George A. Romero

Land of the Dead (2005, George A. Romero), the director’s cut

While Land of the Dead is almost always an unfortunate misfire, it’s also never an unmitigated disaster. It’s full of missed opportunities, but they’re usually missed because director Romero just can’t crack the scene. And when he doesn’t crack a set piece, he often goes in the entirely different direction; maybe it’s about the budget, which is way too small, maybe it’s not. But it seems like the budget. After the successful opening set piece, there’s no reason to think Romero isn’t going to be able to execute at least the same quality again. And he’s never able to do it, but he also never really tries to do it. Romero front loads the movie; it deflates just when it should be doing the opposite. The characters gradually lose personality and importance. Because it’s time for the adequate but bland zombie action.

The film takes place in the future… the zombies have won, people all grouped in the big cities, the rich people live well, the poor people do not. Romero is shooting Toronto for Pittsburgh with a cinematographer (Miroslaw Baszak) who lights it to look as Canadian as possible. Land lacks any visual personality; the mix of Romero’s composition, Baszak’s flat lighting, Michael Doherty’s fine but bland editing, and Arvinder Grewal’s production design looks less like a post (zombie) apocalyptic vision and more like a pitch reel for one. Same goes for the actors, save Dennis Hopper, who’s just plain terrible. Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy; at best their performances feel like stand-ins for better ones once the project gets the green light. At worst, it’s a charmless lead like Simon Baker, who is more than capable of being charming, Romero just doesn’t seem to realize it. Not in his direction or his script, which gives his actors really bad life stories purely for expository purposes. There’s not just no character development in Land, Romero doesn’t take the time to even establish the characters.

And it’d be fine if the film could have retained the first set piece energy. So Baker, Leguizamo, and Joy all work for Hopper. They leave the city to raid neighboring towns for supplies. Apparently there’s an almost endless amount of neighboring towns to raid; all you have to do is shoot fireworks and the zombies all look up and everything’s jim-dandy—the zombies don’t attack, they watch fireworks. It also allows Romero to set a lot of action at night, which was apparently less expensive and does nothing to help with that lack of personality thing. Only Baker and Joy discover there’s one zombie—Eugene Clark, in the film’s best performance—who doesn’t look up at the fireworks.

The movie ends up being about Clark leading a bunch of zombies to attack the city, where the rich people live in a ritzy skyscraper and Romero only has the money to establish it through a promotional video playing on a TV–Land of the Dead has both too little budget and too much. The tricks and devices Romero uses to cover for not having more money lack inventiveness; there’s a ton of bad CGI composites. Like, a static matte painting would’ve been much better bad. But you do bad CGI composites because they’re cheap. And it shows. And it hurts the movie.

Anyway, while Clark’s leading the slow-moving attack—see, he’s learned how to use objects and can teach other zombies how to use objects so it’s going to be a different kind of zombie attack (only, not really as it turns out but the attack’s immaterial)—Leguizamo has gone rogue and Baker has to track him down, bringing pals Joy and Argento.

Of the three, Argento’s probably best. She’s not good overall—the writing doesn’t allow for it—but she’s got some rather strong moments. She takes the job more seriously than anyone else. Though who knows what’s going through Hopper’s head as he woodenly delivers lines; who knows, maybe Romero did cast him to be a personality-free rich jackass with a goatee. Hopper’s reaction shots to zombies eating flesh look like someone told him to stand still for his picture to be taken. Romero would’ve done better to give Leguizamo that part. To do something to mix it up.

But there’s no mixing it up. Because outside a couple Romero-Dead nods and sufficiently revolting zombie feasting (though Baszak’s lighting makes it look… not fake, but not real), Land of the Dead has less of a pulse than its zombies.

It’s a shame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George A. Romero; director of photography, Miroslaw Baszak; edited by Michael Doherty; music by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; production designer, Arvinder Grewal; produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, and Peter Grunwald; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Simon Baker (Riley Denbo), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), John Leguizamo (Cholo DeMora), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy), Alan Van Sprang (Brubaker), Phil Fondacaro (Chihuahua), Sasha Roiz (Manolete), Krista Bridges (Motown), Pedro Miguel Arce (Pillsbury), and Eugene Clark (Big Daddy).


Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A. Romero)

Dawn of the Dead is relentless and exhausting. Director Romero burns out the viewer and not by the end of the film but probably three-quarters of the way through. He establishes the ground situation with a sense of impending doom, not just with the principal cast and how they’ll fare in the zombie apocalypse, but in the human condition itself. Specifically the American human condition.

