Saturday, November 01, 2014
Book review: THE MAKING OF GEORGE A. ROMERO'S DAY OF THE DEAD
It's hard to explain my love of George Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD in a rational way. I remember years ago, I was housesitting for some friends in London. I had been there all summer and I was starting to feel pretty homesick. Then I discovered that among their video tapes--which were mostly staid BBC productions--was an old copy of DAY OF THE DEAD. I'm not sure why it was there. I doubt that these particular friends had ever seen a George Romero movie, let alone bought one. All I could figure was that some previous housesitter had left the tape behind... which was kind of amazing, because it was one of only a few movies that, in that moment, could have cured my homesickness.
Last year, when Romero came to L.A. to promote the re-release of John Harrison's DAY OF THE DEAD sountrack, I told him this story, rambling excitedly about how there's something wonderfully romantic about Harrison's score and Terry Alexander's pivotal monologue. I concluded, "I know this sounds crazy, but DAY OF THE DEAD is a kind of comfort food for me." Over the years, Romero has said that he understands why some purists prefer NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and why most fans prefer DAWN OF THE DEAD (as Robin Wood once said, it's the most fun), but he still aligns himself with those "mutants" who really like DAY. In response to my awkward confession of love for his redheaded step-zombie, he shrugged and said, "Me too."
In Lee Karr's new book The Making of George A. Romero's Day of the Dead, Romero elaborates on his reasons for loving the finished film. He claims "it's much more me than any of the other ones," noting that it captures both his personal philosophy and his droll humor. That's ironic since DAY is not the film that he originally intended to make. Most Romero fans know that filmmaker conceived his third zombie movie as a more epic story, then had to pare down his vision to match a smaller budget. For some people, like Greg Nicotero (who worked his very first film industry job in the special effects department on DAY), this is a tragedy. For others, like lead actress Lori Cardille, it was a blessing in disguise. Cardille says that the final version of DAY is better because it's more character-driven. The original script has been floating around online for a few years now and, having read it, I'm inclined to agree with the latter opinion. Still, I can understand why Romero may have been initially disappointed. After DAWN OF THE DEAD, fans expected him to go big or go home. He went home... and made DAY OF THE DEAD.
Karr's book reminds us that there were other sources of tension around the production. DAY marked the end of Romero's long, successful collaboration with producer Richard Rubenstein. Without Rubenstein's business savvy, Romero might not have made another film after THE CRAZIES. The underperformance of his first four films at the box office did not make the filmmaker look like a particularly sound financial investment, but Rubenstein nevertheless supported Romero's vision for MARTIN. For the next ten years, they were a perfect match, turning out one classic film after another. In the mid-80s, they decided to go their separate ways. Romero claims it was because he wanted to keep pursuing film projects, while Rubenstein wanted to focus on television (specifically, the "Tales from the Darkside" anthology series).
One of the results of this parting of ways was that Romero became separated from several horror properties that Rubenstein controlled -- including Stephen King's PET SEMATARY, IT and THE STAND.... not to mention Romero's own DAWN and DAY OF THE DEAD (hence the insulting 2005 DAY sequel). I can't help imagining how different the 90s might have been for Romero if he had maintained the relationship. Of course, my fanboy conjecture is willfully ignorant of the details of Romero and Rubenstein's personal and professional relationship. Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative art, and certain types of tension can be creatively beneficial for a project while other types of tension can be destructive on many different levels. That's one of the basic, but often overlooked, realities of filmmaking that comes across strongly in Lee Karr's book.
As I started reading the book, I found myself thinking: I'm not sure I want to know all of the details in this book, because it might affect the way I think of the people involved and change the way I watch one of my favorite films. Assistant director Michael Gornick, who found himself caught in the middle of the Romero-Rubenstein divide, cautions: "I love the Steelers, man, but I know in the locker room some shit goes down!" This is an apt epigraph for a long gossipy section in the beginning of the book that makes Tom Savini sound like a deeply insecure, sadistic asshole. At the end of the day, I don't care if that's true or not. It won't change the way I watch his films.
Thankfully the book doesn't often veer off track like this, and the author should be praised for his amazingly thorough research. Karr obviously tracked down anyone and everyone who had any kind of assocation with the film. Building on production notes and call sheets provided by Greg Nicotero, he provides a comprehensive perspective on the making of this cult classic, as remembered by the people who actually made it.
Reading the book reminded me of my own experiences of working on sets. I have found that making a movie or a TV show can be inspiring and exhilarating... when it's not hopelessly, soul-suckingly boring. You spend countless hours, day and night, standing around waiting for a few minutes of creative adrenaline. At some point, everyone gets tired and frustrated. Tempers flare. Accidents happen. Even the most inspired productions seem to unfold like an ill-fated high school romance. You love it. You hate it. You love it and hate the person standing next to you. You hate it and love the person standing next to you. You can no longer remember who you are in the world outside of this strange, all-consuming endeavor. Life becomes fantasy and, when it's all over, you wonder: Did that really happen? That's when the nostalgia settles in.
By the end of the book, I felt like I had actually been on the set of DAY OF THE DEAD, like I was part of the tension and the camaraderie. You don't get that feeling from a behind-the-scenes documentary, with the rare exceptions of something like Roy Frumkes's DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD or Brad Shellady's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: A FAMILY PORTRAIT. The Making of George A. Romero's Day of the Dead offers a priveleged insider's view combined with a die-hard fan's obsessive attention to detail. For someone who loves DAY OF THE DEAD, it's a Christmas present on Halloween morning. Set decorator Jan Puscale sums up the spirit of the season: "It was a zombie movie. But every single thing mattered to us and we really all put our hearts into it, you know?"
Thanks to this book: Yes, we do.
Labels: George A. Romero