The Hatfields & McCoys & Zombies (Survival of the Dead, 2009)

Survival_of_the_Dead_posterRomero’s career as a director came with this final installment to his Dead franchise. A more traditional story structure than the previous film, this film features characters we only briefly met in Diary of the Dead.  The National Guardsman are still trying to get somewhere safe.  They meet a kid who tells them about an island.  When they arrive at the island, they run into a rivalry between people who want to kill the zombies and those who want to protect them.

It is set close to the Diary of the Dead, so we are in the early stages of the world falling apart.  This might explain why some of the people want to protect the dead.  The Walking Dead explored that territory in its second season as well, but this film predates the show’s first season.

Survival of the Dead is not a particularly good addition to the Romero Dead Universe.  It leaves behind any social commentary for a simple plot and a lot of broad humor…that tends not to be particularly funny.

It also relies heavily on rather cheap looking digital effects.  This is to the detriment of the film, as it lacks the power of make-up effects by guys like Tom Savini.  It is somewhat disappointing that this ended up being Romero’s final film, it would have been great to see him go out on a high note.

Found Footage of the Dead (Diary of the Dead, 2007)

diary_of_the_dead_posterEarlier I commented on how the Dead movies are kind of set in an “ever present now”.  Diary of the Dead kind of flips that on its head.  Diary of the dead is a found footage approach to Romero’s Dead World.  All told through footage from the cast of characters camera, it explores the early days of the zombie outbreak.  It jumps to the beginning, and the beginning is now.

The film starts out very strongly.  A young woman explains that this movie is compiled both from her boyfriend’s footage and footage from the internet.  The voiceover is spoken as we watch a news report being conducted in front of a crime scene.  As bodies are being loaded into an ambulance, the bodies begin to attack the paramedics.  It is a very effective scene followed by news shots covering the riots and looting.  We then move to a college film crew making a horror movie.  There is an argument regarding whether a monster is supposed to be slow moving or not (which becomes echoed in a far later scene).

The film follows the group as they travel in an RV to make their way to one of the film crew’s homes (he lives in a remote mansion).  They meet survivalists, farmers and National Guardsmen as they work towards their final destination.

One of the biggest changes to the traditional Romero formula is that the zombies in this film are much faster. They leap on people, jump out from behind doors and tackle people.  They are not as fast as Zak Snyder’s zombies from his Dawn of the Dead remake, but still, they are faster than his earlier films.  After a while, the film kind of meanders.  But it picks back up when they reach the mansion and everything gets even worse. The characters also get a bit frustrating, behaving in some questionable ways.  At one point, one guy films one of his friends being stalked by a zombie and really does not lift a finger to help her.

Overall, this is a decent film.  It is interesting that it turns it’s sympathies back towards humans, but it also mirrors the darkness of the original towards the end when we get scenes that are similar to the final moments of the original Night of the Living Dead, asking pretty much the same questions about humanity.

It helps that it is presented as a finished work rather than just a series of footage strung together.  This allows for there to be a stronger narrative structure.  While no competition for the original three films, this is an overall interesting entry.

They’re Pretending to Be Alive (Land of the Dead, 2005)

Land_of_the_Dead_posterIt took 20 years for Romero to decide on a new zombie film.  In this film?  Set well after the zombie apocalypse, we are introduced to a small city that has grown, fortified against the dead.  The culture is divided between the haves and the have-nots.  Those with riches live in comfort in a high-rise apartment complex.  Everyone else lives alone, where life is a day to day struggle.

In this world, there are those employed by the rich to go out and scavenge the land for supplies. Riley runs one such crew, under the employ of Kaufman.  They have all sorts of tricks to distract the dead, though it is still a very dangerous job.  One such expedition has an unexpected side effect.  a Zombie begins uniting zombies in a march towards the city.  It is unclear fully what causes this, but there is a rudimentary communication.

Meanwhile, Riley plots with his friends to get out of town and on their own.  His second in command, Cholo, wants to become one of the elites and is trying to get in with Kaufman.  Of course, Kaufman does not care about helping Cholo and uses his greed and ambition for his own benefit.

It is clear at this point, Romero has lost interest in the survivors.  He is done suggesting mankind might win, and any attempt to rebuild is clearly futile.  Land of the dead feels like it really is the end of the road for the franchise (it was not).  It is a fairly decent film with some fun characters and interesting ideas at play, but at the same time, it never quite achieves the levels of its predecessors.

Loss of Identity (Bruiser, 2000)

Bruiser_PosterRomero wrote and directed this exploration of identity and what a person is willing to do if they lose any sense of it. Henry Creedlow is a pushover.  His wife is cheating on him, his boss treats him like garbage.  At a work party, his boss’s wife has created blank masks from Henry’s face that people are then to decorate, representing their identity.  Henry leaves his untouched.

