This long-lost film from the legendary George A. Romero is an awkward, clumsily-assembled metaphor with a glaring lack of subtlety.
And armed with the proper context, you should probably see it anyway.
In 1973, Romero was far from a legend. He had lost the copyright to Night of the Living Dead, and he was a nearly broke filmmaker that needed work. So he was more than happy to accept a commission from right in his own hometown. Pittsburgh-based Lutheran Services wanted a film to explore societal discrimination of the elderly, and turned to the local boy who’d hit it big a few years back.
But they weren’t at all interested in the Twilight Zone treatment that Romero and first time (only time) screenwriter Wally Cook gave the subject, so they passed. Each party put the film behind them, and it sat unreleased for nearly fifty years.
The 52-minute feature stars Lincoln Maazel (who would co-star in Romero’s classic Martin four years later) as an affable, white-suited man who greets a beaten down and disheveled version of himself in an empty waiting room. The out-of-breath Maazel advises the energetic one not to go outside.
“There’s nothing out there. You won’t like it!”
The warnings go unheeded, and the nattily-clad Maazel begins his day at the amusement park, where he is subjected to nothing but torment, ridicule and abuse.
Some of the vignettes are rooted in solid ideas. The grim reaper wandering the park and riding coasters is a striking juxtaposition, and a fortune teller’s unpleasant premonition for a couple of young lovers manages to deliver confrontational cynicism with a somewhat lighter touch.
The elderly gentleman’s metaphorical trip through the carnival of agism is flanked by footage of Maazel, as himself, explaining what we are about to see, and later, what we have seen. No doubt someone thought a late-addition prologue/epilogue would help an audience make sense of the narrative’s structureless string of abuses, but the Serling-on-steroids material is so lengthy and so at odds with the otherwise experimental nature of the core content that it only serves to make the entire film even less enjoyable.
For completists, The Amusement Park is available in select theaters and on Shudder, and merits consideration. For anyone thrilled by the idea of George A. Romero siccing amusement park horror on unsuspecting old people, be warned: you will be sorely disappointed.
So many vampires – so many! And then there are all these other guys who may or may not be. Sometimes it’s hard to say. Sure they drink blood, but do they really need to? Let’s explore.
5. Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
Sure, Nicolas Cage is a whore, a has-been, and his wigs embarrass us all. But back before The Rock (the film that turned him), Cage was always willing to behave in a strangely effeminate manner, and perhaps even eat a bug. He made some great movies that way.
Peter Lowe (pronounced with such relish by Cage) believes he’s been bitten by a vampire (Jennifer Beals) during a one night stand. It turns out, he’s actually just insane. The bite becomes his excuse to indulge his self-obsessed, soulless, predatory nature for the balance of the running time.
Cage gives a masterful comic performance in Vampire’s Kiss as a narcissistic literary editor who descends into madness. The actor is hilarious, demented, his physical performance outstanding. The way he uses his gangly mess of limbs and hulking shoulders inspires darkly, campy comic awe. And the plastic teeth are awesome.
Peter may believe he abuses his wholesome editorial assistant Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso) with sinister panache because he’s slowly turning into a demon, but we know better.
4. The Transfiguration (2016)
Milo likes vampire movies.
Eric Ruffin plays Milo, a friendless teen who believes he is a vampire. What he is really is a lonely child who finds solace in the romantic idea of this cursed, lone predator. But he’s committed to his misguided belief.
All this changes when Milo meets Sophie (Chloe Levine), another outsider and the only white face in Milo’s building. A profound loneliness haunts this film, and the believably awkward behavior of both Ruffin and Levine is as charming as it is heartbreaking.
The Transfiguration is a character study as much as a horror film, and the underwritten lead, slow burn and somewhat tidy resolution undercut both efforts.
Still, there’s an awful lot going for this gritty, soft-spoken new image of a teenage beast.
3. The Reflecting Skin (1990)
Writer/director Philip Ridley has a fascinating imagination, and his film captures your attention from its opening moments.
Seth Dove lives with his emotionally abusive mother and his soft but distant father, who run a gas station in rural Idaho sometime after WWII. Seth’s older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) is off serving in Japan. Seth has decided that the neighborhood widow Dolphin Blue (a wonderfully freaky Lindsay Duncan) is a vampire.
