The Zombie King: RIP George A. Romero


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Way back in 1970, my cousins and I went to a horror double feature at the old Olympia Theater in New Bedford. The main attraction was called EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.  Quite frankly, it sucked, but the bottom half of that double bill was an obscure black & white films that scared the shit out of us! That movie was George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

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From the creepy opening in a cemetery (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) to the gross-out shots of zombies feasting on human entrails, from the little girl eating her father’s corpse to the tragic final scene when the hero (a black man, no less!) is shot by the cops, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was an edge-of-your-seat nightmare of horror. There were no stars in it, unless you count Bill Cardille, a local…

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Horror Scenes I Love: In the Mouth of Madness


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John Carpenter’s contribution and influence in horror and genre filmmaking could never be disputed. This man’s films, especially his work from the 70’s and early 80’s have made him one of the undisputed masters of horror (joined by such contemporaries as Wes Craven and George A. Romero). While his worked had become so-so at the tail-end of the 1990’s and quite sparse during the 2000’s his name still evokes excitement whenever something new comes out where he’s intimately involved in it’s creation (these days a series of synth-electronic albums).

It was during the mid-1990’s that we saw a John Carpenter already tiring of constantly fighting the Hollywood system, yet still game enough to come up with some very underrated and underappreciated horror and genre films. One such film was 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness. This was a film that didn’t so well in the box office yet has become a cult horror classic since. Part of his unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (The Thing and Prince of Darkness the other two), In the Mouth of Madness combined Lovecraftian eldritch horror with the horror of the mundane that made Stephen King so popular with the masses.

This scene early in the film just showcases not just Carpenter’s masterful camera and editing work, but was ahead of its time in exploring the toxic nature of fandoms and groupthink. In 1995 such a concept might have been relegated to B-movie horror, but in 2016 it’s become synonymous with such everyday occurrences and topics as Gamergate, Tea Party and Trump supporters to SJW crusaders, Marvel vs. DC and Democrats and Republicans. Everyone believes their group to be the only righteous in whatever argument they happen to be part of and everyone else must be silenced (and in the scene below silenced equates to death).

John Carpenter might have turned into that old and cantankerous, albeit cool, dude who couldn’t care less what you thought of him, but it seems that he saw what was happening today as far back as the 1990’s.

George Romero’s Climactic (?) Finale Is Upon Us In “Empire Of The Dead : Act Three” #5


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So, this is it : no more set-up, build-up, dust-up, or even cover-up : with George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead : Act Three #5, the father of the modern (and, heck, post-modern) zombie genre brings his fifteen-issue four-color epic to a close.  Goodbye, Paul Barnum. Goodbye, Dr. Penny Jones. Goodbye, Mayor Chandrake. Goodbye, Jo. And, most especially, goodbye, Xavier.

Does everyone get a happy ending? I suppose that would be telling, and since dishing out overly-specific “spoilers” isn’t my stock in trade, I’ll just say this much — the story reaches what I’m sure most folks (myself included) would call a decent conclusion, but there’s a lot left hanging, which is especially strange considering that this final installment almost feels more like an epilogue than anything else.

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Please allow me to explain since you, dear reader, deserve at least that much : a good number of plotlines actually wrapped themselves up last issue (the aerial bombardment of New York, the fall of the vampire ruling class, the daring raid on the Federal Reserve, the final fate of characters like Dixie Peach and Lilith), so the only remaining order of business here is for Paul, Penny, and Xavier to rescue “street urchin” Joe and the other kids from the “blood farm” they’ve been shipped to that was discovered by Detective Perez. Which they do in rather spectacular fashion thanks to an all-out invasion courtesy of an army of zombies that has bused in specifically for the occasion. It’s fun, it’s action-packed, it’s well-illustrated by Andrea Mutti with help from inker Roberto Poggi, and Romero’s script is a reasonably compelling little page-turner. But —-

There’s no polite way to get around this, so I’ll just say it : you folks out there who have been “trade-waiting” this series definitely made the right choice,  because this is really the second part of a two-part finale that feels truncated in both directions when read individually, but will feel much more seamless when taken as a whole.miTiCYc-EMPDEAD_3_5_5

That’s hardly a crime, of course — in fact, one could argue that it’s standard operating procedure in modern comics for the monthly “singles” to feel like disjointed segments of a larger whole (look no further than Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s celebrated current run on Batman for perhaps the best evidence of this “trend”) — but for the seven-thousand-or-so of us that actually have been reliably plunking down $3.99 month-in, month-out for this series, it does rather show us up as, well — suckers.

