Thursday, October 26, 2017

Ranking George Romero’s Ten Non-Zombie Movies

Taking stock of the beloved director’s flicks sans appearances by the Living Dead.

By: Jimbo X

The world of horror no doubt lost a genre titan when George A. Romero passed away earlier this year. Unquestionably his greatest legacy is his contribution of the modern zombie construct to pop culture. Without Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, forget it; there would be no Walking Dead, no Resident Evil, no 28 Days Later and NONE of your favorite ‘80s splatter flicks, running the gamut from Return of the Living Dead and Re-Animator all the way to The Evil Dead and The Beyond.

In his roughly 40-year career, Romero directed a grand total of 16 feature films. While six of them were formal entries in his signature Dead series, he also gave us quite the eclectic mix of non-zombie-focused genre movies, virtually all of them save two traditional horror flicks. While Romero will always (and rightfully) be remembered for his living dead epics, that’s not to say his flicks sans zombies aren’t worth your time and effort, either. Below you’ll find a quick summary of all ten of Romero’s non-zombie movies, ranked in order from least noteworthy to most significant - including quite a few that are undoubtedly unsung genre masterpieces.

10. The Crazies (1973)

A lot of fans like to call The Crazies something of an unofficial bridge between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. While the movie does share some similarities with both films, the execution here is nowhere near as effective as it was in either Night or Dawn, eschewing the sociocultural undertones that made those movies genre masterpieces in favor of a far more rudimentary sci-fi/horror premise. The military accidentally infects a small town with a chemical weapon that turns the locals into stark-raving, homicidal maniacs and it’s up to a bunch of gun-toting federal agents in HAZMAT suits to contain the spread of the insanity-causing virus. While thematically similar to his zombie films, this one just doesn’t deliver the strong character development or over-the-top violence of Romero’s canonical living dead opuses; it has its moments, but the glimmers of George’s genius we see in his other works are unfortunately few and far in-between here.

9. Two Evil Eyes (1990)

For starters, this is only half a Romero movie, seeing as how the flick is split into two roughly hour-long vignettes based on Edgar Allen Poe stories. A very, very loose adaptation of The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, Romero’s half of the film revolves around two nefarious lovers (one of whom is played by Adrienne Barbeau) who get more than they bargained for when they steal the corpse of an extremely wealthy man. The weird, metaphysical yarn feels like an uneasy mixture of Creepshow and From Beyond, with the hypnosis and necromancy subplots dragging on for far too long. On top of that, the special effects really aren’t that impressive and the climax is especially unexciting. That Romero’s segment is followed by a much better adaptation of The Black Cat by Dario Argento only serves to make the outing even less memorable than it already is.

8. The Dark Half (1993)

Seeing as how Romero went into semi-retirement after this film was released, it’s probably not a surprise that The Dark Half is one of the director’s lesser offerings. Based on a novel by Stephen King, the film revolves around a famous horror author (Timothy Hutton) who decides to symbolically bury his nomme de plume, only for the physical embodiment of his alter ego (also played by Timothy Hutton) to rise from his grave and start killing people close to him. Naturally, the police think the author is the one behind the crimes, and it’s only a matter of time until Romero hits us with one of the lamest plot twists in horror history - one so weak, it completely sucks your interest in the remainder of the movie right out of you. And the less said about the movie’s preposterous climactic duel to the death - complete with a gaggle of deus ex machina sparrows making the save - the better.

7. Bruiser (2000)

Depending on your perspective, Bruiser is either the worst good movie Romero directed or the best bad movie he ever helmed. This straight-to-video B-movie focuses on the exploits of a dejected, alienated businessman with an unfaithful wife who is so fed up with his existentially pointless life that he contemplates committing suicide. Then, one morning he wakes up with a mysterious, featureless white mask grafted over his face, effectively making him totally unidentifiable and unrecognizable to those near and dear to him. And from there, the body count doth grow exponentially. Thematically comparable to stuff like Fight Club and American Psycho, Bruiser may not have the aesthetics or the acting to compete with its “revenge against the post-postmodern world” contemporaries, but it’s nonetheless an interesting little potboiler. And if nothing else, it’s noteworthy for being the last non-zombie movie Romero ever directed.

