BFI Gothic Season – George A. Romero In Conversation
Let us open with what can charitably be anointed as a joke – Zombie Lord ‘WHAT DO WE WANT?’, Zombie Horde ‘BRAINS’, Zombie Lord ‘WHEN DO WE WANT ‘EM?’ Zombie Horde ‘BRAINS’. Well, fuck you, it made me laugh. The Lord of the Zombies as we know them is the almighty George A. Romero, the Bronx born, Philadelphia based industrial training filmmaker turned horror maestro with his 1968 macabre Midnight Movie masterpiece The Night Of The Living Dead which seismically changed the foundations of horror cinema. This black & white, independently made staple of the drive-in and grindhouses sparked a cultural nerve during a period of social turbulence in the US, we’ll get into that a little later but its certainly one of the top dozen most influential post War horror films, so the opportunity to see Romero in conversation as part of the BFI’s Gothic season was an opportunity that was impossible to miss. It’s difficult to imagine but prior to this picture zombie cinema meant Lugosi in White Zombie or the eeriely atmospheric I Walked With A Zombie, two golden era tales where somnolent mannequins were being manipulated by Haitian voodoo warlocks to yield to their bidding, and only in 1968 was the idea of reanimated, brain ravenous mouldering corpses regarded as the cultural manifestation of the term ‘zombie’ which has since seized popular culture by the groaning throat. Now the undead hordes are everywhere, my weekly Lovefilm perusal of new releases can barely contain the epidemic of shambling cyphers which are of an increasingly deteriorating quality, alpha status stars are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into blockbuster translations of the pandemic, and of course the fantastic The Walking Dead has devoured the TV schedules – if you’d have told a teenage Minty that a popular, uncompromising, incredibly violent and gory long running series revolving around a groups fragile survival in post outbreak universe, well, hmph, I would have had no choice other than to impale you to a tree with my trusty spear-gun and strip your still twitching corpse of all reasonable resources and rations, whilst shaking my head in an excited glee.
Again with Alan Frightfest Jones in the interviewer chair the first thing that struck me was just what a humble and easy-going chap he was, I think he’s quite down to earth due to the relative financial returns of his movies, despite the wider cultural meme that his work has entombed and enjoyed over the past half century. I wasn’t aware that he started as career as general blue-collar production assistant on North By Northwest no less although alas he never met Hitchcock, before moving on to making commercial and industrial films he finally made the plunge into fiction filmmaking with the epoch defining Night Of The Living Dead. It was quite clearly an attempt at commercial success as horror movies generally enjoy the most efficient cheap production / maximum profit schemata of the entire industry, he wanted to make a return of course and pay back the crew whom all worked for free, but he said he was too busy working on his next project to pay much attention to the critical praise and financial success which was mostly diverted to their rather shady distributors. The deployment of a black & white patina to this hungry nightmare was fostered as a a financial decision, but he does feel that an alternate unsettling aura can be veiled over a film with monochrome photography, I think I know what he means when you consider films such as The Haunting or The Innocents which excel in the brooding and evocative over the gruesome and glutinous. This remains one of the great all-time horror film openings;
Socially speaking this was a
miletombstone for the genre, and Romero revealed that the night he and his producer partner picked up the first answer print from the lab and were driving back to the studio the radio crackled into life to inform them of the horrific news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The sense of social malaise, of a society turning in upon and devouring itself is Night’s great gift to the masses, not to mention the racial undertones of casting a African American guy in the lead (Romero still maintains that this was purely because Duane Jones was the best actor, I’m sure he was but he must have appreciated the cultural undertones this casting would have inflamed in 1968) whom is executed by red-neck hunters in the final reel, not necessarily because he is black, but at a distance he appears to just be another shambling threat. Jones was quite rightly worried about his starring role given that at one point he has to slap a hysterical woman in order to bring her to her senses, and feared for his own safety after being seen on-screen as a black dude striking a white woman. Cities were ablaze, beatings were the norm, as the civil rights infestation struggled to infect the conservative body politic.
Next was Dawn and after an amusing head-splicing clip (this got a massive series of laughs and a round of applause, heh) he was a little dismissive of the 2004 remake, not as a film per-se or of Snyders filmmaking prowess but he questioned the point of the project (other than commercially of course), if the film really had anything to contribute as to its setting, themes, or musings then why even re-appropriate the title? Whilst I enjoy the movie the man is correct that there is really nothing that isn’t simply trading on the name, it could have been any other above average zombie movie regurgitated over the past decade, and there is no illustrative interplay between the characters so aside from a few amusing set-pieces there really isn’t much to recommend it – other than running zombies but let’s not exhume that coffin again. Alas there wasn’t much mentioned about my favourite Day Of The Dead other than they had to significantly scale back the ambitions of the production due to financial constraints, and a few action scenes and visions of a post zombie apocalypse city landscapes were abandoned, man I would have paid good money to see some of that. A quick detour into Creepshow territory then followed which marked a long friendship and series of collaborations with Stephen King – I keep meaning to revisit his (if memory serves) adequate but largely unremarkable TV adaption of The Stand which has probably dated quite badly – and he expressed surprise that this film which has built a steady fan-base over the years is the only film which he hasn’t been approached for a re-issue with a director’s commentary or retrospective reminiscence, or indeed any remake options for either the first or second installment.
He was quite candid on how Orion pictures generally fucked up two of his 1990’s efforts Monkey Shines and another Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half with their amendment of the final reels and the rigid enforcement of their horrendously restrictive contracts, a flirting with the mainstream which has soured Romero’s liaison with any studio ever since as he still sources his budgets independently by mostly trading on the waning kudos of his name. I have to say the last two Dead films have been terrible, whilst he is undoubtably a major figure in genre history (see also cult curios The Crazies, Martin and The Season Of The Witch) he has lost his touch which is no surprise as you get longer in the tooth, although I do still quite like Land Of The Dead which at least had a sense of coherence, horror and mild social commentary. For the connoisseurs this is his real contribution to the banquet of horror, a strong sense of social critique whether it be racial tensions, consumerism or the military industrial complex – three areas which are just as potently pungent as they were back in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties – as it’s the interactions and groupings that the survivors form after the outbreaks which are really the films spines, the micro examples of macro politics and groupings, whilst the gelantious gore and eviscerated entrails are the abhorrent icing on the cake.
You may be asking why I didn’t follow-up this with an actual screening of Night and the answer is quite simple – digital. They showed the clip above which looked great on the big screen, but it was obviously that this was a pixellated presentation and it just looks a little too sanitized, a little too clean for my tastes. I think we’ve established that I’m no tedious purist or Luddite when it comes to new technology, I just think that a film like Night of The Living Dead really should be savoured as a distressed print on the big screen, with sound glitches during reel changes, with claw and gnaw marks across the frames, with a sense of a diseased scrambling through the dirt if you’re really going to do justice to the films apprehensive aura. One day I’ll track it down alongside Day and Dawn (the Prince Charles regularly programmes trilogy all-nighters) but we already have quite the frightening feast to get through with this season over the next two months, with a further scares this weekend and a delious double bill at the start of December. In any case a genre nuclear reaction of Argento and Romero lurking in the same room with a throughly appreciative audience was one of the high-point of the year cinematically speaking, so let’s close with a fine montage from their chilling collaboration which asserts ‘when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth‘;