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.


Fox said...

You weren't being "so negative", just honest, and I think you make some good points.

Sadly, I haven't seen Martin, and since I'm a Romero fan that is probably really lame of me.

First, Bruiser is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Embarassingly BAD! I totally agree with you on that.

And you're right that the satire in Dawn of the Dead is, er, dead, after about 5 minutes, but that's ok with me b/c it's just a silly zombie movie. I don't mean "silly" in a dismissive way, but in a way that I think it's a fun & fun-ny movie.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the simple-minded satire of Dawn works for me b/c it's not pretending to be too high-minded? Whereas the social-commentary in, say, a 28 Days Later, annoyed me b/c it felt like it was trying to be heady.

And I think you can argue that Day of the Dead makes that same mistake, by bringing the military angle in (did 28 Days rip this off???). Further, you could argue that Romero gets too heady with Diary (that ending?!?). There is definitely a "serious" heavy-handed tone to Diary, and it's true that commenting on MySpace or iPhone or tabloid news culture isn't really profound. But I liked it in Diary b/c it felt sincere coming from Romero, a man that doesn't seem as plugged in as the rest of us are.

Overall, though, I think you are right that Romero is in a pickle of over-thinking and making straight horror. For me, sometimes that results in good stuff, and sometimes it doesn't. In fact, didn't Bruiser have a "cosmetic-surgery" commentary to it??? It's been awhile since I've seen it.

bill r. said...

First, I think Dawn is a great movie, despite my reservations. What I love about it is the logic of the situation as he constructs it, and the attention to detail. I love that he allows the audience to see some of the characters' occasional boredom. You'd never get that today.

Second, I hate Day of the Dead, and I think that was the beginning of the end, such as it is, for Romero. Personally, I don't agree with the philosophy he lets creep into Martin, but he weaves in the religion angle so well, and the rest of the movie is so good, that all I can do is admire the artistry. With Day, he espouses a philosophy I also don't share, but in that case he yells it at you. There's no insight or craft or anything worthwhile to it.

The main thing I remember about Bruiser is that it sucks. I'm sure there is something about cosmetic surgery in there, now that you mention it, but it doesn't, let's say, linger in my memory.

And I actually like 28 Days Later. Boyle and Garland aren't hiding the Romero influence -- they want you to notice it -- and I had a good time with it. I also like the sequel, for reasons that could well fly in the face of the intentions of the filmmakers, but that's a whole 'nother topic, which I really don't want to get into.

Also, you really should see Martin.

Fox said...

I enjoyed 28 Weeks quite a bit more than 28 Days. I will have to do some recall to remember why, but I remember feeling that way. I didn't like 28 Days, and one of the reasons is b/c I hated the camera work. Now that I mention that, I remember finding 28 Weeks much more pleasant in that it's style was different.

bill r. said...

Yeah, there's actually a lot to like about 28 Weeks Later (there's bad stuff in there, too, of course), but the short version of my cryptic reasoning is that the heroes consistently do perfectly understandable things, things I'll admit that I'd probably do under similar circumstances...but they're absolutely wrong the whole way.

Krauthammer said...

The best part about Dawn is the zombie who carries that gun with him throughout the movie.

I haven't seen either Martin or Bruiser or Diary of the Dead (or, now that I think about it, all of Day so I'm at a loss here.

But I agree in a way that the critics latching onto his social satire and general zeitgeist talk is Romero's tragedy, Night of the Living Dead is so well formed, so beautiful is certain ways, and people didn't want to look at that. So Romero's begun pumping up the social significance at the expense of any technical or formal qualities.

That said I still find a lot to like in his work, especially the much-hated Land of the Dead which I think continues on the most interesting of Romero's zombie themes, the zombies gaining some kind of sentience and what that means for society. There are some more overt political themes within, but I found it still had some visual heft to it.

I like 28 Days later a lot actually, but I've always found it funny that it seems to take more from The Crazies in many ways than from Night. I didn't like Weeks nearly as much though, but I'd like to hear why you liked it though.

Krauthammer said...

ignore the last paragraph please

bill r. said...

Krauthammer - I actually do like Land of the Dead, for the reasons you said. I know quite a few people hate the "smart zombie" idea, but, like you, I think it's an interesting angle. The overt political stuff made me slump in my chair a few times, but overall I think that's a pretty decent movie.

Regarding The Crazies/28 Weeks comparison: I think you're probably right, but here's the thing...The Crazies is explicitly -- and, to my mind, ignorantly, but that's probably irrelevant -- anti-military. I think the 28 Weeks guys wanted to go in that direction, too, but the problem is that everything bad that happens in that film, the reason the plague returns to London and spreads to Europe, is because time and time again the heroes don't do what the US military tells them to do. The military is right about everything! When they're thwarted, France gets hit.

Now, I don't want this to get too political, but within the boundaries of that film, what I've just described is exactly what happens, and I doubt that was the filmmakers' intention.

bill r. said...

