes of its running time so brilliantly colored and bursting with interesting sounds and figures, that there is never a doubt that the world is being irrevocably changed.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Films 12-16

George A. Romero wasn't exactly busy during the 1980s, and he was essentially unemployed during much of the 90s. Let's see if we can't cut through much of his slightly boring later career, non-zombie films, shall we? When he was asked to make another zombie film after Dawn of the Dead's unprecedented success, he believed he had too much on his plate to get down to it, costing him many, many dollars in lost revenue (Day of the Dead, released 7 years after Dawn, had nothing of it's box office numbers). So, with a screenplay for Knightriders, and a shiny new friendship with Stephen King, he said no to zombies, and yes to career malaise that lasted until 2005. Knightriders was not a horror film of any kind (though it does boast the entire cast of Dawn of the Dead in full renaissance garb riding motorcycles taking orders from Ed Harris, something I guess I didn't realize how badly I wanted to see. Seriously there's no reason why I love this movie as much as I do) and so won't be reviewed here, but everything else he touched between 1983 and 1999 was. They all also share a common theme: murdering people you've always harbored murderous thoughts about through some proxy or other, which gets old pretty quickly.

Creepshow
by George A. Romero

A horror anthology that takes it's cues from the Vincent Price type anthology pictures from the mid 60s, and from the EC comics the stories are all lifted from. Stephen King wrote the screenplay (and acted, god help us) and so the dialogue is ridiculous and the characters are all too over-the-top evil to be taken seriously, by me anyway; I never read EC comics, and I hate Stephen King like I do spiders and centipedes, so this film didn't do much for me. The segments (a bastard father comes back to haunt his ungrateful family from beyond the grave; a hillbilly finds an plant from outer-space that quickly makes itself at home; a jilted husband has an aquatic punishment in mind for his wife and her lover, but they've got one better; a man discovers an ancient crate from a forgotten dig (and it's pissed off cargo) that might be the end of his marital troubles; a neat-freak hates the cockroaches that have taken up residence in his apartment, maybe too much) are all weak enough without the emphasis on character development. The segment with the creature under the stairs is half-decent, but, like most of these segments, it takes too long to get going. When you have five stories to tell, it's best to let the editor do most of the work and not the screenwriter. The film gets so wrapped up in letting you know it's telling a story that it forgets to be scary.

Monkey Shines
by George A. Romero

What I like about this film is that if you didn't know it was made in 1988, there's a good chance you would never find out. What I didn't like was that this was clearly not enough to hinge a horror movie on, and I think Romero knew that. Alan is a law student who finds himself confined to a wheelchair without the use of his entire body, no girlfriend, and enough other problems to cause him to attempt suicide. Well his friend Jeffrey is a scientist and he thinks he has a solution. A helper monkey he's been doing freaky drug tests on. So, what happens? Well the monkey starts reading Alan's thoughts and carrying out murders to please her master. I liked this film as a drama, not as a horror film. I can't take a helper monkey with a razor blade seriously as something frightening. Romero proves once again that he can direct people, but, flounders a bit with his monster. I liked this movie, but, it wasn't scary (this, you'll see, is a trend in his non-zombie work).

Two Evil Eyes
by George A. Romero & Dario Argento

Made as part of an aborted Edgar Allen Poe horror television series, these two hour long films can be forgiven a bit of their trespasses, but not many. Romero and Argento were well into their forties, let's not forget. Romero's half, The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar, is an update of the story of a greedy wife and her sick husband. Adrienne Barbeau plays the doomed gold-digger who, after setting herself up to inherit a fortune (she has her lover hypnotize her ancient husband into signing everything he owns over to her), begins having second thoughts. First of all is the fact that Valdemar, the old man, must die of natural causes. Second is that once he does go, she and her lover begin hearing his voice. He keeps telling them he needs to be woken up, and that the others are trying to get through. Wonder what that's all about? Argento's story is the age-old Black Cat, which has seen more adaptations than the bible. Dickweed photographer Harvey Keitel, whose name, maddeningly is Roderick Usher, has a problem with his new-agey girlfriend's new pet cat. When he catches her with another man, he kills the cat and then his girlfriend. Neither thing will come back to haunt him, right? Argento's as usual suffers from a lack of understand human behavior, Romero's from his insistence on keeping the horror ambiguous. Argento gets major points for making good use of montage editing even if the whole thing is alternately flat and gross. Romero's film isn't really very remarkable, save for the few scares he gets out of the disembodied voices from the cellar. If the others were a little more concrete, we might be inclined to fear them, and if his zombies didn't look like the EC Comics zombies from Creepshow, the same would be true.

The Dark Half
by George A. Romero

Romero went back to Stephen King country for this unthrilling thriller about a writer who's nom de plume comes to life and starts murdering his critics. The film fails mostly because Timothy Hutton makes both a lumpy hero and a really lame villain. This is still a right sight better than Thinner or The Langoliers, but, it's still Stephen King, which means we have a few things: lame last names, really stupid insults and interjections, and a villainous force that is much more threatening on paper. Michael Rooker does a decent job as the sheriff who has to reconcile a Stephen King plot with the reality he lives in, but he's never been the weak link in any of his films. Romero's direction is competent, but ultimately he doesn't create any real tension because we've seen the film's conclusion unfold ten seconds after the first plot point. So, with a plot so very thin you could split it with Ella's straight razor, what we needed was a damn good conclusion. No such luck. There's a really tepid confrontation scene and then a process shot finale. And even for a King story, this film is jam packed with salt of the earth types. Maybe that's why Romero chose it? Who knows. All I know is I would have liked to see him try The Mist or some King story without mind-reading or magic. If you're looking to be scared, you're SOL.

Bruiser
by George A. Romero

By far the most interesting of his non-zom films, but probably the one with the least amount of Romero's style or humanity. A meek modeling magazine executive named Henry Creedlow hates his life and frequently escapes into hallucinations where he brutally murders the people in his life. This however isn't really important to the plot. What is important is that we're made aware that apparently he has no real identity. His girlfriend makes a point of telling him this after she gives his boss a handjob at a party. Then one day he wakes up with a white mask where his face used to be. This apparently is all he needed to go over the edge cause he strangles his girlfriend to death and starts killing other people in his life while leaving little hints leading to his identity. This film baffled the shit out of me. It's Romero's first with no ties to Pennsylvania and which featured exactly one of his stock company. It's loud and garish and has no real message, and yet Romero wrote and directed the thing. I suppose it's his statement about selling out to Hollywood, which he has yet to do, but I honestly don't get why he thought this was the most effective way to tell that story, or why he thought he needed Jason Flemyng to fake an American accent for the part of killer Henry Creedlow. I don't think he was even trying to scare people at this point, he was just trying to get his few remaining fans to think about why he had made the name for himself that he did (cause, I have to tell you, the ending of this film doesn't make a whole lotta sense). When you're fanbase thins and you have to defend your decision to remain a maverick to yourself, I guess it helps to have a film that proves your point. It just isn't very effective, is all. Romero had things to say, but he had no power with which to say them. It's like someone took away all his firepower and gave it to Edgar Wright, Danny Boyle, and Andrew Currie.