Sunday, June 13, 2010

Horror and Politics: the films of George A. Romero

The paper I was lamenting about a few posts ago turned out to be very good. I got 590/600 on it and I am very proud of it. Those of you who wish to brave the extremely long post that follows, I applaud you. Any feedback would be welcome.

Brandon and I talked with Simon (the teacher) after class and he agreed to help us fine tune our papers so we could submit them to a magazine. Isn't that awesome?!

For those of you who do not know, George Romero is the mastermind behind Night of the Living Dead and many other great films. Here is a picture of him:

I originally wanted to call this paper, "The Glasses that ate Pittsburgh" because of his gigantic glasses but this title works better.


"They're coming to get you, Barbara!" (1968) With those six words a new face of horror was born and a new breed of monsters were launched on an unsuspecting nation. Few directors have had such a lasting impact on our culture like George Romero. Zombie fever is sweeping the nation as we speak, with people like Max Brooks, author of “The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead” (2003) and “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” (2007) as well as the successful “Resident Evil” series of movies. Fans gather en masse to do zombie walks, each person in full undead make-up, staggering down the street.

I was introduced to the horror genre by way of “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) so it is no surprise that I have a soft spot for zombies and George Romero. It has been interesting to re-watch several of his movies after weeks of analyzing films. It causes one to see them in a new light and to see things we might have missed before. In viewing the majority of his directorial work, several aspects were found to reoccur throughout. These include locations, actors, and themes.

The location for most of Romero's films is his (former) hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or the surrounding areas. Originally the reason for this was financial. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) was independently financed by Romero and his friends so shooting where they lived made sense. With the surprising success of “Night” it would not have been too difficult to find extras for his following films, especially the “Dead” series. Tom Savini, in the documentary short, “The Many Days of Day of the Dead” commented on that subject. He states, “When you're born in Pittsburgh, one of the things you want to be when you grow up is a zombie in a George Romero movie...So there was never a shortage of zombies.” This continued use of Pittsburgh as the setting for his films has instilled a sense of pride in those who live there.

Watch enough Romero movies and you will see some of the same people cropping up either as extras or in minor roles. Those you are most likely to see are Tom Savini, John Amplas and Christine Forrest. The most recognizable of the three is Savini, who was given more speaking roles than the others. While Savini has had decent acting career, out of Romero's sixteen films, Savini has been in seven. John Amplas, who plays the title character in Romero's “Martin”, (1977) has had a rather small acting career with only ten roles, half of which were in George Romero movies. Last but not least, we have Christine Forrest Romero. Out of her nine acting roles, eight of them were in Romero films. In reusing actors and settings, Romero is much like the contemporary favorite, Kevin Smith, who repeatedly sets his movies in New Jersey and reuses actors. In fact, it could be said that Tom Savini is George Romero's Ben Affleck.

If there is one theme that ties all of Romero's films together, it is the world collapsing down around the characters. Whether it is the possible end of the human race or an end of a way of living, all of the characters are made to watch their lives crumble. Several other themes are evident, though not exhibited in all of the movies. Under the gore, Romero is a very political director. He makes movies that take a stance on many social and political issues. The three most prevalent socio-political themes are family values, military interference and the role of the media. And then there is the violence.

There is definitely a lot of violence in Romero's films. Now, if one were to just take it at face value, they would think that he just liked violence. They would be wrong. It is not violence for violence's sake. The violence enacted by whatever outside forces are in place are only a parallel to show how horrible the violence is the characters inflict upon one another. The outside violence should give the characters a reason to work together but, for reasons unfathomable, they can't and it always brings about their downfall.

Romero also employs many of the same shooting techniques throughout his films. Most, if not all of his movies have a lot of close up shots. These close-ups can be particularly effective when used to show the effects of the infection on the undead. Another technique most of his movies share is that of steady shots. These enable the audience to see the action as it unfolds.

