By Sergio Barreto
The Blair Witch Project, an independent horror movie shot on a shoestring budget, rocked the film industry last summer by grossing $140 million. It proved once again that you don't need $100 million to tell a good story, that the movie business can still support a personal vision. But the film's obvious precedent was George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), a grainy, black-and-white shocker filmed on the outskirts of Pittsburgh with a budget of $114,000. It became the most profitable independent production of its time and, even more surprising, a critical favorite. Today it's widely acknowledged as having revolutionized the horror genre.
Romero has gone on to direct ten more highly personal features, and in late July the Film Center honored him with a retrospective. The horror auteur attended on July 28 and 29, and the second night he introduced the American premiere of his latest film, Bruiser. It's highly entertaining, far less gory than his signature films and crafted with enough grace and intelligence to draw warm applause from Film Center regulars. But instead of opening wide at the nation's multiplexes, Bruiser is in distribution limbo. "It's been tough," Romero told the audience after the screening. "I think I'd almost rather see it open in Europe first--it may do better here if it gets good notices over there."
Romero has been down this road before. Time and again he's produced films that appealed to both art-house denizens and readers of Fangoria. During his most prolific years, between Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead (1985), his take on the genre was truly unique, incorporating satire and social commentary. It was quintessentially American, regional in character (invariably set in the Pittsburgh area), uncompromisingly graphic, and quietly subversive in its characters' racial and sexual integration. But getting those films financed and distributed has sent Romero on a long, often bruising journey through the bowels of the film industry.
"I've never turned down a gig," he claimed after the Film Center screening. "But it's hard to find material they [producers] like that you can leave your thumbprint on. They like directors that are not going to give them any trouble, who will just come into the set, do a shoot, and go home. I like to be involved in the creative process. My work is my work. I just have to do it that way." Romero has written or cowritten almost all of his screenplays, shot his first three films himself, and coedited all his work through his seventh, Creepshow (1982). But while his critical reputation is solid, his commercial fortunes have fluctuated wildly, and consequently so has his ability to finance new projects. His last film, The Dark Half (1993), was followed by years of development hell and aborted projects before Bruiser came together.
His zombie trilogy--Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead--remains his best-known work. Some critics interpreted the original as a metaphor for Vietnam, but according to Romero he was trying to reflect the cultural revolution of the late 60s, "a new civilization eating up the old one." After his triumphant debut Romero tried a romantic comedy, There's Always Vanilla (1972); a subdued film about witchcraft and feminism, Jack's Wife (1972, aka Season of the Witch); and a thriller about a biological weapon unleashed on a small town, The Crazies (1973). All three flopped, and Jack's Wife almost drove him into bankruptcy.
Martin, a daring and poignant tale about a teenage vampire, sat in the can for two years before it was released in 1978, but critics loved it, and it showed as a midnight movie in New York for 43 weeks. His career revived, Romero was given a $1.5 million budget--an enormous sum by his standards--to make Dawn of the Dead, an ambitious sequel that replaced the grim tone of its predecessor with a sly, darkly satirical edge. Human survivors take refuge in a shopping mall, where they covet the goods suddenly available to them and fend off zombies that look like dazed shoppers.
Romero refused to tone down the unprecedented gore and released the film unrated, which seriously undermined its commercial potential in the U.S. Not everyone could stomach the film's gruesome carnage, engineered by special-effects savant (and Vietnam veteran) Tom Savini. The New York Times's Janet Maslin walked out, disgusted by an early scene in which a Puerto Rican zombie chomps on his screaming wife. Numerous readers chided her in letters to the editor; Vincent Canby, the Times's chief film critic, managed to sit through the film but defended Maslin's reaction. For the most part the film was well received by critics, and it was a runaway hit overseas (especially in Italy), earning $60 million worldwide and making Romero the most successful independent director in America.
