George Romero on DVD
George Romero's story begins with his breaking of the horror mould and tails off with sad tales of struggle. He started out with some friends in a small company called the Latent Image. They funded their efforts by producing adverts (some of which are on the Elite Night of the Living Dead DVD). The first real fruits of this were the seminal Night of the Living Dead. Due to this impressive opener and the subsequent movies in the “Dead” series he has been unfairly pigeonholed as a Horror director. Nothing could be further from the truth; whilst his films have horrific elements they are more concerned with exploring aspects of the human condition. Indeed most people never realise that the “Dead” films aren't really about zombies at all, they are just the catalyst.
Generally speaking his projects have rarely been “mainstream” and 90% of his films are independently funded. Unfortunately the decrease in funding available to independents has meant that he has been very quiet for the past 15 years or so. The list of film projects that have failed due to a lack of funding far outstrips his filmography; just listen to some of his commentaries to hear about some of them. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic right now regarding the fourth “Dead” film Dead Reckoning, but the involvement of a major (Sony) is a worry as his studio funded projects have generally been disappointing. (see Dark Half)
All in all Romero is far too often dismissed as “The guy who did those zombie films”. His filmography provides a decent range of films with some of his best work being zombie-less.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
This is where Romero's Dead Trilogy began. This film took the horror genre and shook it up considerably. Whilst mild in comparison to more contemporary efforts this was a gory shocker in its day. Despite that the film is more concerned with the character's interpersonal struggles rather than the zombies themselves. The rag tag bunch of survivors who end up holed up in a farmhouse spend more time fighting amongst themselves than they do fighting the zombies. It seems that even under the direst of situations humans just cannot pull together to win through.
Due to an unfortunate oversight this film is out of copyright, which means that anyone and their grandmother can release this on DVD as long as they own a print of the film. As a result there are a lot of inferior releases out there. The only releases worth mentioning are reviewed here.
Firstly mention should be made of the rather pathetic release that Anchor Bay has put out. Disguised as a 30th anniversary fully loaded DVD this is actually not the original film as it has newly shot footage shoehorned in. This was done to try and regain copyright but the end result is an absolute mess and has nothing to do with Romero. Please note that the recent R2 Trilogy of the Dead from Anchor Bay also carries this version.
The best versions of this film on DVD have both been produced by Elite. Their original release is a great example of an outstanding early DVD release. Not content with this Elite re-released a millennium edition recently, which is of a similar quality but has even more extras on a jam-packed disc.
For Phil Gardner's review of Anchor bay's 30th anniversary tragedy click here.
For Michael Brooke's review of the Elite Edition click here
For Mark Davis's review of the Elite Millenium edition click here
There's Always Vanilla (1971)
Unfortunately for this and the next two Romero films we enter the DVD wilderness. On the Millennium edition of Night of the Living Dead there are a few clips from this film and it is referred to as “lost”. However comments made on IMDB seem to indicate that the film is occasionally shown in the States and also that Romero has disowned the film! Given this information you would be forgiven for thinking that this is a turkey. However the opposite is true, as it seems to be well regarded by Romero fans.
The film explores a relationship between a young impressionable actress and a co-worker. Apparently this is very dated but also enjoyable with a lot of Romero's trademark direction style in evidence. As you can tell my entire knowledge of this film is garnered from online sources as I have never seen it but surely it is only a matter of time before Anchor Bay get hold of it?
The Crazies (1973)
Given the premise and regard for this film it is surprising that it has not been released on DVD yet. Romero's anti-militaristic stance gets it's first outing here as this film concerns itself with a biological weapon test gone wrong. The resulting fallout causes infected people to go… you've guessed it… crazy. The intervention of the military makes the situation worse and Romero's bleak outlook and downbeat style is here in spades. Whilst the film seems to lack cohesion it is certainly better than some of Romero's more recent output.
The only way to see this in the UK is to invest in the long out of print video from Redemption so let's hope that Anchor Bay, the saviour of the low budget horror, get hold of this one soon.
Season of the Witch (1973)
This is the last film in Romero's filmography that lacks a DVD release. The film is an understated tale of witchcraft and murder. A bored suburban housewife turns to witchcraft and the obvious mayhem ensues. Again several Romero trademarks are present here… his use of atmosphere and blurring of fantasy and reality to name but two. The fantasy/reality line is admittedly dealt with far more effectively in Romero's next film, Martin.
Again the only way to see this right now in the UK is to try and get hold of the out of print Redemption VHS release. It should be noted that at the moment no company is planning a DVD release of any of these films.
Is he or isn't he? That is the question posed in one of Romero's most intelligent movies, Martin. Whether Martin is a vampire or not is immaterial as the film is more about fantasy/reality issues and the loneliness of the outsider. The film is incredibly tense and Romero's work here is some of the best he has ever produced. Easily on a par with his zombie trilogy I suggest any fan of Romero's work should track this down ASAP.
