Sunday, June 14, 2009

George A. Romero: Inspiration To Millions

To celebrate George A. Romero’s impact on the world at large and the world of cinema, I had to keep my nose in the dirt. Specifically I watched a lot of ultra-low budget films that carry the spirit of the old master around with them. I swore off Troma films after finally making myself slag through Redneck Zombies, but I had already taken the time to locate Curse of the Cannibal Confederates and so just took it on the chin in the name of George. I’m glad I did cause at the very least, I liked this better than 99% of all the other stupid things Troma excretes. And, coincidentally enough, it fell nicely in line with my George A. Romero month festivities: It’s a backwoods zombie film about some average joes who have to combat the living dead. Granted the similarities aren’t many following the initial comparison, but blessedly this was an easy enough watch for a laugh.

Curse of the Cannibal Confederates
by Tony Malanowski
Three guys and three girls (including, inexplicably, an Asian woman and her blind sister) are going hunting for the weekend. Wyatt and Bill are good old boys, Mel is the odd man out, feeling a little less rowdy than his friends. Mel also has one of the very worst western PA accents I’ve ever heard; the man could be a Bedminster fire-fighter. Anyway, they all have some pretty astounding facial hair and they’re looking to kill something over the weekend. Wyatt brought his girlfriend Sarah, which bums the other guys out and for some reason Lin and Blind Kiyomi (which is how she’s listed in the credits) tag along too. They do the character development thing for like a half hour before Mel wanders off and finds an old confederate war diary in an abandoned house near a graveyard. He takes it and reads it out loud to Kiyomi. Writer/director Tony Malaowski and co-writer Lon Huber would probably like us to think they’re falling in love, but the film doesn’t have nearly enough energy for that. The dead rise the next day; they want their book back and they’ll kill anyone they have to to get it.

Curse of the Cannibal Confederates or Curse of the Screaming Dead might charitably be called Troma’s tribute to all things George Romero. Between those wretched Western Pennsylvania accents, the boarded-up-in-the-house finale, the affected Asian heroine, plaid-clad men with beards rolling around on the ground wrestling zombies I doubt very much if this film was written in ignorance of George Romero (even if it was directed in ignorance of why his films were successful). In fact I couldn’t help thinking during some of this films boring parts (there’s plenty of time to contemplate your place in the universe during Curse of the Cannibal Confederates) that these guys are perfect examples of the sort of people Romero was poking fun at in that great montage in Dawn of the Dead. Our four heroes ride their helicopter over an unnamed section of Western PA and David Emge says “Those rednecks are probably enjoying this whole thing.” If we were to follow three of those guys and their girlfriends, the result would have been strikingly similar to this movie, if unquestionably more fun to watch.

Like H.G. Lewis' 2000 Maniacs, this film might have something to say about the South, but it sort of gets lost in its messiness and general low-budget behavior. I’d like to refer Malanowski to my remarks on Toxic Zombies: don’t write more than you can reasonably pull off. The whole notion that you’d bring a blind character in the mix is admirable, sure, but Mimi Ishikawa is not blind and you forgot to direct her. She looks people in the eye when she talks to them, for christ's sakes. Christopher Gummer is neither a romantic lead nor much of an actor at all, so why make his Mel the hero and the subject of a romantic subplot? And is he’s clearly responsible for the zombie stuff, how come he doesn’t get punished? Anyway, the film had enough bad-funny moments to help me through its 85 minutes, but its still a terrible movie. What I found most endearing was the fact that these guys couldn’t cover up their regional accents. Some work buddy asked them to be in a film and they’d accept any excuse to drink in the woods, but acting was just not something they were willing to do. It’s pretty hilarious watching Jim Ball struggle with his lines; I suspect they killed him off so he could get back to whatever cleverly named cover band he played for at Smitty’s in Jenkintown. That weird friendship I suspect ran through the whole film is what makes it fun to watch instead of grating like most Troma Team films but I could still think of 100 better ways to spend an evening. Now we move onto a fact-based film with just as low a budget as Curse of the Cannibal Confederates, with more in common than it might seem initially.
Moving right along to a fringe character in the Romero mythology, Roy Frumkes. Frumkes is a strange character in the world of horror films. A one-time aspiring documentarian, he got sucked into the world of low-budget horror, producing, writing and starring in the aptly titled Street Trash for Troma. He wrote the bizarre Danish horror film The Johnsons and then wrote The Substitute and its three straight-to-video sequels. He also designed the title sequence of Zombi Holocaust when it showed up in the states in the early 80s. I bring up Roy Frunkes because his bizarre tenure as a peripheral character in the world of low-budget horror all started with a student documentary he made about George A. Romero while Dawn of the Dead was in production. His documentary is considerably less interesting than its premise suggests, but it still makes for a curious viewing.

Document of the Dead
by Roy Frumkes
I don’t often look at Documentaries, the exception being the cannibal parable Keep The River On Your Right. Document is a look at the work of George Romero; Frunkes and some of his student friends made Document of the Dead as Romero was filming Dawn. The film combines interviews with peripheral characters, Dawn crew and cast including the director, and a look at the other five films Romero had made at that point in his life. The film cuts unceremoniously from discussing the broad themes of Night of the Living Dead and Martin to interviewing Richard Rubinstein about working with Romero. It gets to the heart of Romero’s professional life which stems from a really touching desire to work with family and when you enter his inner circle you become family. Frumkes actually wound up in Dawn for a few seconds as the first zombie who gets a pie in the face, proof of Romero’s avuncular working style. Document has some pretty extraordinary behind-the-scenes footage that would satisfy fans Dawn, but its powers stop there.

There’s a documentary called The Dead Will Walk that comes with the special edition of Dawn of the Dead that was released a few years ago. I’d review that, but it was made specifically for the DVD release, which doesn’t make it so much a movie as a special feature. It’s a much better film than Document and it interviews absolutely everyone involved in the making of the film down to composer Claudio Simonetti (fulfilling a suspicion I’ve long had about the make-up of the band Goblin). In fact the only person that director Perry Martin doesn’t get around to interviewing is Roy Frumkes. The point being that Document was a student film and a painfully average one at that, even if Frumkes did swing a pretty impressive candid interview with George A. Romero. Document of the Dead is really more proof of what student documentary films looked like in 1978 than what an expansive look at the career of a director looked like (if you like to know just how amateurish and studenty it really is, Frumkes and his team lost a whole bunch of footage which in concordance with a lot of other production problems set the release of the film back from 1979 to 1985).

It is not really the incisive look into Romero land you may have been told it was. It is interesting, but as documentary’s go, it could have been a bit more in depth. To see Romero at work, it’s a great source. To see how Dawn got made, I’d see The Dead Will Walk.

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