Sorry, I meant "spreads to the REST of Europe". Or, if you prefer, "mainland Europe". I know where England is, I promise.

Uncle Gustav said...

Romero was more creative and political when he was hungry. I remember seeing Jack's Wife at a drive-in in 1977 -- after having seen Night of the Living Dead in all its Midnight Show splendor -- thinking, "This guy is doing some amazing stuff with no money."

The Crazies and Martin were further indications of his potential. But both Dawn of the Dead and Knightriders seemed too long, thin ideas stretched to tedium. He never truly recovered.

bill r. said...

It amazes me that Knightriders apparently has quite a few fans. I think that film is incredibly, laughably bad. Renaissance Fair biker gangs...and it's played, with the exception of the obligatory moments of comic relief, dead seriously. It's about honor, you see.

What makes it worse is that Romero supposedly regards it as his best.

Uncle Gustav said...

When Knightriders was released, the distributor, United Film, tried to sell it as a prestige production, kind of like a David Lean picture for the acid generation. It opened wide in New York, but I don't remember it playing for long.

In the beginning, The Crazies was very difficult to see. It opened in one theater in Manhattan. They were hoping for word-of-mouth to turn it into a midnight hit, but it never took off. Martin fared a little better -- the distributor was Libra Films, who learned how to successfully market tricky films with Eraserhead.

My seeing Jack's Wife was a fluke -- it was on a triple bill with Chesty Morgan in Double Agent 73 and Bava's Four Times That Night. After that, I had to wait about eight years until Jack's Wife came out on VHS.

But, yeah, Knightriders... You can imagine what kind of reception it got from mainstream viewers who'd been drawn in by the positive pullquotes plastered all over the ads.

bill r. said...

So why is Jack's Wife only known as Season of the Witch now? I've never seen it (I'm going to have to do so soon, though), but it's only recently that I've seen it regularly referred to by the original title, even though it hasn't been released that way on DVD (to my knowledge).

Anyway. You know Romero has a new film in the works, right? According to IMDB, the actual title is ...of the Dead. I really bet he feels trapped these days.

Uncle Gustav said...

I'm not certain why Season of the Witch stuck as the title -- whether it's a legal issue or because the Donovan song is played in the film.

I thought Diary of the Dead was fair, not as bad as I'd imagined it would be. After Of the Dead maybe he'll make Dead. One thing's for sure: this is one Romero film I want to see!

bill r. said...

Ha! That must be...something. I think he should get to work on the sequel ASAP. That story would be more up his alley, I think.

Krauthammer said...

I don't know if anyone is still reading these comments but:

...of the Dead was meant to be Island of the Dead but aparently someone beat them to it and Romero just said "ah screw it"
I don't think that Romero is making these zombie movies because of a burning passion, but because they are the only things anyone will give him money for.

I still can't wait to see it though.

Lindsay Vivian said...

I've worked on a couple of the latest Romero projects. My knee jerk response is that he just doesn't seem to care that much. That is to say, not as much as the people around him who tell him "you know, this would be cool, or, "we should do this," kind of thing. My sense is he's left his legacy, and now he's kind enough to let some of his pals edge in on his name.

bill r. said...

Wow, thanks, Lindsay. That's interesting, unsurprising, and a little sad. I'm with Krauthammer in thinking that these current films -- at least the zombie movies -- don't feel like they were made by a guy who was desperate to make them. And I liked Land of the Dead!

I seem to remember Romero saying once, well after Day but well before Land, that he had no interest in zombie films anymore, so I have to assume that these are now the only movies he can get made. I wonder how he got Bruiser made? I mean, I think it's a lousy movie, but I've heard that it was a personal film for him, and in that sense I'm glad he made it. I'm just surprised that, given where his career is, that he was able to do it.

Arbogast said...

I'm a big Knightriders fan and I don't think it's seriousness is a deficit, because it abides within the fiction that these people have created around themselves. I remember getting into quite a squabble in college with a girl who thought John Boorman's Excalibur was, well, the Holy Grail, and I tried to explain to her why Knightriders spoke more clearly to me about the Camelot philosophy but she simply couldn't abide the theme pulled out of its original trappings. Which made me suspect she really didn't give a shit about Arthurian legend, she just liked the castle and swords and sorcerer stuff.

I also thought Romero really nailed the community spirit of the Renaissance Fair people, that sitting around the fire singing "Signifying Monkey" and kicking a ball around, which anyone who has done regional or traveling theatre can identify with.

The movie isn't really about honor so much as commitment to an aesthetic. It asks "how serious are you?" It's interesting that I should be reading this somewhat old post back-to-back with Greg's thoughts on what it means to be a Cinephile over at Cinema Styles. How much do you love what you do? Would you still do it if people thought you were foolish to do it, if they thought you looked foolish doing it?

Well, I could go on all day.