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The other semi-glaring weakness when looking at the series as a whole is that some intriguing ideas that were dropped in here and there along the way appear to have been given the “one-and-done” treatment. It was strongly intimated, for instance, that Barnum might be a vampire himself, but that was never picked up on again, nor do we get any sort of conclusion to Detective Perez’s storyline (well, okay, we do, but he doesn’t seem to be around for it, which is odd, to say the least). So it’s not like everything is wrapped up nice and tidy with a bow here. Most of the big stuff does get a chance to reach the finish line, but some minor to semi-major details are left dangling. So be prepared for that.

Hopefully the forthcoming-at-some-point-here here TV series will address those issues, sure, but it would have been nice to see everything that was brought up in the comic be addressed by the comic before the curtain (prematurely) fell on it, ya know what I’m sayin’?

All in all, then, this isn’t so much an unsatisfying conclusion as it is an incomplete one (even though logically speaking, I suppose, the two should go hand-in-hand). I like the spot where Romero leaves most of his characters (be on the lookout for a really nifty twist involving Mayor Chandrake), and the final page is uncharacteristically optimistic, so in the end our guy George, Mr. Mutti, Mr. Poggi, and cover artist extraordinaire Francesco Mattina have my thanks. I was hoping for a perfect finale, of course, as one always does, but hey, good enough is — well, good enough. And this was certainly that.

George Romero’s Grand(?) Finale Begins In “Empire Of The Dead : Act Three” #4


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Do those title-page recaps that Marvel runs on the first page of all their books these days bug you? I have to admit that they usually work my nerves and that I see them as a less-than-clever way to shave a page off the actual story and art in any given issue while still enabling the publisher to cynically claim that their books offer “21 pages of editorial content.” In the case of George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead, however,  I’ll make an exception, for one simple reason : as we all know, Romero uses his zombie tales as  allegory for socio-political commentary here in the “real world” (think of Night Of The Living Dead‘s cautionary messages about racism and prejudice, Dawn Of The Dead‘s bleak examination of rampant consumerism, and Day Of The Dead‘s gleeful deconstruction of Cold War paranoia), and the intro page that’s currently running in Empire sums up the creator of the modern concept of the zombie’s primary political message for this series quite nicely indeed with the simple sentence “New York has become a fortress of isolation against the undead plague.”

Now, think about this : Donald Trump is proposing the absurd idea of building a wall along the entire length of the U.S./Mexican border,  and doubling down on the crazy by suggesting that he’ll force Mexico to pay for it, while just yesterday, one of his rivals for the GOP nomination, the risible Scott Walker, one-upped Trump by suggesting that we should do the same thing along the Canadian border, as well — because apparently poutine smuggling is becoming a huge problem or something. Now, while this “Fortress America” idea may sound appealing to the genuinely paranoid out there, I would humbly suggest that before we all stand up and cheer for this new emphasis on “national security,” we should take a moment and consider the fact that walling the rest of the world out also necessarily means that we would be walling ourselves in —and as Romero has shown us both in Land Of The Dead and here in the pages of Empire, that’s a recipe for disaster.

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Don’t get me wrong — the American populace has good reason to be angry and afraid these days : our home values have plummeted, the stock market is being exposed as the high-risk casino it is, our meager retirement savings are slipping away, the cost of living is going through the roof, wages are stagnant at best for most of us, and we’re staring at a heap of debt that will take centuries, probably even generations,  to pay off. Obviously, those problems didn’t just create themselves — someone is to blame. But what Trump, Walker, and too many other demagogues looking to cash in on the wave of populist anger are looking to do is to misdirect that rage while keeping the party going for themselves and their billionaire buddies. Who’s fault is it that we’re in the mess we’re in? Are a few illegal immigrants the cause of our predicament, or is it the billionaire class?

Come on, you know the answer — the problem is that folks see the billionaire class as being untouchable, and don’t think that’s ever going to change. Those illegal immigrants, though — why, we see ’em just about every day. They’re scattered about here, there, and everywhere. They represent an easy target, while the rich are a tough one, and if there’s one thing Americans have become accustomed to, it’s taking on easy targets. Why, just look how well that worked out in Vietnam. Or Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Now it seems we’re being prepped to bring the war home and take on the Mexicans who are doing the menial labor that our economy needs to keep going. And, I guess, the Canadians, too. I expect this new “war” to be just as successful as all those others.