Unfortunately the only DVD release of Martin is now out of print. However a quick trawl through Ebay shows that copies are still available for quite reasonable prices. The release itself is well worth having with a decent picture and sound plus a great group commentary.
For Mark Davis's review of the R1 Anchor Bay edition of Martin click here
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The second film in the “Dead” trilogy spawned a thousand gory zombie look-alikes. The intense gore and zombie action was so popular that many studios and independents decided to make their own versions. Indeed it could be argued that this film caused the creation of its own sub-genre in the late 70's. Ironically enough the instigator of the movement towards zombie films didn't actually belong to the sub-genre it created. Dawn of the Dead was far more intelligent and had far more to say to its audience than any of its imitators. Indeed sometimes I wonder if the copycats actually understood the film at all. As with the first film the zombies really play second fiddle to humans whose story is far more interesting. The zombies are simply a catalyst to drive the human-interest story forward. The shameless satirising of consumerist society is the obvious main thrust here but also the police and church are poked at gently. As a result it is not unusual for fans of the subsequent rip-offs to be left cold by this film… Maybe they should watch the European Argento cut which is far more action-orientated…
This film is also notorious for the sheer number of cuts and DVD releases. Unfortunately this also means that the definitive DVD release does not yet exist.
There are 3 main official cuts of the film as follows
US Theatrical Cut – This version is Romero's final cut that was released in the theatre's but unfortunately this version has only appeared on a barebones Anchor Bay release until now.
Director's Cut – This is nothing of the sort and is actually the first cut of the film that Romero took to Cannes… It was never his intended final version. This version is the one available in R2 on DVD. Please note that the UK R2 release is cut by 6 seconds.
European Argento Cut – As Dario Argento was heavily involved in the financing and scoring on the film he wanted to do his own cut of the film for the Italian market. The result is shorter, gorier and far more action orientated than either of the above. Unfortunately a lot of the social commentary is lost and the film ends up resembling many of its imitators. This cut is only available in foreign R2 releases.
Please note that there is a German edition of the film that runs a staggering 156-minutes (the DC is only 139)… This is actually a version of the film cobbled together from all the footage from all three cuts of the film. As you can imagine the result is bound to be an unadulterated mess. Fortunately this is only available on a German DVD release, which has no English language option. I notice that this is going for considerable sums on Ebay but don't be fooled as there is no way to watch the film unless you understand German.
For Michael Brooke's review of the Anchor Bay US theatrical cut click here
For Mark Davis's review of the Dutch Filmworks 2-disc SE containing the Director's cut and Argento cut click here
As I say the perfect release is not here yet but Anchor Bay are planning a 3-disc SE for Summer 2003 which will apparently have all three cuts of the film along with numerous extras.
After a fair break Romero returned with a 3-picture finance deal and his first effort was about as far removed from horror as you could get. A whole host of motorcycle stunts and an incredible number of mini-plots and stories fill out this film. The concept of Arthurian Knights aboard motorcycles in modern day America left many people cold (how would you even begin to market it!) but the film should not be overlooked as it is one the highpoints in Romero's career.
Unfortunately the only release of this film on DVD is now out of print. However another quick check of Ebay shows that it isn't that difficult to get hold of and won't cost you the earth. As with other minor Anchor Bay releases this is an unspectacular release with good picture and sound and a decent commentary
For Mark Davis's review of Knightriders click here.
It seems that Romero was determined not get stuck in a rut and after the brutal horror of Dawn and the offbeat Knightriders he returned with a comedy horror anthology. This effort teamed him up with Stephen King which fans thought was a match made in heaven. However the result was not the out and out horror you would expect. The film is a collection of horror short stories strung together with a vague thread. The real departure here is the tone of the pieces. Many critics slated this because of the overacting and shlocky OTT nature of the filming and direction. What they all failed to notice is that this was entirely intentional. Both Romero and King were fans of EC comics and this is where they drew their inspiration from
As soon as a major studio gets hold of a Romero film, alarm bells should start ringing. They never bother with special editions or even halfway decent releases; they normally just dump their back catalogue to disc without a second thought for the fans. This one isn't as bad as some as the picture and sound are fairly decent but the extras are non-existent and we just know they could've done better! Please note that the R2 Warner's release is identical to the R1 version (as far as I can tell).
For Mark Davis's R1 Review of Creepshow click here.
For Mark Eldridge's R1 review of Creepshow click here.
Day of the Dead (1985)
The “Dead” trilogy was finally completed in 1985 with a much-scaled down last chapter. Romero's original concept was far more wide reaching and apocalyptic in nature. Unfortunately the budget was seriously restricted and funding was scarce so a more small-scale concept had to be used. The end result harks back to the first entry in the trilogy with a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere. The old cliché of science versus the military is explored well here with Romero's bleak anti-militaristic attitude to the forefront. It must also be said that the gore factor is much higher than in any previous Romero film with some (literally) gut-wrenching moments. This film like many others in Romero's oeuvre is sadly underrated…
Similar to Dawn of the Dead there is no definitive release of this film yet although fortunately there is only one version of the film to worry about. The only releases available are incredibly similar R1 and R2 releases. They have very few extras and an average picture and sound. Please note that Anchor Bay US are planning a special edition release for Summer 2003 to go with their new Dawn of the Dead release.
