Though typically associated with certain low-budget products of the horror genre, George A. Romero remains an important but neglected figure in American independent cinema. Working largely outside the realm of the mainstream studio system, Romero’s films feature radical allegories reflecting relevant cultural and sociopolitical trends. Until recently Romero has not enjoyed the critical success of many of his contemporaries. Films such as Martin (1977), Knightriders (1981), and Monkey Shines (1988) represent significant but ignored products ultimately overshadowed by the success of the director’s more commercial zombie tetralogy. Romero has often been cited as revolutionising the modern horror film with Night of the Living Dead (1968), but the director’s cinema contains much more than the superficial aspects of gore and violence with which that film has become identified. This essay will examine George A. Romero not in terms of his influential zombie films, upon which much has already been written, but rather through the lens of the director’s lesser-known and underappreciated works. Through this method I hope to present a case for Romero as a truly great director, and to reveal something of the deeper sociopolitical dimensions of his cinematic vision.
Like many directors, Romero’s interest in the cinema began at an early age after receiving an 8 mm camera as a birthday gift from his parents. This allowed the young Romero to learn the fundamental mechanics of screenwriting, directing and editing through a series of short films exhibited before friends and family. After graduating from the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Romero began obtaining work shooting commercials, industrial films, and segments for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. With the formation of The Latent Image, a production company founded alongside such struggling filmmakers as Russell Streiner and John Russo, Romero was finally given the creative support to begin more ambitious projects.
The first of these, Night of the Living Dead, was produced under difficult circumstances owing to technical and financial limitations, but it remains a major cinematic achievement. Upon its release, critic Roger Ebert objected to the film’s use of graphic violence and its influence upon younger viewers. (1) Regardless, the film has become often credited with working to revolutionise the modern horror film, and actually contains several key thematic concepts which Romero would return to throughout the duration of his career. Specifically, Night of the Living Dead presents the supposedly sacrosanct realm of the traditional nuclear family as an institution based upon its own intrinsic corruptions, ultimately unable to engage in successful battle against possibly damaging ideological threats from the external world. Romero’s next two films would continue such thematic concerns, but have yet to attain the public or critical attention given this previous work.
There’s Always Vanilla (1971) marked Romero’s attempt to break from the generic constraints of the horror film, and to move in new creative cinematic directions following the ambivalent reception of Night of the Living Dead. Despite Romero’s recognition of the film as “both an artistic and commercial failure”, (2) There’s Always Vanilla is actually an important work belonging to that particular era of countercultural disillusionment as depicted in such New Hollywood films as Hi, Mom! (Brian De Palma, 1970) and The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, 1971). It also contains many relevant thematic traits anticipating the director’s vision of possible ideological contamination associated with the perpetuation of a patriarchal and consumerist societal structure as portrayed in such films as Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Creepshow (1982). There’s Always Vanilla begins with shots of “the ultimate machine”, visually representing the capitalist construct dictating the problematic ideological roles assumed by the film’s main characters. Chris (Ray Laine) and Lynn (Judith Streiner) attempt to subvert the system through a false radicalism employing counterculture methods of free love and substance use, but soon discover themselves adapting the same traditional patriarchal patterns of their parents. Romero’s handheld camerawork and staccato editing appropriately lend themselves to the film’s narrative in terms of capturing the restless but misdirected energy of these young individuals.
Not only does the visual structure of There’s Always Vanilla actively reference the radical form of many New Hollywood films, it also reflects aspects of the creative tensions affecting Romero and The Latent Image group. The film suffered from personal conflicts regarding creative control and financial problems, resulting in the breakup of the original Latent Image group and the abandonment of the film after a weak attempt at theatrical release under the title The Affair. Until its relatively recent release on DVD, There’s Always Vanilla was considered a lost film. Despite Romero’s negative feelings toward the film, however, it remains an important and revealing work with strong connections to the director’s work within the horror genre.