It comes up a few times throughout the film, first in an awesome, horrifying action sequence and later as a talk show aside. Dawn of the Dead is a black comedy and a very effective one; Romero gets there by making the characters as real (and as self-aware) as possible. He gives his actors moments, big and small, and all of them are spectacular, whether it’s Gaylen Ross and David Emge arguing about her equal vote or the bromance between Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger.

Romero gets the character conflict out of the way relatively quickly in the film. It makes the characters more sympathetic and (potentially) more tragic. He never relies on melodrama to perturb their character arcs. Dawn is always sincere when it comes to its characters and the actors excel with Romero’s direction. There’s a plain realism to their performances, with Romero’s editing and emotive compositions elevating everything further.

The film has a number of big action sequences, usually lengthy, amid more summary sequences. Occasionally Romero goes with montage sequences, set to Dario Argento and Goblin’s fantastic score. The score does a lot for Dawn, simultaneously giving the viewer insight into the characters while celebrating the lunacy of the film itself. Not absurdity, but lunacy. From the start, Romero wants Dawn to be outlandish but always believable.

Great photography from Michael Gornick.

Dawn of the Dead is breathtaking from the first scene. Romero, whether writing, directing, editing, does phenomenal work on this picture. He gets these amazing performances out of the cast. Like I said, he burns the viewer out before the end of the film as far as hoping for a positive outcome. The last fourth of the film, after all hope has drained from the viewer’s soul, should be academic and somewhat by rote. Instead, it’s the most compelling part of Dawn. Romero and his actors have shown time and again they’re worth the emotional, intellectual investment.

It’s complex, thoughtful, exciting, hilarious, mortifying, revolting. Dawn of the Dead is wonderful.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, edited and directed by George A. Romero; director of photography, Michael Gornick; music by Goblin and Dario Argento; produced by Richard P. Rubinstein; released by United Film Distribution Company.

Starring David Emge (Stephen), Ken Foree (Peter), Scott H. Reiniger (Roger) and Gaylen Ross (Francine).


Ring Around the Redhead (1985, Theodore Gershuny)

Television is a visual medium but budgetary constraints sometimes lead to a lack of visualizations. I assume Ring Around the Redhead, an episode of “Tales from the Darkside,” had some serious budgetary constraints. The entire episode has two and a half sets–one is inventor John Heard's basement, the other is the prison where he waits on death row.

The episode has two big problems; both are director Gershuny's fault. First, his direction is pedestrian at best. Sure, he's got a small budget, but he's not inventive either. Second, he adapted the script from a forties short story. Heard's inventor–not to mention Caris Corfman's reporter–make no sense in a modern context.

Heard's earnest and tries his best. Penelope Ann Miller's appealing as the otherworldly creature he literally pulls from his floor–Ring obviously has some major problems needing ingenuity to visualize. And Gershuny doesn't have any to offer.

At least it's short.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Theodore Gershuny; teleplay by Gershuny, based on a story by John D. MacDonald; “Tales from the Darkside” created by George A. Romero; director of photography, Jon Fauer; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by Michael Gibbs; produced by William Teitler; released by Tribune Broadcasting.

Starring John Heard (Billy Malone), Penelope Ann Miller (Keena), Caris Corfman (Adele) and Greg Thornton (Jimbo).


Empire of the Dead 4 (June 2014)

Empire of the Dead #4Romero is still setting things up. At least there’s not too much with the vampires this issue and the SWAT zombie making friends with a little runaway is kind of cool. There’s a lot of time spent on new supporting cast members, some rednecks who are in town to start trouble; they’re weak characters. Not to mention the woman’s a rip-off of Frank Miller’s neo-Nazi gal from Dark Knight.

But even as Romero fills out the cast, it feels like Empire is starting to wind down. There’s too many characters, too much going on. The script is starting to feel too oriented towards a movie and not enough to a comic. Maleev draws a whole bunch of pointless montage sequences and they don’t play to his strengths.

Zombies and vampires and New York City–maybe there isn’t much mileage anyone could get out of the combination. Nice art though.

C 

CREDITS

Writer, George A. Romero; artist, Alex Maleev; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Jake Thomas and Bill Rosemann; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Empire of the Dead 3 (May 2014)

Empire of the Dead #3Not much happens this issue; the smart zombie gets away at the end, there are other smart zombies out there, lots of dumb vampires doing stuff to get themselves found out. While he was hiding the vampires, Romero used them sparingly. This issue it’s different. They’re everywhere. The human characters from the first couple issues are practically just cameos.

