THE DARK HALF (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero, Paul Hunt & Nick McCarthy

(based on the novel THE DARK HALF by Stephen King)

Starring: Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Robert Joy, Chelsea Field, Royal Dano & Rutanya Alda

The 90s were loaded with Stephen King adaptations that ranged from great to good and mediocre to downright terrible. There are a handful of efforts from this decade that seem unfairly overlooked (especially when the crappy IT miniseries gets much more acclaim than it should) and George A. Romero’s big screen version of THE DARK HALF is one of these underrated King flicks. Proving to be a faithful adaptation of its source material and translating King’s words into a compelling on-screen narrative, Romero made his second big studio film into a tense thrill ride that brims with suspense, violence, and dark imagination. This is basically King’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) writes highbrow literature under his own name and publishes gritty pulp fiction under the pseudonym of George Stark. When a scumbag discovers Beaumont’s secret writing habits and blackmails him, Beaumont decides that it’s time to lay Stark to rest…complete with a magazine article, interviews, and a fake funeral. When people connected to Stark’s “death” turn up murdered in ways that resemble his novels, it becomes clear that something spooky is afoot. George Stark was an imaginary alter-ego of Thad, but somehow he’s physically manifested himself and wants to exist again. All the while, Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) suspects that Thad may be the culprit behind these bloody killings.

Of the entire cast, Timothy Hutton easily delivers the film’s best two performances in dual roles. He plays Thad as a quirky writer and it’s obvious that this character was based on Stephen King himself (who loves creating author protagonists because he relates to them). We feel Thad’s frustration as more clues keep pointing back to him as the murderer and he tries to cope with/solve this supernatural scenario. As Stark, Hutton lets his evil side shine. He seems to be constantly snarling, fits in a few one-liners, and is clearly having a blast as a razor-wielding villain who seems like he was pulled straight out of a pulp novel.

On the supporting side of things, most of these characters exist purely to get brutally offed by Stark. They still deliver enough colorful personalities so that the viewer can distinguish who’s being killed at any given time. Amy Madigan shows a believably strained relationship as Thad’s wife, though this disappears when the film takes a more focused Thad vs. Stark approach during the final third. The novel’s ending originally had this relationship come to a depressing end, while the film’s conclusion just sort of ends with a shrug and cuts to credits. Also, Michael Rooker is a welcomed presence as Sheriff Pangborn, even though he seems to exist purely to fill Thad in on the details of Stark’s murders and is noticeably absent from most of the film’s finale.

THE DARK HALF’s script is true to King’s novel, even though certain characters don’t get enough time to really shine. There’s a creepy atmosphere hovering this Jekyll and Hyde tale crossed with a serial killer thriller. The clues behind Stark’s physical manifestation (sparrows, a gruesome discovery in a hospital, etc.) are intriguing and there’s never an eye-rollingly detailed exposition dump. King himself has referred to his favorite stories as tales where the horror just sort of happens with no rhyme or reason. THE DARK HALF follows these fast-and-loose scary guidelines; putting the focus on the string of killings, Thad’s weird mental connection with Stark, and the unavoidable confrontation between two different halves of the same person. It’s also worth noting that this film isn’t a gorefest, but the blood and guts are very effective when they do show up. There’s a stand-out moment in the final minutes that’s an incredible creation of cleverly disguised CGI, stellar practical effects, and gross make-up.

While THE DARK HALF is far from one of the best King movies and it’s not even the best King adaptation from the 90s, George A. Romero’s cinematic treatment of this story is very underrated, fun, and undeniably spooky. Timothy Hutton puts in two great performances, while Romero evokes frights in interesting ways. The set up to a few of the killings are sure to put the viewer on edge and there’s a great would-be jump scare that turns into a hilarious comedic bit. If you want a solid King flick that’s adapted from one of his more unique novels, then I highly recommend giving THE DARK HALF a look.

