Grubby, gnawing exploitation vessels chased by commentary on social collapse, George A. Romero’s zombies were less metaphors than poetic embodiments or evocations of walking-shuffle social alienation. Flesh wasn’t the only thing rotting and decomposing in a Romero film.While I have written about his zombie films, his obvious claims to fame, before, I take the occasion of his death to appreciate a trio of his less appreciated ‘70s films. RIP.
Season of the Witch
Romero’s exploitation films wielded a surprisingly dusted-off, casual, analog-refuse quality, as if transforming them into social bric-a-brac found in the dumpster that, like all of society’s “trash”, tells us more about the society’s dreams, desires, and fears than what that society chooses to elevate on a pedestal. In this case, Season of the Witch is a brazenly radical concoction, a cauldron-brew composed of unfulfilled desire, agency-dreams, and two shakes of erotica. The subject is middle-American housewife Joan (Jan White), wife of Jack, as she creeps into the world of witch-dom with skepticism that mutates into feverish elan, cottoning to the sexual quivers and enhanced sense of self that is afforded by finding her own personal, clandestine world of witchcraft away from the white-washed, relentlessly squared-off frames of quotidian domesticity.
A suburban experiment in casting off the visage of “undead conjurer” and doubling-down on his interests in social repression and the various outlets for survival that humans fashion for themselves amidst the threat of social disenfranchisement, Season of the Witch is an unjustifiably overlooked work in Romero’s early canon. More a tone poem of fleeting impressions and liminal suggestions than a story proper, the lo-fi, collapsible quality of the effects and Romero’s scratchy film stock only further suggest the themes of social exhaustion that he so heavily traffics in. The specious quality of the effects – like most of Romero’s early films, this is no blockbuster production – only galvanizes the “mental theater” quality of the film with an aura of emotional projection, as though Joan is willfully creating artificial fantasies doomed to collapse before eventual realization. Fatalistically, the shop-worn quality of the effects suggests something being sketched-in by the mind. They can’t wow us with their realism, with their presence, because society won’t let them manifest so easily into reality.
A uniquely Romero-esque pile-on of the frigid and the flaring, this mercurial film’s tonally temperamental quality effectively embodies the emotional uncertainty and apprehensiveness of ‘70s society, especially its women. That disposition of skepticism and head-shaking defeat informs the film’s finale, where, without the melodrama to break the heart but with the icy emptiness of a soul being crushed, Romero suggests Joan’s fits of emotional opportunity and personal escape are safely contained by a society that allows her those very visions as a form of medication to quell real rebellion.
Maybe Romero’s sympathy for Joan, and skepticism about the fulfillment of her mind’s imagination, is fueled by his fellow-outcast status, his perennial scrounging for money. Although he was not one beset by any kind of racial or gendered privilege, his imaginative connection to the outcasts and Others of society, as well as his hard-headed sense of doubt about the solubility of real opportunity with society at large, allows for a film more radical than many more famous “women’s pictures”. In fact, Season of the Witch is more of a kind with Robert Egger’s 2016 feature The Witch, only while Eggers safely ensconces the intersection of gendered oppression and the demonic arts in the time period of America’s foundational, wildling years, Romero offers no such reprieve of distance. For him, repression and misogyny were oppressively clean, depressingly mundane realities, the everyday and the here-and-now rather than far-flung visions of the past or dystopic futures.
So, yes, Romero’s tired film, too weary and worn-out to emulate hyperbolic Italian Grand Guignol, conjures psychosexual hallucinations that visualize the mental architecture of a woman asking for, even demanding, something more than society has given her. But Romero does not allow those brittle moments of empowerment to become the skeletal structure for his film. Romero is too astute a social critic to give his film over to such feats of fantasy and escape; they remain intrusions on the mundane world he conjures, violating spirits from the mind of a woman that are ultimately doomed be prematurely concluded before they leave the realm of imagination.
The best thing about Romero’s many social allegories, especially his ‘70s films, is how neglected and emaciated they feel, how unable or unwilling they are to move beyond the frighteningly local and quotidian to prophecize about the fate of the universe. They do prophecize of course – they are animated by prophecy – but they live lives of daily matter-of-factness and chilly, viciously dry mundanity. (Satire doesn’t quite encapsulate Romero’s gloriously unaffected and unsmiling vision). His films have a transfixing aura about them, a felt force that transcends their locality and speaks to the world over, but they don’t try to devour the world with a sense of egotistical awareness, as though they are the apocalyptic period on the earth and its problems.
Which is to say: right up until its frighteningly unfinished conclusion, trailing off into oblivion, dissolving, rather than tidying up or exploding in catharsis, Romero’s The Crazies is a ground-level glimpse at working-class existence as a plaything for the powerful. This is not a film of diagrams, discussions, furrowed-brows, and boardroom meetings but of viciously unsettled salt-of-the-earth pandemonium and uncertainty. As a rule, the camera refuses to orient us or provide a path of understanding.
