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.

Choke On Em! (Day of the Dead, 1985)

Day_of_the_Dead_PosterDay of the Dead begins with the films heroes landing a helicopter at the edge of a city. They are calling out as the camera explores a desolate empty world seemingly only occupied by animals.  But then we see a shadow and the camera pans up to the mutilated face of a zombie.

Day of the Dead shows us a world over run by zombies.  There are few members of the living.  In fact, our heroes are part of a secret base of scientists and soldiers who are starting to wonder if they are all alone on the world.  Set on a small island in an underground base, tensions between the civilian staff and military men are running high.

Captain Rhodes and his men are starting to become more aggressive, believing the scientists work unimportant.  The military men just want to find another outpost and leave.  But the lead scientist Logan is obsessed with the idea that he can “domesticate” zombies.  His best example is the zombie Bub (which he explains is a nickname of his father).  Bub seems to remember things like tools, books, phones.  He mainly is mimicking what other people do (he simply thumbs through a Stephen King book, runs a disposable razor down his cheek, etc).  But Logan believes it is more, and the end of the film does suggest that Bub is not as mindless as he seems.

Eventually, it all explodes, the scientists plan an escape, while Rhodes and his men plan to leave the island and the scientists behind.  You might be surprised to find that not everything goes as planned.

A new theme enters Romero’s films with Day of the dead…one of…”Who is worse?”  Not unlike Ripley telling Burke you don’t see the aliens “f***ing each other over for a percentage”, Rhodes and his men may be more terrifying as they bully and abuse the scientists.  It has been said that as the movies have gone on, George Romero started to side with the zombies.  Day of the Dead is the seeds of that.

It is not just the callous obsession of Logan or the cruelty of Captain Rhodes.  It is, ultimately, Bub.  Bub, who barely says a word is remarkably sympathetic.  Sherman Howard packs a lot of emotion into his performance, and it is no surprise that Bub is a popular character.

Truthfully, Day of the Dead is my favorite Romero zombie movie.  I like and admire the previous two films, but Day is my unabashed favorite.  Being set beyond the zombie outbreak allows an exploration of that world based in something other than confusion and desperation.  It asks the most intriguing questions about human nature and our desire to control situations that may be far from our grasp.

Comics Are Rotten (Creepshow, 1982)


The Horror anthology has always been risky.  There are few true classics.  Mostly what you get are movies with a couple good tales among some duds. George Romero and Stephen King teamed up to create Creepshow.

The five stories included here are all pretty strong.  The first is Fathers Day, the story of a somewhat rotten family gathering to celebrate the birthday of the late patriarch.  This year, he intends to get his birthday cake.

The second story is the Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill is about a simple-minded farmer who discovers a meteor on his land. After touching the meteor, Jordy finds frass growing uncontrollably, consuming his body.

Something to Tide You over features an adulterous couple who are discovered by the woman’s husband.  He seeks to take revenge trapping them on the beach (so to speak).

The Crate follows an older professor who is constantly belittled by his alcoholic gossip wife.  His respite is his fellow professor, Dexter.  Dexter is called to the school by a janitor who finds a mysterious crate tucked away.  The crate seems to be decades old…but to also contain something still alive.  And hungry.

Finally, They’re Creeping Up on You is about an old man obsessed with cleanliness finding his home seems to be under siege by cockroaches.

The film is framed as a comic book, with art by Jack Kamen (an E.C. comics artist, which is the inspiration for Creepshow).  As each story begins and ends, we see comic book art that fades into the live image (or Vice Versa).  The art is great and provides a unique look to the film.  The film also has an extra framing device of a story about a young boy (Played by King’s real-life son Joe) whose father (played by veteran character actor Tom Atkins) is angry when he finds him reading a horror comic book.

Tom Savini provides a great series of effects, with visuals that mimic the color of comics. The gruesome visuals are not interested in realism, rather in being lush and colorful.

The cast is really terrific.  You have veterans like E.G. Marshall and Hal Holbrook along with upcoming stars like Ed Harris and Ted Danson.

Most of the film has a tone of cartoonish horror.  The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill struggles the most in this regard because at times it gets absurdly comical.  But overall, Creepshow is still one of Romero’s straight up most fun works.

When There Is No More Room In Hell (Dawn of the Dead, 1978)

Dawn_of_the_Dead_PosterIt took about ten years for Romero to find something new to explore with zombies.  It was the Dawn of the Shopping Mall, with large insular buildings housing a variety of stores.  At the time, this encapsulated the concerns of modern life and consumerism.  George Romero looked at the shopping mall and thought “What a terrifying place!”

