George Romero Versus Humanity

04/21/2010 2:00 AM |

George Romero x 3
April 23-25 at Anthology Film Archives

George Romero’s cinema is one of opposition—and not simply between the living and the undead. In his finest efforts, be they sagas of zombies, madmen or wild visionaries, conflicts between the human and inhuman also function as metaphoric battles of race, politics, gender and self. Romero is at his best when he has a real-world target in his sights, a prime reason why his latest tale of hungry, walking corpses, Survival of the Dead (in theaters May 21), is such a letdown—for the first time in his decades-spanning zombie series, the director’s action doesn’t come equipped with any socio-cultural underpinnings. Unlike its five predecessors, the film is merely an empty exercise in bad acting, familiar gruesomeness and, most stunning still, mediocre make-up effects. For genre aficionados, it’s a letdown of sizeable proportion, and one cast into even sharper relief by Anthology Film Archives’ April 23-25 mini-retrospective of three Romero classics—1973’s The Crazies, 1981’s Knightriders, and 1985’s Day of the Dead—that serves as a thrilling reminder of the halcyon days when the filmmaker’s work had more than just torn flesh on its mind.

Of this trio, The Crazies and Day of the Dead are the most natural bedfellows, as both revolve around hostility between average citizens, infected people mutated into monsters, and an untrustworthy military, their clashes providing Romero with ample opportunity to deliver scathing, era-specific critiques. Certainly, the army bears the brunt of the director’s censure in the former, a rough, ragged B-movie about a small Pennsylvania town transformed into the seventh level of hell by a military bioweapon that accidentally enters the municipal water supply, turning the population into homicidal lunatics and spurring the armed forces to lethally intervene. The ensuing chaos engulfs all, including a fireman and his girlfriend trying to escape the quarantined area, with soldiers slaughtering innocent and guilty alike and average folk going frothing-at-the-mouth psychotic. With shades of Kent State dancing around the frame’s fiery edges, Romero condemns the military establishment as a runaway murder train, yet reserves equal denunciation for his crazy everymen, who—as during a stunning intro sequence in which a father torches his home, trapped wife and two kids be damned—epitomize the pervasive national rot growing from within.

Twelve years later, and one zombie standard-bearer in between (1978’s attack on consumerism, Dawn of the Dead), Romero returned to the land of the not-living with Day of the Dead, greeted at the time as a disappointment but now clearly one of the director’s crowning achievements. A brutal evisceration not of a social trend or political movement but, rather, of mankind’s inherent nature, Day submerges itself in an underground bunker where a group of scientists looking for a cure to the global zombie pandemic have holed up alongside army men with increasingly fanatical views on how to handle the situation. What little social order remains doesn’t survive for long, as Frankenstein experiments to domesticate the undead are torn asunder by rampaging paranoia and self-preservation instincts. In apocalyptic crisis, the needs of the individual overwhelm those of the collective, with Romero’s end-of-days gem—its tension born not from jolt scares but from its hothouse atmosphere of doom—presenting a vision of self-interest, greed, power-hunger, panic and prejudice that lays bare the filmmaker’s jet-black view of the race’s destructive failings.

Given that its two compatriots in Anthology’s triptych are horror shows awash in mindless fiends, Knightriders would seem the odd film out. A 145-minute story about a counterculture troupe putting on King Arthur-style performances astride motorcycles at Renaissance fairs, it remains something of a strange bird, presenting in great detail a cloistered subculture—led by Ed Harris’ true-believer Arthur stand-in, who rules his roost with messianic authority—struggling to survive in a country where police brutality, mass-media celebrity culture, and a jaded population threatens its very existence. With an unreasonably prolonged Camelot-torn-asunder narrative, visceral but distended steel-horse jousting sessions, and three possible endings to its name, Knightriders never rises above being an occasionally gripping side-note for the director, elevated by its earnest empathy for outcasts and a solid supporting performance by make-up effects guru-turned-actor Tom Savini. Yet even as a minor entry in the canon, its not-so-subtle metaphor is clear. More than in any of his other works, here Romero stakes a direct claim for himself as an iconoclastic rebel-dreamer-outsider combating, along with his loyal likeminded comrades, mainstream corruption through strict adherence to artistic integrity—a position still fiercely held today, albeit free, as evidenced by the second-rate Survival, of the inspiration that once accompanied it.