I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Ode to George Romero, Tobe Hooper and the Masters of Horror

After two years I was finally starting to get used to a post-Wes Craven world – now all the sudden we Fangorians find ourselves heading into Fall minus George Romero and Tobe Hooper, two of the largest shadows in horror. Like Craven, both of them made an iconic horror classic early on, and remained primarily in the genre for their whole careers, delivering many other gems across multiple decades. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE are two of my most obsessed upon horror films, the two that seem to take turns being my All Time Favorite on any particular day. Just as important, Romero and Hooper each maintained a distinct voice that made their weaker movies still interesting when taken in context with the larger body of work.

When I think of Romero I think of independence. He and his Pittsburgh based commercial company Latent Image made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to break into features, a recipe they may have gotten from Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS. For them it worked, but instead of moving to Hollywood, Romero built his empire in Pennsylvania and filmed almost all of his movies there. That includes his first studio movies, MONKEY SHINES and THE DARK HALF, both of which I think are underrated. Since he later moved to Toronto, his last three films, LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, are filmed around there.

Like most people, the Romero movies I’ve watched the most are those first three dead movies. I saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD when I was young (but not young enough to be terrified) and have liked it for most of my life. But when I first saw DAWN it blew my head open. There’s so much to love about it: that appealing zombie-post-apocalypse survival that later took over like 22% of pop culture, the matter-of-fact unrated violence, the vivid seventies-ness of the orangey blood and brown mall furnishings, and of course I got to thinking it was real deep because it was this sort of parody of consumerism. And as I got smarter and saw it more times I found other things in it.

But there’s another Romero movie that actually speaks to me more directly, and that’s KNIGHTRIDERS. I know there are people out there who have not watched this because it’s not a horror movie and it’s super corny and it’s like 2 and a half hours long. But I watched it again the night after Romero died because that’s a movie about how I try to live. No, I am not part of a traveling community who live as knights and joust on motorcycles for entertainment, as the characters in the movie are. If I was, I promise I would tell you. But I love these guys because they have their own weird thing they do, a small fringe thing to most of the world, but to them it’s everything. So they – or at least King Billy, played by Ed Harris – stubbornly live by a code of honor. They don’t have a problem with weirdos or any races or sexual orientations. Their biggest fight is over the purity of the artform when some of them, led by Tom Savini, attempt to go mainstream with a commercialized, compromised version involving disco music. I don’t think Billy disagrees that they should be making more money, he just isn’t willing to do it by compromising this life that he loves. It’s too sacred.

In the end he does loosen up and goes to find a random young fan he had been rude to, and actually gives the kid his sword, which is way better than the autograph he’d asked for in my opinion. I’ve always wanted a sword. Of course, this change in attitude comes (SPOILER) when he’s ready to die. And Romero, too, stuck to his ideals his whole life. Although I wasn’t very satisfied with his last two movies, nobody could say they were paycheck gigs or retreads or going through the motions. He messed with his zombie template to create the heartfelt, audience-challenging independent experiments that were important to him.

Hooper’s trajectory was arguably a little more traditional. He came up out of the independent Austin scene, but soon after his second movie THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE blew up (his first was EGGSHELLS, which I still haven’t seen, though it’s an extra on a region B special edition of TCSM2) he was taking gigs, meeting Steven Spielberg, etc.

But he never let go of that sweaty Texas graverobber mentality. His next movie, EATEN ALIVE, was filmed on a soundstage in California, but might be the sleaziest, most feverish thing he ever created. And it’s certainly clear that THE FUNHOUSE is a relative of CHAIN SAW, even though it’s filmed in Miami. Shit, even the all-about-Los-Angeles THE TOOLBOX MURDERS invites a bunch of dirty weirdos into your home. I guess he never conquered Hollywood – many still claim he didn’t direct his biggest hit (POLTERGEIST) – but at least Hollywood didn’t tame him.

If I had to name only one thing that defines Hooper’s movies to me, it would be the extravagance of their madness. We have discussed, and will continue to discuss, the mechanics of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and why it’s so powerful. But I want to point out specifically the amount of elbow grease that went into this low budget movie made by nobodies staying together in a house that smelled like burning animal corpses (because somebody tried to burn the pile of animal corpses they’d used as props).

