Whose Film Is It Anyway?
George Romero
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"They're coming to get you Barbara!"-Johnny (Russell Streiner), Night of the Living Dead

Before we begin, a confession: I've never been a huge fan of horror movies. This is true for many reasons. To begin with, when I was younger, I was legitimately terrified of even the idea of a scary movie. My fear that scary movies would, you know, scare me was probably stronger than my reaction to any given horror movie would have been. To this day, I'm not sure I really get the idea of watching a movie for the express purpose of being made afraid. I understand going to see a comedy"”everyone wants to laugh. I get going to see a drama"”they can make you think and make you feel. I don't understand why anyone would actively try to frighten themselves for fun. It just isn't in my DNA.

Beyond that, there is a dearth of quality films in the horror genre that seems to me more apparent than in any other genre. There are going to be bad movies of all types, but to my eye, horror films have produced the largest number of subpar entries imaginable. Terrible subgenres like the torture-porn craze that began with Saw (I did see the first one, and was unimpressed. So I skipped the subsequent 30 or so entries) and Hostel spring up, and people with pretty much no budget, no ideas, and a video camera can make an independent horror movie that's a smash hit even if it isn't actually good (see The Blair Witch Project which would have been awful at any budget). Combine my general lack of interest in being terrified out of my wits and the lack of quality horror movies being produced, and you see why I mostly steer clear.

Yet one of my ongoing quests in life is to see as many "classic" movies as possible (hence my ongoing Movie Quest feature, which I promise is not dead, just delayed indefinitely by the constant parade of movies I have to watch in order to write this column on a bi-weekly basis), and so, seeing as October is Halloween season, and Halloween is a time for a few frights, I have decided to dive into horror with the next two installments of Whose Film Is It Anyway?, tackling two of the genres auteurs, and seeing some of its most famous entries in the process. This week, I will be examining the films of B-Movie legend George A. Romero.

It would be impossible to try and get a handle on Romero as an auteur without diving into his "The Living Dead" films, which are by far his most famous movies, and also an excellent place to begin an examination of Romero's defining aesthetic: his tendency to inject social commentary into his films. As Romero himself put it, "I don't try to answer any questions or preach. My personality and my opinions come through in the satire of the films, but I think of them as a snapshot of the time. I have this device, or conceit, where something happens in the world and I can say, 'Ooo, I'll talk about that, and I can throw zombies in it! And get it made!' You know, it's kind of my ticket to ride." Romero also made each of the three films that comprise the original "Living Dead" trilogy (he has made three subsequent "Living Dead" films in the last ten years, to mixed success) in different decades, allowing him to explore the issues of the day in each of the films, and keeping those examinations contemporary. Romero explains, "My zombie films have been so far apart that I've been able to reflect the socio-political climates of the different decades. I have this conceit that they're a little bit of a chronicle, a cinematic diary of what's going on."

In that view, Romero's first film, Night of the Living Dead is clearly a tale of social upheaval that was right at home in its release year, 1968. The film centers on Ben (Duane Jones), an African American taking charge of a group who have barricaded themselves within a farmhouse in an attempt to keep out hordes of "ghouls" who are trying to eat their flesh (the creatures are never called zombies in Night, and in fact Romero did not necessarily intend them to be read that way. Once the term became popularized in reference to the film, though, he adopted it for the subsequent entries). Ben's race is significant not only because the film can be read as a satire of America's often narrow-minded views on race (and in fact, SPOLIER ALERT FOR A 40 YEAR OLD MOVIE Ben's death at the end of the film is not at the hands of the hordes of the undead, but rather by the pistol of a redneck police officer), but also because Ben is the first of a trend in Romero's films of subverting the horror trope of the black character dying first. In fact, instead of quickly dispatching the African American's in his films Romero often champions them as heroes who can make sense of the chaos and lead the survivor's through the dangers they will face. Another trope Romero subverts first here is the early death of the blonde girl in the cast. Instead of killing Barbara (Judith O'Dea) in the film's opening scene, Romero keeps her alive, and involved in the action, for most of the film's run time. Additionally, instead of portraying her as a slut, as many horror films tend to, Barbara is seen as a shy, quiet girl who is dedicated to her family (Though there is an argument to be made that Barbara is pretty helpless and lacks the empowerment that might have made her a feminist figure in the film). Romero also notably utilizes catharsis throughout his films"”characters generally get what they deserve, and you can expect the most unlikeable characters to have the most violent and bloody deaths when the zombies come a-knockin'.

