The films of George A. Romero are harder to decipher than most – not difficult in cohesiveness like a David Lynch film but veiled in a thick disguise. Romero’s films are generally loved within horror circles, stemming mainly from his Living Dead series. Romero’s writing style is based in the horror genre, but his underlying social commentary is the foundation of all his screenplays. While a typical person can revel in Romero’s horrific excess and be completely enthralled in the unusually terrifying environment, film scholars have decided to lift the masquerade of Romero’s gore and violence to deduce the underlying meanings in his films. Before doing such deep thinking, the major and consistent themes of the George A. Romero style must be assessed and presented in a comparative study.
Using two pillars of his career, George Romero’s style and intentions can adequately be measured between the underrated 1977 modern vampire tale, Martin, an indifferent commercial film incased within a seminal 1970’s cinematic aesthetic, and Romero’s personal genre-defining horror epic, 1978’s zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, a more literal film that achieves a greater amount of weight with distance and time. Both films represent the best of George A. Romero’s career not in subject matter, but in defining himself as the “outlaw” independent auteur he has grown known as. Both Martin and Dawn deal with dramatic undertones within ridiculous circumstances, like a young teenage vampire acting out in poor urban American and a band of outsiders seeking refuge in a shopping mall during a zombie holocaust. Romero’s style is what elaborates his hidden agendas instead of using scripted hints, which makes each film standout as important examples within the horror genre and cinema as a whole. The family drama on exhibit in Martin could have easily been told without the vampire storyline, but Romero knows his style of methodically creating mood through the environment is better used within the tense-nature of horror films. The social satire on consumer culture within Dawn of the Dead seems to want to lend itself to a slapstick comedy, but Romero realizes that the violent nature of his exploitation flicks are rooted in the ideals of having a distinct look and challenging the moral limits of cinema – Romero just attempts to challenge the viewer to see through the blood and entrails to his subversive political statement.
Romero’s films are highly stylized, not in the vein of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill or Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, but produced in a unique way to isolate the viewer within a new subgenre of horror. This element of Romero’s production is clearly seen in Martin as Romero throws caution to the wind in terms of cinematic method – a return to his humble beginnings ala Night of the Living Dead. In both Dawn of the Dead and Martin, Romero’s most important elements of style fall within the composition of the image in terms of cinematography and his ability to use extreme themes to propel the underlying narrative. While Romero and Michael Gornick, his cinematographer on both films, are not known for the composition of their images, it is clearly evident that the delicate development of these images drives the narrative. When the cinematography seems out of place in times, it is always supplemented and supported by the progression of the narrative – the connection between the image and narrative is what defines a “Romero” picture.
One year before Romero was summoned by Dario Argento to Rome to write the sequel to Night of the Living Dead, he was finishing up production on a modern vampire story for an American audience that was exhausted by the many incarnations of the Dracula myth. The story of Martin couldn’t have been filmed within proper limits in terms of cinematography, so the self-taught Romero composed the film as if it was a “Afternoon Special” – a made for television public service announcement about the dangers of being a teenage vampire. The camera in the film is present and the angles sharp, as if Romero wants the viewer to notice the differences between his vampire story and the Dracula films of Universal. The polished nature of Romero’s later works is definitely not on exhibit in Martin, and it is evident through the sheer composition of the images that Romero has refused to be influenced by the standard Hollywood code of filmmaking. In the long sequences where Romero defines Martin’s hometown, the cinematography resembles a how-to manual for photography. For example, he uses natural framing, like a rusted steel bridge, to incase Martin, exuding the idea that he is within a world not of his own creation. The film is full of frequent visual perspective changes, and in other films it would feel amateurish, but in Romero’s tale, it just adds layers to the odd tale of rejection and the supernatural.
Martin’s teenage story is obtuse within the vampire subgenre because there is very little dread felt for the victims within film and more for Martin himself as he deals with his uncontrollable desire. As Martin moves from one victim to the next, Romero does not attempt to characterize these women in peril, a strong decision but one that is weighted in the Romero style. While a more complete film would take each much more time in characterizing the victims, Romero does not see the film from the eyes of the audience. The audience is suppose to step in the awkward shoes of Martin, a boy confused by elders and defined by his uncontrollable need to feed his bloodlust and loneliness. Martin is a simple narrative that prides itself on fleshing out Martin as a stricken victim instead of as a horrendous monster. To do this, Romero implements a slow and methodical setup to allow for Martin to express himself through his emotions opposed to his horrific actions – a similar method was used in Romero’s unsuccessful 1972 witchcraft exposé Season of the Witch. Combining the masterful acting of a sincere John Amplas with the shadows produced by the gloomy cinematography, Romero utilizing this method to elevate Martin in terms of mood because it adjusts the audience’s comfort, allowing for the viewer to feel more claustrophobic within the foreboding setting and become more willing to give Martin the benefit of the doubt. In the opening scene, we see a young woman board a train and have a short conversation with a man. Then it cuts to the young Martin, staring at the woman from the shadows, but even though it sounds as if it was a clichéd shot like when a killer stalks a victim from the shadows, it was made more unsettling by Martin’s age and longing looks. The shadows seem to devour young Martin in this scene, and he then brings these shadows into the cabin with the young woman. Each character is framed the same in the center of the image, a signature Romero style point, and this gives a greater truth to even the most insignificant characters, like Martin’s first victim on the train. A manipulative decision, but one Romero uses to great effect in order to flesh out the narrative.