6. Monkey Shines (1988)

The most memorable thing about Monkey Shines has to be its box art. Featuring a clapper monkey toy with a mouthful of incisors holding a bloody straight razor, it might just be the most horrifying VHS cover for anything ever. Alas, the film itself has absolutely NOTHING to do with that, instead giving us a halfway decent flick about a quadriplegic who receives a helper monkey named Ella. This being a horror movie and whatnot, naturally the monkey has had some major genetic experimentation tested on it, so it’s only a matter of time until the monkey becomes extremely jealous and starts poking the rest of the cast with needles full of deadly chemicals. The hard, hard genre shift halfway through the movie is pretty awkward, but as long as you can suspend your disbelief and tolerate a plethora of cheese - the movie’s final jump scare is basically cinematic fondue - you might actually enjoy it.

5. There’s Always Vanilla (1971)

Yes, George Romero followed up Night of the Living Dead with - what else? - a light and frothy romantic comedy. Although Romero himself went on record describing this as his worst movie, it’s nowhere near as bad as he makes it out to be. The movie is about a former military-man turned roustabout named Chris who returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh and knocks up a woman he randomly meets on a train. As the case with all romantic comedies, fate tears them apart and our leading man has to decide what he’s going to do with the rest of his life - does he listen to his heart and try to win his gal pal back or does he listen to his brain and take over his father’s business instead? All in all, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable movie, and the ending - believe it or not - might actually get you to shed a tear or two.

4. Knightriders (1981)

After Dawn of the Dead Romero decided he wasn’t quite done making movies that prominently feature motorcycles, so we ended up with this unorthodox drama about a bunch of transient bikers that make a living jousting on their hogs. Ed Harris does a really good job portraying the ringleader of the Renaissance fair troupe, and you just have to love Tom Savini’s campy performance as the villainous head of a rival motorcycle jousting faction. An extremely subplot-heavy movie - complete with one of the earliest non-judgmental depictions of a homosexual relationship in a mainstream-ish American movie - at times the pace gets a little stilted, but Romero’s sure-handed direction never lets things get too boring. With practically no gore or supernatural hokum, this is probably as close as Romero ever got to making a “normal” movie as a big-time director; the end product isn’t a total success, but it certainly makes you wonder how Romero could’ve grown as an auteur beyond the confinements of the horror genre.

3. Season of the Witch (1973)

It might take awhile to get going, but Season of the Witch is undoubtedly an entertaining (and atypical) supernatural horror flick. A sort of proto-Stepford Wives, this early ‘70s flick revolves around a bored housewife who is slowly sucked into a coven of suburban witches. From there we’ve got a lot of subplot about adultery, a whole bunch of hallucinations featuring some of the worst demonic masks you’ve ever seen in a movie and, naturally, gratuitous use of the Donovan song “Season of the Witch” on the soundtrack over and over again. Of course, this being a horror movie somebody’s gotta’ die at some point, and without giving it away, let’s just say the movie does an excellent job setting up - and delivering - its climactic showdown. In an era utterly inundated with ultra-campy, semi-feminist sex-horror-farces, Season of the Witch remains one of the decade's better subgenre offerings; if you’re looking for a new guilty pleasure favorite, you need to track this one down pronto.

2. Creepshow (1982)

What more can be said about quite possibly the greatest horror anthology movie ever? George Romero teamed with Stephen King and Tom Savini for this loving homage to E.C. Comics’ line of 1950s horror titles, and the end result is one of the most memorable (and beloved) creature features of the 1980s. Everybody has their favorite vignette - the one where a zombie comes back to life to kill off all his annoying kinfolk, the one where Big Steve himself plays a rube that turns into a moss monster, the one where Leslie Nielsen buries people up to their neck in the ocean, etc. - but probably the most famous one of ‘em all is the closer, where E.G. Marshall has thousands upon thousands of cockroaches explode out of his skull. Outside of his feature length zombie flicks, this is probably what Romero will best be remembered for - and rightfully so.

1. Martin (1978)

Throughout his career, Romero arguably made three truly transcendent genre classics. While Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are universally recognized as two of the best horror movies ever, Romero’s other genre masterpiece remains one of the most criminally underappreciated fright flicks of all-time. Martin is a film about a young man with two core obsessions in life: calling up a radio station late at night and pretending he’s a vampire and killing random individuals with barbiturates and razor blades. There are at least two scenes in this movie that are among the greatest ever filmed in a horror movie; a sequence where the titular character snags some prey on a train and one of the most chilling home invasion scenes you’ll ever see in a motion picture. It’s a weird and ethereal film that, at the same time, feels impossibly true to life and brutally realistic; it’s unquestionably one of the best horror movies of the 1970s and - in many ways - exemplifies Romero’s stylistic brilliance even more than his beloved zombie epics.


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