An Autopsy of the Dead Films, Part 1

Next week marks the home video release of George A. Romero’s latest zombie flick, Survival of the Dead (2009), a film that for some critics signals a nadir in the horror director’s career.

I still think Romero’s best film is Knightriders (1981), largely because it’s a drama about a tightly knitted social group whose entire make believe world of living in the past is slowly disintegrating.

The Renaissance troupe are constantly fighting off aggressive contemporary folks (who also happen to be the paying patrons that keep the itinerants alive), as well certain levels of modern technology that can poison their chosen lifestyle. The troupe has a moral code that stabilizes their world, but it also breeds primal jealousy and infighting.

Although it co-stars Tom Savini (who’s really very good in a straight role), Knightriders has no gore or zombies because it’s a drama, and it shows Romero can create quiet social commentary unfettered by the walking dead clichés that he’s chosen to work with in recent years, although it’s perhaps fair to say that this film is very much a product of the seventies, albeit made maybe 5 years too late, after its target audience had aged, ascended within the evil corporate structure, and made down payments on BMWs.

The local arms of the law in Knightriders aren’t very friendly, and the troupe just want to live peacefully by their own code, and rise according to their own social hierarchy. They’re fringe folks, but there’s no harm in their madness to live 70% in an electrified, gas-fueled Middle Age.

Knightriders is representative of a benevolent social order that struggles and ultimately thrives – something absent in Romero’s gloomy horror films – and one wonders if the troupe represents the ideal society for its director, because in his zombie films, he tend to fixate on fascist element that eventually upset a few folks trying to maintain an idyllic life within a world gone mad.

You see it (in varying levels) in the first three zombie films – Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) - as well as in The Crazies (1973), which is why those films have been targeted for remakes in the last few years; what’s striking is how those remakes – Tome Savini’s version of NOTLD (1990), Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004), and Breck Eisner’s The Crazies (2010) – actually work when transposed to the present day.

However, when the aim is on a cash-in - the ineptly doodled, straight-to-video garbage Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (2005) - or a gimmicky, low-rent knock-off – Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006) – it just fails miserably.

If Romero is making use of the few funds he’s getting from the upscale remakes, perhaps under the influence of tunnelvision, he’s chosen to work exclusively in the zombie arena, and that infers he either feels there’s more social critique to be wrought from his walking dead caricatures, or he’s lost any interest in expanding his own creative boundaries.

Perhaps it’s a tangent that has to run its course, but Land of the Dead (2005) was a dud, Diary of the Dead (2007) failed to ignite his brand of zombie horror for the digital generation, and the poorly received Survival of the Dead (2009) is poised for a home video release this coming Tuesday.

Before revisiting the last three Dead efforts, let’s start with an autopsy, or more precisely, some of the documentary materials out there that cover the history of the first film from 1968.

Romero & Co. have been interviewed to death about ‘Why NOTLD is a classic,’ but there are two docs out there worth tracking down for less canned examinations of the film’s genesis, production, and impact.

The most recent effort is Autopsy of the Dead (2009), from filmmakers Jeff Carney and Jim Cirronella, who present an alternative angle to the film’s production in Pittsburg and Evans City.

The pair sought out many of the locals whose one-time involvement with the magic of the movies was Romero’s zombie film, and the result is a doc that brings out voices from the margins, and fills in some of the missing perspectives; it’s very much a film made by fans for NOTLD’s ardent fans.

The doc runs a length 144 mins. – a bit heavy in one sitting – but doable if you break it up in its two natural halves: straight Q&As with bit players, technicians and locals, and in the second half, chronological recollections of filming at the farmhouse, where the posse routed out the walking dead with shotguns and fire.

Included among the extras are montages of the original locations, vintage publicity materials, a rare 1967 newsreel that provides behind-the-scenes footage of the posse hunt sequence, and an interview with Rick Catizone of The Animators, who designed the film’s still montages and end credits.

Autopsy is also an unofficial companion piece to the first NOTLD doc, Night of the Living Dead: 25th Anniversary Documentary (1993) by Thomas Brown. Released long ago on VHS, the doc marked the first time Romero, writer John Russo, and fellow co-producers Russell Streiner, and Karl Hardman were interviewed together in a lively and democratic roundtable discussion of the film – a kind of pre-DVD audio commentary session.

Hardman and wife Marilyn Eastman also discuss the make-up, as well as the stock music used by Romero, drawn from the Capitol Hi-Q library – music that was finally released on a superb CD this year by Jim Cirronella.

I’ve uploaded reviews of the two docs, and will have interviews with Jeff Carney and Jim Cirronella shortly, covering the genesis and production of Autopsy of the Dead. That’ll be followed by a review of the NOTLD CD at Rue Morgue’s blog site, plus an interview with Cirronella on the challenges of releasing music from a little-known stock music library.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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