Tobe Hooper. Wes Craven. John Carpenter. David Cronenberg. George Romero. There’s never quite been an all-encompassing label for these brilliant horror film directors whose bodies of work defined the genre’s standards in the 1970s and 80s. “Masters of Horror” was coined a few years ago to promote the eponymous TV series but falls short of the required gravitas. The divergent paths of these directors are as diverse as their styles: commercial failure and belittlement for Hooper, mainstream success for Craven, auteurist deification and constant reappraisal for Carpenter, art house gentility for Cronenberg – and of Romero?
George “A.” Romero, as he prefers to be credited, created the zombie film as we know it: post-voodoo, pro-cannibalism and Tom Savini splatter. That subgenre has had a lot more mainstream success than he himself. If there were a nickel licensing fee paid to Romero for every zombie film since his, he could easily afford not to cling to the public’s waning recognition with his recent Canadian cheapies that are little else but political polemics using the waking dead as decomposing strawmen. Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and now Survival of the Dead (2009) have been regarded as depressing disappointments by fans, making Romero’s long anticipated return after a long absence to his much-imitated roots somewhat the horror equivalent of George Lucas’s disastrous return to Star Wars.
The film which signaled Romero’s departure from filmmaking for almost a decade was another collaboration with Stephen King, the biggest name in 1980s horror pop culture and previous co-author with Romero of the films Creepshow and Creepshow 2. While this may have seemed like a good idea, King’s intellectual property still being a guarantor of some return on film investment and the two men being friends with mutual artistic respect for each other, Romero probably should have taken an example from Dino De Laurentiis and chosen to make a Stephen King movie™ with more raw materials for visceral entertainment, like werewolves or killer trucks.
The Dark Half is King’s story of a respected writer with an alter ego who writes horror novels, and who is then framed for murders by a mystical manifestation of his alter ego when he attempts to retire the name. This is pure solipsism compelling only to hardcore Stephen King fans who appreciate the in-joke surrounding King’s prior creation of his “Richard Bachman” pseudonym. Romero’s direction is competent. Fans of the evil twin genre – there must be some out there – can also delight in star Timothy Hutton’s dual performances as good Thad Beaumont and evil George Stark as he fails to make an impression as either. Instead of Hutton, Stephen King should’ve done another acting turn for Romero as he did in Creepshow.
Perhaps Romero should have retired with Day of the Dead. Considered a disappointment for many years for simply not being another swashbuckling action-adventure zombie film in the vein of his previous Dawn of the Dead, Day has undergone reevaluation over the years by horror fans and has come to be appreciated for what it does so remarkably well. The zombie makeup and special effects violence by Tom Savini are quite possibly his most accomplished and the peak of his 1980s golden era. The music score by John Harrison, also the composer of Creepshow, is richly layered with themes and variations that accompany nearly the entire film. The screenplay full of brilliantly terse science-fiction speculation as to the true nature of the living dead. The weakest link are the actors and some of their infamous overacting, yet the cast’s secret weapon is a gloriously over-the-top villain with wickedly bulging eyes and profanity to spare.
Day of the Dead was the perfect close to Romero’s brainchild trilogy; the crushingly fatalist conclusion to a world overpopulated by zombies while the living are unable to agree what to do about it. Then Dan O’Bannon made zombies a joke and people have been unable to be afraid of them ever since. That’s a hell of a spot to put Romero in, but he never should’ve gone back to the well the way he did. In any case, we hope this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast gives him his due.
NEXT EPISODE: THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976, JOHN CASSAVETES) & LESS THAN ZERO (1987, MAREK KANIEVSKA)