The Crazies doesn’t completely fulfill this purity, however. The film’s divergences from its obvious progenitor – Romero’s earlier Night of the Living Dead – don’t exactly help the film. It is a little “bigger”, for fault of a better word, than the astonishingly unsure earlier film. That epochal 1968 debut work seems to know nothing beyond what we do and is entirely fatiguing for its cosmic id-howl, unbottling sheer terror without caveats or counter-factuals. The Crazies succumbs somewhat to the sophomore slump that seemingly every filmmaker in the book makes (this wasn’t Romero’s sophomore film, but I’m playing fast and loose here with terminology, much like Romero always did): it explains a little more, tries to contain masses, sends its thematic tendrils out omni-directionally rather than hunkering down and digging deeper into Romero’s existing territory. While the zombie invasion in Romero’s of the Dead films needed no explanation, the outbreak of psychosis in The Crazies (whose victims are zombie-adjacent but not flesh-eaters) is more of a question mark that Romero sometimes feels the urge to tentatively answer. That the characters even have the freedom to contemplate what is happening is slightly less terrifying than Night, where no such space was permitted.
But Romero’s nucleus of down-trodden, eroded phantasmagoria is still punchy and pungent, and his satirical shivs are effective, stitching together a ramshackle theory (not really an argument, but the film’s vagueness is a central staple as well as a great benefit) that the working-class is akin to a Vietnamese Other (turned into a crazed villain by the US army no less) for a now internally-imperialist US army to squash. It’s nonchalantly brutal stuff, philosophically and viscerally, with Romero’s guerrilla camerawork linking to the in-the-making, improvisatory feel that is so terrifyingly unable to settle down or feel pre-written for our appeasement. Its shambolic nature, like a work lagging behind itself trying to keep up, only galvanizes the paranoia of the film with a thick-caked sense of unceasing and self-propagating disorder. Romero’s allegories were always circumspect and overstated at best, but their very specious-ness is also their success: they feel heedless, full-throated, unwilling to listen to reason, and defiantly aggressive, like the psychic flashes of a mind deep in a thought experiment.
Moving away from dismantling an already degenerating America, Romero’s vampire tale, or “the non-zombie one everyone else likes”, is a more ruminative, sensitive work from the flesh-eating director. One could say that Night, Crazies, Dawn and many of Romero’s most respected films visualize destruction in the making. If so, Martin is the foul aftershock of an already-felled society, one that requires no grand-narrative invasion or infestation to corrode. Romero’s other films required explicit metaphors for social death, but the society depicted in Martin seems to require no such extra push to fade away into nothingness.
Like many of Romero’s films, Martin is a shattering experience not because of directorial bravura or impeccably-timed mushrooming of feeling but a palpable sense of imperfection, even sloppiness, like an unscrubbed and unvarnished work struggling just to keep filming without falling apart in front of us. The same could be said of the film’s titular protagonist (John Amplas), a seemingly malnourished and young (but not youthful) man living in Pittsburgh convinced he is a vampire, taking to his victims with razors and syringes as he has no natural malformations of his all-too-human teeth.
This extremely delicate film, rife with ambiguity, isn’t really interested in clarification, but rather evocation. Whether Martin is a vampire or not is essentially irrelevant to Romero, who focuses on Martin’s sense of self, his ritualistic behavior, his degraded personal emptiness, and his solitary, forlorn demeanor. The film’s folksy, anecdotal vibe makes it a work beyond narrative tendentiousness, instead taking the time to observe and settle in on Martin’s daily life, to ache with him. Romero’s attitude toward Martin is ambivalent, as if the young man casts himself as a totem to society’s general depression. Insofar as he is also a kind of retreat away from society, he unfortunately sees no path forward other than turning back time to seek refuge in olden, archaic myths like vampirism.
Romero favored portraits of rural and small-town decay, but this distinctly urban tale of crumbling-industry woe and possibly-delusional loneliness does not fully disclose its attitude toward society. It is less overtly snarky, nervous, or battle-hardened than Dawn of the Dead and maybe more shocking for its refusal to cater to a logic of villains, heroes, or ethics at all. Martin himself is a total void, signifying everything and, importantly, nothing insofar as he cannot be understood entirely through the logic of metaphor or allegory. He’s a crestfallen cipher but also a human being, a creature of needs, wants, desires, hang-ups, and apprehensions.
Martin is possibly the most downcast of all of Romero’s films, its weathered features implying an overwhelming tragedy and impossible-to-overcome crisis. Romero’s ragtag lather of social in-opportunity suspends the film in a perpetual stasis, overlooked by a cloud of nothingness and drenched in a thick layer of grime peppered with existential uncertainty. It isn’t a glossary of exciting and enlivening technique but a deadened, befallen memory of a comatose society and the apparently long-suffering people. Myth is seemingly their only opportunity for structuring daily life even as it remains a curse that affords them no real outlet for expression. Martin himself is doomed only to survive, never to thrive, torn apart as an emblem of a splintering and increasingly unoccupied society. Romero’s minimalistic framing and unadorned directing assault the mind violently with an aimless sensibility of defeat, creating an emptied-out headspace linked to an American failure, an incompleteness so severe that Martin isn’t even sure what the attempted national goal was in the first place.