Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray), part of ‘George Romero Between Night and Dawn’ limited edition box-set Release date: 23 October 2017 Distributor: Arrow Video Director: George A. Romero Writer: Rudolph J. Ricci Cast: Raymond Laine, Judith Ridley, Johanna Lawrence
This review of George A. Romero’s atypical counterculture drama is an excerpt from horror luminary Kim Newman’s new book Video Dungeon (Titan), which explores the B-movie basement and digs out unexpected gems.
George A. Romero’s second film, made with many of the creatives who worked on Night of the Living Dead, is the odd man out in his CV: a vaguely counterculture-ish, diffident look at the relationship between smart, directionless, no-longer-a-kid Chris (Raymond Laine) and smart, vulnerable model-actress Lynn (Judith Streiner).
As of writing, George A. Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead is just three years shy of its 40th birthday, and its influence on the zombie sub-genre of horror movies is still as keenly felt now as it was back in 1978. A seminal entry into the horror canon and a hugely important release in terms of independent film distribution, Dawn of the Dead has been pored over, analysed and celebrated so often down the years that any new attempt at a re-evaluation could be considered a fruitless exercise. The middle part of Romero’s original Dead trilogy, preceded by the equally influential Night of the Living Dead (1968) and completed by the sorely under-appreciated Day of the Dead in 1985, Dawn is the trilogy’s Boys Own adventure when compared to Night‘s claustrophobic terror and Day‘s unflinching nihilism. A satirical romp about contemporary life in the era of conspicuous consumption, Dawn uses sledgehammer visual metaphors, a perfect location and countless exploding blood squibs to take potshots at a justly perceived political and spiritual malaise in 70s American society.
Despite being a little creaky in places and boasting some make-up work that hasn’t aged all that well, Dawn is still one of the great film visions of societal breakdown. The media is presented as being beholden to ratings even as the ship is visibly sinking, the general populace fractures off into an every-man-for-himself mentality, and authority figures abandon their posts and head for the hills or, in the case of the film’s quartet of lead characters, the sky in a helicopter. On a relatively small budget and with a star-free cast, Romero’s movie has a palpable sense of the everyday being torn apart by the most fantastical of events. The familiar clashes with the bizarre as tenement blocks, rural gas stations and shopping malls are overrun by the shuffling, flesh-hungry walking dead. The simultaneously creepy and comically absurd nature of the situation is never more apparent than in the hordes of zombies mindlessly stumbling their way around the gigantic Monroeville Mall, a sight as eerie as it is imbued with the potential for slapstick. Romero eventually exploits the latter quality to the hilt, as custard pies are splattered into undead faces along with bullets and machetes.
Putting metaphors and socio-political commentary to one side, Dawn of the Dead is enjoyable simply as a visual spectacle, thanks to the memorably gory and inventive FX work of Tom Savini. The highlight of Savini’s work for Romero may have come seven years later in Day of the Dead, but Dawn is still a gruesome delight for those enamoured with such things as heads explode, flesh is chomped and blood spurts with gleeful, anarchic abandon. Although Romero’s later zombie films – Land, Diary and Survival – have unfortunately been severely lacking in quality, his original trilogy changed the face of the horror genre forever, with Dawn its most accessible centrepiece.
Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Ted Danson, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Stephen King, Viveca Lindfors, Leslie Nielson, Fritz Weaver
Stephen King’s first original screenplay, directed by George A. Romero, ought by rights to have been a major piece of work. The fact that it remains defiantly minor perhaps points to Romero’s excessive respect for King, and King’s lack of respect for cinema. ‘I like moron movies,’ he declares in his otherwise smart study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre. And so he set out to write a silly movie, inspired by EC Comics, but actually dumbed down the material. Romero’s own idea, described in the extras on this fine new Blu-ray, was to create an anthology that tracked the development of the horror flick, beginning in black and white 1:1.35 and expanding to colour and widescreen as it went on. With his lack of sensitivity to the formal elements of cinema (see also his preference for his TV mini-series version of The Shining over Kubrick’s feature film), King wasn’t interested in that.
