Beyond the Living Dead: George A. Romero’s World, by Alexander Miller
George A. Romero didn’t just contemporize the zombie genre; he devised some truly innovative films that show us he’s a true auteur. His first three living dead features are among his most well-known, but there’s another side of his films that deserve more praise, films that seem to live in the shadows of the walking dead.
The Crazies might not be a “classic” in the traditional sense, but it’s a competent and entertaining follow-up to Night of the Living Dead, his debut feature. It even anticipates the social commentary in Day of the Dead with its level of frantic infighting among military officials and bureaucratic incompetence throughout. The overall product has glimmers of greatness but remains an intriguing if imperfect thriller that preys on our fear and paranoia regarding an outbreak of disease.
After The Crazies he reworked the vampire genre, and in the tradition of his track record received little credit for doing so. Before Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer repackaged vampires into brooding anti-heroes, George Romero’s Martin humanized the mythic creatures by making them human.
Shooting once again on a shoestring budget, Romero, Tom Savini (their first collaboration), and lead actor John Amplas set out to create what might be one of Romero’s strongest films. Arguably the best revisionist vampire film and – unlike those in its wake – genuinely terrifying. The barebones aesthetic approach to modern vampirism is chilling, and the camera doesn’t spare us from the horrors that Martin inflicts on his victims.
He doesn’t grow fangs, or live in a castle. He can’t turn into a bat, nor does he hypnotize people. He’s a kid who drinks blood. Martin’s tools of the trade are hypodermic syringes and razor blades. Martin stalks women in train cars and performs home invasions; only when you take the Victorian pomp away from vampirism does it become truly terrifying. Keep in mind, Martin came out in 1977 when “vampires” meant castles, bats, and Christopher Lee’s Hammer films were dominant in the genre. The lush Eastmancolor world of Hammer is a quantum leap from this grainy 16mm film shot on location in Pittsburgh. Vampires are scary enough, but the thought of a young man drugging you and slitting your wrists to drink your blood is even more so because people do things like that in real life. Martin is Romero’s unsung masterpiece.
His 1981 film, Knightriders, however, remains in a league of its own.
For the longest time, I only knew Knightriders as “that weird dirt bike/jousting movie by Romero,” but by the time my completist tendencies led to me to watch the film, I was transfixed; by the finale, Romero’s “weird dirt bike movie” wound up being one of my favorites from the director. Of course, Knightriders received poor box office returns, and in some ways it’s easy to understand. How the hell do you sell a movie about a traveling band of jousting medieval-themed motorcyclists? Ed Harris (in a powerful early performance) is a modern day King Arthur, and his team of traveling performers his Knights of the Round Table. The road is their home, and fairgrounds host their tournaments. While this may be fun for some, for the riders’ Arthurian leader it’s a way of life. While medieval idealism sustains his lifestyle, it is often rivaled by a corrupted modern environment that threatens the familial troupes welfare, leading to infighting and dissension among the ranks.
While the overall premise might sound silly and its running time daunting (145 minutes!), the cast’s casually direct approach brings the scenes to life, simultaneously fleshing out a band of developed and likable characters, making it a smooth experience. The earthy surroundings lend credibility to the material, and their unique roadshow (replete with dirt bike jousts and duels) is unlike anything put on screen before or since. The familiar good vs. evil story will leave you rooting for the virtuous leader by the finale. Knightriders might not be for everyone, but if it strikes a chord with you, it’ll certainly be a resounding one.
Another fun bit of trivia is Stephen King’s cameo as a heckler. It wasn’t just an opportunity for King to exercise his acting chops, but a coincidence that he and Romero happened to be collaborating on their colorful EC comic anthology Creepshow. Trading in his trademark pessimistic tone for garish visuals, Creepshow succeeds as pulpy fun in the spirit of their source material.