Thursday, July 27, 2017

R.I.P. George A. Romero.

Horror film icon George A. Romero passed away on July 16, 2017, at the age of 77.

George Romero and Friends, from "Day of the Dead".
It’s hard to imagine what the horror subset of our popular culture would be like, without George Romero.  Especially so, given today’s omnipresence of ZOMBIES!  The ghastly, violent, flesh-eating kind, of course!  

In 1968, Romero loosed upon an unsuspecting world, his low-budget masterpiece “Night of the Living Dead”, and things were never the same again!   So low-budget was Romero’s horror flick, that it was filmed in black-and-white, almost unheard-of in 1968!  Yet, due to this, the film actually benefited from an unusually scary atmosphere, which I feel would have been more diffused had it been filmed in color. 

Before George Romero and “Night of the Living Dead”, zombies were considered scary, but were more-or-less simply “undead persons” carrying out various tasks while in the thrall of some sinister figure, or utilized as an unpaid and uncomplaining labor force.  

Examples included “White Zombie” (1932) starring Bela Lugosi, and “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943, below) directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, and produced at RKO by another horror icon Val Lewton.   

A further sub-genre were the “zombie horror/comedies” (“zom-coms”?) like “King of the Zombies” (1941) and “Revenge of the Zombies” (1943), both featuring Mantan Moreland as his character “Jeff”, who recurred over a series of films at the time.  Revenge of the Zombies” featured yet another horror icon, John Carradine as said “sinister figure”.  

Comic book legend Carl Barks even got into the act with a famous Donald Duck adventure “Voodoo Hoodoo” (1949), which he noted was inspired by the above-mentioned Lugosi film “White Zombie”, and where the “zombie” was more or less a mindless message-deliverer.

Special Delivery, Donald! 

But, George Romero changed all that “placidly mindless servitude” with his tale of vicious and relentlessly driven “Flesh-Eating Ghouls”, fashioning the zombie into the horrific creature we know and love today!  

And let's give Romero some serious props for casting black actor Duane Jones as the film's hero, "Ben"!  That, too, was "...almost unheard-of in 1968!"  Jones' casting serves as an important counterpoint to much of the imagery of earlier "zombie films".   

Forgive me, but I also have George Romero to eternally thank for this memorable image!  Hey, I'm only human... 

Romero eventually followed with also-very-good “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), where a band of survivors take refuge from the zombie plague in a MALL.  Neither Romero nor the rest of us could possibly foresee the unanticipated irony of MALLS themselves eventually becoming “zombies”.

Gore was so much simpler in Black and White, wasn't it? 

Over the years, a string of Romero “Dead” films followed with varying results.  But, perhaps more significant was George Romero’s influence on Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci, resulting in “Zombie” (1979), my second-most favorite “undead” film of all time… after “Night of the Living Dead”, of course!  Fulci would also become a favorite filmmaker of mine, as a master of horror and the unique type of Italian violent murder mystery known as the “Giallo”.   

Need I say that Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie”, great as it was, takes a back seat to George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” – which is my personal favorite horror movie of ALL TIME, ever since seeing it at a drive-in movie in the late 1960s as a kid, and again in the later 1970s, when I could “drive-in” myself! 

And, no list of things influenced by George Romero could possibly be complete without noting his direct effect on the extremely popular TV series THE WALKING DEAD , the comic book it was based upon, and its spinoff FEAR THE WALKING DEAD!  My Sunday nights just aren’t complete without them!  ...Or, a Sunday Night without Zombies is like a Day without Sunshine… or, “Sunset”, or whatever. 

At the “Thursday Night Horror and Sci-Fi Appreciation Society”, that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this Blog, we are asked to comment on and RATE the week’s featured film.  “Night of the Living Dead” was the first film presented to our group I rated as a TEN of TEN, and is the standard by which I have rated every other film since.  

My oft-repeated quote to the members is: “You can never see ‘Night of the Living Dead’ too many times!”

