“Five tales of terror are presented. The first deals with a demented old man returning from the grave to get the Father’s Day cake his murdering daughter never gave him. The second is about a not-too-bright farmer discovering a meteor that turns everything into plant-life. The third is about a vengeful husband burying his wife and her lover up to their necks on the beach. The fourth is about a creature that resides in a crate under the steps of a college. The final story is about an ultra-rich businessman who gets his comeuppance from cockroaches.” (courtesy IMDB)
Would you believe the creator of some of the most visceral horror films in history got his start directing segments for Mister Rogers Neighbourhood? I’ll explain. After graduating in 1960, George Romero began his career making commercials and short films, including Mister Rogers tonsillectomy. Understandably, this inspired George to go into the horror movie business. He formed Image Ten Productions in the late sixties and produced Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George and co-written by John Russo, the film became a cult classic and a defining moment for modern horror cinema.
Fresh from the intense graphic horror of Night Of The Living Dead, George went on to make the comedies There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Hungry Wives (1972), both of which did so well that it’s probably the first time you’ve ever heard of them. So he returned to the horror genre with The Crazies (1973), the quasi-vampire film Martin (1977), Monkey Shines (1988), The Dark Half (1993), and Bruiser (2000), but what he’s really known for is the sequels to Night Of The Living Dead: Dawn Of The Dead (1978), Day Of The Dead (1985), Land Of The Dead (2005) and Diary Of The Dead (2007).
Sometime between Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead, George began his longtime partnership with prolific author Stephen King. Mister King is a scribe of course, not an actor, but is blessed with the singular talent of portraying an obnoxious redneck convincingly (probably because he’s had the misfortune to meet so many during his career), and George put Mister King to work in his next two films: Knightriders (1981), a festival favourite about a group of modern-day jousters who reenact tournaments on motorcycles starring Ed Harris and Tom Savini, and the commercially successful Creepshow (1982), written by Mister King himself, an anthology of tongue-in-cheek tales modeled after fifties pre-code horror comics.
Creepshow is a little overlong at two hours and five episodes, none of which are truly exceptional, but all are entertaining. All are laced with devilish tongue-in-cheek humour, and four of the five stories deal with cruel people who get their horrific just desserts. In the other story, The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill, Mister King plays an isolated hick whose land, house and then his body becomes covered by an alien green fungus after a meteor crashes down on his property. Surely Jordy doesn’t deserve such a sad fate.
It’s hardly fair of me to criticise Creepshow, a conscious homage, for being rather like a crude comic itself. One can conclude, however, that either George and Mister King nostalgically inflated the artistic virtues of their horror-comic origins, or else the imitation – with its broad cartoonist’s strokes and its careful telegraphing of the scary bits – doesn’t quite work. The two final stories, whose grossness is restrained and better for it, save the film.
The Crate is the scariest episode, and involves the discovery of a crate that contains a splendidly voracious and ill-tempered creature in the basement of a university. Starring Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver, and John Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau in a wonderfully observed portrayal of an alcoholic faculty wife, making Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966) look like an amateur. They’re Creeping Up On You is the most gruesome segment, in which E.G. Marshall plays an unpleasant millionaire businessman who lives in a squeaky-clean stainless white apartment, fanatically killing bugs as they appear. But on this particular night his apartment is invaded by millions of cockroaches, surely the manifestation of his vile and squalid personality.
The other stories serve as an appetiser to the main course and are rather ordinary revenge tales by comparison: Father’s Day starring John Amplas and future four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, and Something To Tide You Over starring Leslie Nielsen and Ted Danson but, if it wasn’t for the excellent production values, both stories would not be out of place amongst episodes of George’s less-than-special anthology television series Tales From The Darkside. Speaking of production values, the delightful design by Cletus Anderson, the masterful makeup by by Tom Savini, and the illuminating illustrations by Jack Kamen, together succeed in giving Creepshow its classic EC Comics flavour.
Which brings me to my thankless role as the nameless Crypt-Keeper character seen all over the posters but only momentarily in the film. I was lucky enough to make George’s acquaintance in 1982 while on the set of Creepshow and had the opportunity to ask him what the real turning point in his career was. “The original Night Of The Living Dead is why I’m here, why I have a career,” he told me. “I have a fond spot in my heart for it despite the rough road we’ve been over, despite rip-offs and everything else. How can I feel anything but grateful? It brought me a tremendous amount of attention, and it’s really why I’m alive. Now I’d like nothing better than to sit back and smile and see three or four more sequels be made and all of us collect a few bucks. I don’t want it to sound like it’s all altruistic – we’re all trying to make a couple of dollars!” George and twenty-seven other people put up about US$125,000 for Night Of The Living Dead. “No-one gets rich when there are twenty-eight people sharing,”
At his best, George Romero is an enormously vigorous and original filmmaker, but all too often he lapses into self-indulgent fun, and his conscious bad taste gives him the appearance of a down-market blue-collar Pittsburgh Monty Python. It’s with that thought in mind I’ll quickly thank the Washington Post and Video Magazine for assisting me in my research for this article, and graciously invite you to please join me again next week when I have another opportunity to make your stomach turn and your flesh crawl with another lusting, slashing, ripping flesh-hungry, blood-mad massacre from the back side of…Horror News! Toodles!