The big problem with the vampires is they’re boring visually. Romero doesn’t do much with them. They attack some girl, then dump her body. Twice in one issue. The girl’s not even a character. Maleev can’t make anything exciting out of such a bland event. Worse, Romero’s doing lots of politics stuff with the other vampires.

How exciting, vampires running for mayor. It’s like “Spin City” only with vampires and not funny at all. Or even interesting.

The art and some of Romero’s ideas keep it going, but just barely enough.

C+ 

CREDITS

Writer, George A. Romero; artist, Alex Maleev; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Jake Thomas and Bill Rosemann; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Empire of the Dead 2 (April 2014)

3663199 eotdcoverMaleev has some awesome panels this issue. He could be better on some of it–there are some arena scenes (zombie versus zombie for the people’s pleasure) and Maleev doesn’t do establishing shots well enough, but he does quite well on the vampire stuff. The vampire stuff is the strangest thing in Empire, probably because it works so well.

Romero started out with human characters–they’re back this issue, with the doctor getting a smart zombie to study. They’re not the protagonists though, there’s a hand-off where the vampires get to run the issue. Romero does a great job establishing their quarrels and such. He also opens up the idea Empire could go anywhere.

As long as there are vampires and zombies. So maybe not anywhere.

The dialogue’s good, the scenes are funny; Romero’s got the comic running smoothly only two issues in, but doesn’t go overboard raising expectations.

B 

CREDITS

Writer, George A. Romero; artist, Alex Maleev; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Jake Thomas and Bill Rosemann; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Empire of the Dead 1 (January 2014)

Portrait incredibleThere’s something perfect about this comic. The medium gives George Romero a great way to do exposition, with two characters meeting each other, talking about their worlds. But it wouldn’t work without Alex Maleev. Romero’s kicking around ideas he’s been using for thirty years or so, but Maleev makes it all seem so fresh.

This first issue, set after the zombie apocalypse, after the rebuilding has started, is a great start. There’s a particularly awkward moment where Romero retcons Night of the Living Dead, almost half a century after he made that film. Yeah, exactly… Romero should have been writing comics for years, apparently. It’s an awkward fix, but not bad. Maleev makes it work.

The end has a big surprise and instead of finding it cheap, because it is definitely gimmicky, I find myself fully trusting Romero. He sells some lengthy exposition here. He can handle McGuffins I’ll bet.

B+ 

CREDITS

Writer, George A. Romero; artist, Alex Maleev; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Jake Thomas and Bill Rosemann; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero)

What a lame ending. If it weren’t for the sufficiently uncanny end credits, I’d finish Night of the Living Dead thinking it was supposed to be a comedy.

Actually, if it weren’t for that lame ending, I’d be starting this response much differently. Night of the Living Dead has one of the most sublime opening half hours of any film I can recall. Unfortunately, the hour or so following that opening is melodramatic nonsense mixed with some really awkward gore.

The opening third, following Judith O’Dea from her zombie attack in the cemetery to discovering the farm house, to introducing Duane Jones and his fortifying of the house… it’s all absolutely amazing. It’s easily the best work I’ve seen from Romero–he takes a single person, essentially, and makes them more interesting (as we soon discover) than a room full of them. O’Dea’s performance during this section is maybe the best example of someone in shock on film.

Unfortunately, this sublime filmmaking does not last. Around a half hour in, Karl Hardman and Keith Wayne show up. Hardman’s performance is so terrible, it destroys the film. Even without the ending and the silly zombie flesh eating… Hardman ruins it. He’s just too terrible.

Having him come in after Jones, one wonders how Romero didn’t realize he had a great performance from Jones and a laughable one from Hardman.

The film quickly becomes a drawn-out melodrama. There is some suspense with the zombies, but the characters aren’t worth caring about.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed and photographed by George A. Romero; written by John A. Russo and Romero; edited by Russo and Romero; produced by Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner; released by The Walter Reade Organization.

Starring Duane Jones (Ben), Judith O’Dea (Barbra), Karl Hardman (Harry), Marilyn Eastman (Helen), Keith Wayne (Tom), Judith Ridley (Judy), Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper), Charles Craig (Newscaster), S. William Hinzman (Cemetery Zombie) and George Kosana (Sheriff McClelland).


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