Wednesday, July 19, 2017

George A. Romero's Land of the Dead:

   In honor of the late, great George A. Romero, my son Aidan chimes in with a look back at the most unsung of the original Living Dead films. 

   "Zombies man, they creep me out".  This statement by the character Paul Kaufman (the late Dennis Hopper) leaves the audience to the question: what is the most frightening or perhaps interesting aspect of the living dead?  Ghouls, zombies, walkers, stenches, whatever one would call them, the most important and persevering element of these monsters is that they are us.  They are a reflection of the human condition and society.  No one has had more influence and understanding of this than the master of modern zombies, the auteur George A. Romero, and this has never been more apparent and obvious than in his fourth Zombie film,  2005's Land of the Dead.  Land follows the progress of both human society and the dead since his original living dead trilogy consisting of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the dead and Day of the Dead.  While this film differs from the previous installments in terms of scale, the constants of Romero's work remain present and relevant involving his political allegories, social critique, and symbolism.

      In every one of Romero's living dead films, the director allegorically examines the society he lives in.  In Night, he tackled the topics of communism and racism.  In Dawn, he criticizes the modern consumerist culture. In Day, he depicted the issues of militarism and lack of communication. In Land he combined several elements in his political critique, most notably the war on terror.  By this time, many years after the outbreak of reanimated corpses, society has made some progress in rebuilding itself and what first appears to be an efficient way but it's revealed to be corrupt and destined for downfall.  The film revolves around the city of Pittsburgh, in a building at the center of it called "Fiddler's Green", a luxurious establishment exclusively for the upper class, while those who can't afford it (a large amount of people) inhabit the slums around it.  The city operates with a system mirroring both feudalism, where people wind up doing tasks for the powerful in exchange for favors and aristocracy, where the power for those who happen to be rich. This could be seen as an illusion to the power corrupt people with money wield in modern times.  The entire city is fenced in, more or less protected from the dead. The man in charge of fiddlers Green, Paul Kaufman, is threatened by his ill tempered lackey, Cholo Demora (John Leguizamo).  After Kaufman backs out of the deal to allow the latter into the establishment, subtly due to Cholo's Hispanic ethnicity, adding a touch of racial discrimination and inequality into the structure of this corrupt empire. Cholo threatens the destruction of the fence using the powerful arm of "Dead Reckoning", which he has hijacked.  Kaufman immediately rejects Cholo's ultimatum and opts for other means of resolution by sending the original commander and designer of the "dead reckoning" Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) to stop him.  This is an allusion to President Bush's declaration "We do not negotiate with terrorists".   A line Kaufman actually uses. The reference is among the most obvious and specific allegories Romero has used in his Living Dead films.

      Another of Romero's trademarks the film predominately features is a social critique, in this case regarding class warfare.  The rich hold all of the power and the poor are left with scraps. This is a reflection of the growingly distressed economy of modern America with some many people below the poverty line and money not getting where it really needs to be.   The reason for this is quite prevalent.  In Land, the people in power are ignoring the problem, therefore they are a part of it.  Kaufman does not acknowledge the poor people living in slums outside of Fiddler's Green.  This allusion is taking a radical step further with the zombies themselves; the dead are now portrayed by Romero as carnivorous animals as opposed to malevolent ghouls and it seems almost cruel when marauders runs through the dead's territory and sadistically destroy them. As this film takes place an undetermined amount of years after the original trilogy, the zombies have had time to evolve. They all remember routine aspects of the original lives and attempt to mimic them, and even show empathy towards one another.  Early in the film zombies are seen attempting to use their old instruments or reclaim their old day jobs, the most significant case being a zombie gas station attendant.  This is grown from a seed planted in the previous installment,  Day of the Dead.  In Day a zombie named Bub shows he recognizes objects he may have used in his past life and displays genuine grief in a  surprisingly touching scene.  Now in Land, a large amount of the dead showing these traits. With a new sympathetic view of the zombies, they now take their place as lower class and the economic allegory, and through the events of the film, may become what could be viewed as revolutionaries as they attempt to overthrow Fiddler's Green.

