Monkey Shines (1988)
Like many of the films that Romero directed in the 1980s, Monkey Shines illustrates how the filmmaker’s earnestness can be at odds with the traditionally relentless mechanics of a thriller. Romero spends over an hour of running time setting up his narrative, in which a recently paralyzed quadriplegic, Alan (Jason Beghe), befriends an experimental servant monkey, Ella, who comes to terrorize him. Yet Romero’s slow-burn pacing renders the horror scenes truly strange and intrusive, as one grows to enjoy Alan relationship with his cute companion. Monkey Shines offers a more successful variation on the Jekyll-and-Hyde duality that drives The Dark Half. The difference between the films ultimately rests on their respective senses of escalation: The Dark Half sputters in circles, while Monkey Shines builds to a climax that’s eerily ridiculous and savage.
Survival of the Dead (2009)
Romero’s final film underlines a similarity between his ongoing zombie series and the western genre: Both usually concern land disputes, in which corrupt white men use governmental pretenses to seize swathes of territory and enslave the populace. Imagining a feud between a military outfit and two Irish families on a small Delaware island, Romero allows the zombies to symbolically speak for themselves, with the sociopolitical civics lessons arising more or less naturally. Survival of the Dead is funny, charming, and confident in its embrace of western-horror tropes, with one of the most charismatic casts to appear in a Romero film in ages. It’s the work of an elder statesman who’s made peace with his legacy, fashioning compositions of tender and unfussy lucidity.
Land of the Dead (2005)
Like Day of the Dead before it, Land of the Dead is preoccupied with theme, at the expense of a plot that barely moves or matters. But said theme is good, utilizing zombies as metaphors for the lower class that insidiously bolsters the comfort of first-world life, which is embodied here by a Manhattan-esque neighborhood that’s presided over by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), a corrupt businessman in a red tie and ludicrous comb-over. Casting a countercultural legend as a parody of you-know-who is admirably perverse, indicting the discarded efforts of the Baby Boomers to revolutionize America. But Hopper is sedate in the role, and so the satirical idea is unfulfilled. The film derives its energy from tangential flourishes, such as a booth that invites one to take their picture with a zombie, or the undead ragtime band that’s visible near the beginning of the film; these sorts of poetic vignettes are the foundation of Romero’s artistic vitality. Land of the Dead lacks the sleazy punk ferocity of Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, but the images are often classically and poignantly beautiful, such as a shot of the dead rising out of a river, literally obliterating a border barring them from the lair of the privileged.
Day of the Dead (1985)
As usual with Romero’s zombie films, there’s plenty of thematic meat to chew in Day of the Dead. Trapped in an antiquated WWII bunker, a group of military and scientific professionals attempt to survive the rise of the undead in two familiar fashions: with reactionary force and intellectualism, respectively. A horror legend with unimpeachable liberal credentials, Romero favors the intellectuals, though one of them, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), is also crazy, betraying the barbarous military to use the corpses of slain soldiers for experiments. Which is to say that Logan is a resonant right-wing nightmare of the intellectual who’ll sell his country out for knowledge that might not even matter, yet Day of the Dead is more stimulating to discuss than to watch. After a promising opening, which features a few of Romero’s most graphic and iconic images, the film goes to sleep. The characters are caricatures, which is a stark departure from the fascinating humans of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and so one’s inspired to impatiently await for the carnage to arrive.
One of Romero’s most purely enjoyable films is also one of the great comic-book movies, approximating the tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. Romero directed from Stephen King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a sturdy framework for the lively performances of a game cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the eerie climax of a story in which one can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
Season of the Witch (1973)
More accomplished than the thematically similar There’s Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch mines Bergman and Buñuel terrain with a surreal story of a wife, Joan (Jan White), who’s growing to resent the hypocrisy of her suburban world. An equal-opportunity critic, Romero compares the macho entitlement of Joan’s conformist husband with the egotism of the counterculture, which uses its own shtick to serve a different kind of patriarchal supremacy. Witchcraft is likened to a third social option for Joan, perhaps suggesting a supernatural Green Party, but Romero doesn’t even grant her this reprieve. A visual rhyme—between a leash in Joan’s nightmare and a rope tied around her neck during her induction into a coven—suggests that she’s destined to trade one social trap for another. Self-entrapment is human nature as well as an obsession of Romero’s, which would reach its ultimate expression in Dawn of the Dead.