Positively horrible things begin to happen, each of them clouded by the dangerous innocence of our point of view character.
The film plays a bit like a David Lynch effort, but with more honesty. Rather than the hallucinatory dreaminess Lynch injects into films like Blue Velvet (the most similar), this film is ruled by the ferociously logical illogic of childhood.
With this point of view, the realities of a war blend effortlessly with the possibility of vampires. Through little Seth Dove’s eyes, everything that happens is predictably mysterious, as the world is to an 8-year-old. His mind immediately accepts every new happening as a mystery to unravel, and the jibberish adults speak only confirm that assumption.
This film is a beautiful, horrifying, fascinating adventure unlike most anything else available.
2. Cronos (1993)
In 1993, writer/director Guillermo del Toro announced his presence with authorty by way of this tender and unusual “vampire” flick. Del Toro favorites Federico Luppi and Ron Perlman star. Luppi is Jesus Gris, the elder statesman, an antique store owner, loving husband and doting grandfather.
Perlman plays Angel, a thug – what else? Angel’s miserable but very rich uncle wants an Archangel statue from Gris’s store, but the real value has already found its way into Gris’s veins.
A vampire film of sorts, it’s a beautiful story about faith and love – not to mention the real meaning of immortality. Performances are wonderful, and watching this masterful filmmaker find his footing is the real joy.
1. Martin (1978)
Martin (John Amplas) is a lonely young man who believes he’s a vampire. He may be – the film is somewhat ambivalent about it, which is one of the movie’s great strengths. He daydreams in black and white of cloaks, fangs and mobs carrying pitchforks.
Or are those memories? Does Martin’s uncle hate him because Martin, as he claims, is really in his Eighties, as his uncle would surely know? Romero has fun balancing these ideas, tugging between twisted but sympathetic serial killer and twisted but sympathetic undead.
Romero’s understated film is more of a character study than any of his other works, and Amplas is up to the task. Quietly unnerving and entirely sympathetic, you can’t help but root for Martin even as he behaves monstrously. It’s a bit like rooting for Norman Bates. Sure, he’s a bad guy, but you don’t want him to get into any trouble!
The film’s a generational culture clash wrapped in a lyrical fantasy, but quietly so. It’s touching, gory at times, often quite tense, and really well made. That, and it’s all so fabulously Seventies!
Ever since Romero reimagined the mindless monster in 1968, horror cinema’s go-to beast has been the zombie. Perfect for true terror or splatter comedy – or, hell, even a romantic comedy now and again – films of the undead proliferated faster than a zombie horde. You can find them in nearly every genre, on almost every continent, and in just about every possible medium including children’s books. (If you have not read Ten Little Zombies, it makes an excellent stocking stuffer. Trust us!)
To help us hone our list we enlisted Dave Man, who kindly joins us on this week’s podcast. If you only have time for 5 (or maybe 6) zombie films, which to choose? Rest easy! We have some candidates.
5. Zombie (1979)
Originally filmed as an unofficial sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, this was director Lucio Fulci’s first true horror film, though he’d done several very violent films previously (Don’t Torture a Duckling, for instance). Shot to showcase violence, and immeasurably aided by Fabio Frizzi’s score, Zombie became a turning point in Z films and in Italian horror.
A boat docks in New York with one undead seaman aboard. A young woman and an investigative reporter head out to the island of that boat’s origins, where her father has been doing scientific work, only to find that the island is overrun with hungry walking corpses.
Fulci’s film tries to marry Romero’s take on the undead with the traditional voodoo narrative of films like White Zombie, but it’s the director’s vivid imagination for festering flesh, plus his now go-to shock of eye gouging, that helped the film make its mark. Plus, zombie-on-shark action!
4. Dead Snow (2009)
Like its portly nerd character Erlend, Dead Snow loves horror movies. A familiarly self-referential “cabin in the woods” flick, Dead Snow follows a handsome mixed-gender group of college students as they head to a remote cabin for Spring Break. A creepy old dude warns them off with a tale of local evil. They mock and ignore him at their peril.