      On the subject of sympathetic characters another one of Romero's occurring reoccurring elements is symbolism.  In Night of the Living Dead, Romero was one of the earliest directors who bravely cast a black man as the lead hero in the form of actor Duane Jones, who portrayed Ben. While Romero states his casting decision was due simply to the fact that Jones had given the best audition, he repeated his choice 10 years later in casting Peter in Dawn of the Dead, who is played by Ken Foree. He rounded out the original trilogy following this as in Day of the dead with casting Terry Alexander as one of the protagonists named John.  He repeated this motif years later in Land, but with a twist. The casting of a black man was Eugene Clark as Big Daddy: the intelligent zombie who would lead the dead in their revolution. With this decisio,n he suggested that Daddy is a hero as much as any of the human characters, bringing the character arc of the zombies as a whole to a bizarre but effective conclusion.

        All of Romero's zombie films contain allusions that can be examined but Land of the Dead could be argued to have the most effective and specifically relevant political allegories, social critiques and symbolism to the time period, and confirms Romero's status as a true auter with his own definitive style. He creates this post apocalyptic recovering society that already displays the same problems we face today, such as the inability to resolve matters peacefully,  and the ignorance of important economic issues leading to a massive and growing gap between the upper and lower classes of society.  Using these, he closes out his original living dead continuity reaffirming the zombies many parallels with the living, and at some times leaves the audience rooting for the dead to prevail against a corrupt government.  By the films end, the viewers are still left to ponder just how different or better they are from the dead. The subordinate Mike (Sean Roberts) comments on the zombies behavior:  "They're pretending to be alive!",  leaving Riley Denbo to note "Isn't that what we're doing? pretending to be alive?"

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bound to the Past: An Uneasy Dawn

Winter, 1982.

A Saturday morning featuring my brother, my sister and her boyfriend terrifying me with tales of what they had seen the night before. Hordes of marauding ghouls piling on top of the living, chewing on them, and in turn transforming them into one of their own.

The details of what they saw, from the graphic details of the munching sequences, to the fear of their creatures' numbers were truly disturbing, but what was more haunting was the realistic description of the downfall of society under the weight of this gruesome and massive threat.

What they saw and were reiterating to me was a midnight screening of George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead", and the descriptions kept me up at night.

A week or so later, I distinctly remember hearing Kenosha's WRKR broadcasting the radio ad for the obviously successful midnight movie.  The ominous rumblings from the deep-voiced narrator telling me how the film had been banned in a gazillion countries and several planets.  This didn't sound like a sales pitch, it sounded like a damn public service announcement!

For some reason, all this made me nervous.

Flash forward about 3 years.  I'm a 7th grader, sitting in my room on a grey, boring, fall Saturday afternoon.  I decide, in an incredibly bored state of mind, to flip on my little Portland (a Daewoo product!) television and click over to WVTV 18's afternoon movie.

"The Night of the Living Dead".

Oh, boy.  Should I watch this?

I'd heard the stories, and I knew of the connection to "Dawn of the Dead".  "Dawn" was the sequel to Romero's "Night", a low budget horror film that scared audiences and put butts in the seats back in 1968.   I had read in library books about the movies, about both "Night" and "Dawn", touting the ground-breaking effects work, the often realistic depiction of societal breakdown, and their unrated statuses.  On video shelves, I had seen the Thorn/EMI VHS tape of "Dawn" on the shelves with Roger Ebert's blurb about "The savagely satanic view of America" blasting off of it.

Still nervous.  But curious.  Like a cat.

The lead-in to Ebert's talking point was on right now.

I watched "Night of the Living Dead" that afternoon, and I was never the same again in regards to movies.  Despite it being the middle of the afternoon, broad daylight, and my parents being about 40 feet away in the living room, this movie scared the shit out of me.  I had felt this way only one time before, and you can thank John Carpenter and Michael Myers for that.   But I knew Myers wasn't real.  The stuff happening on the screen here felt like it could actually happen, and the crux of it's effectiveness lies right there. 

That's what George Romero did. He made me deal with a movie, not just watch it.

When I finally saw "Dawn of the Dead" 5 years later,  as a senior in high school, I felt the same apprehensiveness.  I was actually afraid as the opening frames unspooled across the screen.  That red carpet backdrop behind the film's title graphic served as some sort of warning. 


But like I did with "Night", I hung in for "Dawn".  It was like dipping your toe in ice cold water.  With every horrifying event on the screen, I was able to go a little deeper, be able to take it a little easier.  By the end of the movie, I felt as though I had survived something, but now I was ready.  Ready for more.  At this moment, I had truly had fallen in love with the horror genre.

