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Document of the Dead   B+

Synapse Films

Year Released: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Roy Frumkes
Writer: Roy Frumkes
Cast: George A. Romero, Tom Savini, Roy Frumkes.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

It's no big secret that the horror genre has largely evolved into pop and fizz. As talented as he is, Wes Craven's Scream single-handedly opened up a new market for slick, polished, glossy genre flicks complete with teenybopper actors, each one prettier than the next. While there's nothing wrong with a little eye candy, it would be nice if some of them could act.

Don't get me wrong -- I thought Scream was a good movie, but ultimately it has a negative effect once every single movie coming down the pike bore more than a passing resemblance to Kevin Williamson's Dawson's Creek. Where's that spark of originality or the personal touch which makes one film different from the next, and why do all these movies look and feel exactly the same?

George Romero

George A. Romero is an unsung hero in the independent film world, especially the low and no-budget horror world. His taboo breaking tale of zombie flesh eaters attacking a farmhouse, Night of the Living Dead, was made on a shoestring and hit the audience like a bullet to the temple. The film may have looked grainy and rough around the edges, the performances uneven, but the audience had a strong, visceral reaction to the sight of ghouls gobbling up entrails.

It wasn't just the gore which shook people up, though God bless George Romero for taking risks. It was the frenetic pace of the film which didn't let up, the sheer number of jarring cuts from one canted angle to the next, an alienating wide shot of a woman in the field shifting its perspective into a hustling medium shot as she runs along. The juxtaposition of disturbing close-ups on household objects with wide action shots of ever increasing ghouls on the lawn outside.

Roy Frumkes, clearly in sheer adoration of his subject matter, created the Document of the Dead in an attempt to hear, in Romero's own words, how he creates a movie.

Dawn of the Dead

As a sample of Movie Production 101, Frumkes does a decent job presenting the stages of Pre-Production (shaking the money tree in the financing stage; finding locations and cast), Production (shooting the film) and Post-Production (editing and distribution) for Romero's mack daddy epic of low-budget horror movies, Dawn of the Dead.

Romero remains an affable subject throughout, speaking without pretensions or academic bluster. He wanders around the mall with Frumkes, or sits in his makeshift office giving detailed answers to every question, smoking like a chimney. He plans for his picture rigorously beforehand, seemingly with miles of storyboards for action sequences (such as the trucks blocking the doors in DotD) and hundreds of pages in his screenplay paying attention to minutiae of detail. While shooting, he combines this careful, pragmatic approach with a spur-of-the-moment, "just shoot it" attitude which allows for new things to happen.

There are also interviews with the key actors from DotD who each say what a heck of a nice guy Romero is -- and more, how specific he is in what he wants. The director of photography and lighting director describe the arduous task of lighting that huge shopping mall without benefit of a blockbuster budget.

Producer Richard Rubenstein goes into his willingness to support Romero's vision and his refusal to compromise an unrated version for potential distributors. He also discusses their luck in securing the shopping mall for virtually nothing, which added enormous production value to the entire picture.

It seems like all of the interview subjects except Romero, Christine Forrest (Romero's wife, assistant director and occasional actor) and makeup wizard Tom Savini were shot out in one day, so they don't get into too much detail. However, they cover enough, and show a willingness to promote their work.

We're treated to some wonderful interviews with Tom Savini, who is as personable, charismatic and thorough as Romero in his responses. He's caught while putting the makeup on an extra, but carries on with the interview undeterred as he zombifies the cast member. What a trooper. We also see Savini pulling off the nifty stunt of being thrown from the balcony in some nice behind-the-scenes footage.

Two Evil Eyes

It's too bad there's no interview footage of Dario Argento, who collaborated with Romero on Dawn of the Dead. Frumkes cuts to 1990 on the set of another Argento-Romero collaboration, Two Evil Eyes. It's nice to see Romero working again, having traded in his pack of cigarettes for a yo-yo. We see Savini (again) pulling off an elaborate FX stunt which takes all night to shoot.

Time has not been kind to Romero or Savini as the film world changes. It has little to do with their talent and more to do with the fact that independent production companies have grown to resemble Hollywood studios. Romero and Savini won't play by their rules, so they're finding it tougher and tougher to get the money to put together their own project. It's sad to see Romero complain about not being able to get a million bucks for a film.

Personal vision is being cast aside in favor of box office dollars at all costs. Tried and true veterans of the horror genre have to kowtow to politics and egos of accounts and money people who have no idea what works within the context of a film. Romero remains affable and easy going, but there's an edge in his voice as he describes how rough it is for the independent filmmaker these days. (It's also sad to hear Savini was pulled from being director of Graveyard Shift, a film which could have been good if he'd been given a shot.)

For me, Document of the Dead was inspiring but ended on a somber note. Why isn't Romero still a role model for indie and horror directors, and why does his name not get bandied about anymore? Perhaps it's that production and distribution companies keep him in turnaround hell for years, or that he's out of fashion. (Or that his last film, The Dark Half, was pretty lousy.)

Still, it's the spirit of Romero which shines through in this documentary. The running time is too short at 84 minutes and a lot remains to be covered, but at least this visionary filmmaker is getting some of the attention he so richly deserves.

Review published 03.09.2001.

* * *

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