Today (or, rather, the day this column will first appear) is February 4th, which has the distinction (if not the notoriety) of being the birthday of a radically diverse group of famous individuals: aviator Charles Lindbergh, civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, feminist scholar Betty Friedan, metal god Alice Cooper, boxer Oscar De La Hoya and early-90s go-to punchline Dan Quayle. But for legions of film geeks and horror fans in particular, one birthday boy's name towers above the others: George A. Romero.
Romero, of course, is best known for inventing the modern zombie movie with Night of The Living Dead, and subsequently refining it through an epic, decade-spanning series of Dead sequels, prequels and in-between-quels including Dawn, Day, Diary, Land and most-recently Survival. Fans of this column may recall that I interviewed Mr. Romero on the occasion of Survival's release.
Undoubtedly, the zombies will be Romero's lasting legacy, but they're far from the only subject he's made films about. Like fellow 70s/80s trailblazer John Carpenter, Romero spread his work among many genres and many subjects, and it'd be a shame if this other work were to be overlooked by history. So, on this more-or-less appropriate occasion, here's a quick primer on the best non-zombie George Romero movies you ought to look out for.
Vampires: done to death, right? You may think you've seen (or at least know of) every offbeat angle or new twist on this particular horror archetype, but have you seen Martin? Romero's still-radical modernizing of the bloodsucker mythology was overshadowed by Dawn of The Dead, released in the same general timeframe, and remains one of the great undiscovered gems of his filmography.
The "Martin" of the title is a disturbed youth who believes, rather banally, that he is a vampire - though one without fangs or special powers, necessitating his use of razorblades and hypodermic needles (SYMBOLISM!) to procure blood from his victims. The film is canny about its horror, primarily concerned with the stifling atmosphere of the late-70s and its effect on the Martins of the world, but there's no other vampire flick quite like it. If you were to remake it shot-for-shot today, it'd likely be received as the most vicious parody of Twilight's vampire-chic phenomenon possible - despite predating its target by over three decades. Don't believe me? Here's the trailer.
Without question, the most "different" George Romero film, ostensibly a character drama set in "reality" and yet even stranger than many of his more fanciful offerings. It's part biker movie, part medieval intrigue drama, part counterculture road picture.
The story follows a traveling quasi-medieval "performance jousting" troupe (they stage Renaissance Faire-style jousts in full suits of armor with customized "medieval" motorcycles instead of horses) as they make their way through the rural county fair circuit. Their idealistic "King" (Ed Harris. No, really!) strives to lead his life and his "family" according to the honor code of Arthurian Chivalry, but the less-than-chivalrous real world is getting harder to fight against. Somehow, the movie manages to (mostly) avoid the eye-rolling sanctimony of most other aging-hippie "dreamers against the world" yarns, probably because its hippies are bikers jousting as medieval knights.
Watch the trailer, and wonder why you've never heard of this.