The first, and perhaps most famous, of Romero's films is “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). Set at the very beginning of the infection, “Night” tells the story of a small group of people just trying to survive. Romero grew up and came of age in a country that was embroiled in an extremely controversial war. This is most evident in this movie. At that time the news was in black and white and people were glued to their TV sets for information on the war. While the decision to shoot with black and white film might have been a financial one, it gave the movie a feeling of reality it would not otherwise have had. In addition to being shot in black and white, this movie was also shot and shown as fullscreen just as the televisions were in people's homes. To go along with the mindset of Americans in the 60's, it is postulated that radiation is the cause of the dead returning to life. With everyone living in fear of the bomb, it is no wonder that would have been their reaction. Alas, trying to outlive an army of undead, flesh-eating ghouls is about as probable as a desk saving you from the Atomic bomb.

“Night” is perhaps the movie that showcases the theme of family values the best. In looking for information on Romero's early childhood, I have decided there is none readily available. One can only speculate, then, that at some point in his life Romero had some family issues. The theme seems too prevalent to merely be a statement about others' lives. The breakdown of the American family is first shown in the dynamic of Harry and Helen Cooper. This husband and wife obviously hate each other and yet remain married, perhaps for the sake of their daughter, Karen. Unfortunately this family is further destroyed by the turning of Karen and her subsequent killing and eating of her parents. A similar fate befalls Barbara. No longer can she bicker with her brother Johnny. At the end of the movie we see him return as one of the undead and promptly attack his sister.

The media plays an important role in this film. The discovery of a working TV and radio give the party a reason to momentarily stop fighting. In fact, it is the reason the Cooper's agree to leave the cellar they believe is so safe. Helen Cooper gets angry at Harry for deciding to stay in the cellar when she learns of the existence of this link with the outside world. The characters watch the news, taking at face value all of the information they see. The local law enforcement seen on the news proclaim to have the situation under control and that it is easy to deal with the ghouls.

One would think that the threat of hundreds of undead beings would give people a reason to work together to stay alive. For some reason humanity is incapable of this. From the moment the two groups come together there is a power play and constant yelling of who is right or wrong. Ben has decided he will be the boss of the people who want to stay upstairs and Harry can be the boss of those who want to stay in the cellar. It is clear that each man strongly feels they are in the right. This school yard squabbling comes to a climax when Harry tries to keep Ben from returning to the house after a disastrous attempt to leave the farmhouse. Ben becomes very angry and begins to punch Harry, causing him to drop the rifle he was holding. Then Ben wastes no time and shoots Harry, leaving him to die in the cellar where he wanted to be. If only this group of people were not reduced to petty arguing like children, they might have had a chance.

1973 saw the release of Romero's film, “The Crazies”. This film is mostly a mockery of the government as they accidentally cause the release of a chemical weapon known as 'Trixie' that causes permanent insanity in those infected and then must try to contain the spread of infection. The two main characters, David and Clank did a tour of duty in Vietnam and so are very distrustful of anything the military is involved in. David even makes an off-handed remark about the Kent State shooting.

Another way to look at this movie is that of the class system. The people who live in the rural town of Evan's City are paying for the mistakes of the government. As usual it is the rich and powerful who are messing things up for those “beneath” them.

The breakdown of the family is evident in this movie as well. Towards the end of the film, David leads his small group of survivors to an abandoned house. Once inside the characters get a chance to take a break and talk. There is worry over the young woman, Kathy, who is showing symptoms of infection. In talking with her father we find he is very overprotective of her as well as very old fashioned. He does not allow her to date because he thinks that boys are pigs. There is terrible irony in this statement when, just minutes later, he tries to rape his daughter while under the influence of Trixie.

In this movie lighting became an issue. It had not been bad in “Night”, but was awful at some points in this film. Overall it was not too bad but whenever the characters were outside in the full dark it was still very easy to see them and their immediate surroundings. The worst moment of this was when they came to the abandoned house mentioned earlier. They are creeping up along the front of the house and apparently the house has superb outside lights because they are too well lit.