What follows is a discovery that the mask no longer comes off…it is his face.  Progressively, Henry becomes aggressive and violent, taking out those who have wronged him.  Only then does he start adding splashes of color to his mask.

As the police close in, Henry plans an elaborate revenge on his boss.  Throughout this, his boss’s wife tries to bring Henry back to reality.

The cast is pretty good, though the standouts are Peter Stormare and Tom Atkins.  Stormare seems to be having a real blast as the over the top sleazebag boss.

The visual motif of the mask is handled quite nicely here.  The changes he makes as he becomes more lost in his killer identity is quite effective.

However, I will say, the final scene of the film is the most “Hollywood horror” ending of Romero’s films.  It feels like it is tacked on.

In the big party finale, the Misfits perform…which seems so weird for this film…but hey, I like the Misfits.


Killer Duality (The Dark Half, 1993)

Dark_Half_PosterYoung Thad Beaumont experienced painful headaches when doctors performed surgery, they found the remains of a twin Thad absorbed in the womb.  Years later, Thad is a teacher and writer.  He is approached by Fred Clawson and asked to sign a book.  Thad claims he is not the author, pointing to the author being George Stark.  but Fred has worked out that Thad and Stark are one in the same.  And he is threatening to expose Beaumont as the writer of the lurid books by Stark.

Thad decides to head him off at the pass and he publically “kills off” Stark.  And then people related to the event start getting murdered, making Beaumont look like the prime suspect.

The film plays around with whether Thad is losing his mind or if Stark has somehow found a way into our world.  There is the motif of birds within the story.  Thad hears birds in his head, but birds also seem to amass when Stark is around.

Romero does a pretty decent job with this adaption of a Stephen King novel, but it is not really a memorable film either.  But it is passable entertainment for horror fans.



Poe-Vision (Two Evil Eyes, 1990)

two_evil_eyes_poster.jpgTwo Evil Eyes is a double feature from George A. Romero and Italian horror icon Dario Argento.  The two tales are Poe inspired tales The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar and The Black Cat.

Romero’s tale is a pretty straight forward.  Jessica Valdemar married Ernest Valdemar for his riches.  She has to keep him alive, but he is nearing death. She is trying to keep her affair with his doctor, Robert Hoffman, secret.  Hoffman is a practitioner of hypnotism and has been hypnotizing Mr. Valdemar.  He dies during one of these sessions, presenting a problem for Jessica.  His will specified he must live to a certain date for her to inherit his money.

Jessica and Robert concoct a plan to freeze the body so they can claim he died after the necessary date.  But there is a hitch.  Valdemar may not be dead.  Moans come from the basement freezer…and eventually they are able to converse with him. Mr. Valdemar warns of others who want to use him to get into our world.  Robert is obsessed with learning more…and it is not meant to end well.

Argento’s the Black Cat follows crime scene photographer Roderick Usher.  He is following a series of murders seemingly inspired by the stories of Edgar Allen Poe.  Meanwhile, his girlfriend has adopted a stray feral cat.  When he kills the cat in a fit of rage, in spite of lying about it, his girlfriend kicks him out, certain of his guilt.  But the cat keeps coming back.  What ends up playing out is a gruesome telltale heart story.

Both stories have a great cast of horror veterans.  Harvey Keitel is particularly good as the unlikeable cat obsessed Usher.  The Black Cat has far more unnecessary gore than Romero’s story, but overall, they both are fairly effective stories.

Monkey Business (Monkey Shines, 1988)

Monkey_Shines_PosterBased on a novel by Michael Stewart, Monkey Shines is the tale of a quadriplegic man who given an enhanced monkey as his helper.  Allen is an athlete who is left wheelchair-bound after a terrible accident.  Initially, he is stuck with a rather unsympathetic nurse (who lets her parakeet fly around the house) named Maryanne.  He struggles, and his girlfriend walks out on him (only to start dating the doctor who saved his life).  His friend Jeffrey (a scientist experimenting with capuchin monkeys) and a trainer, Melanie, introduce him to Ella.  A capuchin meant to perform tasks for Allan, she initially shows a great amount of intuitiveness, selecting music Allan would like to listen to.  As time goes on, Allan and Melanie also start to build a romantic relationship, while he and Ella seem  to be developing a deeper bond.

But as the story progresses, the bond seems to become more and more primal, thus more dangerous.  Allen has visions of running around, at about the height of a monkey.  As he gets agitated, so does Ella.  And he starts talking about he and Ella as “We”.

While the film starts out shaky, with the initial accident looking almost comical, Romero quickly finds footing in Allen’s struggle with his new situation.  The slow changes from where we see his temper growing shorter and shorter, combined with his growing paranoia over his connection to Ella is very effective.  This is especially seen in his relationship with Maryanne, which rapidly deteriorates with the addition of Ella to the house.