Today’s “make a name for yourself” horror hits are often about simplicity. Many have premises that allow for intentionally crappy home video aesthetics. Even the more accomplished, arty ones tend to lean on improvised dialogue, minimal plot and editing, and as few special effects as possible. But Hooper, armed with 16 mm film and Daniel Pearl, made a raw drive-in nightmare that counter-intuitively grows more cinematically beautiful with each successive restoration. And he populates those images not only with the four Hall of Fame screen lunatics Hitchhiker, Old Man/Cook, Grandpa and Leatherface, but with the meticulous details of their reprehensible lifestyle: skin masks, hanging bones and turtle shells, chicken feathers, the wall of animals skulls, the graveyard body sculptures glistening in the Texas sun the morning after a grueling photography session.

Now skip ahead twelve years to Hooper’s second greatest movie and only sequel. Many had noted that TEXAS CHAIN SAW’s outrageousness was partly an illusion – showing and telling just enough about its gruesome ideas to impress them into our imaginations. For part two Hooper ditched subtlety on the side of the road and unleashed full-on Reagan era excess, most notably in the unrated Tom Savini gore and the dark humor that almost taunts the audience like we are victims. (Thankfully most of the broadest comedy, shot by second unit, was excised.) He amplified the cannibal playground by a thousand, building Texas Battle Land’s endless catacombs webbed in Christmas lights, decorated with corpses and skeletons set up with props and in comical poses. The sequel was made quickly and reluctantly under pressure from Cannon Films after they’d bankrolled his insane sci-fi duo of LIFEFORCE and INVADERS FROM MARS, yet it turned out to be the Tobe Hooperest movie ever made.

Is it possible that TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 is also my All Time Favorite?

These recent passings can only lead to a scary realization for me as a fan of this era of horror that spanned the ’70s through the ’90s. There are only a few other “Masters of Horror” on the level of Craven, Romero and Hooper, and I’m not even gonna name them because maybe I’m too superstitious. As many have noted, the few marquee names among later generations of horror directors can never measure up to the accomplishments of these three. These guys didn’t really want to work so exclusively in horror, but there’s something special about the fact that they did, finding so many variations on their themes, communicating ideas in a less literal fashion than they would outside of the genre, and making a stronger connection with their audience. These days a horror director might be more likely to have chosen that path intentionally, but he or she will likely be stuck with micro-budgets their whole career. You don’t get many horror epics these days. You don’t get many Fangoria issues, either.

This month in my Halloween celebrating I plan to do my usual Slasher Searching and hitting up whatever other horror I feel an urge to watch. But I want to be sure to pay tribute to Romero and Hooper as well as other Masters we should be appreciating while they’re still with us. I’ll start with a look at a few of the later Hooper movies I haven’t watched in a long time, and we’ll see where else the month takes us. As always, I love to get suggestions even though I won’t have time to watch most of them before Halloween. That doesn’t mean I won’t watch them later.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 4th, 2017 at 10:44 am and is filed under Blog Post (short for weblog). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Ode to George Romero, Tobe Hooper and the Masters of Horror”

  1. I understand exactly why you love KNIGHTRIDERS. I love it too,man.

  2. Great piece, Vern, and I’m glad you’re finally getting out from under the moving situation.

    For me, what the Masters of Horror represent is integrity. They had/have a point of view and a way of doing things, and no amount of money was enough to get them to go back on that, even if it hurt them professionally. They did it their way their whole lives, and they did it without being assholes. I got nothing but respect, love, and admiration for their journeys and I hope to one day be one-tenth the artist and human being they were/are.

  3. After Wes Craven died I had made my peace with John Carpenter dying one day. Then he started doing things like make music and produce another Halllween. Now when he does die i don’t know if I can deal with it. I’m going to see Jim perform in November. I am going to treasure that night. Anyway, god Bless the true Masters of Horror both alive and dead.

  4. Same thing with Stephen King. If that dude would die, I don´t know if I could handle it.

  5. Correction: Obviously he is not immortal, but I´d like to keep him around for a long, long time. Dude knows humanity intimitaly. And without him I would know a hell of a lot less.

