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The Creepshows of George A. Romero

“I’m amazed when people are repulsed by horror. I giggle and celebrate it.” – George Romero in an interview from Just Desserts, a making-of documentary on the Region 2 Creepshow Blu-ray

For the better part of 45 years, George Romero has been a name synonymous with smart, often satirical horror that can often vacillate wildly between the subtle and the overtly ridiculous. He didn’t only make horror films. There was the dreadful dramedy There’s Always Vanilla that followed his most iconic success that even Romero doesn’t care much for today. He also made the film Knightriders, one of his strangest and most misunderstood productions, in which turned a bunch of bikers into surrogates for the Arthurian knights of old. There’s also a litany of productions that Romero was involved with at various points in his early years that just never came to fruition.

But the one thing people think of almost immediately when the name George Romero will be six simple words that catapulted him to horror stardom:

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”

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The man who made zombies the most universally feared hypothetical abominations and monsters will begin to be honoured by the folks at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (in the country and city of residence where the American born Romero has actually been a citizen for several years now) beginning on Halloween night and through Sunday, November 4th in a retrospective titled Living Dread: The Cinema of George A. Romero.

Showcasing more than simply the films that Romero might be best remembered for, the series actually opens with a film that only has a small handful of zombie-like characters in it and was actually Romero’s most financially successful release. For Creepshow, (Wednesday, October 31st at 9:30pm, preceded by Romero In Conversation with TIFF Midnight Madness curator Colin Geddes at 7pm) Romero teamed up with famed horror novelist Stephen King to create an homage to the EC horror comics they grew up idolizing after a planned attempt to work together adapting the novellist’s Salem’s Lot fell through. (That job would eventually become a made-for-TV gig for fellow horror master Tobe Hooper.)

A surprisingly strong anthology of five heavily stylized shorts, Creepshow stands toe to toe with his walking dead films as some of the best work of his career, but it’s also a bit of anomaly within his filmography. Until he returned to his Living Dead series with Land of the Dead, Creepshow was the only time Romero would work with a massive cast of actors from a then relatively unknowns Ed Harris (who appears as an outsider in a world full of blue bloods in the opening short “Father’s Day” as a favour to Romero who cast him prominently in Knightriders) and Ted Danson to old veterans Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau (as a bickering couple on the verge of a complete break involving a monster in “The Crate”).

As with any anthology, the results aren’t always on the same level of greatness, but they’re all good in their own ways. “Father’s Day” kills off the bat with a long deceased patriarch rising from the grave on his favourite holiday in search of a cake that should rightfully be his. Featuring some top notch effects from long time Romero collaborator and confidant Tom Savini, the film blends Romero’s dark funny bone with the visual framing of actual comic books. He replicates comic panels within the frame in a way that Walter Hill unsuccessfully tried to incorporate into The Warriors but he couldn’t get to work quite right, and better than Ang Lee ultimately did with his version of The Hulk.

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The weakest of the bunch, and the bleakest and least emotionally satisfying comes next as Stephen King stars as the title character in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” It’s well directed, well written, and features some stunning creature effects as King plays the titular backwoods rube that slowly turns into a plant after coming into contact with a meteor. Unlike the rest of the characters in the shorts around this one, Verrill doesn’t do anything to deserve the pain he’s being caused. He’s just unlucky all the time, and things just get sadder and sadder until the inevitable conclusion given away by the title. It also doesn’t help that King’s hamming it to high heaven doesn’t give Jordy any real degree of sympathy. Beloved cult character actor Tom Atkins (who appears in the wrap-arounds that book end the film as a doting father who doesn’t want his kid reading this Creepshow crap) originally wanted to play this role, and honestly, Romero probably should have let him.

Things rebound in grand form with “Something to Tide You Over” which starts as a tet-a-tet between Danson’s younger man and the cuckolded Leslie Neilsen with the cheating wife the gloriously coifed one took as a lover. It’s a slow burning menace until the still great EC styled morality tale conclusion, but this one above the rest is the actor’s showcase of the bunch, and that says a lot in a film that’s this consistently well acted. Neilsen wants his young charge to suffer horribly and almost as soon as he barges his way in the door. It’s a performance that will almost erase Lieutenant Frank Drebbin and everything that came in that character’s wake from your memory to remind you that once upon a time this Canadian treasure could be a damned fine actor. Also, it has the best dramatic performance from Danson without question.

The longest short, “The Crate” feels like two films with a bridge built between them. Set against a backdrop of academia, a university janitor uncovers a crate beneath a flight of stairs from a long since forgotten about Arctic expedition in 1834. When a professor (Fritz Weaver) opens the crate and unleashes the long dormant and blood thirsty Yeti like creature inside (affectionately dubbed Fluffy by Romero and Savini), he calls upon his rival and colleague Henry (Holbrook), who sees the beast as a way to rid himself of his boorish alcoholic wife (Barbeau, going gloriously whole hog with the comedy here). When she says “some of those academics can be more terrifying than the fucking shark from Jaws” I’m sure the character didn’t expect it to be a moment of clarity.

Closing things out is the sparse, creepy crawly, and utterly gross “They’re Creeping Up on You,” where E.G. Marshall plays a douchy Howard Hughes styled wealthy shut-in with an uncontrollable bug problem and equally large anger management and bigotry issues. Largely a one man show like “Verrill” was, Romero injects this entry with the socio-political undertones and commentary on race relations that belie a lot of his other work. Also, the practical effects here include the (ill advised in hindsight) use of 20,000 live cockroaches. It’s not for the squeamish and most younger viewers might not get the obvious Hughes comparisons, but it’s more than an effective end to this omnibus.