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In Empire Of The Dead : Act Three #4, Romero’s vampire-run New York finally falls. The vampires, obviously, are a stand-in for the capitalist ruling class in this particular story, and while we don’t see a number of our key players (there’s no sign of Paul Barnum, Dr. Penny Jones, Mayor Chandrake, Xavier, or Detective Perez, for instance), it’s nevertheless a reasonably exciting issue in that we get to witness the Federal Reserve robbery go, as the Brits would charmingly put it, “tits-up,” the aerial war between the so-called “rebel” factions do the same, and everyone’s escape plans — most notably Dixie Peach and Runyon’s — come to a screeching halt. Once the shit hits the fan and the barbarians (or, in this case. zombies — who are, of course, Romero’s fictional equivalent for “the rabble,” i.e. those of us who aren’t part of the so-called “1%”) are inside the gates, all bets are off, and no amount of “security” can save you.

That being said, the decision to leave most of the principal cast out of the picture in this series’ penultimate issue is a curious one, to say the least, and I have to wonder how exactly Romero intends to wrap up all their various storylines in a scant 20 pages next month. My best guess is that we’ll probably be getting an extra-length issue with a $4.99 cover price.

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Or will we? With sales on Empire hovering around the 8,000 mark (for an idea of just how bad that is, consider that my current favorite comic, Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence, is selling over twice that despite the fact that it’s being published by Avatar Press, pretty much the smallest publishing outfit going, it hasn’t been optioned for television, and it’s barely being promoted by Diamond — oh, and it may also be worth noting that Providence is eschewing all current sales trends by actually selling better every month so far, while Empire is the poster child for the years-long trend of books dropping in circulation every month), it’s hard to imagine Marvel editorial “green-lighting” a higher page count for the finale. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

In any case, it’s apparent that by the time Empire Of The Dead ends, there won’t be too many of us left paying attention, and that’s a shame. The third act has been a fun and exciting roller-coaster ride with unifrmly better scripting and characterization than the second, and the arrival of Andrea Mutti (aided by Roberto Poggi,who takes over as full inker on all pages with this issue) has really kicked the quality of the artwork up a notch. Throw in some fantastic covers from Francesco Mattina, and all in all this has been $3.99 (fairly) well-spent every month. I’m going to miss this book when it’s over — but I guess we’ve still got the TV series to look forward to, and hopefully if that’s a success people will pick the comics up in trade paperback format to see what they missed out on.

George Romero Winds Things Down — And Up — In “Empire Of The Dead : Act Three” #3


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Yeah, I know — this review is late. But hey, so was the book. So let’s explain both, shall we?

The third issue of George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act Three didn’t exactly meet its monthly deadline, but there’s good reason for that — artist Andrea Mutti now has a (much-deserved) high profile gig as the regular penciller and inker on Brain Wood’s new long-form historical series for Dark Horse, Rebels, so obviously something in the schedule has to get shunted to the back burner. I would expect, therefore, that the final two issues of Empire will likewise hit shops a week or two after their initial solicitation dates, so we might as well get used to it. Likewise, he’s brought in fellow Italian Roberto Poggi to help out with the inking chores on this series (meaning that, when we include cover painter Francesco Mattina — who does another bang-up job on this issue — we’ve got an all-Italian art team in place now), but fear not : their brush styles are very similar indeed and even on a third or fourth glance through the book it’s pretty hard to tell who inked which particular pages or panels. I believe the world we’re looking for here is seamelss. As for why I’m late with this review, the reasons are far more prosaic : my LCS got shorted on the book and didn’t get in more copies until this past Wednesday. So there ya go.

The biggest news as it relates to this series, though, happened well “off-page” between the last issue and this one — Empire Of The Dead has, perhaps to no one’s surprise, been optioned for television. Sure, sales haven’t been great on this title on the whole, but any zombie project with Romero’s name attached to it is bound to attract Hollywood interest on some level, and while it sounds like it may be a year or two before this finally hits our TV screens, the various press releases related to it definitely give off the confident vibe that it is coming and that this won’t be one of those projects that  languishes in development or pre-production hell forever. Or until the rights expire, take your pick. The undead in all their various forms are a hot property right now, and all indications are that the producers want to get the ball rolling with this one as fast as humanly possible. Time will tell, of course, as it always does, but my money is on this turning up on some cable network or other sometime in, say, the tail end of 2016. If I were a betting man, I’d even be willing to place a modest wager on it.

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So, hey, that’s all fine and good, but what about what’s happening in the actual comic?