Monkey Shines is a compelling thriller that should really be remembered more as one of Romero’s film canon.

Just Need to Take a Ride (Knightriders, 1981)

Knightriders_PosterI never really had any idea what this movie was about, based on the cover in the video store. s thought it was maybe about time traveling bikers in medieval times or a post apocalyptic future.  It turns out…it is about Ren Fair bikers who get super popular.

Billy leads a traveling show where everyone dresses as knights and other medieval citizenry, with the one different being they ride motor cycles rather than horses.  Most treat it as a fun business, but Billy seems to have really bought into the notion that there is a certain reality to his kingdom.  He starts to really have a crisis when he discovers a magazine write up about his crew that starts to cause fractures. It starts to get minds within the group to be tempted by dreams of fame and stardom.

Eventually, Morgan (Tom Savini) walk away to take a lucrative sounding offer of commercialization.  And while it is exciting at first, they start to become disillusioned, missing what they had with Billy.

It is interesting to see how they have framed various members of the Arthurian court.  Merlin is more of a hippie than magician…but he seems able to reach Billy in a fashion others cannot.

The film focuses on themes of being true to yourself and your ideals, an not caving to compromise.  And that can feel a bit goofy in a film about guy jousting on motorcycles for fun.

The jousting sequences are fun to watch and really, the cast does a good job of bringing it all to life convincingly.  If the film has one major flaw, it is quite simply that at two and a half hours? It is a bit to long.  But still, this is such an odd man out of the Romero catalogue, it has some real charms.

It’s Only a Costume (Martin, 1976)

Martin_PosterMartin is one of the more interesting vampire films of the 70’s.  Martin believes himself to be a vampire.  It does not help that his family feeds this belief.  He has faced exorcisms and now is being sent to live with his cousin Cuda.  Cuda calls Martin Nosferatu and has filled his house garlic and crosses. Cuda’s daughter is less impressed with the family’s old world beliefs.

As he approaches his first victim in the film, he gets flashes in black and white that show his perception.  He envisions entering a room and being welcomed by a beautiful woman in lingerie.  The reality is she is wearing face cream and in a mundane robe.  And rather than reach out to him, she is understandably horrified.  There are flashbacks to his past as well (also in black and white).  These are very effective ways of bringing the viewer into the mind of Martin.

Martin is also haunted by the voice of a relative who was believed by the family to be a vampire as well, and had committed suicide.  Presenting a evidence for the viewer that Martin is not a supernatural being is his lack of fangs.  He attains his blood not through entrancing his victims, but drugging them.  He has no fangs, rather uses a razor blade to draw blood.  Martin claims he is 84 years old, but there is no evidence to back this up. He has no physical reaction to the traditional weapons of garlic or crucifixes.

Cuda represents the old school, classic vampire film, but he is trapped in a modern and faithless world of vampires. The final act of the film is Martin discussing his vampirism with a talk radio host using the name “The Count”.  This is juxtaposed with Martin’s mundane life, as he laments how hard it is to choose a victim.

The film ends both tragically and ambiguously, with voices on the radio asking what has happened to the Count.  Martin is a strong entry into the world of Vampire Cinema.  Romero explores the vampire myth through skeptical eyes, which really works in the film’s favor,

Going Slightly Mad (The Crazies, 1973)

Crazies_1973_PosterNot unlike Night of the Living Dead, the Crazies presents a situation in which our loved ones may be the biggest threat.  Unlike his first film, of course, the threat is solely from the living.

The film opens up in the middle of things.  Two kids are playing in their house, only to be chased by their father.  What is quickly revealed is that the military has already arrived and started to close off the town to deal with an apparent viral outbreak.  When contracted, the virus slowly begins to turn you violent.  The military begins to bring the town to a central location while arguing with the local government.

A small group of locals escape the military and start hiding in the town while trying to get out entirely.

The Crazies goes back and forth between these two groups, with a surprisingly heavy focus on the military side.  It becomes increasingly clear as the story goes forward, the military was ill-prepared for this situation and are rapidly losing their grasp on it.

The film has some really disturbing moments, including the violent threat to children, people self-immolating and a scene in which a young woman’s father attempts to rape her.  Within the context of the story, these scenes show the breakdown and destructive nature of the virus, but they are uncomfortable none the less.

Romero and fellow writer Paul McCollough clearly gave a lot of thought to how the government might try and handle an outbreak of this nature…so much that the characters who feel like they ought to be the leads seem entirely secondary to the soldiers and scientists.

The Crazies has a pretty bleak ending which fits in with much of Romero’s work.  This was a vast improvement over Season of the Witch and other than being slightly long is a good film.

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