So Romero was saddled with a script that often doesn’t seem to make sense or to satisfy on a basic level of plot. He entertains himself by chopping the frame into comics panels and using lurid coloured lighting, which often changes mid-shot as if in a stage show, to create an analog of the four-colour comic strip experience. He also gets some very lively performances from a disparate cast, some of whom hit just the right note of frenzied caricature.
The problems and benefits of the approach are immediately obvious in the first episode, which follows from a remarkably thin framing structure (a nasty dad is upset about his kid reading anachronistic 1950s monster comics). King seems to have written the film rather quickly, and I don’t think he spent much, or any, time polishing it, so the first section, Father’s Day, is certainly the weakest. A zombie rises from the grave to get his cake, and kills a bunch of relatives along the way. Said crowd include a cigar-and-scenery-chewing Viveca Lindfors, and a young Ed Harris, whose disco dancing may be the most disturbing thing on show. No really strong reason is given why the characters have to die (though Harris’s funky moves arguably warrant a capital sentence) and indeed the deceased dad seems to have been a nasty piece of work anyway.
However, one benefit of the anthology film is that if you don’t like one episode, another will be along shortly, and Creepshow stands to gain fresh bursts of energy from its ever-changing cast and its team of editors, who give each instalment a subtly different rhythm.
Unfortunately, episode two, The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, features Stephen King himself, gurning and going cross-eyed as an unlucky yokel infected by some kind of alien fungus he contracts after unwisely handling a meteorite. Borrowing the horror premise from William Hope Hodgson’s classic tale ‘The Voice in the Night’, King rides roughshod over the eerie and tragic potential of the story with his cack-handed performance. It’s one thing to say he’s deliberately over-the-top, but his buffoonish act is not just broad but totally unskilled. Bad acting is best left to the professionals. Again, the basic cause-and-effect of a horror retribution yarn is garbled, with Jordy fantasising about making a fortune from his falling star after he’s already been tainted by it. So we can’t even interpret his horrible fate as an excessive punishment for greed, nor can we see it as a manifestation of his lifelong bad luck, since the script doesn’t get around to mentioning that until later.
Leslie Nielsen comes to the rescue in Something to Tide You Over, a blackly comic revenger’s tragedy in which he gleefully buries a pre-Cheers Ted Danson up to his neck in sand to await high tide. Nielsen, though very funny, is nevertheless giving a true performance, unlike King. He had done Airplane!, and was just about to appear in Police Squad!, but was still more of an actor than a clown. His ebulliently nasty millionaire, obsessively recording his crimes on tape, can be seen as an avatar of the coming video-horror age, but truly embodies the spirit of EC, making sadism funny. The zombie climax hasn’t really been prepared for in any meaningful way, but the execution (with typically gross Tom Savini makeup effects) is so enthusiastic it seems forgivable.
Less forgivable is The Crate, boasting the strongest cast of all (Fritz Weaver, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau) and an amusing conceit, in the form of a still-living specimen from an arctic expedition discovered in a box at a university, and eating its way through the faculty. But Romero struggles to make the misogynistic fantasy palatable, working with a very crude pastiche of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? provided by King, in which we are invited to root for Holbrook to dispose of his shrewish wife using the crated creature as assassin. Weaver renders a typically detailed and funny study of male hysteria, Holbrook does his best to keep up, and Barbeau gamely surrenders to the role of hate-object, but it’s all very poorly worked out, and even the monster is unappetising.
Fortunately, the final episode produces authentic shivers of revulsion, and again centres on a zesty performance, this time from E.G. Marshall in clown-hair as a Howard Hughes-type nasty obsessive. The slender logic of EC is delivered intact for once: he’s mean and he hates bugs, so he’s assailed by masses of cockroaches. If you’re not itching by the end of this one, you’re already dead.
Somehow mostly likable in spite of its casual approach and occasional reactionary excesses, its lack of logic and its excess of high spirits, Creepshow benefits from lush presentation on Blu-ray. Romero’s tinted scrim effects and wacky panel shapes have never looked so good, and some of the accompanying cutting is authentically snazzy in an almost avant-garde way. It’s a shame he never found a pleasing style for the more conventional moments, and it’s a shame the good episodes are just outnumbered by the bad, but somehow, on balance, the film comes away more winning than otherwise.
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