One year later, Romero would return to his subversive roots with Dawn of the Dead, but this time, it was a polished return. Differing from Martin, the camera in Dawn is less present and more static – trading the wandering cinematic eye for a more sophisticated presentation of the material within the film medium. Romero brings his signature cinematic eye to the second Living Dead film, continuing many of the same cinematic conventions he began in Martin. The idea of close-ups are used more effectively within Dawn of the Dead, as Romero mirrors each image of our heroes with the image of a member of the undead army. Using this element of his personal style, Romero creates an important difference between his film and other zombie films, and that is the humanity he extends to his zombies – judging them fairly and not using them as villains. The filmmaker craftily creates the illusion that these “things” are not monsters but just a mirror image of our own society. They have families and friends, homes, children, and jobs — just like all of us. But at the same time, they represent some of the more negative aspects of our culture, most notably the herd mentality that is fostered by excessive consumerism. Even though it is subtext within Romero’s script, it is exhibited subtly – maybe almost subliminally – through the images.
The biggest element of the cinematography within Dawn is Romero’s continual use of centering the characters within the frame. When the characters would enter a new environment, and more specifically when they would conquer said environment, Romero would compose the frame in a way that the characters were the lone pillars but the setting was uncontrollably greater than the humans. For example, when the four survivors look out over the conquered mall from their second-level paradise in front of JC Penney’s, Romero seems to set the camera further back, framing all the characters within the constraints of the mall’s rigid structure.
The one major difference in cinematography between both films is that Romero’s 1978 zombie classic has a richer color palette than most of Martin, with the except of the final scene. The gore within Dawn of the Dead is less like the horrific nature of recent cinema and more like EC Comic slapstick mayhem, a conscious decision by George A. Romero. Using a soft Technicolor-esque picture quality, Romero combines the blandness of the mall with the outrageousness of the fake blood and gore to nail home his agenda. The marriage of both the extreme gore and the sterilized shopping center is something differing from Romero’s earlier efforts, but that is only because the setting is what defines the progression of the narrative within Dawn of the Dead.
The use of the mall as the primary setting and catalyst within the film is not a blessing but an obstacle, despite the fact that audiences remember the film as the “one in the mall”. Romero has to overcome the strange safe-haven within the film, not to mention the ludicrous nature of the situation. While most horror films take the easy way out and attempt to make a film within the laws of the film’s subgenre, Romero always tries to challenge himself to elevate both the subgenre and the respectability of the horror genre. Using these cinematographic elements, Dawn of the Dead does not linger long within the constraints of the zombie genre, and soon the audience is roaming the mall with the survivors, uncovering certain truths about American consumer culture.
The color palette of the film in relation to the narrative is buried deep within the many scenes of dismemberment and death. If the film used more realistic gore like what is shown in a film like Saving Private Ryan, the overall tone of the film would move from satirical into a visceral nightmare – an element already prevelant in the screenplay of Dawn of the Dead. The use of bright colors is what makes Dawn of the Dead so brilliant – it uses these colors to show the complex nature of the inhumanity within the mall. While most viewers would likely point to the physical brutality — the arm-biting in the tenement building at the beginning of the film or the motorcycle massacre scene at the end – as the most disturbing elements of the film, it is the emotional and social viciousness that strikes the deepest. In these calmer scenes, like Steven’s zombie death at the end, the colors become more elaborate and less muted like the intestine eating scene during the biker raid. As the movie moves from the red-carpeted television studio to the bland shopping center, the heroes of this story devolve from their rebellious nature into such a meaningless existence as they protect the mall as if it was another member of their team. As a filmmaker, Romero might not be the most polished and he most definitely doesn’t have access to the best tools, but he understands that his style can create the films he longs to make. While others have highly stylized looks, like Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, Romero has developed a style that is not easily visible to the average moviegoer. He has a long career of developing into a world-class filmmaker without out having to rely on homage, and his style is born out of his failures like Season of the Witch and his overwhelming successes like Martin and Dawn of the Dead.