The counterculture film movement never had a better representation than that of writer/director George A. Romero. A self-described hippie who worked in industrial film and commercials in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania until his work on “Night of the Living Dead” began a zombie craze that is still seen in film and television today with work like “The Walking Dead” and “World War Z”, Romero was in fact so counterculture that he has spent an enormous amount of his career resisting studios who wanted him to make dumbed down, mainstream material, and struggling against audiences who were just looking for more of the same.
The story is fairly well-known at this point, that in the aftermath of the surprising midnight movie success of “Night of the Living Dead”, Romero attempted to rebrand himself as a director of more than just horror films with “There’s Always Vanilla”, an early 70’s drama about an aimless young man trying to find his place in life. The movie did poorly (it’s not even available on DVD), and Romero himself later said it was the worst film he’s ever made.
Unable to break away from the horror that made him a known commodity, but not wanting to give up on his goal of making socially conscious movies, Romero once again brought the two elements together in “Season of the Witch” (alternately known as “Jack’s Wife” and “Hungry Wives”), a film about bored housewives who start dabbling in witchcraft. He touched on the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, and the film did little for his career but a lot for his reputation as a horror auteur with something to say.
His next film, “The Crazies”, was born of the distrust that Americans found in the government in the midst of Nixon’s Watergate scandal and the resulting resignation. The film explored a small town coping with the military’s quarantine of their town after a designer virus is released into the population. This film, remade in the wake of 9-11, was ahead of its time and is still disturbing.
The general public believes that most of Romero’s career is made up of zombie films, with a few remakes, Stephen King films (“The Dark Half”) and anthology projects (“Tales From the Darkside” and “Creephsow”) mixed in there. But there are a few Romero films that stand apart from the Living Dead series, which haven’t been remade and which still have some interesting commentary worth looking at.
In typical Romero fashion, “Martin” does for vampires what “Night of the Living Dead” did for zombies and “Jack’s Wife” did for witches: it places it in a social context. Young Martin, living in an impoverished Pennsylvania town, imagines himself to be the reincarnation of asuave and lethal vampire, to the point that he attacks people with hypodermic needles full of drugs and feeding on their blood with the help of a razor. But the truth is much more mundane and tragic: Martin is a misunderstood and socially awkward young man whose sexual and social confusion has steered him to these horrifying activities.
Consider this to be, quite possibly, the only movie where an actual animal goes crazy and kills people, that can actually be taken seriously. When fitness nut Allan gets in an accident and ends up a quadriplegic, life is bad until he is given a helper animal: Ella the monkey, trained to anticipate his needs. But when Ella becomes dangerously attached to Allan and starts hurting the people in his life, Allan has to face the truth that Ella is simply acting on the dark impulses that are already inside him.
Reteaming with Italian horror maestro Dario Argento (with whom he worked on the classic zombie sequel “Dawn of the Dead”), Romero and Argento each directed a forty-minute film, based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, and combined them to make “Two Evil Eyes”. Romero’s tale was based on the story “The Facts In the Case of Mr. Valdemar”, and it starred Adrienne Barbeau in a tale of a cuckolded husband trapped between life and death, seeking revenge for his wife’s indiscretions. Though difficult to find and not an entirely successful film, it does boast an interesting performance from Harvey Keitel in the Argento section, and the size and style of these films seem likely to have led to series like “Fear Itself” and “Masters of Horror”, which Romero never worked on but Argento did.