For Michael Brooke's R0 review of Day of the Dead click here.
For Mark Davis's R2 review of Day of the Dead click here.
Monkey Shines (1988)
From here on in most people dismiss Romero's career as over… I think that his later work is much maligned and deserves far better treatment from his fans. This film is the perfect example of this. Dismissed on its release as so much monkey related hokum it is actually a pretty tense and atmospheric psychological horror piece. The menace that Romero manages to extract from such a cute monkey is quite phenomenal and whilst it still fails to convince you 100% there is enough there to suspend disbelief. The main thing this film has going for it is Romero's direction… whilst maybe not upto the heights of Martin the action is directed well and the film is well worth a second look.
Unfortunately this was one of Romero's rare studio films so the DVD release is fairly pitiful, as you'd expect. No extras and an average picture mar this release… People may have their problems with Anchor Bay but at least they try…
For Mark Davis's R1 Review of Monkey Shines click here.
Two Evil Eyes (1990)
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear… Romero's real low point lies here. Due to his friendship with Argento the two directors got together to each direct an Edgar Allen Poe tale for a double bill. Each piece lasts an hour and the difference between the two is almost embarrassing for Romero. The first half of his story “The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar” is so dreadfully dull I almost switched it off… Fortunately it picks up in the second half with a few of Romero's directional touches but for the most part I can't believe he was on set half the time! By way of contrast Argento's piece, whilst not perfect, is at least an atmospheric and strange little piece that keeps your attention. This is not Romero's finest hour.
So far this has only received a R2 release from Anchor Bay, which isn't that great to be honest. The picture is fairly awful whilst the sound is pretty decent… the extras are enjoyable if you are an Argento fan as there is a great hour long documentary on the man himself.
For Mark Davis's R2 review of Two Evil Eyes, click here.
The Dark Half (1993)
After working together so well on Creepshow fans were salivating at the thought of Romero directing King's novel, the Dark Half. The story of a writer and his murderous pen name was a fascinating one and gave Romero a great opportunity to explore the old fantasy/reality divide he loves so much. Unfortunately Romero was far too faithful to the novel and elements that wouldn't work visually were left in. The good news is that this is better than his segment in Two Evil Eyes and it at least looks like he directed this one.
Again being a studio film means that this gets very poor treatment on DVD. The R1 release is notoriously awful as it isn't even in the correct aspect ratio, 4:3 only there I'm afraid. The R2 release is in the correct ratio but it's still nothing to write home about. The picture is fairly murky and the extras are non-existent…
For Mark Davis's R2 review of The Dark Half, click here.
Due to lack of independent funding and his box office nightmares Romero did not make another film for 7 years…His work was restricted to directing a commercial for a video game during this barren period. He wasn't idle during this period of course, he was working on concepts and writing, although none of these projects saw the light of day.
However he finally returned with this little $5 million film that seemed to owe a lot to his previous masterpiece Martin. A man who is disregarded by his peers becomes “faceless” and so begins his descent into madness. The facelessness is interestingly portrayed literally with a blank white visage in place of his normal features. Whilst the film has a fairly interesting concept and is gripping in places it suffers from being too close to Martin in terms of themes and ideas. Romero even repeats the reality/fantasy blurring scenes where imagined atrocities are shown and then rescinded.
Overall this isn't as bad as everyone claims by any stretch of the imagination… it may not be a Romero classic but it is definitely worth searching out.
This last film is only available in R1 and gets a pretty decent release from Lion's Gate with an accomplished picture and sound. The extras are restricted to a Romero commentary but these are usually well worth a listen and this one is no exception.
For Mark Davis's R1 review of Bruiser, click here.
Other Works and Conclusion
So there we have it… well actually there is a little bit more that Romero did that needs to be mentioned, if only in brief…
Romero's friend Savini directed the remake of Night of the Living Dead, imaginatively titled Night of the Living Dead '90. The script was developed with Romero's input and the end result is surprisingly worthwhile as you'll see in Mark Davis's review of the R2 release here.
Romero also wrote a segment for Tales of the Darkside : The Movie (Cat from Hell segment)
He also wrote Creepshow 2 plus episodes of Tales of the Darkside TV series as well as directing some…
He has also flexed his acting muscles (however slightly) in Martin as well as cameos in Night, Dawn and Day of the Dead. He also has a cameo in Silence of the Lambs.
So in conclusion I think we can agree that even when Romero lost his way his films were always interesting. Let us all offer a silent prayer that his proposed fourth dead film, Dead Reckoning, gets off the ground and into theatres….