George A. Romero’s Feminist Themes

Yesterday, we lost the most influential filmmaker to the horror genre in generations. George A. Romero was single-handedly responsible for creating the zombie sub-genre with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Known more for his themes of anti-consumerism, he also wove threads of the changing roles of women in society throughout the narratives of many of his films. On first glance, one might say that Night is outright sexist in its representation of women. I used to think this way. The adult female characters in are all ineffectual. Barbara is comatose from having witnessed her brother’s death, Helen Cooper speaks her mind but never really does anything and is constantly overshadowed by her loud-mouthed husband Harry. Worst of all, we have Judy who stupidly follows the lead of her boyfriend Tom all the way to their deaths.

But there is one more female that must not be overlooked. Karen Cooper, the feverish little girl who was bitten by a zombie prior to the start of the film. She is the future. It is surely no coincidence that she utterly destroyers the previous generation, stabbing and consuming them. Karen generates the biggest impact (and the biggest scare) of the entire film. Even today, with more almost 50 years of gore in its wake, the garden trowel scene loses no impact. Drawing a parallel with societal change, the scene is violent, painful and leaves the viewer feeling shocked and slightly sad.

For the next 2 decades, Romero’s subsequent films consistently featured stories concerned with the role of women in society as perceived by both themselves as well as the men around them.

Season of the Witch (1971), which was originally titled Jack’s Wife, is not a horror film, although it does contain the plot device of witchcraft. Produced in 1971 Season of the Witch (1971) is very much a reflection of the time period when feminism and Women’s Liberation were gaining traction in America. The lead character of Joan (Jan White, who coincidentally shares her name with a very real famous witch) is very much “a product of traditional patriarchy who seeks individualism and freedom from oppressive conformity” (Wilson).

The first scene in the film is a dream in which Joan follows her husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) through the woods obediently. He ignores her and allows the branches he is parting to whip back and scratch her face as he passes through. Further on, Joan sees an image of herself swinging happily on a tree-swing dressed completely in symbolic white. Before Joan can reach out to her own self- image and grab happiness, Jack reaches into the frame, attaches a collar to her neck, and leads her around on a leash for the remainder of the sequence. The scene ends with Joan receiving a smack on the nose with a newspaper and she is then left alone in a kennel while Jack is away. In match-cut that retains Joan’s seated position in the cage, she is suddenly sitting in her home, creating the visual association that Joan’s home is like a cage.

Joan is led around by a realtor, who describes her life to her as if it were everything anyone could ever want. The house is nice and up to date for the time period. Her kitchen has all the best appliances and her closet has “all the latest styles” but the dream turns into a nightmare when Joan once again encounters her doppelganger. Instead of being happy as she was on the swing, this time she is an old hag who has wasted her life being “Jack’s wife.” When Joan awakens in her bedroom, reality and the nightmare are the same. Reflecting Romero’s typical anti-consumerist stance, an outwardly appearing ideal socio-economic situation s actually a slow death for Joan where she will grow old and die lest she break out of her role as a financially dependent wife and mother and become her own person.

Mirrors feature prominently within the overall mise-en-scene and help to illustrate the shallowness of Joan’s attempt at an internal transformation via external sources. There are many shots of Joan inspecting her face and other parts of her body as well as applying make-up to help turn back the clock. Beauty is only skin deep and therefore not very different from the labels that society places on women. To truly change and become happy, Joan will have to reject her social conditioning, and embrace an ideology more progressive for the time period.

Following a visit with her friend to a local self-proclaimed witch for a Tarot card reading, Joan is intrigued and immediately converts from Catholicism to Magick. She embarks on an affair with a younger man and eventually kills her abusive husband “accidentally” as she believed him to a be a prowler.

The dog imagery at the open of the film comes full circle to the end where she is tied up with a collar during her initiation rights into the local Coven. She is now making her own decision to be objectified, even if she is not consciously aware of it. True change was difficult for women in that time, even for those who desired it.