Grade: B+

MONKEY SHINES (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero

(based on the novel MONKEY SHINES by Michael Stewart)

Starring: Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeill, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci & Janine Turner

George A. Romero had become a master of horror purely through low-budget independent efforts, but he eventually wanted to make his way into the studio system. His first foray into this unfamiliar territory was 1988’s MONKEY SHINES. Based on Michael Stewart’s novel of the same name, MONKEY SHINES is a killer animal movie that doesn’t follow the typical tropes of a killer animal movie. This film features an adorable little monkey, focuses on the human drama of the characters, and milks surprisingly competent suspense out of its ridiculous premise. The film also has a silly camp factor to it, which greatly benefits the overall entertainment value.

College athlete Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) has a bright future ahead of him, until it all comes crashing down with a car accident. Paralyzed from the neck down, Allan is unable to do much of anything and his will to live is fading. Things begin looking up once Allan is introduced to super smart service monkey Ella. With a new furry friend by his side, Allan discovers love with specialist Melanie (Kate McNeil) and also develops some anger issues. Soon enough, strange deaths befall folks who piss Allan off. This mysterious wave of violence couldn’t have anything to do with Ella…or recent unexplainable dreams that Allan has been having, right? This is a horror movie, so you probably already know the answer to that question.

For a movie about an adorable killer monkey, MONKEY SHINES actually manages to evoke real suspense from its ludicrous plot. The clear reason for this comes from Allan being quadriplegic and Ella being a super smart monkey that can severely mess with him. There are moments where Allan is completely helpless and forced to watch as Ella terrorizes his friends. Part of the reason why Allan’s disability works as a strong plot device and doesn’t feel like a cheap exploitative gimmick is because Romero actually takes the time to develop Allan as a full-fledged character. This means the film’s first act is relatively slow, but the plot is compelling enough to engage the viewer’s interest.

Once the killer animal mayhem and scares get going, MONKEY SHINES has two modes: creepy and goofy. Surprisingly, it works on both of these contrasting tones. I found myself hooked to the screen during some of the quieter moments, including a final third that features a murderous Ella running amok and Allan struggling to keep his ever-dwindling amount of friends alive. I also busted out laughing during certain scenes purely because of how silly, but thoroughly enjoyable they were to watch. Name one other movie that has an adorable monkey electrocuting an old lady in a bathtub? What about another horror flick that has nightmare sequence that climaxes in a monkey version of the ALIEN chestburster moment? You likely can’t and that shows just how damned unique, silly, and fun MONKEY SHINES really is.

As for the performances, the monkey (or monkeys?) playing Ella steal the show as this is some of the most impressive animal acting you’re likely to ever see in a horror film. Ella is adorable in some moments, funny in other scenes, and also maintains the sense of menace as she constantly kills (and attempts to kill) characters. Jason Beghe is convincing and sympathetic as protagonist Allan, while Kate McNeill is solid as his love-interest. Joyce Van Patten is positively hateable as Allan’s overly controlling mother and John Pankow is fun as Allan’s mad scientist best friend. The cast also has an underused Stanley Tucci as a scumbag surgeon and Stephen Root (in his first acting role) as a rival scientist.

MONKEY SHINES has equal amounts of laugh-out-loud moments (some of which are downright unintentional), killer animal hijinks, and genuine suspense. George A. Romero may not have had a great experience while making this movie and the studio was ultimately disappointed by its low box office performance, but MONKEY SHINES is a blast. The script takes the time to flesh out its story and develop characters, has a tense final third, and maintains a fun tone throughout. Overall, MONKEY SHINES is a really strange, but very fun overlooked horror gem from the 80s.

Grade: B

DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero

Starring: Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato, Terry Alexander, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Richard Liberty, Sherman Howard & John Amplas

After forever changing horror cinema with his groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and then creating one of the best zombie films ever with DAWN OF THE DEAD, George A. Romero decided to conclude his original DEAD trilogy with DAY OF THE DEAD. When it was originally released in 1985, DAY OF THE DEAD didn’t receive the warm welcome that greeted both NIGHT and DAWN. The film garnered mixed reviews from critics and fans generally considered it to the weakest in the DEAD saga. Despite its “lesser” reputation, DAY OF THE DEAD is dark, shocking, and contains just as much power as the first two DEAD films. DAY also provides a natural progression of Romero’s undead universe and has held up remarkably well as a compelling nightmare.

