Sleep Well, Mr. Romero …

Now that I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on it, I wanted to get some thoughts down on George Romero. How I got into his work, what it’s meant to me & why this hits harder than other Director’s deaths have.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I got into Horror, but it was a gradual progression from an interest in Science Fiction. I remember taking out Sci-Fi movie books from the library & watching old gems with my Father on Saturday Night at the Movies (Elwy Yost was the Host with the Most), and like most kids, I was into aliens and the idea of life (or afterlife) that we cannot see, but believe in all the same.

I always wanted to impress / please my Father with great gifts for his October birthday (Halloween Month FTW), but he hasn’t always been the easiest to shop for (that said, I’ve been on a roll the past few years). I knew he liked old black and white movies, and we’d enjoyed watching stuff like Bride of Frankenstein & The Creature from the Black Lagoon together, so you can imagine my excitement when I read about a movie called “Night of the Living Dead”. It was apparently a Classic (we always had a Leonard Maltin Movie Guide in the house), it was Old & it was Black and White, how could it fail ??

I bought him a double VHS release, which included a second tape of “Special Features” (what a time to be alive). It even had a fold out cover with an essay on the film itself. Surely I had knocked it out of the park with this gift ! I can imagine what was going through his head when he opened up that gift, seeing my face beaming and excitedly waiting to watch it with him. I remember showing the tape of Features to my friends, and we all enjoyed the original trailer, with it’s over the top narration and classic use of musical cue …

Having been internally convinced that I’d gotten the perfect gift, you can imagine my delight when Mr. Maltin let me know that there was not only one, but TWO sequels to NOTLD ! I immediately hatched a plan to get him the second film for his next birthday, then to complete the trilogy on the birthday after that. Once again, I tracked down a double VHS (with fold out cover) at Music World (RIP), and I was EXTRA excited to give him his gift that year.

Watching him open that gift, I couldn’t help but sense (even at a young age) that he wasn’t nearly as thrilled to receive it as I was to give it. But how ? Surely he had loved the previous film, it was old and in black & white ! Still, I was excited to watch this new film with him, and I bided my time as it sat unopened on or VHS shelf, week after week. Eventually I broke down and became determined to watch the film, with or without him. Even though he hadn’t cracked open the plastic yet, I was determined to find a way …

When I was growing up, we ran a year round campground / resort in cottage country. The year I gave him DOTD, I was probably around 12 or so. My parents very rarely got to go out for non-family dinners, and since I was finally old enough to look after the place (after close) for a few hours, they left me alone on a cold January night, with my dog … and an unguarded VHS copy of Dawn of the Dead ! After I was sure they were gone, I snaked the movie off the shelf (where it had lived for months) and I got a knife and went to work, slooooowly cutting enough of the plastic that would allow for me to slip the main tape out of the box.

I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I’d given him WEEKS to open / watch it with me, and my little heart just couldn’t wait any longer. I popped the tape in and let the movie wash over me. That is, until about halfway through, when I heard the unmistakable “crunch, crunch” sound of two people walking through the snow, in our backyard, in the middle of nowhere, with no family members anywhere nearby, and me alone, watching a scary movie, with no curtains drawn on the back window. I sat there, paralyzed, unsure what to do first. They KNEW someone was home, as I hadn’t closed the curtains. But we lived in the middle of nowhere, in the dead (cough) of winter. Who COULD it be ??

I slowly reached for the remote and shut the movie off, then I heard a slow knock on the sliding glass door on our back deck. Still terrified, I walked over to the back room and turned on the porch light. Standing on our deck were two HUGE men, dressed in large winter jackets and staring at me. I knew they wouldn’t just go away, but I had no weapon, apart from a part Lab / part Border Collie named Bart. I reluctantly walked towards the door, unlocked it and slid it open a few inches. It turned out to be two russian men who had walked across the lake, seen our lights, then come to see if we had any liqour for them, to “warm them up”.

Thinking quickly (and having seen many PSA’s, thanks Bert and Gert !), I told them my Father was in the shower, but that I would go and check with him. My dog was growling the entire time, which was honestly my only consolation for the intense fear of the situation. I closed the door, went to the kitchen and considered my options. I ended up waiting a few minutes, then going back and telling them that my Father doesn’t drink … but that I was pretty sure that the (rival) resort down the road had plenty of alcohol (I’m not proud, but it worked). I closed and locked the door, shut off the light and waited. They didn’t move for a minute, but gradually the “crunch, crunch” of them walking away put me at ease, and 10 minutes later, I resumed the film.

In watching that film, I soon came to realize that my Father had NEVER been a fan of Horror, and most likely never knew how to let me down easy. I had been able to slip the tape back into it’s case, and “skillfully” add some scotch tape to the cut area (genius), and shockingly, it NEVER came up. Almost as if he never touched that movie again after setting it up on it’s shelf, where it beckoned to me all those months. This revelation lead to me purchasing the third film, Day of the Dead, but not for my Father this time … but for myself.

