Category Archives: Obituaries

George A. Romero 1940 to 2017

George A. Romero died on Sunday the 16th July 2017 after a short battle with lung cancer. He was one of the few directors who can genuinely lay claim to having changed cinema forever. His body may have died but his body of work will live on forever.

It is well documented in the likes of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls that back in the late 60s the counter culture was making inroads into Hollywood that would change American cinema from the stuffy old hierarchy of studio bosses and escapism to a modern, realistic form of story telling that ushered in the second golden age of the movies. However, whilst Hopper and company were making Easy Rider across America, in deepest, darkest Pittsburgh another young film maker was creating something so new and original that it would revolutionise horror cinema all by itself, sweeping away old Gothicism and clunky tropes and bring it slam bang into the modern world.

Night of the Living Dead may have seemed like just another drive-in B movie but with its subtext of how the violence of the Vietnam war was affecting the American mind and putting the civil rights movement front and centre by casting a black man as the hero, critics and audiences alike sat up and took notice. It wasn’t just these political issues which made the film an instant classic, it was also the striking imagery of the recently deceased attacking their former family members, the brutal, sudden, gory violence and its refusal to give the audience to give anything like a happy outcome.

Night of the Living Dead was a huge hit, making close to $30 million in the US alone (that would be $210 million today). However due to one tiny change to the title of the movie Romero lost the copyright to it and hardly saw a dollar.

The effect Night of the Living Dead had on horror cinema was almost instant. The reigning studio of the time, Hammer, immediately started to look old hat as audiences started to seek more modern scares. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would never have been made without Night… and even the studios embraced the realism now being shown with like of The Exorcist. Romero himself never fully became part of the Hollywood system, instead continuing to explore what horror meant to contemporary America in independents with the likes of Season of the Witch and The Crazies.

During this period Romero’s greatest film was Martin, which like Night of the Living Dead took an old horror monster and flipped it on its head. Into the grim reality of 1970s America he reintroduced the vampire. Dealing with insanity, disease and drug addiction Martin is never less than a challenging and thought provoking feature. It is also absolutely terrifying. It didn’t strike a chord with audiences in the same way that Night… did but that doesn’t mean it is any less deserving of praise. Maybe now Romero has passed people will start digging up Martin and give it the recognition it is due.

Next Romero returned to the zombies that had made his name and make his masterpiece. Dawn of the Dead again brought up social commentary within the context of the horror genre, this time about the West’s obsession with consumerism. But it was also an incredibly exciting and well made action-horror movie. Managing to be both tragically bleak and hugely entertaining at the same time, Dawn of the Dead again had a massive influence on cinema and pop culture, an influence that is still felt today. The outrageous gore and fully realised world building of a post apocalyptic America has influenced so many parts of Western fiction there isn’t enough room to even begin discussing it here.

Romero collaborated with Italian macabre master Dario Argento on the making of Dawn of the Dead and with its success he was to move onto another great collaboration: working with America’s best horror author, Stephen King. Creepshow was a bizarre, vivid and strangely humorous anthology movie based on stories by King. Romero shot the film like the old EC comics it was clearly influenced by and the primary colours on show highlighted how wonderfully weird the whole endeavour was. Add in Tom Savini’s outrageous special make-up effects, Stephen King acting (sort of) and a final story so full of cockroaches you can feel your flesh crawl when the end credits roll and it seemed that Romero was so on fire that he could do whatever he wanted and the audiences would come flocking.

Unfortunately due to the difficult nature of funding, especially in the more conservative eighties, Romero struggled to get his next film, Day of the Dead, made. Rather than compromise his gory vision the director chose to make the third film in the Dead series with a smaller budget. Day of the Dead is still a horror classic but rather than be the grand finale to the trilogy it felt like a smaller, more intimate story in an ongoing series. It also suffered from difficulty with distribution and marketing due to being slapped with an NC-17 rating in the States (the kiss of death box office wise) and it seemed like Romero’s zombies were to die a sad, quiet death, rather than the rousing climax they deserved.

Romero went on to make other good films though, most of which no one saw. He worked again with Argento on the Edgar Allen Poe anthology Two Evil Eyes and also with King with a fantastic adaptation of The Dark Half. The story of a man being stalked by his evil dead twin is full of shocks, strong imagery and great performances… and again like many of his films in this period it didn’t get the release or praise it deserved.