By 1978, Dawn of the Dead’s Fran (Gaylen Ross) has a career, speaks her mind, learns to shoot and becomes a helicopter pilot, despite being pregnant. She is smart and quickly adapts to the new reality of the zombie apocalypse, even when her macho male counterparts suffer from battle fatigue. In 1985’s Day of the Dead, we have a lead zombie-fighting, gun-toting scientist named Sarah (Lori Cardille), who was perhaps the most badass of all his female characters. It’s her movie and she carries it well.

1980’s Knightridgers gave us Romero’s most richly diverse cast of females. The film deals with highly principled motorcycle enthusiast Billy Davis (Ed Harris) who wishes to live outside the confines of an increasingly shallow and materialistic society. To accomplish this, he creates his own private Camelot in the form of a self-sufficient medieval style community where the members move from town to town putting on motorcycle jousting shows for the local citizenry.

The group includes artistic misfits from just about every walk of life. There are bi-racial couples, homosexuals, doctors, entertainers and craftspeople, who have made a “conscious adult decision” to live under low-income conditions in exchange for the ability to live as they wish outside the conventions of “normal” society.

The women inside the group are portrayed as strong and independent. At first, bike mechanic Angie (Christine Romero), who is constantly cheated on by her boyfriend Morgan (Tom Savini), puts up with a lot. But, once she realizes her value as a human being at the behest of her gay friend Pip (Warner Shook), she speaks her mind freely and confronts Morgan telling him that although there is no one else right now that she is interested in “someday there will be.” Additionally, the lesbian character of Rocky, quickly identifies as one of the best bikers in the group.

Conversely, life on the outside in the “normal” world is portrayed as lonely and shallow for women. Julie Dean (Patricia Tallman) is a bubble-headed sweet teenager who runs away from her abusive home to join the group and embark on a whirlwind romance with Billy’s favorite knight Alan (Gary Lahti). The girl’s father is portrayed as an oafish drunkard who beats his wife, Helen (Iva Jean Saraceni) regularly. In the best shot in the film, we see Helen crying in her kitchen, dwarfed by large, neutral colored empty walls.

After realizing Julie is too young for him, Alan brings Julie home and leaves her crying on the curb in front of her house. When the light in the front room turns on, Julie raises her head with an expression of abject fear. Her father will beat her for running away. Rather than give the audience resolution on the matter, we never see this character again. It is an editorial choice that resigns the audience to the depressing fact that things like this happen all the time. Knights in shining armor aren’t real and sometimes, men just suck.

Although his output dwindled in quality over the last 10 years, George A. Romero will always remain a legend for creating the flesh-eating living dead sub-genre. I’d like to remember him as a feminist as well.

 

Works Cited

Belton, John. American Cinema American Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2009.

Dawn Of The Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Gaylen Ross, Ken Foree, Scott             Reiniger and David Emge. Laurel Entertainment, 1978.

Gagne, Paul R. The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero.

New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1987.

Knightriders. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Christine Forrest and Patricia Tallman. Laurel Entertainment, 1980.

Nemiroff, Perry. “Interview: Survival Of The Dead Writer-Director George A. Romero.”

Cinemablend.com. May, 2010. < http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Interview-Survival-   Of-The-Dead-Writer-Director-George-A-Romero-18735.html

Season Of The Witch. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Jan White, Bill Thunhurst and Ray Laine.     The Latent Image Group, 1971.

Williams, Tony. The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight Of The Living Dead.

Great Britain: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Wilson, Brian. “George A. Romero.” Senses of Cinema. November, 2006.

< http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/07/romero.html#biblio

4 Forgotten Films To Watch On Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and though there are plenty of newer films available to honor the day, why not celebrate the feminine with a few forgotten old school films? None of the films on this list were commercial blockbusters at their time of release but all of them are now highly respected and/or considered classics with the added benefit of having kick-ass soundtracks. Enjoy.

