Monday, June 9, 2008

TWILIGHT OF THE DEAD


October 1st will mark the 40th anniversary of when George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead began to flicker across drive-in and grindhouse screens across America, irrevocably breaking the musty template of horror and replacing it with a grittier, nastier new one.

With the 1968 release of the ground-breaking (ahem) film, Romero not only redefined the zombie film, but with the film’s unheard of (until then) nihilistic ending, immediately altered the game plan of the entire horror genre. Suddenly, it was possible – even expected – that everyone would die in the end. But in the context of its time, that ending can never be topped… the audience took a bullet in the head along with doomed Ben.

It also opened up the horror film as a vehicle for metaphor, as critics gradually approached the film as a take on the civil rights movement and the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family. Whether or not that was intentional on Romero’s part is debatable, but with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, the satiric element was firmly in place as the zombies shambled about a shopping mall in the drop-dead threads of the ultimate consumers.

In the ensuing years, Romero’s zombie mythos also evolved into being an inadvertent snapshot of the era in which they were released, developing not so much on the satire but by the technique and general definition of each entry. The newsreel vérité of Night, the disco candy colors of Dawn, the early-eighties military industrial gloss (and the emphasis of effects over content) of Day of the Dead.

And in a way, as each film is a mirror held to the era in which it was made, they're also a snapshot of where Romero was at in the same period.

By 1985, Romero was a captive of his fanbase, one that seemed defined by the more vocal gorehounds who declared in no uncertain terms that a Romero film slapped with an R-rating instead of Unrated was not a Romero film worth seeing. Which in these days of the studio fondness for PG-13 horror films seems like another case of not knowing when you’re having it good.

By the time he reached the nineties, Romero seemed to be spinning his wheels as he fell in line with the rest of the entertainment industry and succumbed to what seemed to be the easy currency found in a remake of Night.

It took twenty years before Romero seemed to realize that a handful of rabid letters (in the days before mass rabid posts on message boards) to magazines with such silly names as Fangoria shouldn’t define his oeuvre, and so he took The Suits’ money to deliver an R-rated zombie film, 2005’s Land of the Dead.

But after a twenty year absence, the zombie film he delivered had become more self-aware and obvious, the filmmaker’s message wielded like a sledge to the detriment of the film being successful as a horror film. It didn't help that he had apparently succumbed to a cinematic Stockholm Syndrome, obviously empathizing more with the lurching dead than with his breathing protagonists.

While admittedly the relatively large budget provided by Universal (ironically enough, kicked down after the multiplex success of the 2004 remake of Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead) allowed him to deliver a more polished entry, with name actors and plenty of CGI to quicken the filmmaking process. But the fourth entry in his mythos seemed a shadow of what the man had achieved before. The comfort of a relatively big budget leeched the innate hunger of the low-budget process that conversely adds to the desperation and fear of failure that plays itself on the screen. The fans weren’t happy and they were vocal about it… and in an era of the immediate communication of the internet and text messages, that unhappiness had a hotline that essentially closed the film on opening night.

The sting of that rejection comes through loud and clear with last year’s fifth Dead film, Diary of the Dead, which hit the shelves on DVD after mostly bypassing the multiplex circuit.

Here Romero returns to his roots, grabbing the single camera and hitting the ground running in the independent fashion he started out from back in the twilight of the Sixties.

A prequel of sorts to the first entry, and shot in the video vérité style of The Blair Witch Project, the film purports to be the found footage of a team of young filmmakers that find that while they’re shooting a monster movie as a student project in rural Pennsylvania, a zombie apocalypse is suddenly unreeling everywhere where one person can bite another. They jump into their Winnebago and hit the road, documenting the chaos and human element as they roll along.

As a zombie film it doesn’t match the roll-up-the-sleeves hunger of Romero’s early films, and in a lot of ways the subgenre he single-handedly created has left him faceless in the shambling masses of the knockoffs. But as its own entity, Diary is a more than adequate part of the mythos.

For the first time since Night the shambling dead actually look menacing, as opposed to the arms-outstretched cartoons caught in their day job uniforms that has been the Romero signature since Dawn. While the satire (this time around casting a weary eye on the explosion of the “Look at Me!” media) is admittedly as heavy-handed as in Land, Romero softens the delivery with an almost bemused approach. While not exactly a comedy, Diary still acknowledges the underlying absurdity of the situation...

... of both a zombie apocalypse, and of his role in the mythos he spawned.

It is his most humor-driven entry of the series... and when you step back and look at everything after Night, all of them can be taken as pitch-black comedies. No new news there, of course. Dawn and Day had their comedy, but humor was more stealth... a balance maintained in order to please the fanbase. But in the years that separated Day and Land, I think (armchair psychology, here) that Romero became more comfortable with his situation... that he had hit a home run with his first swing, and no matter how much he wanted to play another metaphor, everyone put him back in his place.

He made a monster movie to get noticed, and he got noticed like nothing else. And a very special place was reserved for him...

... making zombie movies.

Not just zombie movies, but by the demands of his fanbase unrated ones that trapped him into not really making them the way he wanted. The implication seeming to be that Romero's narratives were superfluous, that his professional purpose was to serve as a conduit to showcase Tom Savini's gore effects, to top what had topped the entries before. It must have been frustrating. He had things to say, observations on the world around him... that he was only allowed to really say through the lowliest form of subgenres, the zombie flick.

There's a certain absurdity to his situation, and I think that he's more at ease with letting the absurdism come out in his forays, these days. There was a lot of stealth comedy in Land, such things as the zombie cop taking a chunk of a looter's arm, or "a bite out of crime.”

Diary is the next step towards Romero just saying screw all and making a flat-out zombie comedy. Maybe it'll be perceived as a case of biting the hand that feeds him, but where he's at in his life, I don't think he's all that hungry anymore.

So... Diary of the Dead is what it is. A zombie movie made by someone that hasn't been able to really escape that niche for the last forty years. He's the Zombie Dude, but (like how the Ramones never really seemed able to capitalize on the movement they spawned) he's never really reaped the bennies for the mythos he created.

So at this point, it comes across as if he's making the zombie flicks he wants to make. And laughing at the absurdity of it all.

More power to him.

2 comments:

ARBOGAST said...

Yay, a new post!

Old Dark Housekeeper said...

Yep... finally crawled out of the basement.