The same could be said for Monkey Shines and Bruiser which also disappeared into obscurity and as the gap between productions grew and grew it seemed that Romero was to be all but forgotten.

Then a funny thing happened… Danny Boyle’s non-zombie zombie movie 28 Days Later was a surprise box office smash and suddenly the undead were hot again. Before he knew what was happening Romero suddenly had a big wad of cash to make Land of the Dead. The forth Dead film is certainly uneven but is full of ideas, not least the theme about how the rich are getting richer in their ivory towers whilst the poor are stuck down in the mud with death closing in on them. This seems even more relevant today that it did in 2004. A modest success it meant that Romero could now get funding for more films, albeit seemingly only zombie ones. He followed up Land… with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. These two films certainly have their problems and detractors but there were still full of those wonderful zombies, shuffling around and eating people who make foolish mistakes, in the way that only Romero can do.

If you look back at Romero’s long career, with a couple of oddball exceptions (jousting motorcycle drama Knightriders and OJ: Juice on the Loose !?!), here was a director who consistently embraced and moved forward the horror genre. However, despite the often serious nature of these films the man himself was apparently quite a different beast. A good friend of mine worked with him on some of his later zombie movies and said Romero laughed all the time. I mean literally he never stopped laughing. My friend worried that perhaps Romero was a little unhinged, in a good natured way, but I like to think that maybe he was just happy to be working and couldn’t believe his luck: still making good horror movies and, finally, getting paid for it.

Wes Craven 1939 – 2015

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One of my first introductions to full blown horror was through Wes Craven, albeit indirectly. Back in 1977 my brother Luke had gone to see The Hills Have Eyes under the quite frankly bizarre misbelief that it was a comedy. Instead of seeing, I don’t know what he was expecting, funny mountains who could talk maybe, he ended up with dog-killing, people-eating backwater maniacs. Luke told myself and my sister Clare all about the cannibalistic swivel-eyed simpleton and the grimness that ensued. I’m pretty sure my brother never watching a horror movie again, but for me, I couldn’t wait to grow up fast enough so I could get into an X certificate movie. 

It took a long time, well, eight years anyway before I could somehow fake getting into what was by then 18 certificate movies. It involved a lot of standing behind people and stuffing toilet rolls into my shoulder pads (don’t ask) but one of the first films I saw as an “adult” was the instant classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. 

Its hard to look back now past all the dolls and video games and comedy one liners but when A Nightmare on Elm Street was first released it was a truly terrifying and surreal experience. What Wes Craven had fashioned was a brilliant but simple story which tapped into a base fear that all of us can relate to – the hideous fear of our scarier night dreams, and what would happen if those scares were real. In many ways the film is just a standard slasher, but only in the same way that many of Wes Craven’s horror movies are standard i.e. they are not. His films subverted the genre and subverted our expectations of them. 

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Wes Craven’s first film was Last House on The Left and despite the fact it is an extremely grim and unpleasant affair it is not made by a man who was inexperienced in life. Craven was in his thirties and had already been a university lecturer for quite a while when he made his directorial début. There is no denying that the film is violently unpleasant and exploitative (possibly made worse in my mind having only ever watching it on pirated, grainy VHS after it was banned in the UK) but there is also a fierce intelligence working away behind the camera. As much as there is some torrid action with castrations and a chainsaw, it is also a comment about middle America being sucked into violence, reflecting the Vietnam war that was raging at the time. 

The Hills Have Eyes (original teaser) Quad

This intelligence evolves in The Hills Have Eyes as the nuclear family is torn apart by violence again, having to rise up and battle against the animals who would destroy them. But now it is also more concerned with a threat to modern America from within, from a backward non-intellectual America, savages uninterested in living in the consumerist 1970s with its RVs roaming the States. You could ague that he continued this theme Deadly Blessing, but now the threat wasn’t so much a bunch on cannibals but puritanical pilgrims, still living in the past, only able to fight against changing attitudes with more violence. 

Wes Craven had probably had his fill of this line of thought as the eighties hit and reacted against it with one of the first, and certainly one of the dumbest, comic book movies ever made: Swamp Thing. Whist the comic of Swamp Thing is certainly seeped in horror imagery and tropes with its murdered mad scientist coming back for revenge as a green slimy monster, Craven moved away from his own horror roots and made a low-budget action movie with a guy in a rubber suit which is more like an episode of the A-Team from what I can remember. It doesn’t make it any less fun and despite its small ambitions probably marked the sea-change in Craven that would make the rest of his movies something that wasn’t always considered important in horror: he made them fun. 