I’m glad you asked, because the shit really is hitting the fan hot and heavy now. Election day has arrived in post-zombie-apocalypse New York, and even though the Federal Reserve back is being robbed, an aerial bombardment is plastering the city, and various members of our rogues gallery, most notably Dixie Peach, can see the writing on the wall and have decided to beat a hasty retreat, Mayor Chandrake’s still got this thing in the bag. Chilly Dobbs was always a pretty worthless wind-up-toy of an opponent, and his backers leave him high and dry before the ballots are even counted. Good thing there’s a bar close by for him to drown his sorrows at.

Chadrake’s victory proves to be short-lived, though, as the entire edifice that is his power structure is crumbling fast. Detective Perez has the workings of the “relocation camp” for kids figured out, and he’s out to bring the whole place down — with Paul Barnum, Dr. Penny Jones, and semi-intelligent zombie Xavier coming to much the same decision, although arrived at of their own accord, more or less simultaneously. Might now be a good time for Chandrake to head for the exit himself? If so, what will be left? And who will be in charge of whatever remains?

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These are the burning questions that will be with us as this series finally wraps up, and for those who have been waiting for that always-just-around-the-corner “big payoff,” this is the issue where we start to get it in earnest. Events are moving along at breakneck speed now, and a suitably epic finale appears to be in the works. Those of us who have stuck with this comic are definitely buckled in good and tight for the duration, methinks.

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The art, as you can see from these sample pages, looks darn good, Romero’s dialogue is starting to feel a bit less clunky, and the various plot points, disparate as they all were not so terribly long ago, are converging in near-relentless fashion. The zombie-vampire war with humans caught in the middle is upon us, and I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds like my idea of a good time!

It’s The Beginning Of The End In “Empire Of The Dead : Act Three” #2


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Okay, if we want to be technically accurate about things, I guess we could say that last month’s opening installment of George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead : Act Three was the “beginning of the end,” since it appears that some combination of editorial decision-making on Marvel’s part and agreement among the book’s creators (specifically, I’m sure, Romero himself) has come about to wrap this four-color epic up a bit sooner than originally announced (after three five-issue “arcs” rather than the previously-mentioned four or five — that’s what selling fewer than 10,000 copies a month does, ya know), but it didn’t really feel like the big wrap-up was imminent until this second issue hit the stands today. Gone is some of the dilly-dallying that had slowed down previous issues here and there, gone are a fair number of the supporting players (although they’re sure to be back), and, most crucially — gone are the zombies!

Seriously. There’s not a one of ’em to be found in the pages of this book. And that’s more than just a little weird.

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Wih the “shamblers” having temporarily shambled off-stage, our erstwhile “street urchin,” Jo, takes commands the spotlight for about the first half of this issue, as she makes a new friend in her detention center/concentration camp, and the two of them quickly try to effect an escape once they figure out —or at least make an educated guess at — the true purpose of their new “home.”  After that,  it’s back to the “palace intrigue” swirling around Mayor Chandrake, his less-than-faithful wife, and his quickly-falling-apart-at-the-seams political opponent, Chilly Dobbs. Trust me when I say if our vampiric sitting chief executive of New York can’t beat this guy, well — he just plain doesn’t deserve to stay in office.

Dr. Penny Jones pops up for a brief moment — as seen below — but don’t expect any appearances from Paul Barnum. Detective Perez, or Xavier this time out — the action here is pretty concentrated and generally of the “set-up-for-a-big-climax” variety. The “rebel crew” once — and possibly still, to some extent — allied with Dixie Peach has a big part to play, though, as they reveal an audacious scheme to rip off the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the midst of all their otherwise-random destruction — and that destruction finally begins in earnest as this issue wraps up.

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As you can see from the preview pages I’ve included with this review (feeling decidedly un-lazy today), Andrea Mutti continues with his obviously-Maleev-influenced ways here and the art looks pretty good on the whole, certainly a step up from what we were served in the second act, while Romero, for his part,  has thrown all subtlety out the window with his scripting and is painting his characters with pretty broad brush-strokes at this point. Yeah, it may be clumsy at times,  but it  serves the purposes of the story just fine now that we’re in “time is definitely of the essence” mode.

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So, yeah — the end is nigh, and in Empire Of The Dead : Act Two #3 you can definitely feel it fast approaching. The once-sprawling chessboard is getting tighter and tighter as the pieces move ever closer together and the moves they’re able to make become reduced exponentially. I have a pretty solid feel of where it’s all going and where each of our players is going to end up once it’s finished, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past Romero to still have a wild card or two left in his hand (shit, I’m mixing my game metaphors here) that he’s saving for precisely the right moment.