But co-writer/director/Scandinavian Tommy Wirkola doesn’t just obey these rules. He embraces our prior knowledge of the path we’re taking to mine for comedy, but he doesn’t give up on the scares. Wirkola’s artful imagination generates plenty of startles and gore by the gallon.
Spectacular location shooting, exquisite cinematography, effective sound editing and a killer soundtrack combine to elevate the film above its clever script and solid acting. Take the gorgeous image of Norwegian peace: a tent, lit from within, sits like a jewel nestled in the quiet of a snowy mountainside. The image glistens with pristine outdoorsy beauty – until it … doesn’t.
3. Braindead (Dead Alive) (1992)
Rated R for “an abundance of outrageous gore,” Braindead is everything the early Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageously gory bloodbath.
Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) secretly loves shopkeeper Paquita Maria Sanchez (Diana Penalver). Unfortunately, Lionel’s overbearing sadist of a mother follows the lovebirds to a date at the zoo, where she’s bitten (pretty hilariously) by a Sumatran rat-monkey (do not mistake this dangerous creature for a rabid Muppet or misshapen lump of clay). The bite kills her, but not before she can squeeze pus into some soup and wreak general havoc, which is nothing compared to the hell she raises once she comes back from the dead.
Braindead is so gloriously over-the-top that nearly any flaw can be forgiven. Jackson includes truly memorable images, takes zombies in fresh directions, and crafts characters you can root for. But more than anything, he knows where to point his hoseful of gore, and he has a keen imagination when it comes to just how much damage a lawnmower can do.
2. Dawn of the Dead (1978/2004)
Romero returned to the land of the undead in ’78 with a full-color sequel to Night. Set in Philadelphia, at a news broadcast gone crazy, the film follows a news producer, her chopper pilot boyfriend, and two Philly SWAT cops ready to abandon the organized zombie fight and find peace elsewhere. The four board a helicopter, eventually landing on the roof of a mall, which they turn into their private hideaway.
Romero, make-up legend Tom Savini, and Italian horror director Dario Argento teamed up for the sequel. You feel Argento’s presence in the score and the vivid red of the gore. Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger as the buddies from SWAT create the most effective moments, whether character-driven tension or zombie-driven action. Romero’s politics are on his sleeve with this one. He uses the “z” word, digs at consumerism, shows full-color entrails, and reminds us again that the undead may not be our biggest enemy once the zombie-tastrophe falls.
Plenty of filmmakers have remade or reimagined Romero’s flicks, but none did it as well as Zack Snyder.
In Romero’s version, themes of capitalism, greed, mindless consumerism run through the narrative. Snyder, though affectionate to the source material, focuses more on survival, humanity, and thrills. (He also has a wickedly clever soundtrack.) It’s more visceral and more fun. His feature is gripping, breathlessly paced, well developed and genuinely terrifying.
1 Night of the Living Dead (1968)
From the brightly lit opening cemetery sequence to the paranoid power struggle in the house to the devastating closing montage, Night of the Living Dead teems with the racial, sexual, and political tensions of its time. An unsettlingly relevant George A. Romero knew how to push societal panic buttons.
As the first film of its kind, the lasting impact of this picture on horror cinema is hard to overstate. His inventive imagination created the genre and the monster from the ground up.
They’re hungry for human flesh.
Their bite infects the bitten.
The bitten will eventually bite.
Aim for the head.
The shrill sense of confinement, the danger of one inmate turning on another, and the unthinkable transformation going on in the cellar build to a startling climax – one that utterly upends expectations – followed by the kind of absolutely genius ending that guarantees the film’s eternal position in the annals of horror cinema.
The third Hunger Games installment is set to smash box office records this week. It’s part of that rare brotherhood of series where the sequel is stronger than the original, like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. We’re eager to see what they can do with #3, which got us to thinking about our favorite trilogies. Today we are counting down the best trilogies in film.
10. Dead Trilogy
George A. Romero may have gone to the well a few too many times, but the first three installments of his Dead series – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead – were groundbreaking achievements that created the pattern for all future zombie films. Packed with social commentary as well as bloody entrails, they are as weirdly compelling today as they were when they were first released.