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There’s not much that can really be said about Romero’s most iconic works, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead that hasn’t been talked about exhaustively already, but it will be the extremely rare chance to see all three on the big screen in a row on Saturday, November 3rd at 5pm, 7:30, and 10:15, respectively, with Romero introducing the whole shebang at the start. But there are some great basic reasons why the films have endured as excellent historical and cultural documents.

A pitch perfect mirror imagining of Vietnam and Civil Rights era America (made during the biggest watershed year for the US in the latter half of the 20th Century, 1968), no horror film other than Night of the Living Dead has ever captured the fears of a nation in such a subversive and terrifying package. There’s a damn good reason why it’s quite possibly the most popular title in the public domain, and while it might not be the best thing to happen to Romero’s career to not have total control over the material, it’s a wonderful reminder of the culture we could have, and in many ways already have become.

With the vastly gorier, longer, nastier, openly scarier, and angrier Dawn of the Dead, the world of the human race grows smaller and smaller as a band of survivors from different backgrounds is forced to co-exist within a shopping mall. Romero here suggests that we have failed in the struggles from the first film and that we as a human race have given up once and for all in favour of consumerism and consumption. If everyone alive and dead, good and evil holes up in a mecca of commerce, who is running the rest of the country? It’s a question we as a race still haven’t been able to answer.

Even as the “least successful” entry into the trilogy (which still gets referred to as such despite the series going on for three more films with varying degrees of success in more recent years), 1985’s Day of the Dead feels like the complete inverse of Dawn’s iconic tagline: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” Well, the dead now walk the Earth somewhat freely and jauntily dressed as Florida tourists for the most part, while he human race plots its last attempts at resurgence from a hellish military bunker. Featuring the equally loved and loathed Bub, a zombie with growing mental faculties, the film doesn’t seem as bleak despite the most depressing plotline of the series. The fact that Bub begins to feel and reason on his own shows that Romero still does have hope for the human race after all.

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When detractors of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later call it a bastardization of zombie film culture by featuring fleet footed zombies that don’t necessarily consume things but instead snap and turn horrifyingly violent, I always shrugged and just said that even Romero made a similar kind of film with The Crazies (Thursday, November 1st at 9:00pm). Really, all Boyle did was port Romero’s idea of a manmade virus turning people evil and applied it to the UK under different circumstances. In Romero’s version a small town is besieged by people literally going insane and killing off the people who weren’t lucky (unlucky?) enough to get killed by a strange mutated virus. It makes for a great double bill with Boyle’s film, but just as strong to watch on its own.

Speaking of two films that would make for great double bills (but sadly aren’t programmed here as such), this series also includes screenings of two of Romero’s more deliberately paced efforts, Martin (Thursday, November 1st at 6:30pm, with an introduction from Romero) and Monkey Shines (Friday, November 2nd at 9:00pm). Both projects are interesting in terms of how they came together behind the scenes, and they both focus on incredibly shy people that try to keep their most homicidal impulses at bay.

Originally three hours in length (a cut that Romero pines for to this day in his DVD commentary for the film) and made for a still scant budget of $275,000 even back in 1975, Martin follows an 84 year old vampire (played by frequent Romero collaborator John Amplas) who systematically stalks and drugs his unsuspecting and predominantly female victims before embracing them in casual sexual situations and draining their blood from their wrists with the help of a drug store razor blade. Despite black and white flashbacks that help to corroborate Martin’s story, the question of his actual vampirism is called into question when he goes to live with his jerk of a cousin in the country in a misguided sort of detoxing effort. In terms of plot structure and making quiet moments play to natural and unsettling conclusions, Martin remains the most celebrated of Romero’s lesser remembered films for very good reason.

By that same token, 1988’s Monkey Shines feels unjustly underrated in comparison. Sure, at just a shade under two hours this story of a paralyzed man (Jason Beghe) who forms an unhealthy psychic bond with his new helper monkey (mostly played by uncanny animatronics from Savini), covers a lot of similar thematic ground that Martin hinted at, but made with big budget trappings. The only one of his films to be made with the backing of a major studio aside from Creepshow up to that point, this film manages to look even better than that anthology’s slickness. The cinematography and fast moving POV shots from Miami Vice and Cruising lenser James A. Contner (foisted upon Romero by Orion instead of allowing him to work with his friends again) is the best in any of Romero’s films. While the director was fought tooth and nail on many of his choices this time out – including a re-shot ending after test audiences hated the original finale – but it’s still a great look at a man whose illness causes him to slowly go mad and act out against those around him.

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With the possible exception of the exclusion of his not all that bad re-teaming with Stephen King, The Dark Half, and the bizarre nature of Knightriders, this retrospective hits all the high notes of a storied career, and to have the man himself on hand talk about just sweetens the deal even more. There’s even a chance to see Romero host a screening of Michael Power’s supremely creepy and boundary pushing 1960 thriller Peeping Tom (Sunday, November 4th, 7:30pm) It’s worth the trip to the cinema on these cold, and dreary nights to get scared by one of the last true masters of horror cinema.

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