The film opens amidst a frenzied newsroom trying to make sense of what is happening.  It appears this may be the same night as the original film, though the film is never that explicit.  It does not reference Night of the Living Dead.  None of the films do, actually.  Each film seems to take place in an ever present “now”, regardless of if it makes sense in the greater context of all the films.

Two newsroom employees escape in a helicopter, along with two S.W.A.T. team members.  They end up landing on a mall roof.  What follows is an adventure of survival as they build a small fortress and use the mall stores to wait out the zombie situation.    At first, this works out quite well, and they get creative, building fake walls to hide stairwells from Zombies, blocked glass doors with trucks, using the mall keys to move from store to store and get supplies.

But you know their paradise cannot last as outside forces close in.  Romero keeps his central cast to a tight four.  This is a good choice, as we are allowed to connect with our leads and root for their success in a way that can be hard if there are to many people to keep track of.

The gore effects are improved over the previous effort, though as Tom Savini noted making many zombies grayish colored actually results in zombies looking blue.  And the blood splatter from some zombies seems far to large for shambling dead creatures.

This is the film that really set up the “Zombie represents mindless consumption” metaphor.  Which is kind of funny, since there have been an endless supply of bad zombie films over the years for the masses to consume.  But Dawn of the Dead is a great film and important to the horror (and especially zombie films) genre.

They’re Coming To Get You (Night of the Living Dead, 1968)

Night_of_the_Living_Dead_poster1968 was a time of real social upheaval in the United States of America.  Out of this turmoil was born a tale of people desperate to survive in a situation they cannot hope to make sense of.

George Romero and his friend John Russo put together a film that would challenge the norms of film-making in America.  Horror monsters had always been distinct creatures.  Vampires, werewolves and so on.  But Night of the Living Dead introduced something different.

The concept of the zombie was not a new one.  But Romero and Russo introduced a lot of what we consider standard zombie lore.  Head shots to kill, undead and eaters of flesh.  These monsters were scary not because of their personalty…but because they were our loved ones, but without soul…the dead are a horde without emotion and only seeking to devour.

We are introduced to Barbara and her brother Johnny.  They have come to a remote cemetery to place flowers on their father’s grave.  When they are attacked by a man, Barbara is forced to flee.  She discovers a farmhouse and along with another stranger, Ben, start to try and hide from the attackers.  Soon they discover they are not alone in the house and the small band of survivors work to try and survive and determine a way to escape.

The group finds itself strained by the tensions that develop as some desire to stay hidden, while others hope to get away from the farm.  They are able to find news reports giving bits of information, but leaving them with few answers.

In some ways, Night of the Living Dead is ahead of the curve for films of that time. Ben (Duane Jones) is a black man who finds himself assuming the role of leader for many of the group.  On the other hand, Barbara is pretty much comatose the entire film, paralyzed by her fears.  Romero does not burden himself with to complex of a story, and although there are hints of a cause, the film is vague about it.  There is talk of a satellite and radiation, but ultimately, there is no definitive answer.

Night of the Living Dead is an effective thriller that is, in the end, responsible for what we now know to be zombies.  It’s significance cannot be overlooked, as it defined the zombie as a monster that still stands today.

Fear of Santa Clause TV Edition Pt 1 (Tales From the Darkside, S3: Seasons of Belief, 1986)

tales-from-the-darkside-seasons-of-belief-1986Tales from the Darkside was a creation of George Romero.  It ran for four seasons, with each episode being half an hour.  It was a more horror themed take on the Twilight Zone.

The episode Seasons of Belief is about a family in which the kids express no Christmas spirit.  They are upset that they cannot watch TV on Christmas Eve.  They are bored, speak ill of Santa and so on.  The parents start telling their children a story about “the Grither”. He is an angry Christmas Spirit who seeks out anyone who calls his name.  The parents start weaving in odd folklore and songs about the Grither.  Of course, the kids (already not believing in Santa Clause) keep calling his name after the parents tell them he will come to find them.

The kids become more and more frightened of the made up monster.  The parents, instead of calming the fears keep making them worse.  The twist calls into question the nature of the story.  Is the intense fear of the children giving the story life?  Is it truly old folklore, speaking to something very real?

This is a really well done holiday episode, anchored by a good performance from E.G. Marshall.  In spite of facing a very limited budget, the story is effectively told so as to overcome those limitations.



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