Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Creepshow, Maniac
Reviewed by Jerry Renshaw, Fri., March 24, 2000
("Video Reviews" wishes to thank Encore Movies & Music, I Luv Video, Vulcan Video, and Waterloo Video for their help in providing videos, laser discs, and DVDs.)
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEADD: Tom Savini (1990); with Patricia Tallman, Tony Todd, Tom Towles, McKee Anderson.
DAWN OF THE DEADD: George Romero (1978); with Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott Reiniger, Richard France.
DAY OF THE DEADD: George Romero (1985); with Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato, Howard Sherman, John Amplas, Richard Liberty.
CREEPSHOWD: George Romero (1982); with Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, EG Marshall, Ted Danson.
MANIACD: William Lustig (1980); with Caroline Munro, Joe Spinell, Kelly Piper, Tom Savini.
Director George Romero's 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, oft-imitated, oft-ripped-off, recouped its shoestring budget hundreds of times over and soon established itself as one of the most influential horror movies of all time. It took considerable huevos for Tom Savini to pull off a remake of NOTLD. A legendary horror make-up/effects stylist, Savini had worked with director Romero on most of his movies. Yet many horror fans (the ones who saw the original on its week-or-so theatrical run) considered his version a sacrilege, akin to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Some 10 years later, Savini's remake holds up on its own merits. Rather than going for a shot-for-shot remake of the original, Savini chose to tweak some of the characters a bit. Barbara (Tallman), rather than becoming a catatonic veg and lying on the couch through most of the film, assumes a feminist bent and turns into a gun-toting heroine, while Ben (Todd) takes a backseat to her authority. Cooper (Towles) is even more obnoxious than in the original, getting his due from the other characters by the film's end. Savini chose to shoot the remake in color, adding an appropriately putrid green to the zombies and throwing in the expected gruesome FX. Sure, it's not the original NOTLD, but who expected it to be? The only real failings of the remake are in the bug-eyed performances (eliminating much of the original's nuance) and the extremely dated soundtrack. Too bad some horror fans could never accept it.
Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead is still a definitive horror film. Since the first film, the zombies have multiplied apace and follow their long-ingrained shopping instincts to a Pittsburgh mall. There, a small clutch of humans have holed up, complete with guns, ammo, food, liquor, and all the necessities for fending off hordes of the undead. The second in Romero's Living Dead trilogy is rich with satirical pokes at consumer culture. Much of the time it plays like a black comedy, with montages of our heroes stocking up on goods from the various stores and living the good life until the goons sniff them out and lay siege to their little slice of suburban paradise. As if things weren't bad enough with smelly zombies shambling around, a pack of marauding bikers invade the mall and try to usurp the heroes from their redoubt (sharp-eyed viewers will spot a mustachioed Tom Savini as one of the scooter trash boys). I saw this movie at the time of its release at a drive-in and can't count the number of times I've seen it since. Even after 20 years it still holds up nicely.
The third installment of Romero's Living Dead trilogy is considerably more depressing and somber in its tone. 1985's Day of the Dead finds the game just about up for the human race, with humans outnumbered some 400,000-to-one by the zomboids. Most of the action takes place at the bottom of a missile silo, as a squad of gung-ho military types try to figure out how to prevail over the zombies and eliminate them. The other half of the contingent are researchers trying to get a grip on zombie behavior and discover how to make them act more like human beings. Romero put a great deal of pathos into his zombies in the first two films and invests them with even more human traits in this third film. A mad-doctor type (Liberty) works in a lab coat striped and splashed with blood as he conditions a zombie named Bub (Sherman) to listen to a Sony Walkman and read a novel, among other things. Cardille (daughter of Pittsburgh TV host "Chilly Billy" Cardille, the reporter from the original Night of the Living Dead) is about the only character with any sanity, as she tries to step in between the scientists and Army types. Romero's budgetary restraints made for a rather talky and claustrophobic movie, filled with thoroughly unlikable characters and a clammy sense of hopelessness. The last 30 or so minutes do provide a payoff for hardcore gorehounds, however, with Savini's trademark special effects getting a good workout.
Written by Stephen King and directed by Romero, 1982's Creepshow is a direct return to the style of 1950s horror comics, an exercise in camp as much as horror. An old man returns from the grave to lay claim to a Father's Day cake that his evil daughter never gave to him. A dim-witted farmer discovers a meteor that turns everything into plant life. A cuckolded husband takes his revenge by burying his wife and her lover up to their necks on the beach. A mysterious but nasty creature grovels in a crate under the steps of a college hall. A rich and avaricious businessman is visited by cockroaches -- many cockroaches. Bringing in plenty of name talent, the anthology-style film is more fun than scary, making it a surefire favorite for cable TV for years to come.
Few horror films have been more reviled and condemned by horror fans than 1980's Maniac. Joe Spinell (recognizable as the cab-stand dispatcher in Taxi Driver) plays Frank Zito, the titular maniac who brutally slays women, collects their scalps, and puts them on mannequins in his filthy ghetto apartment. Somehow he strikes up a friendship with gorgeous photographer Anna (horror stalwart Munro), and seems to somehow be moving toward a normal relationship with another human being until his psychoses take over and she becomes another of his victims. Filled with gruesome images and nightmarish set pieces, Maniac is set in the trash-strewn streets of inner-city New York as well as Zito's squalid apartment, complete with dirty dishes and soiled wallpaper. Savini appears as Disco Boy, with his head exploded by a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun in a spectacularly gooey stunt. It's Spinell's nerve-racking performance as the overweight, greasy, pathetic Zito that brings the movie home, though, with elements of Travis Bickle, David Berkowitz, and Jeffrey Dahmer in his character. The script's probings into the roots of his psychosis are a bit shallow, but Spinell was a criminally underrated actor (he died in 1989) and carried much of the movie on his back. Be warned, though: This is a disturbing and disgusting picture, and is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Even 20 years later, it still leaves a viewer feeling violated and dirty.
Tom Savini will appear Saturday, March 25, 9:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 409 Colorado. Tickets are $20 and available in advance by calling 476-1320. See Screens section for related feature.