Stephen King on the ”Dead” quartet
How long has George Romero been fashioning his living dead epic, which concludes this summer with the long-awaited (if you like zombies, that is; fans of the Olsen twins have probably not been counting the days) Land of the Dead? Well, let’s put it this way: Night of the Living Dead — maybe the most important horror flick of the last 50 years — showed up in theaters nine years before George Lucas introduced the world to Luke Skywalker.
Star Wars is the epic that’s generated most of the media hype this year, and for a reason we all understand — money doesn’t just talk in our society, it shouts — but Romero has run a longer course, under more difficult circumstances. Are the Dead movies more difficult to watch than Lucas’ extended space opera? Yes. Are their conclusions bleaker? By far. Yet in the end there’s more resonance in the Romero films, as problematic as they sometimes are.
Here’s another question: Am I qualified to make such a judgment? It just so happens that I am. After the release of Night of the Living Dead (1968) but before the advent of Star Wars (1977), I began writing about a fellow named Roland Deschain, a gunslinger man out of the mythical kingdom of Gilead. Although the first book (The Gunslinger) in the seven-novel Dark Tower series wasn’t published until after the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Dawn of the Dead in its original incarnation, it was written shortly after I graduated college. By the time I finally finished the series in 2003, I was a grandfather three times over. My Dark Tower characters changed over that arc of 33 years, but not as much as I did. The two Georges — Lucas and Romero — would probably say the same.
The imaginative job of keeping an ambitious piece of work rolling not just over years but decades is immense. Self-doubt is part of any creative effort, but at least you get a break from it if you’re working on a single novel or movie; when you’re slowly building a series, self-doubt settles in as a houseguest and greets you every morning in its robe and slippers. After a while it even starts making the coffee. ”Hey, how ya doin’?” it asks. ”How you gonna screw up today? And oh, by the way, you’ve been doing this five years now — want to go for 10?”
For a writer, at least the financial cost of doing business isn’t too high; it still mostly comes down to a computer and several stacks of paper…plus a big wastebasket, of course. Not to belabor the obvious, but it’s different for filmmakers. The budget for Land of the Dead is something under $20 million. That puts it at roughly 17 percent of the budget for Revenge of the Sith. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that while George Lucas has been planning and executing the Star Wars films (and creating such characters as the unforgettable Jar Jar Binks) in the comfort of his Industrial Light & Magic studios, that other George has been camped out in filmdom’s equivalent of a Red Roof Inn. And probably a few real ones. Romero, the quintessential film outlaw (with whom I’ve ridden on a couple of projects, including Creepshow), has never made a movie in Hollywood.
The living dead will return, of course — they can pay off handsomely, even if Land scored a mere $10.2 million for its opening weekend box office — but ”the stenches” (as Land‘s living characters call them) have probably crept their last under Romero’s direction. In 1968 they besieged a Pennsylvania farmhouse in grainy black and white (Night); in 1978 they first surrounded and then invaded a shopping mall (Dawn); in 1985 they underwent scientific study before dining on the researchers (Day of the Dead). This time, led by a genius (for a zombie, he’s a genius) who used to be a gas jockey, they break into the walled city of Fiddler’s Green, ending the rule of America’s first zombie-era feudal overlord (Dennis Hopper, doing his best human reptile impersonation).
That Land should turn out to be such a dark-toned movie says something about the genre itself: Unless it’s in the hands of complete morons (as it often is), the result is usually more interesting than, say, the lame laughs of The Longest Yard. The entire Dead quartet, in fact, illustrates that it’s still possible to color outside the lines in the world of film if you care enough. George Romero made these movies with no major stars, no consistent studio backing, and amid ongoing battles for just enough budget so the picture could be made if every dollar spent did the work of two. Yet in spite of the strangled budgets (maybe even because of them), there are strangely beautiful images in Land of the Dead. I’m thinking of one in particular, where thousands of zombie heads rise from the moon-drenched river surrounding Dennis Hopper’s citadel city.
What I admire most is that this phase of the series is ending almost 40 years later with Romero’s original creative vision intact. In each succeeding film the arena is larger, but the grim bottom line is the same: not dog-eat-dog, but man-eat-man. Jedi Knights notwithstanding, this may be the only true other world you’ll have an opportunity to visit between now and Labor Day. The zombies are coming, and in the world of George Romero, there is no wise old Yoda to set things right.
I think somebody ate him.