Wednesday, January 7, 2009
What the Hell Happened to THIS George Romero??
I just watched Martin for the first time in well over a decade, and I thought it was so strong, so original and insightful into its own story and characters, and so observant in its little details, that I'm left bewildered and saddened that this is the same guy who has more recently given us Diary of the Dead and Bruiser.
Many artists lose their grip on what used to make them great later in life -- and, after all, Martin was made in the same era during which Romero gave us his RenFaire biker epic Knightriders -- but I really feel like the problem in Romero's case is that he has completely bought into the line of bullshit about him being first and foremost a social satirist, and being a writer and director of horror films has become secondary to that. And before you say anything -- seriously, hold on for a second -- I'm not claiming social satire isn't part of what Romero does. I'm merely saying that he was never that first, and plus, probably more to the point, he's not really all that good at it. Zombies wondering around a mall works as a joke for about five seconds, before you (I) start to get wrapped up in the characters again.
You can say, rightly, that satire is not completely absent from Martin, because Romero's low view of religion does get full representation, but that's a shading to his story, not the story itself. A moment in the film that really struck me was when Martin gets dragged to church, and the service is being held in a shabby old attic, because, we learn, the actual church has burned down. If you want it, the way this scene plays out works well with Romero's theme of religion-as-superstition. But it also works beautifully as a throwaway bit of real-life detail, a moment that makes the film and characters and setting breathe. Had the scene not played that way, the thematic stuff would just sit there staring at you. In short, it's good storytelling. It doesn't hurt that Martin also has its share of easy and natural performances -- especially from John Amplas and Christine Forrest -- and set pieces like Martin's home invasion, that patiently and cruelly squeeze every drop of suspense and dread from the situation.
Romero used to have no money to make movies, and he doesn't have much more now, but he has some. That "some", and an unfortunate sense of importance, has killed his movies, in my view. He used to have to invent more, and he found that he was able to. Night of the Living Dead is one of those perfect ideas, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Frankenstein, that can be reworked, for good or ill, for decades, if not centuries, to come, because the basic story so directly taps into our fears and weaknesses. I can't fault the guy for only being able to do that once, but with Martin he showed that he could still create at a very high level. He coul still invent. But now he's just shrilly reworking the same ideas that less original filmmakers have already hammered all the life from. Not just the ideas of Night of the Living Dead or Martin, by the way, but also the limply "important" ones that came after.
I feel a little bad, already, for writing this. I didn't intend to be so negative. It's just that Martin is so damn good! I just want Romero to kick himself in the ass and, once again, show these lousy punks who feed off his leftovers what it really means to tell a horror story.