Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
More horror this week, this time from George Romero, a filmmaker whose pointed blend of politics and horror was always welcome. Herewith some 2008 notes on Day of the Dead, a 2005 Daily Herald review of Land of the Dead, and a 2010 piece on The Crazies from my website. I have a feeling Romero’s best films are going to last a long time.
Day of the Dead
Poorly released and mostly ignored at first, this 1985 film has always been considered a letdown compared to the undisputed horror champs Night and Dawn (and by the time Land and Diary came along, Romero was automatically getting the love from critics and fanboys). But this is actually a really strong movie.
Before going underground for virtually the entire picture, we begin in a helicopter, as searchers land in a Florida city and look for survivors of some terrible cataclysm. No humans are present, but maybe it depends on how you define “survivors,” ‘cuz we got zombies all over. A newspaper, blown by the wind, has a headline declaring THE DEAD WALK. Back at the missile silo that is now home, a medical team fiddles with the revenants and tries to divine a solution, while a belligerent group of Army soldiers goes increasingly bonkers (cf. final act of 28 Days Later). The heroine (Lori Cardille) has only a couple of sane accomplices, the chopper pilot and a Scots radio man.
The doctor in charge, a loopy budding Frankenstein, is trying to find ways to re-train the zombies so they will do our bidding; he’s got one, Bub (named after his dominating father—this is weird), chained up and listening to the “Ode to Joy,” which actually brings a few moments of peace to the zombian brain. This is splendid. He rewards Bub with fresh entrails, which doesn’t sit too well with the other folk. (The movie is highly original in having its authority figure, the aged doctor—upon whom one would presume the future of civilization to depend–just as crazy as the bad guys.)
Like a demented rodeo—leave it to Romero to poke around at conventions of the Western as he pursues his horror ways–the crew wrangles zombies for the doctor’s experiments in a peculiar corral in a tunnel. The missile silo also houses financial records of great corporations, movie negatives, a repository of mankind’s now-pointless ambitions.
And here the true awesome design of the movie becomes clear: there is no hope for the future, no “solution” to be found nor even consoling human trappings (the silo has bare walls, except for the ersatz “backyard barbecue” trailer that the pilot and radio guy have set up). The only chance is to find an island and escape and start the hell over.
Each of Romero’s zombie pictures has been ingenious about responding to its moment, and there are a lot of ideas running loose in this movie—it puts the political simplicity of 28 Days Later to shame. Among other things, this movie is the antidote to Rambo, which was released the same year; the crowning moment for the chief military nutjob is a death scene where he shouts at Bub, “You pus fuck! You pus fuck!” over and over.
Tom Savini’s makeup effects are incredible—guts spilling from bellies, heads torn off in mid-shot, wild corpses with only brain stems left (but apparently still alive?), and a great coup with a decapitated head, upside down, its eyes moving from side to side.
Land of the Dead
The zombie movie is all the rage again, thanks to a bite in the arm from 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and the comedy “Shaun of the Dead.” But now it’s time for the Elvis of zombie movies to show ’em what for.
George Romero, who concocted the enormously disturbing Night of the Living Dead on a shoestring back in 1968, is back in the realm of the reanimated. George A Romero’s Land of the Dead is Romero’s fourth zombie picture, trailing after the epic Dawn of the Dead and the scrappy but interesting Day of the Dead. As is customary for Romero, the film has massive helpings of gore mixed with wry servings of social commentary. Land presents a world that has barricaded itself in against the onslaught of the zombie population.
Specifically, a fatcat aristocrat (Dennis Hopper) has created a little upper-class utopia in a luxury high-rise building. The poor still live, somewhat precariously, in the city streets below, and the dead clamor outside the electrified fences that surround the place. The main thing zombies lacked in the previous films was the ability to think. (Well, their manual dexterity wasn’t too swift, either.) For this film, Romero depicts the spark of cognition, when a zombie leader named Big Daddy suddenly realizes that pulling the trigger of a machine gun will make it go bang. It’s the zombie equivalent of the apes using bones as weapons in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Our hero is a mercenary (Simon Baker), who runs errands for the rich folk (which means stealing into zombie-land and retrieving valuables). He’s accompanied by a loyal sidekick (Robert Joy) and a streetwalker (Asia Argento, the bewitching daughter of horror director Dario Argento), the latter liberated from a cage fight with two hungry zombies. The story isn’t much—both too simple and not quite clear enough—and Romero may be running out of ways to shoot zombies. His outlook is pretty bleak this time, and his attempt to draw a parallel between the threat of terrorism and his plot is tenuous.
He’s better at sorting out the haves and the have-nots, particularly in a scene where a hired mercenary (John Leguizamo) stakes his claim with Hopper to be allowed to buy his way into the luxury Metropolis. Hopper’s withering reaction is entitlement at its most unruffled. Romero is also good, since Dawn, at showing the absurd lengths human beings will go to create systems of living, despite the unpleasantness around them.
And, of course, the movie has brains. Also entrails and organs. And a scene that gives a new meaning to “finger food.”
Land of the Dead probably won’t attract anybody except zombian enthusiasts, but it should be noted that this is an effective film (its terse dialogue exchanges had me wishing Romero would make a Western). In the way that genre movies can, each of Romero’s Dead films has reflected its era, and given a skeptical verdict. At this point he doesn’t seem to mind if the zombies win.
And The Crazies here.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.