Monday, July 17, 2017

Remembering George A. Romero and Martin Landau

Yesterday hit us with a double whammy: we lost both Martin Landau and George Romero. Fun fact: Martin Landau played "Leonard," the henchman to James Mason's "Vandamm" in North by Northwest, and a young George Romero worked as as a gofer or production assistant on that film. I don't know that their professional lives ever crossed again, but I wanted to take a minute to say thank you and celebrate these two artists, both of whom had a profound effect on me, personally, and on countless others.

I heard about George Romero's passing first, so let's talk zombies. It's hard to imagine a time in pop culture without zombies, but it wasn't that long ago. Richard Matheson, whose excellent novel I Am Legend has been made into movies several times, none of which particularly pleased him, felt that the best adaptation of his book was an unofficial one — Night of the Living Dead. I think Matheson's claims were a little overblown, but one thing both writer and filmmaker had in common were the focus on and exploration of humans making destructive decisions in the face of constant assault by the murderous victims of the...plage, or cosmic rays, or whatever. The great innovations of Night of the Living Dead that make it totally distinct from I Am Legend are the mindlessness of the zombies — they are unthinking, unfeeling forces of malevolence that cannot be reasoned with, spoken to, dissuaded, or deterred — and the realization that you may bar the door, but when you look around at the people in the house with you, you've just locked yourself in with monsters, too.

As an independent filmmaker and low-budget director, I certainly have my heroes like Roger Corman, but it's mostly individual movies that stand out to me as brilliant, innovative, creative battles fought against a paucity of resources and in which the filmmakers managed to make something enduring. Night of the Living Dead is one of those movies. I have raved to many people about the scene where Ben nails boards over the doors and windows. It's a loooong scene, and all you see is a guy hammering nails into boards. It's visually boring. It breaks the "show, don't tell" rule that every film professor and directing book ever has held up as a mantra. But when you have zero dollars, sometimes you don't have the luxury of "showing." What Romero did is not only brilliant and inexpensive, but it is far, far more effective than the alternative you've seen a million times since, where you watch ranks of shambling zombies closing in. He plays the radio in the background. That's it. The unfolding news reports ratchet the dread up, and up, and up. Night of the Living Dead is masterful filmmaking. Romero was also on record as saying he drew inspiration from Carnival of Souls one of my favorite films, so he'd have a warm, fuzzy place in my heart just for that.

An editor friend of mine also pointed out that Romero not only created the template for zombies that has now arguably reached its zenith, but he also created a template for independent filmmakers. Romero worked making commercials and even Mister Rogers segments to make his own films on his own time. This is how we all roll these days, but it was new stuff in 1968.

Most of the remembrances and obits I've seen or heard on Martin Landau say "best known for the 1960s TV series Mission: Impossible," and that may well be, though I've never seen it. As a young actor, Martin Landau was absolutely chilling. Watch him in the Twilight Zone episode "Mr. Denton on Doomsday." I've already mentioned his role in North by Northwest, which prompted one of my favorite Hitchcock stories. As Landau told it, he was nervous working on the movie — it was his first film, for God's sake! — and particularly nervous because he had decided to play Leonard as a gay man. So there he is on set, playing his scenes having made this huge (especially in 1958) choice, and Hitchcock isn't even talking to him...just not acknowledging him in any way. So finally Landau approaches Hitchcock and asks if there's anything he needs to change, or any notes, and Hitchcock says (please read in your best, however terrible, Alfred Hitchcock voice), "Martin, when you're doing something I don't like, I'll tell you."

But the thing that puts Martin Landau on my own personal Mount Rushmore is his protrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. It would probably be hard to overstate the impact that movie had on me. I'd been interested in old horror movies from a very young age. I remember the local TV station (there was only one...ABC, NBC, CBS, and local Channel 20) showing tinted prints of Frankenstein and Dracula, as they were sometimes shown on their initial theatrical releases when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, and I was transfixed. But until I got into high school and was able to hit video stores on my own, there wasn't a ton of access to old horror or sci-fi movies. The Million Dollar Movie was often a spaghetti western or action movie, and we didn't have anything like Vampira or Elvira's late-night shows featuring those old public domain movies. It just so happened that Ed Wood came out my first year in high school, and White Zombie's La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1 came to national prominence within the same few months. The profundity of Martin Landau's performance as Bela Lugosi, introducing me to a performer's previously unknown second act hit me at the same time as an album full of samples taken from Night of the Living Dead, Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, and the Boris Karloff The Mummy. Those two things helped cement in me a fascination with B-movies, independent film, outsider cinema, name it. Ed Wood remains the greatest movie about movies ever made. Don't even talk to me about The Player. I don't give a damn about your Wellesian long-take at the beginning of your movie if you don't have Martin Landau-as-Bela Lugosi in a puddle of water flopping around the arms of a rubber octopus as he pretends its killing him.

It would probably be wrong to not mention Landau in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which the avuncular, mild-mannered personality we had sort of come to expect from Martin Landau masked the awful, vengeful aspect that he also had inside as a performer, on display back in those early Twilight Zone episodes. But his Bela Lugosi is everything. I have been directing films and videos for almost twenty years now. I guarantee that on more of those shoots than not, either I or somebody else in the cast or crew has said either, "Let's shoot this fucker!" or, "Bullshit! I'm ready now!" Many are the times during our annual October horror-a-thons my wife or I have looked at each other and said, "Karloff? Sidekick? FUCK YOU!!!"

One of those October viewing parties gave rise to the EP I released a few years ago called October, where I wrote a song inspired by Ed Wood. No other song on the album was inspired by any film more recent than 1963. As good as Johnny Depp is as Edward D. Wood, Jr., it is Landau who has always spoken the most clearly to me in that film. And on the EP, I sequenced it (of course) right after "Dracula, 1931."

Both of these men had long lives, and left tremendous bodies of work behind. I feel their loss, but mainly, I celebrate all that they gave as artists. It's one thing to be able to enjoy stuff like The Walking Dead that owes so much to Romero, or to be able to enjoy the many, excellent performances Martin Landau gave over his long, long career in front of the camera. But these two guys had a material impact on the course of my life, and I'm just so, so grateful that they were willing to stand up on the side of outsiders and weirdos and iconoclasts and help show a way forward for more of them.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather since 2012, Emmy-winning producer, and folk musician.