TIFF unleashes a treat of a seasonal program that showcases the films of horror legend George A. Romero, with appearances from the man himself.
There is arguably no one who has shaped horror film more than director George A. Romero. And so “Living Dread,” a retrospective of some of Romero’s best work, is a timely piece of programming. It starts at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Halloween.
For series programmer Colin Geddes, there was no question that Romero was the perfect choice for the season. “His influence is so far-reaching, particularly if you look at the mass media acceptance—and almost saturation, at this point—of zombies,” Geddes said.
Romero is scheduled to discuss his works on stage on Halloween night (Geddes will act as his interviewer), and he’ll also introduce some of his films over the course of the event. But the director’s generosity with his time wasn’t the only reason Geddes decided to follow through with “Living Dread.” Another consideration was the fact that Romero is a local. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that George lives in Toronto,” Geddes said. “He’s actually a permanent resident of Canada and he’s chosen to live in our city. So what better way to spend Halloween than with one of our own.”
Here’s a look at some of the program’s highlights, with commentary from Geddes.
Wednesday, October 31, 9:30 p.m.
Before Tales From The Crypt emerged on television, and before The Simpsons unleashed its first “Treehouse of Horror” episode, there was Creepshow, an anthology of spooky stories that united Romero with Stephen King. The shorts range in quality, but the sense of fun on display is refreshing, especially in an era when torture films like Human Centipede now masquerade as entertainment. Of the five vignettes, there are two about people coming back from the dead for revenge, with the best one starring Leslie Nielsen as a man seeking a cruel justice against his wife and her lover (Ted Danson). Some of the effects don’t hold up that well, as in a segment entitled “The Crate,” where the monster looks a little like the Abominable Snowman from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Anyone with a fear of cockroaches may want to leave before the final tale, in which a rich hermit’s bug problem escalates to truly unsettling proportions.
Colin’s take: “It’s just a really fun film, throwing back to the old EC horror comic books from the 1950s. It screams ‘Trick or Treat’—that’s what I’ll say.”
Thursday, November 1, 6:30 p.m.
With vampires being so in vogue right now, it’s interesting that the 1976 film Martin was so ahead of its time in the way it deconstructs and reassembles the genre. Despite looking like an average teenager, Martin (John Amplas) claims to be in his 80s when he’s sent to live with some members of his extended family in Pittsburgh. He insists to his devoutly Catholic uncle (Lincoln Maazel) and his compassionate cousin (Romero’s now ex-wife Christine Forrest) that there’s no magic to what he is. He regularly calls into a radio show to debunk common vampire misconceptions while the DJ humours him. Targeting the stay-at-home moms in the area, he sets about taking victims in suspenseful and startlingly realistic scenes. To this day, the film remains fresh, creepy, and subversively funny.
Colin’s take: “Out of all of (Romero’s) films, he’s referenced it being his favourite child, as it were. It’s looking at Catholic guilt, psychosis, and the crumbling American landscape.”
Dawn Of The Dead
Saturday, November 3, 7:30 p.m.
Having already established the conventions of the zombie film with Night Of The Living Dead in 1968, Romero adopted an entirely different perspective a decade later for its sequel, Dawn Of The Dead. At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything revolutionary in this tale of a small group of people seeking shelter from a mysterious plague that is transforming humans into flesh-eating savages. When the survivors take refuge in a shopping mall, however, the zombies almost become secondary to a developing social commentary—one that takes aim at a culture based on the constant need for distraction. Certainly, there is still a great deal of gore on display. In fact, Dawn of the Dead‘s exploding heads and festering wounds laid the foundation for all future zombie effects. It’s as if Romero realized that once he had people’s attention with what they had paid to see, he could then use the framework of the genre to speak to bigger issues that were affecting society.
Colin’s take: “It’s a scathing satire of pop consumerism, obviously with the mall culture, and with how after a while, they’re just bored. It’s interesting that with the  Zack Snyder remake—considering that we live in a culture ruled by Starbucks and convenience—I thought they would dive into that, but they didn’t even touch it.”