Over the course of the American Zombie weekend, a half-dozen films helmed by George Romero will be shown at area venues. For showtimes and screening sites, go to www.zombiestakecharlotte.com.
Night of the Living Dead (1968). Romero's first film out of the gate not only redefined the zombie field but also served as the opening shot in a decade-long siege of gritty, low-budget horror flicks that often chose rural America as their setting (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, etc.). Here's one of those happy examples when limited resources actually enhance the final product, as the ultra-low-budget -- evidenced by natural settings, black-and-white film stock, and a shooting style that frequently borrows from the documentary playbook -- is largely responsible for turning this into one of the classic horror films of all time. This gripping yarn about a small band of humans protecting themselves from the zombie hordes has enjoyed quite the journey, going from drive-in fodder to cult classic to critical darling to permanent enshrinement in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry (as part of the 1999 class that also included Raiders of the Lost Ark, Roman Holiday and A Streetcar Named Desire -- how's that for distinguished company?). ***1/2
Season of the Witch (1972). This first made the rounds under the titles Jack's Wife and Hungry Wives, and either is a better representation of the film's content than Season of the Witch. The witchcraft angle is such a supporting ingredient in the overall story that it quickly takes a back seat to the numerous other themes on display. In short, those expecting a horror film (and, given the director, who wouldn't?) will be sorely disappointed. But those seeking something unusual will likely be fascinated by this time-capsule piece about a bored housewife (Jan White) who feels exceedingly unfulfilled as she grows older. Female empowerment, sexual repression (bookended with sexual fantasy), stifling chauvinism, generation-gap conflicts, MILF encounters, faddish pursuits, post-'60s paranoia -- this film's got a full plate, although its impact is seriously undermined by some amateurish performances and an erratic pace. And yes, the soundtrack includes Donovan's "Season of the Witch." **1/2
The Crazies (1973). Re-released as Code Name: Trixie, The Crazies feels like a cross between Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain and Romero's own Night of the Living Dead, with plenty of the auteur's sociopolitical observations to juice the proceedings. After a government-sanctioned virus is accidentally unleashed on a small Pennsylvania town and turns many of its inhabitants insane, the military arrives to quarantine the area and contain the threat. But it soon becomes clear that, to the unaffected humans, the incompetent, trigger-happy soldiers are as hazardous to their health as their crazed neighbors. While far from Romero's best, The Crazies is in one way his most frightening film. Being afraid of zombies is natural, but being afraid of our own government is obscene. Yet that was the case during the film's original release -- the era of Vietnam and Tricky Dick -- and, after eight years of abhorrent Bush-Cheney shenanigans, that's the case today, lending the film an uneasy topicality. **1/2
Martin (1977). This cult item is considered by some critics to be Romero's best film, and while I'm not among them, the picture admittedly does receive the highest seal of approval imaginable: Romero himself has reportedly stated that it's his favorite of his own output. Martin is among the more unique vampire movies in that it's never established whether its central character is indeed a vampire or just a guy who thinks he's one. As played by baby-faced John Amplas, Martin -- who's not afraid of garlic, crosses or the sun -- employs a syringe to inject his female victims with a serum that renders them immobile, before sexually assaulting them (a practice not shared by the vast majority of cinematic vampires) and then using a razor blade to slice open their wrists and drink their blood. Martin's elderly relative (Lincoln Maazel) is convinced the young man is a real vampire, but audience members are left to decide for themselves. Martin is a deeply disturbing film, with Romero displaying many interesting directorial touches. ***
Dawn of the Dead (1978). The second film in Romero's zombie saga (three more followed, with the sixth currently in production) is considered in countless quarters to be the director's masterpiece; certainly, it ranks right alongside the original Night of the Living Dead. Whereas its predecessor was in black-and-white, this one's in color, thus allowing ace makeup artist Tom Savini the chance to offer gruesome gore galore. Yet even beyond the entrails, we can see Romero again serving up potent societal commentary. As mindless, shuffling zombies lumber down the corridors of an expansive mall (which is where our heroes have chosen to board up), it's obvious that Romero is wittily railing against American conformity and consumerism. Bonus points for having the best tagline of any Romero flick: "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth." ***1/2
Diary of the Dead (2007). Romero's most recent endeavor finds him meeting not just the new youth culture that has overtaken the entertainment industry but also the new technology used to relate its tales. The cast skews far younger than in any of the previous Dead flicks, as several college students (with one professor tagging along to rep the older generation) are interrupted in their filming of a mummy movie with reports that the world around them has gone haywire. Using the technology they have at their disposal (including digital cameras and the Internet), the group decides it must record for posterity the zombie plague that has seized the nation -- a noble idea, although Romero's script is quick to also criticize their (and, by extension, modern America's) obsessions with voyeurism, sensationalism and self-adoration. This actually was made and released before the similar Cloverfield. ***