John Carpenter and George Romero had given me something I had never felt before.  They had taken me to an edge.  Made me feel a shaky, electrical feeling, a combination of fear and exhilaration.   They taught me that movies were more than an entertainment.  You could actually take someone for a ride, nervously perhaps, but nonetheless, take them.  I was glad to introduce my son to the works of both of these great men years later, and have learned it was a great decision. 

George A. Romero passed away yesterday.  His oeuvre was much more than "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead",  and even the Dead films in general.  He was a great filmmaker, but one thing I learned through his interviews and even attending a screening of "Dawn" with my father-in-law, he was funny, political, thoughtful, sharp as a tack, and genuine.  Intensely genuine.

Just last fall I watched the feature "Night of the Living Steelers" on the NFL Network.  The project intertwined George's career with the heyday of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  George was a Pittsburgh native, a Steeler fan, and at one time even directed short films for NFL films.  In this featurette, his guiding hand and warm voice took you through the sounds and images of horror and football both and reiterated the down-to-Earth nature and uniqueness of this wizard of filmmaking.  "Steelers" teaches you just as much about the Steel City cinematic legend's roots as it does the Pittsburgh Gridiron stalwarts.  After seeing this little documentary, I felt closer to the man and  I'm grateful I saw it.

It effected me deeply when I had learned he was gone, and I'm going to miss him.

He was one hell of an individual, and they don't make 'em like George anymore.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bound to the Past: Heroes Can Sleep During Star Trek

In early 1980 my dad was sick with esophageal cancer.  He wasn't at the point where he was bed-ridden yet, but I think it can be safely said that time was of the essence.

In an effort to share limited time, He decided to take me to the movies.

In the fall of 1977, He took a clan of us to see "Star Wars" at the Keno outdoor theatre.  I don't need to go into too much description of the awesomeness of that. I barely remember that screening, but I sure as hell recall the effect it had on me and so did my dad's wallet.  For many reasons.  Reasons I wish I still owned.

I think with this new film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he was hoping for something close to the same thing.

Even to fans of the legendary television series, the first film of the "original cast series" is seen as a bit of a slog.  It is a bit overlong, a bit quiet in tone, a bit melancholy, and a lot cerebral.   Not to say it's pure garbage,  it's a quality movie, it just wasn't a thrill a minute.  For an 8 year old kid and his tired, ailing dad it probably wasn't a great choice. That fact wasn't either of our faults, as it was a damn Star Trek movie. It did feel more like a very strong episode of its offspring, The Next Generation.

I still have fond memories of the film, despite all that.  I vividly recall Ursula Andress speaking of V'ger. It kicked out some decent spaceship effects for its time, and a still intact chemistry between the cast members, all of them back together again after nearly 15 years.  Needless to say, I found my mind wandered often during the film, and the old man slept for long periods of it.  Often snoring.

But that's okay, heroes get to sleep during Star Trek movies.

After we shook off the doldrums and headed out through the lobby to go home, I spotted something.  This was in the days when studios would often supply theatres with "programs" to accompany their "event" films.  It didn't happen all of the time, but in this case an oversized full-color booklet was being sold to potential buyers.

I asked Dad if I could have it.  If memory serves, he really didn't want to buy the damn thing.  I liked the colorful images and pressed him, more than likely a bit whinily.  (I know, not a word)

In short, I was an asshole.

And he wasn't.  He still bought it for me.  As a father, I know this feeling he must have felt in that moment.  Despite the fact that this expenditure really is a waste, you love that little person who wants the result of it. And you want to make them happy.

Dad wanted to make the asshole happy.  At 8, I knew very little of Star Trek, series or movies.  Star Trek didn't have people shooting laser guns at each other, no swashbuckling lightsaber action, there was no Darth Vader, no furry mascots or charming robots.  It was thinking man's science fiction that I wouldn't come to respect for many more years through the gateway of that Next Generation series I mentioned earlier.   So for all of those reasons, I shouldn't have this book.  For those same reasons,  this thing means the universe, no pun intended, to me.  This man, this hero, tired and ill, loved his son so much that he spent hard earned money to buy something for someone who didn't get it.

Or maybe just to get him to shut the hell up.

Either way, that's love.

My Dad wasn't a hero because he took me to see Star Trek.  He wasn't a hero because he bought me a stupid book to go along with it.  There isn't enough damn bandwidth here for me to tell you why Bob was a hero.

I miss you, Dad.