Following the difficult circumstances affecting the production of There’s Always Vanilla, Romero returned to the horror genre with Jack’s Wife (1972). Though conceptually very different from that previous film, Jack’s Wife suffered from many of the same technical and financial problems owing to its theatrical failure and subsequent status as a lost work. Comparatively, however, the film is much more focused both formally and thematically than There’s Always Vanilla. Jack’s Wife anticipates later films such as Martin and Creepshow in its depiction of fantasy and realism as interweaving structural elements. It is also an early feminist text containing relevant objections toward the oppression of women in a supposedly progressive society. The film deals with ideological problems of patriarchy and conformism affecting the traditional nuclear family structure. Joan Mitchell (Jan White) sustains abusive assaults from her husband, poor communication with her sexually active daughter, and a slighting reputation as “Jack’s wife”. She assumes the role of bored housewife along with her bridge-playing companions, initially lacking the knowledge or desire to break from such restrictive conditions; but Joan’s sexual and ideological repression result in her eventual foray into witchcraft and sexual experimentation with her daughter’s lover.
Jack’s Wife touches upon relevant sociological issues of the period, depicting in Joan a product of traditional patriarchy who seeks individualism and freedom from oppressive conformity. Unlike the characters from There’s Always Vanilla, Joan does succeed in breaking from such circumstances with her involvement in witchcraft and the supposedly accidental murder of her husband. However, Joan’s evolution from “Jack’s wife” to “a witch” still represents an inevitable form of ideological conformity which many of Romero’s films warn against. Jack’s Wife was drastically cut and re-edited in an attempt to market it as a softcore porn entitled Hungry Wives, and later re-released as Season of the Witch following the success of Dawn of the Dead. Both attempts were unsuccessful and the film in its original form has only recently become available through DVD.
In many ways, The Crazies (1973) closely resembles Night of the Living Dead in terms of its structural and allegorical components. Though not a zombie film, The Crazies does bear strong associations with Night of the Living Dead in its depiction of individuals reduced to a form of walking dead as a result of biological contamination. Both films also contain similar structural patterns in which power conflicts between oppositional groups threaten to destroy any form of potential progress. Governmental forces ordered to isolate and control the spread of the deadly Trixie virus within the small Pennsylvanian town of Evans City ultimately become as harmful to the preservation of human life as the virus itself. They imitate the volatile behavioural patterns of those infected through mindless and erratic forms of violence. The few individuals who survive initial attacks become aware that defeat is inevitable. Though these characters, like those of Romero’s other early works, lack self-awareness, they do recognise that they may never return to the normality of their former lives.
Like Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies features the fall of the capitalist order through anarchic social conditions; but rather than enabling progressivism in the formation of a new social order, these conditions debilitate any rational functions necessary for such a formation. The film also resembles Night of the Living Dead in terms of allegorical implications regarding the country’s reaction to the Vietnam conflict. Mark Walker points to Romero’s metaphorical use of specific visual icons, such as imagery of helicopters and the burning of a Vietnamese hut by the hands of an American soldier, as powerful references to the situation as depicted by various forms of news media. (3) Romero’s first moderately successful film since Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies is an important work anticipating the sociopolitical structural dynamics of the director’s later zombie films.
After the eventual dismantling of the Latent Image group, Romero joined forces with producer Richard Rubenstein in the formation of Laurel Entertainment. This collaboration proved successful in that it freed Romero from the logistical aspects of production, and allowed the director to concentrate more fully upon creative activities. The first product to emerge from this collaboration was Martin, which Romero still regards as among his favourite films. (4) Like Jack’s Wife, Martin deals with problematic issues of the supernatural and its interference within the familial structure. However, the film also aims to dispel many of the cultural cinematic myths proposed by Night of the Living Dead, suggesting that in real life “there isn’t any magic”.
