The world of horror films lost two of its
most important and influential figures recently with the passing of filmmaking
geniuses George Romero and Tobe Hooper. Although the careers of these two great
artists can fill (and have filled) entire books, I’d like to briefly mention
their most important works and pay my respects to them both.
When I was around ten or eleven-years-old, I
had snuck out of bed late one night to watch some old movie on TV; a Tarzan
flick I think it was. In order to avoid waking my parents, I had to keep the
volume on the television set very low, but sit close to the set so that I could
hear. As I sat alone in my parents’ dark living room waiting patiently for the
commercials to end, a bunch of zombies appeared on the screen and quickly
lurched forward with their arms outstretched! I jumped back while
simultaneously screaming which, of course, woke my mom. Needless to say, I
never got to finish the Tarzan movie, but I made up for it by having my first
taste of the cinema of writer/director (and sometimes editor and actor) George
A. Romero; even if it was only a TV spot for his 1979 zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead.
Romero’s feature film debut, 1968’s immortal Night of the Living Dead, which was made
independently for the paltry sum of $114, 000, not only began his immensely
popular zombie series (six films which
lasted until 2009), but also singlehandedly created the entire zombie mythology
which is still being used today. As a matter of fact, anyone who has made a
zombie film after 1968 not only owes a debt to Romero, but a royalty check as
well. Night, which deals with the
dead returning to life as flesh-eating ghouls and surrounding an old farmhouse
filled with seven frightened and bickering humans who cannot get along, was
filmed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (where Romero lived for much of his adult
life) and combines scares/graphic violence with social commentary; a formula
the master filmmaker would return to many times. The creepy, atmospheric and
nihilistic film reflects the turbulent time in which it was made and its
graphic tone was mainly inspired by the Vietnam War.
If I had to pick one film in the Romero canon
that I feel is an underrated masterwork, it would have to be his amazing, 1976,
modern-day vampire film Martin. This
enthralling piece of cinema, which Romero himself has said to be his favorite
of all the films he’s directed, concerns a shy and confused young man (excellently
portrayed by John Amplas) who may or may not be a vampire. Romero leaves this
up to the audience to decide. The master filmmaker also touches upon subjects
such as religious beliefs (both too strict and too casual), mental illness
(perhaps caused by a strict, religious upbringing), the healing/saving power of
love and understanding, disbelief in things that have yet to be proven, and how
such disbelief can allow someone/something dangerous to move about freely in
the world, just to name a few.
Although he is known for a plethora of
thoughtful and entertaining films (The
Crazies (1973), Creepshow,
Knightriders, Two Evil Eyes, The Dark Half, Bruiser, etc.), many of which
he made alongside special makeup effects master and longtime friend Tom Savini,
the pioneering Romero will forever be remembered for his series of scary,
gore-filled and thought-provoking zombie films.
If the word zombie has become synonymous with
George Romero, then there’s only one phrase that springs to mind whenever
someone mentions writer/director Tobe Hooper: “chain saw”. A native of Austin
Texas and a former college professor, Hooper’s name was put on the horror map
after the 1974 release of his now legendary, low-budget, living hell of a horror
movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; a
film about a crazed family who hunt, kill and eat humans (in this film, it’s a
group of hippie friends) in order to survive after “progress” has made them
obsolete. Chain Saw’s savagery was
inspired by violent Vietnam War news reports which Hooper would view nightly on
television. Few who saw this indie masterwork back in the day have ever
forgotten the absolutely shocking first appearance of the film’s central
villain, Leatherface (the late Gunnar Hansen); a cannibalistic, chain saw-wielding
killer who wore a mask made of human flesh. The terrifying film, which shows very
little onscreen gore, not only became an enormous hit which, to date, has
spawned four sequels, a remake and two prequels, but its influence on horror
cinema is immeasurable. A true artistic work, Chain Saw, which also stars the late Marilyn Burns and features
narration from John Larroquette, now has a permanent place at the Museum of
Modern Art in New York.
Hooper, who loved the horror genre as much as Romero did, went on to direct over a dozen more entertaining genre films throughout his illustrious career; some of the best being the Chainsaw-like Eaten Alive (1977), the 1979 television adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and the enormously popular, Steven Spielberg-produced Poltergeist (1982).
Hooper, again like George Romero, has not only become an icon of the horror genre thanks to his pioneering work, but also has an underrated film; two films, in fact. The first would be The Funhouse (1981); Hooper’s excellent contribution to the slasher craze of the early 1980s. Instead of the usual silent, mask-wearing, knife-wielding killer, Hooper gives us a screaming, grotesque human anomaly with razor-sharp claws that lives inside a carnival funhouse and stalks four teens who have witnessed him commit murder. Hooper’s masterful use of the widescreen frame, which he employed here for the very first time, greatly enhances his already impressive visuals. This fantastic and fun film has a lot more going for it than many of the typical slasher movies of the time, both in character and imagery.
It isn’t surprising that Hooper’s second underrated work is a sequel to the film that gave him a career. Twelve years after the release of the cinematic classic that he will forever be remembered for, Tobe Hooper revisited Leatherface (this time played by Bill Johnson) and the rest of his cannibalistic clan in 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. This time around, however, the accent was on black comedy and bloody special effects rather than terror and suspense/tension as the chainsaw family, in order to make a good living, now runs a chili restaurant on wheels and uses their hapless victims as meat. It’s a sick (in a good way, of course), humorous, wild and gore-filled ride which also has a few things to say about yuppies and capitalism. Chainsaw 2 was underappreciated in its day, but is now finally getting some of the respect it deserves. The film also features two-time Academy Award nominee Dennis Hopper, Jim Siedow (returning from the original) and newcomers (at the time) Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects) and Caroline Williams (Stepfather 2); not to mention some amazing FX work from aforementioned makeup maestro Tom Savini.
The works of both men have not only been enormously influential, but have also taken the horror genre to completely new levels while thoroughly entertaining legions of fans for decades. Many of their films weren’t just made for profit (and certainly had no intentions of spawning sequels or franchises); they were partly made to express their true feelings about the state of the world at the time they were created in the hope of inspiring positive change. With these two great artists gone, horror cinema now has a void that will probably never be filled. On an upbeat note, their amazing films will live on forever and continue to entertain and inspire many including myself. On behalf of all their fans, I’d not only like to sincerely thank them both, but I’d also like to say, “Rest in peace, George and Tobe. You are both sorely missed.”