The 80s found him moving a bit closer to the mainstream: Knightriders (1981) was a gentle take on the Camelot legend, set at a modern-day Renaissance fair where motorcycles have replaced horses, and Creepshow was a gleeful homage to the E.C. horror comics of the 50s. According to Romero, Day of the Dead was originally conceived as "a more elaborate project" with a $7 million budget, but Romero refused to deliver an R rating. "Nobody was going to put that kind of money into an unrated film. So the budget was reduced to a maximum of $3 million, which threw a monkey wrench into the production. I like it best of the three Dead movies, but the end result was not what I originally intended."
Since then his output has decreased dramatically. Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear (1988) was a psychological thriller about the twisted relationship between a quadriplegic and the trained monkey who assists him, and The Dark Half adapted a Stephen King novel about a writer whose evil pseudonym comes to life. But according to Romero's recently unveiled Web site (www.georgearomero.com), his long silence after The Dark Half wasn't intentional. He spent two years under contract with New Line Cinema and wrote three scripts that were never produced. He developed The Mummy for Universal, but the project was then given to another director; his version, he writes, would have been "smaller, more intimate, more romantic, and probably more frightening....It wouldn't have taken in 100 mil." Most frustrating of all was his failure to realize a film based on the Resident Evil video games, which he considers rip-offs of his zombie movies.
Things began to look up last year, when the French production company Le Studio Canal+ green-lighted Bruiser, a script Romero had written on spec. "It's not really a horror film," he explained at the Film Center. "It's more of a parable." The protagonist, Henry Creedlow (Jason Flemyng), is a weak-willed executive at a men's magazine who absorbs no end of abuse from his cheating wife, his investment adviser, and his crude, vicious boss (Peter Stormare in a delicious performance). One morning he discovers that his face has become an expressionless white mask, and using his newfound anonymity he begins killing off the people who've wronged him. "The main idea was to reflect disenfranchisement, loss of character as a consequence of corporate life," Romero said after the screening. "I took a backwards approach, starting with that idea, then thinking visually, piecing a story together."
The finale takes place at a masked ball, whose set and costume design are unusually elaborate for a Romero film. Horror-punk pioneers the Misfits (several of whose songs are named after Romero films) perform at the swanky party, where Henry stalks his boss dressed in a cape and slouch hat, a winking reference to Phantom of the Opera. But Romero said his main inspiration was Eyes Without a Face (1959), Georges Franju's poetic French chiller about a plastic surgeon who tries to reconstruct his daughter's disfigured face. He also noted "some unconscious references that I didn't catch until I saw the finished film. I guess I went back to Michael Powell's Tales of Hoffmann, especially the Venetian sequence, for some inspiration." The low level of gore is consistent with his latest work; most of the violence takes place offscreen. "It seemed to fit in this case," Romero said. "This film needed a more fluid style."
Fluid it is, its airtight storytelling a mix of suspense, irony, and dark humor. The film was shot in Toronto with an all-Canadian crew, and while there are no marquee names, the cast is more than capable. Romero is currently trying to finalize a distribution deal for the U.S., though he wasn't sure if the cut of Bruiser screened at the Film Center will be the one released: "I may go in and do a little bit of work." He did say that Bruiser had replaced Martin as his personal favorite. While he acknowledged that his development deals paid him a sizable amount of money, he says that his artistic frustration fed the screenplay of Bruiser, and it's easy to see the film's beleaguered main character as a surrogate for the writer.
At 60, Romero is still full of ideas: he's interested in adapting another Stephen King novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and he's long toyed with the idea of a fourth zombie movie, tentatively called "Twilight of the Dead." "We're talking to people, trying to get the money together," he said. "But there are so many people that own the rights to the first three films. It's a complicated one." The struggle to control his work seems endless: just last year John Russo, who coscripted Night of the Living Dead, supervised a 30th anniversary video release that cleaned up the original's grainy images, cut 15 minutes of classic footage, inserted several new scenes, and added a synthesizer-driven sound track. Today Romero doesn't even own prints of many of his films, and the Film Center was unable to locate prints of some of his best work. One can only hope that Bruiser gets the circulation it deserves and brings Romero's noteworthy career back from the grave.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/copyright of 1985 Dead Films, Inc..