Like many of the characters from Romero’s early films, Martin (John Amplas) lacks ideological awareness. His reputation as an 84 year-old vampire is perpetuated not only by himself, but by his family. Martin does not conform to the standards of the society in which he exists, but his rejection of this conformism through acts of murder committed under the guise of a folkloric figure reflects aspects of his confused psychological state as well as an inability to subvert dominant traditions in any progressive manner. Romero depicts Martin’s confused ideological state through recurring black and white sequences suggesting something of the fantasy realm in which the character positions himself. These sequences also reveal evidence of Romero’s influences from the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. Martin sees himself as the modern incarnation of the tortured “other” from such films as Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), but this behaviour results in his persecution and ultimate death at the hands of a family member. Like its depiction in Romero’s earlier films, the family in Martin represents a corrupt and destructive force unable to function as a progressive institution. Compared to the formal and structural deficiencies of Romero’s There’s Always Vanilla and Jack’s Wife, Martin remains an artistic success in terms of its effective explication of the director’s strong thematic interests as originated in Night of the Living Dead.
Romero’s next film, Dawn of the Dead, marked the director’s first significant commercial success. Released a decade after Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead revealed Romero’s desire to modernise his original vision in terms of both visual style and allegorical meaning. The film engages in a critique of 1970s late-capitalist mentality in its depiction of zombies returning to the secure corporate womb of the shopping mall. In contrast to the visual style of Night of the Living Dead, Romero here employs a colourful form anticipating the comic book appearance of Creepshow. Dawn of the Dead‘s comment on the possible future of a society based upon excessive consumerism is not only an effective critique of American culture which still bears relevance today, it is also closely thematically connected to the director’s following work, Knightriders.
Romero’s depiction of a modern-day Camelot, Knightriders shares with Dawn of the Dead possible alternatives to late-capitalist ideology through the implementation of a new social order. However, both films also question any forms of utopianism and reveal problematic issues of control and opposition as inherent within any supposedly progressive societal structure. In Knightriders, Billy (Ed Harris) and the other members of the travelling Renaissance fair discover that isolation from the dominant capitalist model does not mean complete freedom from such ubiquitous forces. The communal society these characters establish still faces internal threats from outdated modes of conduct leftover from the same conservative institutions the group attempts to reject. The riders also face oppositional assaults from corrupt authority figures and local motorcycle gangs ultimately intent upon destroying any attempts at an alternative society which does not conform to the patterns of their own. Billy’s utopian vision of a progressive and independent societal structure does not succeed under pressure from such negative influences, and could potentially never succeed belonging to a place and time very different from that within which it exists.
In many ways, Billy closely resembles the central character from Martin in his inability to completely separate reality from his idealistic fantasy. However, Billy’s vision is one advocating progressive ideological transformation, whereas Martin’s remains an adverse force debilitating any form of humanistic value. Just as There’s Always Vanilla marked Romero’s desire to break from the confines of the horror genre after the release of Night of the Living Dead, Knightriders represents the director’s attempt toward the construction of a personal artistic statement following the success of Dawn of the Dead. Though the film failed to garner the attention provided that previous work and became ultimately overshadowed by the success of John Boorman’s generically similar Excalibur (1981), Knightriders remains an important work evincing Romero’s strong thematic interests within the context of a very different cinematic structure.
Creepshow represents Romero’s most explicit appropriation of the visual style associated with the EC Comics tradition of the 1940s and 1950s. Titles such as The Haunt of Fear and Tales from the Crypt influenced the young director in terms of cinematic style and the narrative structure associated with popular horror film. Like many of Romero’s works, however, the graphic nature of these comics would ultimately face attacks from various censorship forces such as Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code Authority. This influence is evident in many of Romero’s films including The Crazies and Dawn of the Dead, but Creepshow contains its most literal representation.
Working alongside horror novelist Stephen King, Romero constructed Creepshow to reflect the anthology format of those earlier comics. True to comic book form, the film contains five individual chapters book-ended by brief opening and closing segments. Romero actively references the visual style of the EC Comics tradition throughout the film, employing such devices as comic panels and captions within the cinematic frame. The film also utilises bits of animation between chapters and creative uses of lighting and colour within the live action sequences, positioning the action even further within the comic book context. Though it inspired a sequel featuring a screenplay written by Romero and television series such as Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt, Creepshow remains largely unacknowledged as a serious work. This may be partly due to the fact that the film does not contain the explicit sociopolitical tone of many of the director’s other works, opting instead for a more straightforward approach to the horror genre. However, Creepshow still bears significance in its illustration of Romero’s visual style and in its contextualisation of several of the director’s thematic interests.