  6. Vern,

    Thanks for this. If you get the chance, please review Tobe Hooper’s “The Funhouse.” It’s a very underappreciated gem. And if you’d like a bit of a nice October watching, Romero wrote the first episode of Tales From the Darkside which is a fantastic Halloween episode

    .

    (And everyone should check out the pilot episode of “Freddy’s Nightmares” that Hooper directed. A Freddy Krueger origin tale directed by the man who brought us TCM!? Oh yes!!!

    Freddy's Nightmare's Episode 1: No More Mr. Nice Guy - Video Dailymotion

    Watch the video «Freddy's Nightmare's Episode 1: No More Mr. Nice Guy» uploaded by strobogo on Dailymotion.

    )

  7. This weekend I’m going to the Music Box of Horrors 24 Hour horror movie festival. They are showing Land of the Dead and The Funhouse in honor of our fallen Masters of Horror.

  8. THE FUNHOUSE gets better every time I see it. It’s got great atmosphere, good performances, and solid writing. I like that the killer is a straight up monster, yet you understand where he’s coming from (he actually has a motivation besides basic revenge or “I saw my mom have sex once and it fucked me up”) and even pity him a little. That’s a lot to get from a character who can’t speak and at no point has any facial expressions.

  9. Unfortunately, I feel like the horror genre is a dying entity as far as mainstream movies go, sure you get the occasional interesting indie joint but that only appeals to a select following, what the mainstream likes is just so toned down these days, it’s amazing to think that ten years ago the big trend was “torture porn” when it’s the total opposite today, I saw THE CONJURING and it’s not a bad movie, but it’s also not something that inspires passion like a DAWN OF THE DEAD or TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE do.

    Point is, you’re never gonna have another generation of dudes like Craven, Romero and Hooper and that’s a real shame.

    By the way Vern, I agree about THE DARK HALF being underrated, Romero manages to capture a certain vibe of King’s work well, I wasn’t too keen on MONKEY SHINES though.

  10. I love the Hooper/Canon trifecta! Glorious and insane films, all. Invaders From Mars freaked me out as a kid (I was young and foolish) but it has always stayed with me.

    And I would also like to send the love to The Dark Half. My friend and I to this day will occasionally just say to each other “You are disturbing… the mood I am in. You are disturbing… the peaceful frame of mind… I am in. You are disturbing my peaceful frame of mind”. Random, yes, but a solid fun flick. (I also love the detail in the beginning when the doctors discover the “tumor” in the kid has an eye that blinks at them, and that one of its’ teeth has a cavity.

  11. I’d hoped you’d do a Hooper series. I watched Spontaneous Combustion the week he died and I’ve been thinking about it since. It falls apart at the end, but gosh does it have a lot of things I like in it. I discribed it to a friend as, ‘Tobe Hooper does Cronenberg,’ and that should be enough to get about anyone exited.

    As to The State of Horror movies, I remember when we were in the torture porn era wishing horror would go supernatural again and then when this current trend started I was upset that I didn’t instead wish for creature features. That said, I think we’re in a pretty good place. Get Out is an all time classic, but more tellingly we’re getting a really interesting slate of horror movies Not For Us. When we talk about horror we usually think of cool and attractive people such as ourselves as ‘real’ horror fans and the teens that actually fill theaters as… mostly annoying people who sometimes show up for real horror films and complain about being bored when we’re trying to watch the movie. We are, of course, 100% right and fuck teens, but the movies trying to get teens’ disposable income these days are way more interesting and better than they have been in years. The biggest one that comes to mind is Light’s Out, a decent short film gimmick stretched out to full length that is used as a metaphor for living with a loved one suffering from mental illness. (Is it good? Eh, but it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than it ought to be.) Or Unfriended, a dumb laptop screen gimmick that’s also pretty fun? Maybe I’m misremembering but I don’t recall disposable teen horror being of this high of caliber in recent memory. Hell, I am told they made to alright movies out of the fucking Ouiji board license. Oh! Also, horror anthologies are big right now. That’s awesome!
    I guess what I am arguing is that I don’t want to write off the genre as a whole just because there’s only a handful of horror movies released in a year that actually appeal to me. I think the internet has really pushed horror shorts into the public eye and the stuff that’s coming out of that space is easily a cut above what we had before, even if I will never watch 99% of it and actually just want the 80’s back.

