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November 13, 2012

The Definitive Document of the Dead

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Roy Frumkes - 2012
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

My own relationship with George Romero's films began when Night of the Living Dead had been kicking around for three years. I saw the film while going to school in Berkeley, the summer of 1971. I didn't know too much about the film other than that it was low budget, and pushed the then acceptable boundaries of onscreen horror. And what I saw was scarier than any horror movie I had seen previously, although the biggest shock would be the death of Duane Jones after he survives all that happened that night.

Roy Frumkes' touches on aspects of Romero's career and the impact of the Dead movies, without being very analytical. I have to at least admire Frumkes' tenacity in starting with his original 1979 documentary on Romero, and following up with showing up at the set of several films over a period of about thirty years. What keeps this document from being definitive for me is that too many questions remained unanswered.

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Although it took several decades following the original release of Night of the Living Dead, the film can be considered the turning point from when zombies were minor threats of horror movie terrors, to fixtures of popular culture, a phenomena in need of some explanation here. Romero has made some films that were outside the horror genre, not mentioned, nor is it discussed to what extent Romero's continuing with the Dead franchise is purely commercial or artistic in motivation.

There are excerpts from Martin and Monkey Shines. Missing is any reference to one of Romero's most intriguing films, the little seen Bruiser or the very atypical Knightriders. From the original documentary is some discussion of the film that most influenced Romero, Howard Hawks' The Thing, which Romero would have seen when he was ten or eleven years old. We also get to see one of Romero's commercials, a thirty second spot for Calgon Water Conditioner that is also a parody of Fantastic Voyage and that film's microscopic submarine. There are also parodies of Romero, with a car audio ad for "Night of the Living Deals", and topless female zombies running amuck in Night of the Giving Head.

As much as I like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, appearances by Simon Pegg and Danny Boyle are wasted opportunities for the filmmakers to discuss what they've taken from Romero. And while Romero is generous in his praise for Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead, without mentioning the irony that the remake was Snyder's feature directorial debut, working with a budget almost twice that of Romero's most expensive film, Land of the Dead.

The original 1979 documentary offers the strongest portions of this revised look at Romero over the years. The only way to see that version is directly from Synapse Films, assuming there are any copies still available of the limited edition Blu-ray. No matter how much a filmmaker thinks he can improve things, movies are often like movie monsters, better when left in their original state of being.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 13, 2012 08:33 AM