 

 

 

Change Is In The Air (Or Is That Just Spring?) In “Empire Of The Dead : Act Three” #1


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When last we left the denizens of a zombie-and-vampire-infested future New York at the end of issue five of George Romero’s four-color ongoing undead epic Empire Of The Dead, it was the dead (okay, yeah, bad pun intended) of winter (in the real world — specifically, in the hemisphere of the real world where I happen to live) and all of our principal characters were in a series of rather-to-highly precarious positions (in the fictional world). After a brief hiatus in publication to “gear up” for the next five-part run, it seems as though everyone is still in a precarious position of one sort or another in the fictional world, but spring has definitely arrived in the real world, and with it comes some changes in the creative personnel involved on this title.

Most noticeably, as was the case with the second act,  we’ve got a new artist for George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead : Act Three in the form of one Andrea Mutti, a name that’s probably new to most readers, but I think folks are going to like what he (yes, Andrea’s a guy) has to offer — Mutti first came to my attention for his work on Boom! Studios’ fun little zombie-themed four-parter The Returning, and has since popped up as a fill-in artist on issues of Evil Empire and Batman Eternal, and while his style isn’t quite as refined as that of EotD‘s first illustrator, Alex Maleev, there’s definitely a heavy Maleev influence here that’s readily apparent from the word go. Dalibor Talajic’s art on Act Two certainly improved as things went on, but a return to a more “sketchy” and horror-centric style is a move in the right direction, in my view, so props to Marvel editorial for making the change. A new artist on each arc seems to be the order of the day with this book, but if Mutti were to hang around for the fourth (and, as far as I know, final) act I certainly wouldn’t complain. Empire Of The Dead is looking shadowy and creepy again, and that’s as it should be.

Also new to the party is cover artist Francesco Mattina (I swear, the Italians are taking over this series!), and from what I can see so far (and you can, too, since the cover’s right at the top of this review) he’s certainly more than up to the task. Xavier has never looked so awesome as she does on this cover, wouldn’t you agree?

And speaking of covers — we get a variant this month, as well, by Phil Noto, this one focusing on the ever-devious Mayor Chandrake and spotlighting his unique brand of domestic troubles. I’ve included it right beneath this paragraph, and while I think it’s pretty good on the whole, it’s certainly not up to Noto’s usual standard, in my own humble opinion. Needless to say, I opted for Mattina’s main cover.

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As the spotlighting of Xavier on said main cover would indicate, she’s the main focus this time around, as this issue takes her from the sidelines and moves her squarely front and center. She’s dead — again — but appears to be unwilling to stay down — again. Could it be there’s even more to her than we’d previously been led to believe? Why, yes, it could — and as she “progresses” from Dr. Penny Jones’ operating table to a holding stall beneath the coliseum, clutching her young friend Jo’s bag the entire time, she finds herself “graduating,” if you will, to the role of the zombie that everyone’s  talking about. Many readers found the former SWAT officer to be little more than a female stand-in for Day Of The Dead‘s legendary Bub, but this issue makes it crystal clear that Romero has bigger plans in store for her, to put it mildly. The big “gotcha” moment that serves as this installment’s cliffhanger is all about her, and I’m still kicking myself for not seeing it coming earlier (although I should clarify and say that by “earlier,”  I mean “in an earlier issue,” as opposed to “earlier in this one,” because Romero, unfortunately, telegraphs this ending a bit too early in the proceedings here).

As far as everybody else is concerned, our two ostensible “leads,” the aforementioned Dr. Jones and “zombie wrangler” Paul Barnum, pretty much tread water this time out, serving mainly as conduits for communicating Xavier’s situation/potential transformation, but Detective Perez’s investigation into New York’s missing children epidemic takes a fairly major leap forward here, and the political intrigue between Chandrake and his rival, Chilly Dobbs, yields some interesting developments, as well — I won’t say more than to hint that ol’ Chilly may be more of a literal puppet than we’d previously surmised. Fans of Jo will be pleased to learn (hope this isn’t giving too much away) that she’s also alive and well — at least for now.

As Noto’s cover variant clues us in on, there’s  some serious tension brewing between Chandrake and his wife on the home front, and all in all one is left with the impression that the clock is definitely (and loudly) ticking against the mayor, the only question is what’s going to bring him down first — his political opponents, or his wife. Maybe both? Maybe neither? It’ll be interesting to find out, especially given that Dixie Peach and her southern-fried crew of hell-raisers seem to be sidling up ever closer to the “anti-Chandrake” brigade.

All in all, then,  Empire Of The Dead : Act Three is off to a fairly solid start. The various plotlines are (for the most part) picking up steam as they converge, we’ve finally got a zombie at the forefront, and the art fits the tone of the story much better. Let’s see where the next four segments take us.