The Curmudgeon


Monday, July 17, 2017

Between the Dead

Just for a moment, let's forget the zombies. The late George A Romero did some great things with the disciples of Anubis in two major box-office hits, an under-rated third instalment and a twenty-first-century triptych; but he also made one or two films that fall outside the walking-dead subgenre. Most of these are worth rather more than footnote status, and at least one is a masterpiece.

The masterpiece, Martin (1976), was almost certainly the first I knew of him. I saw it semi-accidentally on late-night television; I had probably heard vaguely of Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead by that time, and perhaps even seen The Crazies; but my mid-to-late teens were a pre-auteurist phase and I had no idea of the director's significance. While by no means abandoning the black comedy, social satire and genre critique of the Living Dead films, Martin attains a higher and more painful mode of horror thanks to bleak visuals, a sophisticated script and a mesmerising performance from its star, John Amplas.

Knight Riders (1981), which Romero managed to make thanks to the financial success of its immediate predecessor, Dawn of the Dead, concerns a troupe of stunt motorcycle riders trying to survive as an Arthurian tribe independent of commercial demands and middle-class values. A rivalry develops between the idealistic King Billy (Ed Harris) and the more worldly Morgan (played by Tom Savini, Romero's spurt-and-splatter effects specialist, and the director of the excellent 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake); there are obvious parallels with Romero's own need to balance his artistic agenda with commercial requirements, and the film as a whole is an appealing mix of road movie, counterculture drama and existential rumination. Like Peckinpah's Junior Bonner ("I made a film where nobody got shot, and nobody wanted to see it"), Knight Riders bled to death at the box office and Romero's next project was the resolutely commercial Stephen King comic-book portmanteau Creepshow.

Monkey Shines (1988) is slightly compromised by the producers' insistence on a hopeful epilogue, but is for the most part an effective and original experiment with the theme of the beast from within. A beta-male scientist defies his overbearing superior by carrying out an unauthorised experiment involving a quadriplegic friend and a cerebrally-enhanced spider monkey. The monkey is intended as a friend and helper, but her psychological symbiosis with the crippled young man means that she soon starts giving more help than is strictly compatible with the welfare of others. Epilogue aside, the resolution is one of Romero's most ironically ferocious, as the hero demonstrates that evolutionary ascent isn't necessarily an uplifting process.

Between the entertaining but relatively conventional Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half (1993) and the inception of the second Living Dead series, Romero's career went into suspended animation: he was able to make only Bruiser (2000), a minor work about an upsilon-male office worker who puts on a blank white mask which sharply enhances his assertiveness skills. Five years later, the Living Dead brought Romero's career back on track; but while the quality and impact of the zombie films are Romero's most obvious legacy, it would be a pity to miss the eccentric individuals that lurk among his career's shambling hordes.


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