DAY takes place long after the zombie outbreak. The walking dead have overrun the entire world, but small bands of survivors remain. A group of these survivors are living in an underground base. Half of the group are scientists working on a possible solution to the zombies and the other half are heavily-armed soldiers assigned to protect the scientists. When headstrong Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) takes command as a new leader, tensions between the soldiers and scientists rise to dangerously high levels. As the base threatens to tear itself apart from within, an ever-growing pack of zombies gathers outside and mad scientist Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) makes surprising breakthroughs with an undead test subject.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is easily the most frightening installment of Romero’s trilogy, DAWN OF THE DEAD is often cited as the best, and DAY OF THE DEAD is easily the darkest of the bunch. The third DEAD film capitalizes on two major themes that were prevalent in the previous two installments: the zombies are a disturbing representation of society itself and humans are the real monsters in a deadly crisis. DAY OF THE DEAD follows the collapse of a band of survivors that could easily have great lives if they all saw eye-to-eye and simply cooperated with each other, but these people refuse to respect or listen to an opposing opinion and things escalate ridiculously fast. It’s scary how relevant DAY remains in our modern times and it will likely always be relevant in one way or another.

With my description of the plot and overall tone, it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of characters are flat-out unlikable. However, that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch. Lori Cardille plays stubborn Sarah Bowman, the main protagonist who seems like a bit of a one-note hard-ass for a while and then later becomes a great character as her more emotionally broken side comes out. Jarlath Conroy and Terry Alexander play the only other likable living characters as an drunkenly charming radio operator and a stoned helicopter pilot who spouts words of wisdom. An early scene between Alexander’s “slacker” reveals deep truths about the apocalypse (in any given scenario) and helps put a great deal of things into perspective.

On the villainous side of things, Joseph Pilato plays the DEAD mythology’s biggest scumbag in Rhodes. Pilato’s baddie is easily one of the best antagonists in zombie movie history. Rhodes’ motivations and gripes with other characters are completely understandable and borderline sympathetic, but his brutal tactics of enforcing commands make him into a sick son-of-a-bitch. Every time this character is on the screen, you’ll either find yourself on the edge of your seat or shifting uncomfortably as you wonder what he’ll do next (as he seems capable of committing all sorts of monstrous deeds). Anthony Dileo Jr. is believable as a cowardly private who’s being pushed to his limits, while Gary Howard seems almost too convincing as Rhodes lecherous second-in-command. On a side note, Richard Liberty is utterly bonkers as Dr. “Frankenstein” and that helps his already cartoony character.

The film’s biggest stand-out performance isn’t from a human character though, because it comes from Sherman Howard as Bub the Zombie. Bub is sure to win over viewers, especially as Howard’s dialogue-free performance sells the viewer on this flesh-eating corpse having emotions. Romero was treading potentially cheesy waters with Bub’s story arc (as intelligent zombies might come off as less scary or laughably corny). He stuck the landing perfectly though as Bub pretty much steals the entire show. It’s also interesting to note that Bub’s role in DAY cemented the foundation for the zombies’ story arc in LAND OF THE DEAD (which arrived two decades after DAY’s release).

As far as the carnage and gore goes, DAY seems surprisingly restrained for the first two-thirds as the guts are mostly reserved for the science experiments and zombie wrangling. Tom Savini and at-the-time-newcomer Gregory Nicotero (who was three years away from founding KNB EFX Group) finally unleash balls-to-the-wall splattery spectacle in the hellishly awesome final third. Guts fall out of bodies, throats are torn (including a voice box being ripped from a screaming victim in the film’s most cringe-inducing scene), and the best death is saved for last. You’ll know it when you see it and horror fanatics will bask in its gory glory. This unforgettable death scene is probably the greatest kill in zombie history and I’m not being hyperbolic when I make that claim either.