It pleases me that my love of the Father of Zombies will always be linked to my own Father, even if he was never a fan of the man’s films himself. He always respected my love of Horror, even if it’s not a genre he could ever love himself. As I grew older and discovered other Romero gems like Martin, Creepshow & The Crazies, I grew to appreciate what an indelible mark he had left on the genre. Not dissimilar to the way my Father had helped shape me into the man that now types these very words.

In the years that have passed since that fateful NOTLD gift, I have seen literally countless Horror films, but my absolute favourite is (and always will be) Creepshow. As a huge fan of 50’s Horror Comics, Romero (and King) absolutely nailed the tone, and I love everything about that film. I’m pleased to have seen it on the big screen, though dismayed to say I passed on a chance to see it again on the big screen this year, with Romero in attendance. That said, I did see Night of the Living Dead on the big screen for the first time this year, and it was a surreal mix of emotions, almost equal to those I’m experiencing now.

It’s been said of Romero that he was unbelievably kind and humble, grateful to have touched so many souls with an oeuvre that is the envy of the average filmmaker. He shaped a genre that still thrills us today, with ideas and films that will live forever, even if the man himself could not. I’m sad I never got to meet him, but through a love for his films and his spirit, and through the eyes of so many others, I feel like I knew him very well.

The outpouring of grief and kind words seen in the past 24 hours is truly inspiring, and speaks well to the imprint left by this man. George was larger than life, larger than the afterlife even. As a fan of the Remakes of NOTLD, DOTD and The Crazies, it’s astounding to me that even re-imaginings of his work can work on different levels, another testament to his genius. While he never got all that was coming to him, financially AND credit wise, his legend will only grow from here on out, and I look forward to remembering the man and his work.

To George A Romero, the creator of the best birthday presents a boy could want …

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October Horrorthon 2012 – 29 – “Leatherface – Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3”

Aka – Leatherface, TCM 3

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRIU9ulSa1A

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series is an interesting beast. The first one is a certified classic, though surprisingly tame in actual blood shown on screen. The second is completely different in tone and much gorier (thanks to our boy Tom Savini). The fourth is hot garbage (despite starring then unknowns Renee Zellwegger & Matthew McConaughey), the remake was okay, the prequel was awful and the upcoming “Texas Chainsaw 3D” could go either way. I’d always found the third entry to be underrated (among TCM films) but it had been awhile since I’d seen it. So, how does it hold up ?

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The plot revolves around a couple who are driving through Texas on their way to a meeting. They drive past a bevy of policeman unearthing 30-40 bodies, presumably from the murderous Sawyer clan of TCM fame. They stop for gas, meeting a friendly cowboy (your boy Viggo) and the perverted gas station owner. Viggo tells them about a shortcut nearby, before being attacked and seemingly killed by the attendant. The couple takes the shortcut and are eventually forced off the road and stalked by Leatherface and the infamous Sawyer clan. Will a nearby motorist (Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree) help them escape and stop the Sawyers once and for all ?

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As previously mentioned, the big two in this movie are (then unknown) Viggo Mortensen (foreshadowing the next movies’ use of McConaughey and Zellwegger) and Ken Foree (who has gone on to co-star in several Rob Zombie films). Viggo does a good job chewing the scenery (eerily like McConaughey in part 4) and Foree is great (as usual) as the tough as nails Benny. Interestingly, Kane Hodder does Leatherfaces’ stunts, interesting since he also played Jason multiple times.

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I’m not sure what scale to use while rating these movies. I mean, this isn’t a great movie, but it’s instantly better than the 4th and 6th (prequel) ones just by having Viggo/Foree, so that’s something. I suppose you could argue that the first three films are their own thing, much like Hellraiser 1-4. The quality of each varies, but they pretty much continue the main story, never really living up to the originals (though Hellraiser 2 rules). That said, for a TCM flick, this ones not bad.

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The first time I saw the original TCM I didn’t think much of it. I was in high school, we watched it in broad daylight (inside of course) and we pretty much picked it apart as we went. I appreciated it more on each viewing, much like its sequel. I’ve always liked the tone of the third film, I think it gets back to the grittiness of the first film while still containing some of the dark comedy of the sequel. It’s not perfect, but it’s a masterpiece compared to the follow up.

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The MPAA ripped the film to shreds upon release. It was the last film to be rated X before the invention of the NC-17 rating. Interestingly, the second film had also received an X rating, so at least they maintained some consistency, right ? I was really excited when they released an extras packed DVD of the uncut versions of the second and third films. It may not make them “deeper” movies, but they sure are more fun to watch.

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Our local Mayfair Theatre had a 35mm screening of this film on the same night that I watched it. I wasn’t able to attend (unfortunately), but at least I was able to pretend I was there by spilling soda on the floor and having my friends yell at the screen. It wasn’t quite the same, but I did what I could.