In 1978, Romero released Dawn of the Dead, which switches the target of Romero's satire to consumerism. Four people attempt to escape the chaos of the collapsing society by barricading themselves alone in a mall, replete with every resource they could ever desire. They eventually grow bored with their materialistic paradise, but before they can learn any meaningful life lessons about the power of human connections over the possession of goods, a gang of looters break into the mall and bring with them swarms of the undead, who near the film's end, still pace empty eyed and groaning through the mall (for the scene in question, go to 10:37 in the video below and enjoy). Even after we're dead, it seems, we still like "stuff." Dawn also continues Romero's tendency of subverting race and gender expectations of the genre as African American SWAT member Peter (Ken Foree), and blonde woman Francine (Gaylen Ross) are the only survivors left by the film's end.

The final film in the original trilogy, 1985's Day of the Dead, is less successful, both as a film, and as a satire. Romero aims his satirical eye at both sides of the political spectrum as the denizens of an underground military base try to cope with the destruction of society. On the one side of the debate are the scientists, chief among them Dr. Matthew Logan (Richard Liberty) who wants to train and domesticate the zombies. On the other side is Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), a violent, power hungry military cliché who just wants to kill all the zombies, and anyone who stands in his way. Between them is Sarah (Lori Cardille), a doctor who tries to bridge the gap between the two camps. The problem with Day of the Dead (which is much more long-winded and involves far fewer scenes of zombie slaughter) is that neither camp is right, no character is particularly sympathetic, and audiences are left alienated and rooting for everyone involved to be slaughtered by the masses of undead sooner rather than later. I never mind a film filled with unsympathetic characters if they are unlikable for a reason, but Day of the Dead just seems misanthropic without lending any particular theme or reason.

Far more successful is Romero's favorite of his own film's, 1978's Martin. Leaving behind the zombies that made him famous, Martin takes on the vampire mythology, though with an interesting twist. Romero pays lip service to the economic strife of the late "˜70s, but he is more interested here with the conflict between the superstitions of the old world and the cynicism of the younger generations. Martin (John Amplas) is a vampire"”or at least he thinks he is. Really, he isn't repelled by garlic or crosses, and the sun only sometimes bothers his eyes a little bit. But he does have urges to consume human blood, which leads him to murdering beautiful women, stripping them naked, and drinking their blood. When he is forced to move in with his superstitious granduncle Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who calls him Nosferatu and threatens to murder him if he does not keep his unearthly urges under control, the generations clash. Tada Cuda believes Martin is the newest in a line of vampires that have appeared in the family for generations, a demon from hell who must be controlled or killed. But Martin knows better. "Things only seem to be magic," he insists throughout the film, "There is no real magic. There is no real magic ever." The horror aspects of the film play out more like scenes from Dexter as Martin stalks, and often ineffectively attempts to subdue and murder his victims. Yet Romero parodies the tropes of the vampire film as Martin fantasizes about being a real vampire in black and white sequences that play out like overdone versions of the Lugosi starring Dracula films.

Looking at Romero's films through the lens of horror, they are solid achievements in a genre I am prone to dislike. Examining the idea of Romero as an auteur, it is clear that certain tendencies persist throughout his work. Romero is at heart a satirist, exploring the issues of the day through the prism of the undead, and throwing in enough blood and gore to keep the weak-hearted away. Each of his film's is a personal expression of his feelings at the time he made it, and an examination of the construction of our society at the moment of its release. The world of Night of the Living Dead is one in the midst of great social upheaval, Dawn of the Dead condemns the materialism that drives us, Day of the Dead pleads against extremism (though poorly), and Martin, at heart, examine the conflict between the generations. Each of these movies examine real life problems that plagued us both at the time of their releases and still today. The zombies that trudge through Romero's films are (un)dead, but issues like racism, materialism, and extremism live on. And that, Romero tells us, is what's really scary.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

10/24: Halloween Horror Auteur Month: John Carpenter

11/7: James Cameron

11/21: Kathryn Bigelow

12/5: Darren Aronofsky
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