“Martin” (1977) was Romero's take on the classic vampire movie. It is about a young man who believes he is a vampire, but is not restrained by traditional lore surrounding them, and his distant cousin who is determined to save his soul and then destroy him. This film did not have the political themes present in most of his other films but instead was about the self. Martin is a sweet young man who does not really know who he is. This comes from his family having told him all his life that he is a monster and a curse. This film does, however, include the theme of the breakdown of the family. Martin's cousin, Cuda has told him that if Martin preys on any of their neighbors, Cuda will be forced to destroy him without salvation. When one of their neighbors commits suicide Cuda believes that Martin has killed her and made it look like a suicide. Armed with this belief, Cuda kills Martin in his sleep by driving a stake through his heart.

The music and the way this movie was shot were both very effective. The story of Martin is a sad one and the music conveys that. Done only with a score, the music brings the audience into the feeling of the title character. Throughout the film we see pieces of what Martin believes are memories of times past where he has been attacked by a mob, complete with torches, and a priest is trying to rid Martin's soul of the demon inside. These “memories” are shown in black and white and thus greatly differentiate them from what is happening in the present. The black and white also serves to make his memories look older, similar to the way the original “Dracula” (1931) was presented. There is also a great use of depth in this film. In many of the shots there would be something coming into the foreground, whether a hand, a car or an actor.

Ten years after the release of “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), Romero finally released a sequel entitled, “Dawn of the Dead” (1978). This movie saw a group of four survivors take refuge in the Monroville Mall. The main theme in this movie was consumerism. The ghouls return to the mall because it is what their body remembers from life. Francine asks, “What the hell are they?” and Peter answers, “They're us, thats all...” It is kind of depressing to think that shopping has become so important in our lives that not even death can stop the desire to go to the mall. The main characters embody this theme themselves when, after having secured the mall from roaming ghouls, they all go crazy “buying” things from the department stores. This makes them happy for a while but having everything becomes monotonous eventually makes them happy no longer. This just proves that those who “have everything” are rarely truly happy. We as a culture are so sure that it is stuff that will make us happy and we define ourselves by our possessions.

This is the first Romero film to have a truly strong female lead character. In “Night” Barbara was so timid she was comatose for most of the movie. This time around we are presented with Francine. She is an independent woman with a good job at a television studio. At no time in the movie does she scream. In fact, one of the bits of trivia from states, “She felt that Fran was a strong female character, and if she screamed, the strength would be lost.” This was a great improvement over the whimpering, unhelpful Barbara.

The importance of the media is brought home in this film with two main characters who are employed by the local TV station. In the beginning of the movie you can see the responsibility some of the employees feel to keep the news station up and running. Unfortunately, many of the supporting cast do not believe what their scientist guests are saying and things get out of control. Later, when safe at the mall, Stephen religiously has the TV set on in hopes of getting some information about what is going on.

Since the four main characters knew each other before the infection started, there was no internal breakdown of the their group. These people knew what it would take to be safe. They had taken care of all the ghouls in the mall and blocked the doors from more getting inside. Eventually, of course, their peace is disturbed by a rouge band of motorcyclists. Instead of letting our main characters know there were other live people around and trying to work together, this band of ruffians decide to take the mall by force. Into the mall pour all the ghouls that have been patiently waiting outside the mall doors. Making this decision ultimately leads to (almost) everyone's doom.

I feel the need to discuss the music in this movie. I found it very unsettling and strange. It was very different than any of the music Romero had used before and I did not enjoy it at all. The movie used original music by the band 'Goblin'. “Dawn” was financed and produced by Dario Argento, the famed Italian director. He regularly uses this band in his own movies which, I think, works well, as his movies are often very surreal. My guess is that since Argento was producing the film it was his idea to use the band for the music. This movie was received quite well and is usually the favorite among Romero fans so it might just be me who has this reaction to the music.

Interestingly, for most of this film there is a feeling of jubilation. Once the initial shock of seeing the undead and having to kill some, the characters go about their business as if life were normal. Even during the scenes of trying to secure the mall from the outside, Peter and Roger are joking with each other and generally having a good time. This, I think, is partially why this movie did so well. The audience knew that the characters were still in danger but they were having so much fun it made the problem seem less immanent.