  12. Not sure if this was coincidental or intentional but last night, at BeyondFest here in LA, they had a double feature celebrating Romero and Hooper. Showed a beautiful 4k restoration of NOTLD and then a great print of TCM. In between they had 4 “masters of horror” speak and talk about the movies as well as Romero and Hooper.

    The funny thing is one of the hosts from BeyondFest also went on and on about how much he loves Knight Riders and made most of the same points you did.

    I don’t really have anything to add, just thought it’s an interesting and crazy coincidence if it was all coincidental.

    I share your feelings throughout this post, and also love Knight Riders. It sucks losing these two legends this year.

  13. Good points, Birch. I’m not as down on the current state of horror as Griff is. I would also mention DON’T BREATHE and some imports like TRAIN TO BUSAN and THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS and there are others I’ve heard good things about that I need to catch up with. My worry is just about the way the business works after piracy and streaming, so that directors of low budget movies no longer can expect to move on to a bigger budget unless they get hired to do a comic book or a star war or something. The type of medium budget, special effects driven studio horror that Craven and Carpenter often did doesn’t exist much anymore. But IT being a smash hit could help with that problem.

  14. Grimgrinningchris

    October 5th, 2017 at 4:51 am

    John Dugan shared and added to a (totally non horror or TCM related) FB post of mine the other night.

    So I’ve got THAT going for me. Which is nice.

    Great article, Vern.
    Somehow with everything else going on and then your little moving hiatus, I had forgotten that it was time to get excited about your October writings.

  15. just wanted to add The Blackcoat’s Daughter and The Wailing to the list of recent horror that was good

  16. The Devils Candy is another good one I think.

  17. Genuinely touching piece about 2 of our greatest masters. Never again will we see filmmakers as unapologetically them as those 2. Especially in the horror genre. I think Don Mancini who was an acolyte of both is about the last one left. Well him and Don Coscarelli but sadly the spirit of that generation of horror filmatists is now generally a relic. With that said….MONKEY SHINES 4 LIFE!!!

  18. Yeah, I’m an idiot because somehow I totally forgot about IT, that could lead the horror genre down some interesting directions.

  19. I wouldn’t hold my breath truth be told. I view IT more as an exception than a forthcoming rule.

  20. Great to have you back in earnest, Vern!

  21. Dude you should review the last film Hooper made, Djinn. All I’ve heard is terrible but maybe you could put a spin to it and convince me and a lot of people to finally watch it.

  22. Both of these hit me hard. Way harder than I expected them to. I already mostly made my feelings known in the DAWN OF THE DEAD and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE threads.

    If there is a silver-lining, I hope this means more people watch and realize that KNIGHTRIDERS is a great movie and not one who ‘What were they think!?’ ones (also everyone catches up with us here and realizes that LAND OF THE DEAD is just fine and not a disaster of epic proportions). Also Hoopers non-CHAINSAW and POLTERGEIST movies get re-valuated. I still need to see DJINN and one other Hooper.

  23. It’s inneresting because based on their filmographies and what I know about them, I don’t think either Romero or Hooper INTENDED to go into horror per say or even really loved the genre. In both of their cases, they aimed towards horror way back when because it has the best chance of low-budget success. But if you would’ve told either one of them when they were making NOTLD or SAW “Hey man, even though you aren’t going to make a damn nickle off this movie, it’s going to MAKE your career, everbody will love it, and people will still be watching it long after we’re all gone!”, jeesus – I think they would’ve looked at ya like you just fell off the stupid truck.

    And of course after that, horror is what they got paid to make, so they made ’em. Some of ’em aren’t great (what the diddy fuck is BRUISER??), some of them are pretty good (THE FUNHOUSE and THE CRAZIES), and some are goddam masterpieces – like you said, KNIGHTRIDERS and SAW 2 but don’t forget MARTIN and SALEM’S LOT, 2 of the best vampire movies ever made, right within a few years of each other.

    While we’re talking about great horror directors that are still kicking around, don’t forget Dave Cronenberg. He might be Canadian, but don’t hold that against him. Long live the new flesh and all that.

  24. I’m at the Music Box of Horrors and before The Funhouse they played an awesome video tribute to Tobe Hooper and if they put it up online I’ll link it.

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