My sole complaint with DAY OF THE DEAD comes from something that no other DEAD film has: nightmare sequences. There are two dream sequences in DAY. The first one (near the opening) serves as a big jolt, albeit a cheap one. The second nightmare arrives near the end and it feels like a cop-out. Sure, it leads to arguably the most pleasant final shot in all of the DEAD series, but it’s an eye-rollingly lame jump scare. This is a minor nitpick when everything else in DAY OF THE DEAD is stellar. If you’re a fan of zombie movies, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. DAY OF THE DEAD is one of the best zombie movies ever made, but that’s not surprisingly when you consider that it came from the master himself.

Grade: A

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: John Russo & George A. Romero

Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley & Kyra Schon

In a single movie, director/writer George A. Romero created an entire subgenre of horror and gave birth to a new type of monster. Partially inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I AM LEGEND and co-writing alongside John Russo, Romero created a terrifying vision of the end of the world and scared the hell out of audiences on a tiny budget. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is one of the few horror films from the black-and-white era that truly scares me and holds up perfectly to this day. This nightmarish masterpiece is disturbingly bleak, packs powerful social commentary that remains frighteningly relevant to this day, and will haunt the viewer long after its grim final image has faded.

NIGHT begins with Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) driving to a countryside cemetery to visit their father’s grave. The simple tradition takes a nasty turn when Barbara is attacked by a ghoulish man. After Johnny hits his noggin on a gravestone, Barbara runs to an isolated farmhouse and is rescued by Ben (Duane Jones). Soon enough, the mismatched pair discover a group of people hiding in the house’s basement and tensions flare between Ben and the ornery crank Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman). As more flesh-eating zombies gather outside and attempt to claw their way in, the survivors attempt to keep the flesh-eating monsters at bay and discover that the real monster may be human nature itself.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was created on a small budget, yet carries the realistic atmosphere of a worldwide cataclysmic event. Romero smartly keeps the horrific story centered on a small group of people and we surmise what’s going on from the sheer number of ghouls gathering outside the farmhouse. Also, there is a fantastic exposition scene that’s delivered in a creepy news report. This exposition dump isn’t piling on information that sums up the apocalyptic event, but instead lets the characters in on what might be going on. The viewer knows as much as these characters do and that increases the sense of suffocating desperation.

Speaking of characters, NIGHT has a strong cast of well-rounded survivors. You’ll love some of these people, despise at least one of them, and definitely pity a certain damaged individual. As Ben, Duane Jones serves as a well-spoken, level-headed hero. This protagonist was originally written as a redneck (which would have brought in social commentary about class differences), but Jones won the part from his sheer acting abilities and this thrust NIGHT into the area of commenting on racial tensions (black leading men were uncommon in the 60’s, to say the least). Judith O’Dea delivers a truly sympathetic performance as Barbara, who spends most of the film in a believable state of shock after being beyond traumatized by her cemetery encounter.

Karl Hardman is perfectly cast as the despicable, cowardly, and potentially dangerous Cooper. Hardman’s antagonist seems like a scumbag at first, but gradually evolves into a villain who you’ll want to see die in a painful manner. Marilyn Eastman is solid as Cooper’s frustrated spouse, while Kyra Schon also delivers one of the film’s scariest moments as Cooper’s injured daughter. Keith Wayne and Judith Riley are a nice couple who try to side with Ben and face potentially dire consequences in trying to help out the group. They aren’t the biggest characters in the film, but they do share enough dialogue to get us to care about them.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s tone is bleaker than bleak. The plot already revolves around the zombie apocalypse, at a time when this was a fresh new concept. Romero gut-punches the viewer’s emotions as characters, who we come to care about, bite it in horrific ways. The film’s gory violence was shocking at the time and its gritty brutality remains effective today (fingers being chopped off, flesh being eaten from the bone, and a bullet to the brain being the only way to kill a zombie). The ever-escalating tension that accompanies this violence is suffocating and feels real. Things kick off from the opening graveyard scene and never really give the viewer space to breathe for the rest of the film. I cannot praise NIGHT’s ending enough either. This story has one of the darkest conclusions in horror movie history.