And, to digress just for the record, other “TENS” have included Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932), “King Kong” (1933), “Island of Lost Souls” (1932) with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi, “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) with Joel McCrea, Fay Wray and the amazing Leslie Banks, the previously-mentioned "Zombie" (1979), and two superb examples of the Giallo – “A Bay of Blood” (1971) directed by Mario Bava (…Described by me as “Scooby-Doo with murders”!) and “Tenebrae” (1982) directed by Dario Argento… to which I actually gave an impossible “TWELVE of TEN”!  Yes, it was THAT GOOD! 

Oh, and next week we're going to see Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960) - about which you can read my thoughts HERE.  I've already advance-rated that as a TEN!  [End of Digression] 

Finally, as my own very personal tribute to the work of the great George A. Romero, I submit that when I was assigned an Italian Mickey Mouse horror-adventure tale (to translate and to write an American English script for domestic publication) in which the CAPTION BOXES of comic books that Mickey and Goofy are in somehow achieve sentience and revolt en-masse against the penciled-and-inked servitude in which they’ve spent decades… do you know what I decided to call it? 


Rest in peace, George A. Romero… and thank you for all the flesh-eating zombies… er, “ghouls”, and for inspiring generations of filmmakers and writers… including, even me!  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

R.I.P. Martin Landau.

We mourn the passing of the great actor Martin Landau on July 15, 2017, at the age of 89.  

Landau was simply EVERYWHERE, and pretty much did EVERYTHING... and did it so well!  

There's no way I could cover such a career in a mere Blog post, so I'll focus on (only a portion of) the things that meant the most to me!  

Mission Impossible (1966-1973). 

Space 1999 (1975-1977). 

And, I'll reserve the remainder of this post for some lesser-known personal favorites...

The Outer Limits: "The Man Who Was Never Born" (Aired: October 28, 1963).  

Landau and The Outer Limits presage the entire "Terminator" franchise, with this tale of hideously-mutated future Earth-man "Andro", who seizes the opportunity to travel back to then-contemporary 1960s Earth, to prevent the birth of scientist "Bertram Cabot, Jr." who will inadvertently unleash a virulent plague to decimate civilization.  

As Andro, Landau must maintain a hypnotically-induced "normal" appearance to mask his true form, resulting in Martin Landau appearing alternately as "himself" and as the monstrous mutant. 

This is one of the true classic episodes of The Outer Limits!  

Later that season for The Outer Limits, Landau also appeared in "The Bellero Shield" (February 10, 1964), a 1960s sci-fi based version of "Macbeth" (if you can believe that)!

Though Martin Landau and co-stars Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon on the 1966 BATMAN TV series), and Chita Rivera turn in very solid and enjoyable performances, this episode is completely stolen by Sally Kellerman as the "Lady Macbeth character"... and has a rather disturbing ending. 

Both are must-see for Landau and sci-fi fans!  

Martin Landau also appeared in a whole-lotta westerns, but what follows may have been the most unusual.  

Wanted Dead or Alive: "The Monster" (Aired: January 16, 1960).

Once one excludes THE WILD WILD WEST (where almost ANYTHING was possible) from consideration, I just couldn't imagine, let alone resist, a TV western with a title of "The Monster"... much less one starring Steve McQueen and Martin Landau, so this was a natural for me!  ...And it did not disappoint!  
Landau AND Steve McQueen were both members of The Actors Studio!
Steve McQueen's bounty hunter "Josh Randall" encounters "Count Khorba" (Landau) -- a criminal circus elephant trainer who, with his great beast, terrorizes and kills miners for their gold.  
Look!  It's Landau on the poster! 

Um, would it REALLY be a spoiler to reveal that, in the end, Landau gets trampled by his own elephant, scared by gunfire?  If so, my apologies

Ya gotta admit, you don't see this sorta thing too often in westerns!  

Martin Landau was also under consideration for the role of Mr. Spock in STAR TREK, the role made historically-famous by Leonard Nimoy.   I must admit, Landau would have made an interesting choice for a Vulcan.  

Oddly, when Landau left MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, it was Leonard Nimoy (as "Paris") who became the series' "master of disguise", replacing Landau's "Rollin Hand" in that capacity! 

Before leaving, check out THIS POST on GET SMART for just one more amazing cameo by Martin Landau! 

Mr. Landau's full set of IMDB credits can be accessed HERE! 

Rest in Peace, Martin Landau, and thank you for so many great moments, great characters, and great performances!