Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Scanlines

DECEMBER 22, 1997: 

In 1968, director George Romero released Night of the Living Dead, and the world of horror movies was changed forever. Though his considerable reputation has been predicated on that film and the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, Romero released a string of box-office flops in between. Being flops, however, doesn't necessarily mean that they're bad - here are a few titles for your discerning viewing. - Jerry Renshaw


(1977) with John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest

A woman boards a sleeper car on a train, and finds a young man with a hypodermic in her compartment. He jabs her with the needle, they struggle, and when she passes out, he disrobes her, caresses her body, slits her wrist with a razor, and greedily drinks the blood. In true Romero fashion, the first few minutes of Martin are designed to grab the audience by the short hairs with a frighteningly personal opening segment. Martin (Amplas) is an alienated, sexually frustrated, severly confused modern-day vampire who is sent to live with his elderly uncle Cuda (Maazel) and work in his store. Martin's cousin Christina (Forrest) also lives with them until she gets fed up with the old man and the ennui of their lives and moves out. Cuda calls Martin "Nosferatu" and tries to keep him at bay with his Old World defenses (garlic, crosses) which only serve to annoy him. Martin eventually begins an affair with an alcoholic, desperate older woman, and sinks further into despair, eventually becoming a regular caller on a late night talk radio show. Martin hates his craving, wishing he could just be friends with someone, anyone, but it's a physiological need as powerful as a junkie's heroin habit. Romero uses Pittsburgh's abundance of Gothic architecture to good advantage, and includes flashbacks shot in grainy black & white from Martin's earlier life in Europe (though he looks about 18, he's actually in his eighties). No one said being undead was easy, and it's even tougher when you're dying of dry rot in grimy Seventies Pittsburgh. If this all sounds dreary, it is. Martin is relentlessly downbeat and has a molasses pace, but is nonetheless worthwhile to watch if you're in the mood for an uncomfortable, depressing Romero-style take on the vampire legend. Keep an eye out for the director himself as an ineffectual young priest, and makeup legend Tom Savini as Christina's fiancée.

The Crazies

(aka Code Name: Trixie) (1973)

A military plane carrying biological warfare agents crashes near the fictitious Evans City, Pennsylvania. The virus gets into the town's water supply and has two effects on the infected: death or irreversible insanity. The military moves in to contain the situation, and things rapidly get out of control. The local populace regards the Army as an invading force as they try to round up everyone and take them to the high school as a marshalling point. Soon the highly contagious virus infects the whole town and spreads to the soldiers as well, while a government scientist races to find an antidote. The Crazies features some great setpieces as the virus spreads... a little old lady smiles sweetly and stabs a soldier to death with a knitting needle. A young woman sweeps with a broom while soldiers and locals have a bloody firefight around her. A soldier swings his rifle wildly at his comrades until they shoot him. Made in the shadow of both Vietnam and Watergate, The Crazies contains plenty of allegory; an invasion by military force, government cover-up and duplicity, madness and eventual genocide. Scenes with the president show only the back of his head as he speaks in detached tones. Like Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies offers no hope, no comfort and sure as hell no happy ending. Romero himself has a somewhat gassy role as Evans City's mayor.

The Affair

(aka There's Always Vanilla) (1969)
with Diane Russo

It's said that Romero wanted nothing to do with this film after its completion, and refuses to discuss it to this day. Long considered to be Romero's "lost film," The Affair was not available in the U.S. at all (never having been theatrically released) until Video Search of Miami unearthed it. This sophomore effort (his first feature after Night of the Living Dead) is difficult and often exasperating, but worth watching nonetheless. It's kind of a quasi-existentialist counterculture love story, rife with bad rock music and hipster dialogue. A proto-slacker hooks up with a model who's striving to get ahead in commercials while he writes and tries to figure out what the hell he wants out of life. The characters spend a lot of time pondering the meaning of their existences, until eventually he bullshits his way into a position at an ad agency. She winds up pregnant (after telling him she is, then retracting it), finding out much later that he also has a kid by another girlfriend (he thinks), which signals the beginning of the end of their relationship. It's a problematic movie; the script is actually fairly intelligent and literate, and the talent (unfamiliar from any of Romero's other films, except for Diane Russo from Night of the Living Dead) is believable, but the rambling narrative makes the intent of the story pretty unclear; it's as though the thrust of the writing is all towards character development and not towards a resolution of plot. There's also a sleazy producer of commercials involved, which is an interesting aside since commercials were Romero's bread and butter before he did NOTLD. This effort was produced by Russo and Streiner, the same guys that produced and helped line up finances for NOTLD; it makes me wonder if there was some kind of behind-the-scenes arm twisting going on for Romero to make this picture. If you can wade through the rather turgid story (or lack thereof), The Affair is at least interesting as a stiff sort of period piece, but is pretty flawed, with a sort of hurried, amateurish look all the way around. I can understand Romero wanting to wash his hands of it, but it's not really that bad.

("Scanlines" wishes to thank Encore Movies & Music, I Love Video, and Vulcan Video for their help in providing videos and laser discs.)

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