Taking a break from the horror genre, Romero released “Knightriders” in 1981. Right away it is clear that this movie is going to be different. Instead of death and destruction, the audience is thrown into the world of Billy and his troupe of traveling motorcycle-riding jousters. The group is threatening to fall apart from the inside out because some of its members feel that Billy is no longer fit to be their king and a new one should be crowned. The group is split by those who still follow Billy and those who are trying to undermine his leadership. This strife plays out in a number of ways. Early on in the film, Morgan and Billy fight. If Morgan is able to make Billy surrender, Morgan will become the new king. The other jousters stand on the sidelines waiting to swoop in to keep this from happening. Then, midway through, a meeting is called without Billy's presence and when he arrives he is incensed that someone would have the audacity to call a meeting without everyone present.

Being true to yourself is the main theme in this movie. Billy needs to discover if he can really be the leader his group needs him to be. It is a painful process for him to accept defeat. Morgan thinks he needs the glamor of fame when in reality, he is perfectly happy being a part of this group. In one instance several of the characters have a frank discussion of sexuality and question the orientation of a fellow troupe member. Pippin, the member in question, states that he is unsure of whether or not he is gay. Eventually he comes to terms with his sexuality and embraces it, beginning a relationship with another male member of the troupe. It was interesting how forward all of the characters were about the subject. There is even a proud lesbian who was the only female jouster. This subject matter is, as always, very topical. In 1981 the AIDS virus was discovered and the nation's feelings for homosexuals, while never very good, went extremely south.

The theme of government interference is shown in this movie by way of a money grubbing police officer who threatens to shut down Billy's production unless he gets a pay off. Morgan is all for paying the cop, saying that if they do, he will be out of their hair and no longer a problem. Billy has too much pride and refuses. This does not go well when the police officer arrests and subsequently beats a member of Billy's troupe.

The breakdown of the family and the media also play a role in this movie. At the first show we are introduced to Julie and her parents. Her father is obviously drunk and makes callous remarks about the show. Julie calls him a fat slob and promptly walks away from her family and strikes up a relationship with our main character, Alan. Later when Julie stops at her house for supplies she sees her mother with a black eye. So, not only is her father a drunk, he is also physically abusive. Also, the structure of the troupe is similar to an extended family and it's breakdown is much like that of the breakdowns is Romero's other films.The media is seen as evil by the leader of this group. When a fan asks for his autograph in a motorcycle magazine Billy becomes upset because this is not the kind of attention he wants and the photo was used without his permission. In addition, the media is what lures Morgan away and causes him to act poorly.

This movie was one of my favorites for several reasons. First of all, it is obviously a very personal film and it shows. Taking a close look at what happens, it can be seen as his experience in independent film making. Being an independent film make is difficult at the best of times but one if the hardest things is staying true to yourself and what you believe in. Romero has achieved this is most, if not all, of his films. The second thing that really made this movie for me was the lighting and sound. The film was shot with all natural lighting, either outside during the day or at night buy firelight. The music was almost all diegetic, with the majority of it coming from characters singing and playing songs or from the sound system used for the jousting tournaments.

In 1985 Romero returned to his living dead series with “Day of the Dead”. With superb writing, great effects, lighting, acting and his largest production value at the time, “Day” is by far, my favorite of the series. It unfortunately did not do well with audiences. “Day of the Dead is a very dark and grim movie, showing humanity on its last legs and after the party that was “Dawn of the Dead” I guess the fans were not up to the feeling of impending doom. This movie is the best example of how the violence done within the group is more damaging than that of the outside entity. Tied in with that theme is also the theme of the government causing problems.

The story revolves around a group of scientists who are doing research on the infection and the military unit assigned to them. With the death of Major Cooper, Captain Rhodes takes over and proves to be a man on the brink of insanity. He spends most of the movie shouting at everyone angrily. The soldiers follow suit and spend their days belittling the scientists and complaining about how much time the research is taking. In the end several of the non-military personnel are shot by Rhodes and the other scientists are sent into the bowels of the compound to fend for themselves.

