Beyond Dead

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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.

Martin (1978)

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.

Knightriders (1981)

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.

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Creepshow (1982)

This is probably the most well-known of Romero’s non-zombie oeuvre – even if you didn’t know all the players behind it, it’s one of those heavily-broadcast 80s horror flicks that by now almost everyone has seen some of. If you haven’t, you ought to rectify that.

A collaboration with Stephen King, Creepshow was a tribute to the infamous 1950s E.C. horror comics, a cult hit that kicked off a short-lived revival in “anthology films” at the theater. It inspired one direct sequel (and an in-name-only sequel decades later) and a TV spinoff that became Tales From The Darkside – which itself became its own movie with a segment scripted by Romero.

The film contains five short horror stories, and offers the fun of seeing actors better known for comedy like Ted Danson and Leslie Neilsen as horror players – but the highlights are King himself as a redneck being slowly consumed by a parasitic alien plant, a mysterious crate that unleashes a yeti-like furry monster to menace a University and E.G Marshall as a wealthy, agoraphobic bigot whose sealed-off apartment is invaded by murderous cockroaches.

Monkey Shines (1988)

Without question, the killer monkey movie by which all others must be judged. A recently paralyzed athlete is given a trained “helper monkey” named Ella to assist him around the house. They get along extremely well … and then people start to die.

See, apparently they got along a little too well. Ella has formed a kind of psychic bond with her master, and she becomes driven to attack and even murder people whom said master unconsciously feels have hurt or betrayed him. That’s right, it’s a movie where if a wheelchair-bound man has an angry thought about you, his pet monkey is gonna kill you. Are you not entertained!

The Dark Half (1993)

“Interesting failure” is probably the best description of The Dark Half, one of a slew of “classy” Stephen King adaptations that clogged movie screens in the early 90s.

Like many middling King stories, it’s a psycho-thriller potboiler with supernatural elements about a writer bedeviled by his own creations. Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is a serious-minded novelist, but he supplemented his income writing lurid pulp-fiction under the name “George Stark.” When this is discovered, Beaumont “kills off” his alter-ego, and then people start dying, seemingly at the hands of the nonexistent Stark. Oh, and as a child Beaumont had a tumor removed that turned out to be an “absorbed” would-be twin brother, but I’m sure that has nothing to do with anything …

After the critical and box office failure of Dark Half, Romero became infamous in film-fandom circles for starting up a dizzying number of Hollywood projects, only to see them passed on or rejected one after the other. Ironically, he’s said that he actually made more money in these years of being paid for scripts that went unfilmmed than he did at any other point in his career.

Even still, he found the blockage of the Studio System creatively unfulfilling, and ultimately disembarked for the fertile Canadian indie film scene. In 2000, almost a decade after wrapping production of Dark Half, he returned to the director’s chair for Bruiser and then to his zombies for Land of The Dead.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.


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Image of Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.