Anyway, you know what to expect from the series at this point. It is what it is, but it’s definitely fun to watch an early Viggo in something like this. It’s not the best or worst TCM film, but it does a good job with the premise and is certainly watchable. Just never watch the fourth one, please.

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October Horrorthon 2012 – 19 – “Creepshow”

Aka – Creep Show

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_6vtAmFnkA

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Let me start off by saying that “Creepshow” is my favourite horror movie. It’s the best horror anthology (and believe me, I’ve seen a ton of them) and strikes a perfect blend of horror and comedy, no easy feat in movies, old or new. An homage to the equally great 50’s EC comics (that would spawn two great horror anthologies and an excellent TV series) “Creepshow” is a labour of love from two horror masters.

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As previously stated, this is an anthology of 5 stories and a wraparound tale (starring Stephen King’s son and genre vet Tom Atkins) all written for the screen by master storyteller Stephen King. The stories come from a (non existent) comic book that Atkins throws out at the beginning of the film.

There’s a corpse that comes back to life to exact revenge on Father’s Day, a meteorite that spreads plant life at an extreme rate, an ancient crated beast that helps a man kill his wife, a revenge plot that leads to watery zombies exacting their own revenge and a hated millionaire being attacked by cockroaches. In short, lots of laughs and gross Tom Savini effects !

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Much like “The Sentinel”, “Creepshow” has an excellent cast anchoring it. Ed Harris (dancing hilariously), Leslie Nielsen, Adrienne Barbeau, Stephen King, Hal Holbrook, Tom Atkins, Ted Danson and Tom Savini. Everyone seems to be having a great time, and the passion for the project really comes through. In particular it’s fun seeing Nielsen as the villain for once.

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I was lucky enough to see this in 35mm on the big screen for the first time at our local Mayfair theatre. They’d had the print for two years but never screened it because of a missing real (classic grindhouse !). After an online poll asking if there would be interest in showing the blu ray for the missing 20 minutes, it was decided they would proceed with the screening. The crowd was loving it, and I was sure to wear my Creepshow hoodie there to celebrate.

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The movie is made to feel like watching a comic book on screen, ideal, since it was an homage to comic books in the first place. A recent attempt at this was Ang Lee’s “Hulk” film, which used a similar tactic of framing the screen with comic book panels. I wasn’t a huge fan of that film, but I really appreciated its visual style in that regard.

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“Creepshow” is an undisputed cult classic, leading to two sequels and a web series. Only the second film is really worth checking out, though I have far less vitriol to spread over the third film. It attempted a sort of “Pulp Fiction”-esque style of connecting all of its stories. An interesting idea, but the production values were extremely low, making it look nothing like the first two films.

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The films greatest strength is its triple threat of horror masters in the directing, writing and special effects departments. It was clearly a labour of love for George Romero (Dawn of the Dead), Stephen King (The Shining) and Tom Savini (Friday the 13th), not to mention the cast themselves. It’s pretty rare to have such an assemblage of talent on a genre project, leading to a sort of lightning in a bottle gem of a film.

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Another excellent aspect of the film is the original score by John Harrison. It was eventually used in “Grindhouse” for Eli Roth’s fake trailer “Thanksgiving”. While I’m no fan of Roth, he does have good taste in horror films. Hearing the familiar strains from “Something to Tide You Over” immediately conjured up thoughts of the murderous Leslie Nielsen cavalierly driving back to his home after exacting his revenge.

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“Creepshow 2” continued the tone of the first film, even having a screenplay written by Romero, adapted from 3 more Stephen King stories (and featuring King in a cameo appearance). While Romero didn’t direct, the cinematographer from the first film did, certainly helping maintain a similar tone. Certainly not as good as the original, it remains a pleasing anthology film in its own right.

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While an homage to the “Tales from the Crypt” comics of the 1950’s which would go on to spawn an acclaimed TV series themselves, “Creepshow” was also intended to have its own TV series. It eventually became the Romero created “Tales from the Darkside”, which itself lead to a movie version. That film ended up being directed by Creepshow composer John Harrison, with one of its stories being another King adaptation by George Romero. This has lead to Tom Savini referring to it as “The real Creepshow 3”.

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If you’ve never checked out this film, I (clearly) highly recommend it. It’s a real blast, an excellent blend of comedy, horror and the pulp comics that inspired it in the first place. Anthology films, especially horror, are extremely difficult to pull off, many suffering from subpar stories. While some dismiss the comedic King-starring second segment, I find it breaks up the film nicely and keeps its tongue firmly in cheek.

If you’re looking for a fun, colourful 80’s horror story romp, or are a fan of “Tales from the Crypt”, look no further than this enjoyable gem.

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For more, check out this feature length Creepshow documentary –

http://youtu.be/E9PHroXl9X4

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