There would be no “Walking Dead” without George Romero. This is the first thought that popped into my head when I learned of Romero’s death last week. And when I learned that Martin Landau had died the day before Romero I immediately thought of Bela Lugosi, as well as the interesting irony that one of Romero’s most controversial films is titled “Martin.”
Because understanding pop culture requires you to connect dots that are usually not there, I decided the best way to connect the deaths of two of my favorite movie people is through the lens of horror films. Sure, I know that most people will remember Landau as one of the stars of the TV series “Mission Impossible” and as a particularly nasty villain who dies in a dizzy fall from Mount Rushmore in the Hitchcock classic, “North By Northwest.” I remember him fondly from the two “Twilight Zone” episodes in which he appeared, along with one of my favorite “Columbo” episodes, “Double Shock (1973), which cast him as the maniacal identical twins, Dexter and Norman Paris (I have often wondered if Norman was named in honor of Norman Bates, the Mama’s boy from Hitchcock’s “Psycho”). However, for purposes of this week’s column, I chose to remember Landau most for his Oscar-winning role as the opiate-addicted actor Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s marvelous 1994 film, “Ed Wood.” And we should remember Romero as the man who gave us our modern image of the zombie.
If we define a zombie as a reanimated corpse that has only one purpose in “life”–to feed on human flesh–then we can safely say that George Romero gave us our first major glimpse of this creature in his 1968 classic, “Night Of The Living Dead.” Yes, I know Romero owes a debt to two earlier movies–”The Creature With The Atom Brain” (1955) and “The Last Man On Earth” (1964, starring Vincent Price and based on the novel, “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson)–but these earlier versions of zombies were a far cry from the creatures that surrounded the little white farmhouse in Romero’s film. Before 1968, zombies were generally defined as living people who were under some sort of spell–think Bela Lugosi’s role in “White Zombie” (1932) or the zombies in Val Lewton’s Depression-era classic, “I Walked With A Zombie.” “Night of The Living Dead” and its many progeny invented the modern zombie, and “The Walking Dead” is in so many ways a shameless rip-off of Romero’s classic. And, as a person who long ago became quite bored by “The Walking Dead,” I urge you to watch the excellent horror film, “It Follows” (2014) for an imaginative alternate take on Romero’s earlier vision (or nightmare). When I visited with Tom Savini, the famed horror film make-up artist (and Vietnam veteran) a few years ago, he reminded me that his friend George Romero (who also served in Vietnam), made “Night Of The Living Dead” as a way of exorcizing the Vietnam war demons that had lodged themselves in his soul. I like to see “Night Of The Living Dead” as a satirical attack on door-to-door salesman and/or those really frightening creatures who show up on our doorsteps in a vain attempt to convert us to whatever brand of religion they happen to be selling that day.
Romero is most connected to Landau through Landau’s portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” Ed Wood, the creator of the “worst movie ever made” (“Plan 9 From Outer Space”) resurrected–literally and figuratively–the career of Lugosi, who had long fallen into obscurity, largely because of his devastating and debilitating drug habit. In his prime, however, Lugosi was a much-in-demand actor, having created the role of a lifetime (and in some ways the curse of a lifetime) in the 1931 film “Dracula” (which forms the basis for the pretty frightening and very arty recent movie, “A Cure For Wellness”). After “Dracula,” Lugosi was typecast as a horror actor and appeared in some very famous (if you are a horror movie aficionado, that is) movies like “Island Of Lost Souls” (1932), “White Zombie” (1932) / “Zombies On Broadway” (1945), “The Black Cat” (1941), and the inexplicable “Murder by Television” (1935–made before television was a reality for most of the world), and of course the Grade-Z movies made by Ed Wood; as fate would have it, Lugosi died during the production of “Plan 9” and was replaced by a double who looked nothing like him, not that Wood’s audiences were that discerning. Landau’s portrayal of Lugosi in “Ed Wood” is both touching and humorous, and gave the Academy Awards panel more than enough justification for honoring Landau with their Best Supporting Actor award.
I can only wish that George Romero had at some point cast Martin Landau in one of his movies. I can imagine him in “The Crazies,” “Dawn Of The Dead,” or as an episode guest star in one of Romero’s “Tales From The Darkside” (the TV series that he produced). Any one of these projects would have been the perfect actor-director collaboration. Just think, had Landau paired up with Romero, they might have been inclined to produce a reimagining of “Murder By Television.” Now we will never know what might have happened had they gotten together on this one. But we should be thankful we had these two intriguing individuals with us as long as we did.
Think I’ll go now and rewatch “Double Shock” (the “Columbo” episode), followed by the first ten minutes of “Night Of The Living Dead” (where we get to decide who’s the most hideous–the brother and sister or the crazed zombie that pursues them in the graveyard).
I’ll leave you to decide how you want to honor the legacy of Martin Landau and George Romero this week. And remember “They’re coming to get you, __________” (insert your name of choice).