9. Back to the Future
Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd head to the 1950s, back to the Eighties, back to the Fifties, and eventually to the Wild West in a charming, funny, nostalgic time travel fantasy.
8. Evil Dead
Truth be told, the 2013 reboot is a worthy addition to the franchise. But it’s Bruce Campbell and the 1981 goretastic Stoogesque original, its 1987 reboot/sequel, and the epic third installment Army of Darkness that create the three headed monster we love.
7. Godfather Trilogy
Honestly, this is here on the merit of the first two films alone. Though the third installment is not the debacle it is often labeled, it is certainly comparatively weak. But since I and II are among the greatest American films ever made, we’ll let that slide.
6. Dollar Trilogy
Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly stole from Kurosawa, established Clint Eastwood, and changed the landscape of the American Western. Morally complicated and full of violence, Leone’s trilogy is a landmark in cinema – American, Italian or otherwise.
5. Vengeance Trilogy
Korean filmmaking genius/madman Chan-wook Park unleashed three riveting, bizarre tales of vengeance beginning in 2002 with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the unnervingly merciful tale of kidnapping, compassion and revenge. He followed it the next year with his masterpiece, Oldboy, a revenge fable so bizarre it defies simple summarization. He capped the trilogy in 2005 with Lady Vengeance, another twisted and human tale of vengeance and unattainable redemption.
4. Star Wars
If a trilogy ever had as much impact as the first three Star Wars films, we don’t know of it. Yes, there are weaknesses in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (Ewoks, for example), but it’s a galaxy we’d return to regardless of its distance.
3. Lord of the Rings
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a majestic, gorgeously filmed and beautifully crafted nerdgasm. Scary, heroic and genuinely epic, it’s a fantasy world that offsets the magic with enough authenticity to give the trilogy compelling urgency. Jackson’s vision is magnificent. (But enough already, please?)
2. Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan recast superheroes with his dark, brooding Batman Begins. Provocatively written and fascinatingly cast, the film spun into the superior sequel The Dark Knight, proving that a superhero movie could be among the very best films made in any year. Then he capped it with The Dark Knight Rises and the kind of excitement, revisiting of themes and satisfying closure required of a genuine cinematic trilogy. Nicely done!
1. Toy Story
When Pixar unleashed Toy Story in 1995, the world changed for animation, family entertainment, and movies on the whole. What a glorious achievement – too good for a sequel. And yet John Lasseter revisited Buzz, Woody and gang in ’99 with new buddies and a toy-centric plot that was as riveting as the first film. And then, showing true genius, Lasseter returned to Andy’s house in maybe the most honest and heartbreaking coming of age film ever digitally created. Tell us you didn’t cry during Toy Story 3 and we’ll label you a sociopath.
Breck Eisner’s The Crazies, retooled from George Romero’s little-seen 1973 gem, offers solid scares, inventive plotting, and far better performances than expected in a genre film.
Building a cumulative sense of entrapment and dread, the film relies on a storyline whisper-close to the overplayed zombie tale, but deviates in a powerful way. The slight alteration plumbs for a different kind of terror, and Eisner’s sense of timing provides a fine balance between fear of the unknown and horror of the inevitable.
The Crazies sometimes plays like a more languid 28 Days Later (a film that clearly found inspiration in Romero’s The Crazies). All three films begin by articulating humankind’s repulsion and fear of infection before introducing the greater threat – our own government. Eisner’s film never accomplishes the heights Boyle achieved in each area, but his slower pace builds dread and flirts more often with an effectively disturbing sense of compassion.
Eisner’s greatest strength is his cast. The eternally under-appreciated Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, unerringly realistic as husband and wife, carry most of the grisly weight, aided by solid support work from folks who are not afraid to be full-on nuts. They may not scare you silly, but they’ll keep you surprised and a little grossed out, which ain’t too bad, considering.
Eisner pulls Romero’s most notorious punch, but he also knows how to examine individual insanity. Eisner is less interested in government conspiracy and irony and more interested in bloodthirsty lunacy, which is why his film is more fun to watch.
It’ll make you rethink the car wash, I’ll tell you what.