The living dread
Looking at George Romero's first feature film you can't help but feel: this is a nightmare.
Probably wasn't meant that way at first. Romero used black-and-white reportedly to save on cost; the film by accident or design acquired all the power and testimonial authority of newsreel footage.
Today with most features in color and the look of pixilated video (or a shaky cellphone camera) replacing grainy 16 mm Night of the Living Dead (1968) feels not so much real as it does stylized, has since moved from the realm of verite to the realm of subconscious imagery.
Why is the photography so unsettling? Not so much for the way black-and-white evokes dreams--recent studies suggest we mostly dream in color ever since movies and TV shifted into color--as for the way it evokes an otherworldly state a if you like ghost state. The unnatural countenance of the undead seems more appropriate to an unnatural monochrome world that exists parallel to our own (if not wouldn't be hard to imagine it does).
Romero is often credited for creating a subgenre of horror; I'd add that the classic Haitian undead (which example Romero consciously avoided) was a solitary figure, an anomaly wandering the land of the living. Romero hit upon the idea of the undead as the unthinking masses the overwhelming majority the in effect new normal; he suggests that this is how the world ends--not with a bang or whimper but the sound of teeth chewing softly on human flesh.
Romero created a powerful fable at a time of social turmoil (as he was taking his only finished print to New York to be exhibited he heard over the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot) and people have since read meaning into this or that aspect--that the film is a metaphor for racial oppression, for Vietnam, for the sense of deprivation and despair lurking beneath everyday rural America, and so forth. Most interpretations stick; Romero's debut feature is a Rorschach inkblot that morphs into whatever image you care to read into it and I submit they're all valid.
The film is still morphing; people continue to read whatever they want into it. The idea of a black man being gunned down hasif anything gained new currency in the age of Trayvon Martin. Same with the idea of deprived despairing rural America, the region where this film was shot being one of the many regions that voted Trump (66% of Butler County) into the White House.
If Romero had done only Night he would have left an indelible mark, not only on the subgenre of the undead but the genre of horror and independent filmmaking. Unfortunately a crooked distribution deal meant all the profits ($30 million or $210 million in today's dollars, for a film that cost at most $114 thousand or $798 thousand today) flowed elsewhere, and it would be ten years before Romero would be able to enjoy a commercial hit.
Night of the Living Dead was shot verite-style and has become the nation's dark dream of the '60s; Dawn of the Dead (1978) is arguably its comic-book sequel, complete with garish bright Day-Glo blood. Where Night is a metaphor for beleaguered America (us against a world of undead) Dawn is a parody of shopping mall America ("Why do they come here?" "Memory of what they used to do. Some kind of instinct. This was an important place in their lives") down to the mindless wandering, the pointless consuming (of clothes toys liquor canned and sporting goods), the stretches of unrelieved boredom. The film was a dark deadpan joke, one that audiences--sharper than many of the critics at the time (Variety, Halliwell's Film Guide, The New York Times among others)--were able to appreciate.
Most folks critics included don't much like Day of the Dead (1985); I thought it to be Romero's underappreciated masterpiece. The producers offered $7 million if Romero would tone down his gore for an 'R' rating, only half if he refused; the filmmaker instead kept the gore and shrank his production accordingly.
The result could be called Romero's Dr. Strangelove: a claustrophobic end-of-the-world scenario where scientists and soldiers huddle in an underground bunker surrounded by hordes of undead, deal with drastically dwindling resources, confront each other's mounting paranoia. Day still has its moments of dark humor but unlike in Dawn the heroes aren't common folk but what's left of the government--the in effect last hope of western civilization. Man's relationship with ghouls have also come full circle: where in Night they were the unknown Other and in Dawn were parodies of our consumerist selves in Day they have ominously developed (as if sensing a gap about to open on the evolutionary ladder) a rudimentary intelligence, a limited range of emotions, even an ability to form attachments and show affection--not to mention (in a nod to yet another Kubrick film) the ability to use the tool-weapon for murder.
The remaining films in the Dead series don't add any major ideas but are interesting footnotes to what in my mind is a complete trilogy. Land of the Dead (2005) with its Fiddler's Green full of the wealthy elite and its undead constantly distracted by fireworks (not unlike the large-scale ordnance detonated during the Iraq War) parodies the class struggles in the Bush Era. Diary of the Dead (2007) was an attempt to go back to the beginning of the plague and tell a different story using 'found footage' format. Survival of the Dead (2009) follows two narrative lines: the all-too-human perversity of feuding with a rival family past all sense or sanity (What's the point?) and the still-developing consciousness of the undead, from the preternaturally intelligent Bub (Day of the Dead) to the patriarchal Big Daddy (Land of the Dead) to the horse-riding mail-delivering ghouls of Survival. The last film's very title contains its theme: how can the dead survive? Romero's final work suggests answers to that question.
Romero wasn't always about flesh-eaters. Martin--released the same year as Dawn--is outside of Dreyer or Murnau possibly my favorite vampire film, either a brilliant documentary on how a modern-day hemophage might go about hunting and feeding on his prey or the eerily poignant portrait of a young man (John Amplas) seeking an end to his loneliness. The ambiguity can be dizzying the way loss of blood can be dizzying; Romero sustains the delicate balance between horror story, parody of a horror story, and a youth's coming-of-age with remarkable deftness and depth of feeling.
If America has demonstrated a genius for anything it's for self-invention and Romero's Knightriders showcases that peculiar brand of genius: basically the Knights of the Round Table on motorbikes, roaring through the fields and roads of rural Pennsylvania. A docudrama approach helps establish the parameters of the group's shared fantasy: they're knights with ladies and tournaments and a king (William, played with eagle-eye intensity by Ed Harris), living in a world of showbiz promoters, rubbernecking public, corrupt cops. They tilt at each other but their weapons are rubber blades lightweight maces weakened lances--they want to win not kill (that said the cycle stunts and collisions look bone-jarringly real). They deal with jealousies and rivalries and meager finances--the sale of handcrafted medieval 'artifacts,' hotdogs, and popcorn help defray costs; at one point the sense of bitterness and frustration is such the community flies apart--Morgan (Tom Savini) and William's finest knight Alan (Gary Lahti) go their own way, seeking individual success.
It helps that Romero doesn't explain too much, that King William never offers a clear reason for why he created the group in the first place, why the group breaks up (though we have an idea), what mysterious force brings them back together again. You suspect that if Romero started explaining the whole improbable structure will grind to a halt and--surprise surprise--somehow you don't want it to.
It's not Romero's tautest work but it does help us pinpoint Romero's great and secret theme: fragility. The fragile thread of humanity among survivors in a besieged house; the fragile cogs of a collapsed economic system satirized in an abandoned shopping mall; the fragile lamp of military leadership and scientific intellect flickering out in a military bunker; the fragile sense of a young man's self; the shared and fragile dream of Camelot in rural Pennsylvania. All things pass and Romero captures both the horror and fleeting beauty of its passing with his often cheap often handheld camera--a pop documentarist if you like of our collective nightmares and dreams.
First published in Businessworld 7.27.17