EJ Moreno reflects on George A. Romero’s work outside of zombies…
The late George A. Romero invented the modern zombie film and helped to redefine the rules of the sub-genre time and time again. It’s safe to say Romero is often looked at as just the zombie movie guy, but that’s limited the scope of what one of the masters of horror could do.
Behind the camera, George A. Romero made bold choices about what horror topics he wanted to explore, often subverting expectations. There’s some genius work from Romero throughout his decades-long career, and we’ll look at his highlights in between his Living Dead saga.
After his 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, he’d follow it up with work outside horror; Romero would film the romantic comedy There’s Always Vanilla and supernatural feminist film Season of the Witch, but the world of horror would soon call once again. We’d open and close the 70s with some of the filmmaker’s best.
In 1973, Romero ventured into one of his defining moments outside of zombie works while tackling topics closely related to the subgenre. The Crazies came at a very interesting time in cinema, with the Vietnam War fresh in people’s minds and the conversation about mistrusting the government at an all-time high. Romero looked at the tensions growing in America, much like he did with Night of the Living Dead, but now he had a different point of view. Race themes were prevalent in his 1968 zombie movie, but now he’s looking at what happens when the government lies and attempts to harm you.
The Crazies follows a small town suffering from a biochemical outbreak, leading them to act crazy. The government attempts to hide the epidemic, taking extreme measures to hide the truth and possibly even the cure. We follow one family to fight for a way out, led by Will McMillan’s David, giving one of those pitch-perfect leading performances Romero often pulled out. It’s a thrilling story and somehow feels more modern than ever; Romero is often ahead of his time, and we’d see his sense of political and social themes being his most vital weapon in horror.
Not shockingly, especially given the state of America, The Crazies bombed but would later find cult classic status in the years following. We’d even see a 2009 remake at the height of modern horror remakes, but it didn’t capture that signature Romero grittiness. This didn’t stop the filmmaker as he’d follow this with what he calls his personal favorite in his filmography.
Romero is utterly right about Martin being his favorite, as it might be his best work, even counting all the epic Living Dead films. The gripping and strange vampire is unique compared to all his other movies. Once hailed as his most emotional film, you get something out of Martin, especially given its gripping lead performance and bold concept.
In the 1977 film (one year before his zombie comeback, Dawn of the Dead), we follow the haunting tale of the titular Martin, played to perfection by John Amplas. The young man seems convinced he’s an Old World vampire, going as far as drinking blood and mocking the magic put out by the media about vampires. The film is extraordinarily melancholy and has a tad slower pace than it needs, but seeing this tragic story unfold is worth watching.
In my honest opinion, Martin proves Romero was one of the most advanced minds in horror filmmaking, using his love for the genre to play with the tropes and styles. We’d never see Romero hit this type of arthouse heights again.
While this didn’t add to Romero’s mainstream cred, it would make him an arthouse festival darling, something he’d follow up on in 1981 with Knightriders. Probably his most obscure films, the Ed Harris-led actioner hits differently than many of the other Romero films; it’s not his first venture into action filmmaking, but it certainly comes off tonally different than his more horror-focused works.
There’s also a softer quality to Knightiders, something we’d see him add to all his works. There’s an openly gay character in this action film, prominent Black characters, and Romero’s ideals for a Uptoian society on display. The dichotomy between the Arthurian action side and the more realer story elements makes this a must-see.
You can’t keep a good horror filmmaker away from the genre, and Romero would pack the 80s with his signature style in quite a few days. Day of the Dead was released in 1985 but sandwiched between two of Romero’s strangest outings. First up, in 1982, Romero teamed with horror legend Stephen King to bring to life one of their childhood favorites, the EC horror comics of the 1950s, such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.
Alongside effects master Tom Savini, Creepshow is a creatively stacked project that showcases all of what we love from these creators. Romero worked out King’s strange tales with sleek and inventive filmmaking, made easy by some of the genre’s most lasting practical effects crafted by Savini. As plenty of anthologies end up being, it’s uneven, with not every entry succeeding as it should, but there’s an abundance to enjoy here.
Creepshow 2 would see Romero step into the writer’s chair; thus, it doesn’t have that unique charm we’d get from a classic Romero. He’d spend that time helming his campy, melodramatic horror film, 1988’s Monkey Shines, a cult classic amongst a collection of obscure movies.
Adapting the book of the same name, Romero’s Monkey Shines sees him tackle a somewhat offbeat story with his signature direction. The film follows Allan, a quadriplegic who ends up with an intelligent Capuchin monkey acting out his homicidal desires. It’s a bonkers premise with filmmaking that feels a bit too “TV movie” at times, but there are some powerful moments amongst the madness.
That earnestness you expect from Romero comes through, and you ponder more about the concept than expected. Still, the filmmaker found the studio system challenging, turning to more indie work and directing more sporadically.
From 1993 to 2000, Romero only directed two films, and neither were zombie movies. The rest of the 00s was filled with his reinventions of zombies and others reinventing his work, but with The Dark Half in the ’90s and the 2000 film Bruiser, he’d continue to explore.
Sadly, neither film is that memorable, with at least 1993’s The Dark Half getting a memorable performance from Timothy Hutton. He was still seeking some work with studio filmmaking and found it just as challenging as before. We’d see him reteam with King and get to collaborate with a young Michael Rooker, but that can’t elevate the lackluster film.
It’s the same with 2000’s Bruiser, a somber French horror/thriller. Not even the most diehard George A. Romero fans could bring up much to say about this film, and Romero felt those effects. By 2005, he’d return to his Living Dead franchise with a new trilogy. In 2017, the legendary director passed away from lung cancer. Even though he was gone, he still had plenty more to offer the world of cinema, gifting us from beyond the grave.
In 2017, a print of Romero’s long-lost film The Amusement Park was sent to him and his wife, allowing a restoration process to begin. While the filmmaker would pass before the film was screened at the Spectacle Theater in New York, his impressive work spoke volumes.
By 2021, Shudder would acquire the film, and everyone would get the chance to experience his absurdist horror nightmare. Even at the age when the film was crafted, he still looked at the horrors of aging and felt wise beyond his years. The filmmaking in The Amusement Park is sharp and forward-thinking, which would’ve easily been placed alongside Martin as his signature arthouse film.
Even now, we are still getting new work from the mind of Romero. Twilight of the Dead is currently in production, with the Romero estate and a group of filmmakers looking to turn one of his last scripts into a reality. Years after his tragic passing, it’s wild to see Romero still offering new horror delights.
George A. Romero may be best known as the godfather of zombies, but he was much more than that. He’s an arthouse director, an action movie maven, and sometimes a provider of new fears, like the fear of monkeys I had after seeing Monkey Shines.
Romero is a legend and an icon, and for this spooky season and any time in the future, find a non-zombie movie from Romero and prepare to feel the horror perfection.
What are your favourite non-zombie movies from George A. Romero? Let us know on our socials @FlickeringMyth…