Romero wrote the zombie rulebook with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. He (and co-writer Russo) did a phenomenal job of establishing a truly scary cinematic monster. One or two zombies seem relatively feasible to escape from (or even kill), but soon those numbers grow to ten and eventually thirty (or more). That idea in and of itself is frightening, but throw in desperate humans who will do anything to ensure their own survival and you’ve got yourself the makings of a horror masterpiece. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is easily the most terrifying entry in Romero’s DEAD saga and one of the best black-and-white horror films to ever grace theaters. This is a bonafide classic that has left an unforgettable, undeniable legacy on both the horror genre and cinema as a whole. If you’re a horror aficionado, this is required viewing!

Grade: A+

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Dawn Dead poster

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero

Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger & Gaylen Ross

Ten years after George A. Romero delivered his masterpiece that introduced the modern zombie, he returned to the well that he essentially created. After NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it only made sense to continue with the DAWN. More people will be familiar with the 2004 remake, which turned out to be a great re-imagining, but this 1978 classic stands as one of the greatest zombie films ever created. Watching the master of the flesh-eating ghoul return to tell another story in the world he created is something special indeed.

DawnDead 1

It begins in the wee hours of the morning after the dead have risen to feast on the living. Francine and her boyfriend, Stephen, work at a TV station that has been reporting on the mass hysteria. Together they meet up with two SWAT members, Peter and Roger, and take to the air in the station’s helicopter. After picking up a little extra fuel, they land on top of a mall and find shelter within the massive shopping center. The unlikely group form a strong friendship. They must work as a team if they ever expect to live through the outbreak that has spawned two kinds of menaces: the dead and the living.

DawnDead 2

Much like NIGHT, DAWN isn’t a film about the zombies, but the living affected by the monsters. The characters are all likable to watch as they develop, forming a real tangible bond through the movie. I won’t say who dies and when, but suffice to say that not all of them are alive when the film concludes. It is upsetting when you see bad things happen to them. The actors playing the parts all do a phenomenal job, which one would expect when they found out that the filming process took four months. Clearly, they had a lot of time to live within their roles.

DawnDead 3

Even though DAWN was made a decade after NIGHT and was filmed in glorious color (a better way to see Tom Savini’s nasty gore effects), the film wasn’t given a massive budget. In fact, it was made for little over half-a-million and Romero resorted to guerilla filming tactics to the complete the project by shooting in the mall location after hours. Those raised on the gruesome likes of THE WALKING DEAD are sure to scoff a little at the pale blue complexion of the zombies and the red paint that substitutes for blood. Even though the gore has aged a bit, it doesn’t take away any of the power that the film packs.

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Romero was never one to just do an average zombie flick (at least, in his early career). He always had a deeper social commentary. In this case, he satirized consumerism by showing just what a safe haven the mall turns out to be in the zombie apocalypse. The zombies want to get into the mall, not because they know there are four pieces of fresh meat inside, but because the slight part of humanity they retain tells them that they want to get in this place for some strange reason. While NIGHT was a horror film as bleak as they come, Romero sprinkles in bits of dark humor throughout the story of DAWN.

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A biker gang is introduced late into the film and provide some grim laughs, including how even at the end of the world, one of these gang members will still find time to pick pocket (from a zombie in this case). The music score by Goblin (also known for their famous work on Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA) sets the mood perfectly, including a memorable piece titled “The Gonk” being played over the mall intercom system as the final scenes play themselves out.

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With DAWN OF THE DEAD, Romero created a sequel that works perfectly in his original DEAD trilogy (NIGHT, DAWN, and DAY). It’s also a biting piece of social commentary, one of the absolute best zombie films ever made, and an essential horror classic from the 1970’s. If you haven’t seen it and you love zombies, then remedy this immediately!

Grade: A+

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