Two Heroes Rise Above Genre Films

by Gary Meyer

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“I’m like my zombies. I won’t stay dead!”

But as of July 16, 2017 the zombies start to outlive horror film master director George A. Romero who passed away while listening to the score for John Ford’s classic The Quiet Man, one of his all time favorite movies.

He was known for a series of horror movies that foretold the current craze of all things having to do with the undead, starting with his 1968 surprise cult hit Night of the Living Dead. There were never references to “zombies” in that film and it wasn’t until Dawn of the Dead that Romero used the term.

Original trailer from a typical poor quality print

I’ll never forget a late afternoon in 1968 when I decided to venture to the Esquire Theatre on Market Street. My girlfriend Cathy (now spouse) and Mike Thomas (future owner of several theaters including the Strand and Warfield up the street) joined me. We probably missed a few college classes that day. It was a triple bill on a​ three day engagement — all three were San Francisco Premieres – all from the eclectic Continental Distributing (Walter Reade).

Dr. Who and the Daleks starred Peter Cushing and was based on the then virtually unknown in the U.S. BBC television series. It was dull with an odd sense of humor.

Next was Ishiro Honda’s Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster, an all-star monster romp with Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra teaming up to battle the Martian monster Ghidrah. That was what we really came for and had such a good time that we thought the bonus, black and white horror feature could only be a letdown.

But no self-respecting grindhouse film lovers would ever want it said we had walked out without giving even the most unpromising reel of celluloid a chance. We stayed and on came the unknown Night of the Living Dead.

After being totally knocked out and maybe a bit frightened, we could not wait to tell everyone we knew to see it in the next two days before it vanished.

Continental originally released it as a Kiddie Matinee and Roger Ebert wrote an especially eye-opening piece about seeing it at a holiday showing in 1968 packed with devastated pre-teens.

​Romero and team did fund a multiple theater Pittsburgh release. But it was later when NOTLD was booked into drive-ins and then revival theaters that it caught on to become the ultimate cult film.

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And—the rest is history—with a few twists and, in 2016, a happy ending for the film.

Because of a copyright mistake the movie went into the public domain and for years bootleg dupe prints and videos flooded the market, even in colorized versions. There was an irony as Romero told the New York Times, “The fact that people were able to show it for free, that anybody was able to distribute it, did result in lots of people seeing it, and keeping the film alive.”

 

It was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress of the United States in 1999.

With help from Martin Scorsese’s non-profit Film Foundation, Katie Trainor at MOMA oversaw a restoration working with Romero and his producers last year. Read about the process.

After a successful screening at MOMA in November Romero called it “closer than anything we’ve seen to the definitive version of the film.”

The interest has been high and it was just announced announced that Janus Films (the theatrical division of the Criterion Collection) will release the 4K restoration of Night of the Living Dead in theaters starting this October. BluRay and DVD versions will be given the full Criterion treatment in 2018.

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Romero directed 16 features and a handful of TV shows.

The Newshour on PBS offers a terrific overview of George Romero’s career and discussion with LA Times film critic Justin Chang.

Read the Variety obituary

and

The Los Angeles Times

A.O. Scott and Jason Zinman discuss his legacy in the New York Times.

Peer Tributes to Romero are here.

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Martin Landau, 22, a cartoonist for the Daily News, working on Billy Rose’s column, Pitching Horseshoes and later working on the Sunday Strip.

“There was a ten-year period where everything I did was bad. I’d like to go back and turn all those films into guitar picks. I can’t even remember most of the titles. I played a lot of heavies, one-dimensional rubbish. No, I wasn’t driving a cab, and yes, I was better off than many people. But I was working for directors who didn’t know anything about acting and stories. They only cared about car chases and explosions. I’m lucky I kept my sanity. It wasn’t pleasant.” –Martin Landau, quoted in The New York Times October 2, 1994.

Martin Landau had an incredible range of parts in a career that started as a cartoonist before moving to acting. He was in summer stock, Off-Broadway and had small roles on TV shows while becoming best friends with James Dean. His Broadway debut was in Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night where he played with his idol Edward G. Robinson.

Alfred Hitchcock saw his performance and hired him to be in his next film. Here Landau discusses his controversial interpretation of a character in North by Northwest.

In the mid-1950s Lee Strasberg invited him to be an acting coach at the Actor’s Studio. He came to Los Angeles to open a west coast branch and among his students were Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, Anjelica Huston, Harry Dean Stanton, Shirley Knight and Oliver Stone.

In the mid 1960s he earned three Emmy nominations in Mission:Impossible on television where he co-starred with his wife Barbara Bain, encoring together in the series Space:1999.  By the end of the 1970s his career seemed over until Francis Coppola asked him to play the title character’s mentor in Tucker:The Man and His Dream and Woody Allen cast him in Crimes and Misdemeanors, both earning the actor Oscar nominations.

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Martin Landau (on the left) as Bela Lugosi (on the right)

He finally won the statue playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.

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 “No one shows their feelings except bad actors,” Landau told Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Keegan in 2012.
 “No one tries to cry. You try not to cry. No one tries to laugh. You try not to laugh . . . In a well-written script, dialogue is what a character is willing to say to another character. The 90 percent he isn’t is what I do for a living.”

 
Romero and Landau never worked together as far as we know.

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