Romero returned to the zombie tradition with Day of the Dead (1985), a successful critique of Reaganomics and the politically reactionary 1980s. The film depicts the inevitable evolution of the zombie as a powerful force which threatens to overshadow humanity if necessary actions are not taken. Romero employs a much darker visual tone, contrasting that of Dawn of the Dead, to emphasise the ideological corruption of certain of the film’s human characters. Original screenplay drafts reveal Romero’s desire to construct a much larger and more detailed vision of a world facing possible extinction from threatening forces, but due to logistical and financial studio restraints this became impossible. (5) Yet, the film stands alongside Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead as a major cinematic accomplishment.
Following the success of Day of the Dead, the director broke from his involvement with Laurel Entertainment. Romero’s first product as an independent artist was Monkey Shines, a film that shares with Creepshow a reputation as a minor work. However, despite certain structural inconsistencies involving the addition of a traditional “happy ending” uncharacteristic for a director who generally prefers to end his films more ambiguously, Monkey Shines is still a work in need of recognition.
Like Creepshow, Monkey Shines neglects several of the strong sociopolitical themes informing many of Romero’s other works, but it does contain certain key narrative elements anticipating The Dark Half (1993). Runner Alan Mann (Jason Beghe) is forced to assume new life as a quadriplegic after a debilitating accident. He undergoes a negative ideological transformation as his frustrations with his present physical condition and the behaviour of those individuals surrounding him become translated into the murderous activities of his trained monkey Ella. Though Alan does not initially take credit for Ella’s actions, he soon realises that the bond between them is stronger than imagined. This relationship actively references the psychoanalytical concept of the “double” as defined by the writings of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank. Ella represents the dark half of Alan’s psyche, physically enacting the hostile desires evoked by her master. Just as the zombies act as reflections of their human counterparts in films such as Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, so does Ella embody a part of Alan.
The film also suggests evidence of the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family as featured in many of Romero’s works. Alan’s mother moves in with him after the accident, bringing with her a persistent nagging suggesting a frustrated woman lacking self-awareness. She attempts to place Alan in a position of subservience, relegating his limited physical state to that of a helpless little boy in need of his mother. However, her inability to set aside her own selfish pride and provide the sincere attention that her son really needs inevitably results in her death by Ella. Monkey Shines does not belong to the same category as Romero’s politically progressive zombie films, but it does stand as an important work containing its own cinematic strategies.
After contributing the brief “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” to Two Evil Eyes (co-directed by Dario Argento, 1990), King and Romero returned to collaborate on The Dark Half. Though conceptually a very complex work, The Dark Half stands beside There’s Always Vanilla as one of Romero’s most technically and structurally flawed films. The work continues certain narrative elements of Monkey Shines in its depiction of creative writing professor and pulp novelist Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) as an individual sharing psychological kinship with a violent nonhuman force. The Dark Half also delves more deeply than that previous film into the concept of the “double” and its relation to the human psyche. In an early scene, Thad stresses to a classroom audience the importance of discovering one’s inner being as necessary element of serious creative work. Ironically, it is Thad’s inner being, George Stark, who ultimately proves to be a destructive and debilitating force.
The Dark Half resembles Creepshow in its attempts to formally reflect the atmosphere of the EC Comics tradition. The film utilises expressionistic forms of colour and lighting, particularly during sequences featuring Stark, providing a comic book texture which works to reinforce the psychological nature of the narrative. In an early scene, Romero even makes fond reference to EC as the camera reveals an open comic book with a story titled “Slow Death” beneath one of Thad’s notebooks. Despite such factors, however, The Dark Half remains an artistic failure lacking the structural depth of many of the director’s earlier works.