This is the first movie where the subject of race is brought up. The soldiers love to use derogatory terms when talking about Miguel. The argument could be made that that is just how men in the military talk. Whether or no that is is true, it shows that they have no compassion or courtesy for others and reinforces the feeling that the military are the real bad guys.

By far the most disturbing Romero film I have watched is “Bruiser” (2000). About a man who is pushed beyond his limits and finally snaps and starts killing those who walked all over him, “Bruiser” was more steeped in reality than the other movies. For this reason I found it more unsettling than Romero's living dead films. The main character, Henry wakes up one morning to find that his face has become a white mask. Using his new found anonymity, he takes revenge on those who slighted him. This film takes a look at the darker half of our nature and what people are capable of when anonymous. In this digital age, many people are just like Henry, using their anonymity on the internet to say and do whatever they want without repercussions.

Humans may try to be good and kind but inside all of us are thoughts of rage and cruelty. It would be easy to release those thoughts if no one would know who we are. Henry faces the same internal dilemma that Kevin Bacon's character in “Hollow Man” (2000) does when he becomes permanently invisible. What to do when no one knows who you are? For these two characters their invisibility (whether literal or figurative) enables them to engage in actions they as good human beings would not have.

One of the people Henry kills first is his cheating wife. Here again is the breakdown of the family. His wife finds him too passive and so finds excitement in his outspoken, brazen boss. His boss is not only breaking up Henry's family but his own as well. Rosemary, the boss's wife knows that her husband is constantly cheating on her but needs proof for the divorce. She finds it when she catches her husband and Henry's wife in the act.

In a spectacular show of what Romero is capable of with a big budget, “Land of the Dead” (2005) is the fourth installment of the living dead series. This movie is interesting because it makes distinct use of the class system. The undead situation has been going on for quite some time by now and the surviving citizens of Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas have gathered together to form a “safe community. Heading this community is Dennis Hopper's character, the unscrupulous Kaufman. Kaufman has transformed the stately Fiddler's Green into luxury housing and dining for his people. Well, for those who can afford it and whom he deems “suitable.” Juxtaposed against the splendor that the rich and powerful have, we also see how the poor and unfortunate live. These people have little food or medicine and are living in the filthy streets that surround the green.

Just as in today's society, the rich live in a world of fantasy and overindulgence and have no idea how hard life really is. For the people who have to work for those in the Green or those unable to live inside, life is much different. The humans are now in the minority and death is inevitable. Still the wealthy go about their lives as is there are not flesh-easting creatures running (well, shambling) around outside their walls. They are in denial.

The film's main character is Riley, one of those assigned to leave the safety of the community to scout for supplies. One of his team member is Cholo, big-talking tough guy who thinks that money is all it takes to get a place in the Green. When Cholo is denied entrance because he is not the right kind of person, he decides to leave and destroy the entire community. This is our internal breakdown. Neither Riley nor Cholo is happy working for Kaufman and Cholo's leaving causes the death of many innocent citizens when the ghouls break through their safeguards and their defense has run away.

This is the first Romero film to use digital effects and the amount of gore is significantly increased. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that he is reacting to the preferences of the audiences of today who don't seem to be happy with a horror movie unless there are a lot of blood and guts. The second possibility is that this is the kind of movie he has always wanted to make and finally has the money to do so. While the effects were very well done and the digital effects were used much less than in most contemporary horror films, the movie seemed to have lost some of the credibility that the older films had. It was too polished and shiny.

The films of George Romero subtly combine horror and gore with real world issues. It is my hope that those who are fans of his take a closer look at their favorite movies and try to see and understand what the director is really trying to say.

By the way, that line I opened the paper with, I have never been able to say it in a normal voice. If you have seen the movie you will understand. Also, the paper was typed in double spaced and when I copied it into my blogging software the whole thing became double spaced. I couldn't figure out how to fix it so this post is even longer!

I hope you have enjoyed this post,


No comments:

Post a Comment