Season of the Witch (a.k.a Jack’s Wife) (1972) Dir: George A. Romero

Season of hte Witch

Image ©Arrow Video

The only film on the list written and directed without the input of a woman, this film nonetheless shows remarkable insight into the minds of aging housewives in the late 1960’s at the dawn of the women’s liberation movement. The plot concerns Catholic housewife Joan (Jan White), who has spent the best years of her life doting on her abusive husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst), and raising her very cool free-thinking daughter, who is now in college and no longer needs her. Despite having all the comforts of a suburban life, she regularly attends therapy sessions for her recurring nightmares in which she is tied up like a dog and left in a kennel by Jack. Eventually, she meets a practicing female occultist and decides to explore “the craft” in an effort to gain meaning and empowerment in her life. The question at the heart of the film is whether witchcraft is responsible for Joan’s ensuing emancipation, or her decisions. She casts spells, but she also initiates practical steps that are in no way supernatural and directly lead to her having an affair with her daughter’s boyfriend, breaking off her relationships with her older, more conservative-thinking female friends, and ultimately to the death of her husband. The power, it seems, was Joan’s all along and it is her decision alone who she will submit to. No irony is spared when we see her dead husband being carted away on a stretcher intercut with images of her kneeling down, completely nude for indoctrination into her local coven. Entirely happy with her new identity, the film’s conclusion is nonetheless haunting as it seems the rest of the world has yet to catch up with the new modern Joan as she is still referred to socially as “Jack’s wife.”

In the UK, Arrow Video will be releasing this film later this year on Blu-Ray. Definitely check it out.

Foxes (1980) Dir: Adrian Lyne

FOXES400

Image ©Warner Home Video

Starring a young Jodie Foster and The Runaways’ Cherie Curie, the film follows the friendship of a group of girls in L.A. in their last year of High School in the late ‘70s. Although each girl has a coming-of-age storyline, the plot’s focus lies mainly with latchkey kid Jeanie (Foster), and her close relationship with her druggie friend Annie (Curie) who constantly parties to avoid going home to her physically abusive policeman father. Director Lyne is no stranger to drawing complex authentic performances from his female actors as evidenced by his excellent take on Nabokov’s Lolita (1997) and this film is no exception. Jeanie is not just a kid. She’s the smartest person in the room even when she’s with her mother or her teachers. She takes care of everyone and everything. Consequently, she has difficulty finding people who will look after her when she needs it. Her parents are divorced and both act younger than her. After tragedy befalls one of their group, Jeanie leaves them all behind for college and hopefully a better future.

Times Square (1980) Dir: Allan Moyle

Time Square

Image ©Network Video

This film is probably my favorite on the list. The development of the unlikely friendship between shy well-off Pam (Trini Alvarado) and volatile street musician Nicky (Robin Johnson) into the Sleeze sisters, who become beloved by all the young girls in the city for their take no bullshit attitude and music is only enhanced by the backdrop of decaying 1980 Manhattan, which almost becomes a character in and of itself with the age-old question of culture vs. gentrification featuring prominently. The changing city has an important impact on the way these divergent girls come together to understand each other, their sexualities, and the outside commercial world. In the end, the message is one of rebellion, self-expression and believing in yourself, even when at odds with those closest to you. As if those weren’t enough reasons to see it, the soundtrack rocks and Tim Curry plays a DJ.

Girls Town (1996) Dir: Jim Mckay

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Image ©Lions Gate Films

Not to be confused with the 1950’s Mamie Van Doren movie, this title is another film about the last year of high school, this time set in gritty urban New Jersey. The film follows a gang of four girls (Lili Taylor, Bruklin Harris, Anna Grace and Aunjanue Ellis) one of who is a single teen mother to a little girl, who must cope in the aftermath of the rape and subsequent suicide of one of their group. Feelings of rage, sadness and hopelessness cause the surviving three to act out towards in various ways, to just about everyone in their periphery despite the prospect of college and a better future. The girls become closer in their shared trauma but and they know in their hearts, that no matter where any of them end up in life, this will be the event that defines their friendship. The writing (with contributions from co-star Lily Taylor) is especially poignant when dealing with mother-daughter issues and the guidance or lack thereof provided after the incident. This one is hard to find as it was only ever made available on VHS, but it is worth looking for the occasional screenings on IFC, which is where I first discovered it. The performances are incredibly strong and the soundtrack features some great music from that era, including Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y., which is used to great affect as the girls patrol their neighborhood spoiling for a fight.