The film ends upon a rushed and ambiguous note containing an overindulgence of special effects uncharacteristic of the director’s style. Like Monkey Shines, The Dark Half cannot be considered among Romero’s major works. Its structural inconsistencies and poor critical reception prevent its comparison to films such as Dawn of the Dead, but it does contain certain important narrative features reflecting the state of Romero’s creative evolution at this specific point in time.
During the decade following the release of The Dark Half, Romero would direct only one film. Bruiser (2000) is an important and relevant work possibly reflecting the director’s disillusionment with the loss of artistic identity within the monolithic studio system structure. Corporate conformist Henry Creedlow (Jason Flemyng) awakens to discover his face replaced with a featureless white mask. The anonymity provided by this physical state allows Creedlow to enact revenge upon those he deems morally and socially corrupt. Like the characters of Martin and Monkey Shines, Creedlow undergoes a negative form of ideological transformation which actually prevents any real social progressivism. His desire to break from the constraints of late-capitalist conformism is one which many of Romero’s characters face, but Creedlow’s violent logic lacks the awareness needed to stimulate any form of effective radical social change.
Stylistically, Bruiser is very different from many of Romero’s other works. The film contains a sterile, almost minimalist, formal approach reflecting the conformist state the film’s main character initially embodies. Despite its strong continuation of the director’s thematic concerns, Romero has stated that “nobody gets Bruiser”. (6) However, this is a problem symptomatic of the lack of responsiveness on the part of modern audiences rather than the effectiveness of Romero’s socially conscious films. With Bruiser, Romero has chosen more challenging creative avenues to voice the necessity for personal awareness and social critique than what many other modern American horror films tend to offer.
Romero’s newest film is Land of the Dead (2005), an effective return to the zombie tradition that originated with Night of the Living Dead. A strong critique of the current corrupt American sociopolitical scenario involving Romero’s reactions to George Bush and the “War on Terror”, Land of the Dead proves that the director’s films still provide relevant messages urging radical political change. However, Romero’s cinematic vision has not always been properly understood. Films such as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead have inspired new generations of filmmakers appropriating only the basest generic elements of those works, ultimately resulting in failure to view the films within the broader cultural context to which they belong. As Romero’s films demonstrate, engagement in progressive ideological transformation and rejection of social conformism are necessary elements for effective political change. Appropriately, this extends beyond the films’ characters to the viewers themselves.
- A condensed version of Ebert’s original Chicago Sun-Times review of Night of the Living Dead appears in the June 1969 issue of Reader’s Digest.
- Tony Williams, The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, Wallflower Press, London, 2003, p. 33.
- Mark Walker, Vietnam Veteran Films, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., London, 1991, p. 92.
- Paul R. Gagne, The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero, Dodd Mead, New York, 1987, p. 80.
- See Williams, pp. 128–129.
- Rick Curnette, “There’s No Magic: A Conversation With George A. Romero”, The Film Journal 10, 2004.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
There’s Always Vanilla (1971)
Jack’s Wife (1972)
The Crazies (1973)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (1985)
Monkey Shines (1988)
“The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” in Two Evil Eyes (1990)
The Dark Half (1993)
Land of the Dead (2005)
Diary of the Dead (2007)
Survival of the Dead (2009)
Rick Curnette, “There’s No Magic: A Conversation With George A. Romero”, The Film Journal 10, 2004 [see web resources].
Paul R. Gagne, The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero, Dodd Mead, New York, 1987.
Mark Walker, Vietnam Veteran Films, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., London, 1991.
Tony Williams, “Land of the Dead”, Rouge 7, 2005.
Tony Williams, The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, Wallflower Press, London, 2003.
Brian Wilson, “Edifying Horror: Brief Notes on Land of the Dead”, The Film Journal 13, 2006.
Robin Wood and Richard Lippe (eds), The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, Festival of Festivals, Toronto, 1979.
Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond, Columbia University Press, New York, 1986/2003.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
There’s No Magic: A Conversation with George A. Romero
By Rick Curnette.