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As classic as Last House on The Left and The Hills Have Eyes are there is no denying that they are traumatic, miserable experiences to sit through. When it came to A Nightmare on Elm Street things had changed. No one is denying that that first Freddy movie is a dark and terrifying affair. It is scary, with some freakish imagery but it is also a roller coaster ride through a haunted house. Tina getting pinned to the ceiling, Johnny Depp getting sucked into the bed and launched out again as a fountain of blood, Freddy’s hand coming out of the bathwater, Jaws-like: these are very entertaining moments in a story about a child killer. Gone were the far too grim rape scenes of earlier films and instead an embracement of the slasher with its pretty-teens-in-peril cliche. But what Craven gave us beyond this amazing imagery was also a rich original story with well written and interesting characters. A Nightmare On Elm Street was the opposite of the Friday the 13th films et al because it wasn’t just throw away trash – it was really, really good. 

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Of course Wes Craven may be responsible for some of the great horror movies of our time but he also made some crazy and ridiculous movies. Deadly Friend is a great case in point. Coming off the back of Elm Street Craven chose to make a film about a teenager who misses his dead girlfriend so much that he sticks his pet robot into her corpse in order to bring her back to life. Things go horribly wrong from there, for both the film and the audience. Deadly Friend is now mostly remembered for the moment when the robot girlfriend throws a basketball at an old woman’s head, making it explode. This is fair enough although this one of the many times in Craven’s career that studio interference messed with his ideas, he did’t even want that scene in the film. It has always grabbed me as a tragedy that a man who has made so many great horror movies has been harassed and bullied on so many projects, especially later in his career when producers should be just sitting back and let a genius like Craven get on with whatever the hell he liked. Scream 3Cursed and My Soul To Take were all pulled apart, cut up and reshot multiple times to make them “better” (none of them are up to much). But even during these disasters Craven was still able to make films which were at worst never boring and often rather entertaining. 

Maybe the studios feared Craven’s ideas because of where they came from: in countless interviews when asked where his got his ideas from, Craven would say that he literally just dreamt them up. Maybe producers feared a dream-logic imagination that wouldn’t make any sense to audiences, although why they would think that when Craven had proven himself a master story teller is beyond me. Maybe Hollywood never fully trusts its own creative side when there’s always so much money involved.

People Under The Stairs : Cinema Quad Poster
People Under The Stairs : Cinema Quad Poster

Craven did occasionally get out some great original bits of film making, seemingly without interference. The Serpent and the Rainbow about an American investigating zombies in Haiti (and based on a true story no less) is a brilliant and different take on the genre with a fantastically unnerving scene where star Bill Pullman is buried alive. And then there’s The People Under The Stairs with it’s genre-hopping plot that at one minute is a socio-political thriller then a zombie (ish) horror then a weirdo incestuous black comedy. Even something like Shocker when Craven tried to reclaim the serial killer mantle, that Freddy Kruger had once owned before becoming a comedian, has its moments. 

It was Scream that finally cemented Craven as a master of the genre. Where his previous films, even his best ones, had been hated by the critics and often ignored by the mainstream audience, Scream was now a critical darling and the cool film for the kids to see. It managed to take the piss out of the slasher genre whilst at the same time being a great example of it. Obviously with any hugely successful horror movie they had to make progressively worse sequels to sully the original’s memory, although this time, unlike with the Freddy movies, Craven was behind the camera for all of them so they never reached the lows that A Nightmare on Elm Street did. In fact the last one, Scream 4 was actually pretty good. It was also Wes Craven’s last film. 

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Considering Craven didn’t get going to until he was in his thirties he had a remarkable career. Whist mostly sticking to the horror genre he did flirt with other types of film. Red Eye was a solid thriller and Music of the Heart was, bizarrely, a passion project of his he’d been trying to make for many years. He finally got it in front of the cameras in 1999 with Meryl Streep and general indifference. But he always had horror as his backbone and continued to work when many of his contemporaries had faded into the sad world of forgotten directors.  

If an artists legacy is the work they have left behind then Craven’s legacy is a rich one: Last House On The Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under The Stairs, The Serpent and The Rainbow, New Nightmare, Scream. Not a bad list Mr Craven, not a bad list at all…