starring Harvey Keitel, Adrienne Barbeau, Ramy Zada, Sally Kirkland
screenplay by George Romero and Dario Argento & Franco Ferrini
directed by George Romero and Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw George Romero's Dawn of the Dead is a groundbreaking satire of our consumerist state, says the party line, the first film to be shot in that new phenomenon of a shopping mall and full of cogent commentary on how capitalism has become at once a Skinner box and religion instead of merely an organizing principle. That it's also deadening and sophomoric--or that it's dated in a way that Night and Day haven't, or that it's just not very scary, or tense, or, at the end of the day, deep--is seldom mentioned. Still, and despite the failure of Land of the Dead, there's Night of, Day of, and Diary of to confirm that Romero's zombie flicks are worthy genre pieces alight with insight into social issues.
They're also wildly influential as the inspiration for a thousand Italian knock-offs. Championed early on by Dario Argento, Romero spent time in Rome working on the screenplay for Dawn of the Dead with input from Argento, who would release his own cut of the film for international distribution using a score by art-synth group Goblin. I wonder if it's Argento's influence on the piece that marks it with so many deadening, repetitive flourishes. Argento is known for a lot of things--mostly good circa Dawn of the Dead, which fell right between Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, and Tenebrae--but he's known, too, for an almost complete lack of narrative ability. You take Argento as a visceral experience, a good cinematic fucking, or you don't take Argento at all. His "help" on Romero's screenplay can't have been a positive thing, and as Dawn is clearly the bloated, unfocused stepchild of the original Dead trilogy, it's a theory that holds evidential water. This is a long way of saying that when Romero and Argento collaborated again twelve years later in the portmanteau Edgar Allan Poe tribute Two Evil Eyes, it was less a marriage made in Heaven than the continuation of a relationship that got off to a rocky start.The first of two segments that have nothing to do with one another save that they're both loosely based on Poe stories, Romero's The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar stars Eighties B-queen Adrienne Barbeau as Jessica, the decades-younger trophy wife of the titular Valdemar (Bingo O'Malley). After the old guy passes away without having the decency to square his estate first, Jessica and her lover Robert (Ramy Zada) stick the body in a freezer to buy themselves time to work out how to get the money. Here's the rub: Robert tried hypnosis on Valdemar prior to his untimely extinction, and this has held his soul or somefuck in limbo, in turn leaving a psychic gate open for legions of evil spirits to use Valdemar's body as their undead steed. It's a zombie movie, essentially, but there's no movement to it, no guiding precept, so that Romero's moribund pace is an extreme detriment to it rather than a boon as it was to Martin, The Crazies, or even Knightriders.
Romero is an ugly visual stylist but a beautiful thinker; Argento is a gorgeous visual stylist and thinking gets in his way. Arguably, you can make an ugly stylist prettier, but you'd be hard pressed to make someone who doesn't think much start. Land of the Dead doesn't work not because it's bereft of ideas, but because it cripples itself with them; Dawn of the Dead doesn't consistently work because it only has a couple of ideas that it proceeds to beat into a bloody, flattened pulp. Mr. Valdemar sets up its premise in the first five minutes, fritters away the next forty or so, and ends with some bad zombie effects (particularly bad for 1990--blame Tom Savini, who's never quite made it out of 1980) and a stinger of a rimshot that isn't the least bit frightening or surprising. Amount of thought expended on the piece? I'd say close to none. Argento's bad for Romero.
For Argento's part, he tackles the better-known "The Black Cat" and fills it with cute/camp flourishes--as is his wont--in lieu of much serious thought, naming his protag "Usher" (Harvey Keitel) and having him be the crime-scene photographer at a ritualistic murder site involving a giant, bladed pendulum (Poe!) and a hot naked girl (Argento!). That Usher's Weegee, more or less, will have no further bearing on the rest of the piece despite the fertility of the idea--one of dozens of missed opportunities in the bit during a period in Argento's career where his decline, still going strong to this day, had already begun in earnest. Usher's common-law wife, Annabel (Madeleine Potter), is a hippie-dippy New Age type who loves her stray black cat. This of course drives Usher crazy, leading to that fateful night in which he chops her up with a cleaver and walls her up in his study behind a shelf of movies that includes The Searchers, The Final Conflict, and The Awful Truth. Get it? Search behind this shelf to find the awful truth about their final conflict. Clever, non? Keitel is awful, Potter is awful, John Amos as a Dr. Hibbard-ian detective is kind of amusing, and the whole, awkward mess washes out as only worthwhile for cameos from Kim Hunter and Martin Balsam as next-door busybodies. Worse, the energy that marks the best of Argento's work is virtually absent here, replaced by a reverent hush. In the presence of his master, Argento tiptoes around like he's afraid to break something.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Two Evil Eyes docks on Blu-ray from Blue Underground in a single-disc consolidation of their two-disc Limited Edition DVD. The 1.78:1, 1080p presentation is as organic as we've come to expect from the company's BDs with regard to grain; more often than not, it suggests a freshly-struck, projected print. Knocking the image down a peg is a temperamental dynamic range that alternates crushed blacks with utterly diluted contrasts. If the blood looks a little tetchy throughout, blame Savini more than the transfer for that. (I still remember mixing up a batch of the stuff according to some recipe he'd published in a fan mag years back, and damned if it wasn't just as unconvincing in my backyard as in his movies.) A pair of loud 7.1 hi-res audio options (DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD) are fairly indistinguishable from each other and from the attendant 5.1 DD EX track, though the film's rather meat-and-potatoes sound design seems more complex in DTS, albeit a shade harsher as well. Aside: Being a dyed-in-the-wool ailurophobe, I cringed more than once at the fucking cat hissing from one of the rear channels. Where's my bat?
Extras-wise, begin with "Two Masters' Eyes" (30 mins., SD), interviews with Argento and Romero interspersed with film clips as they (along with Savini and a young Asia Argento) discuss Poe in reverent tones and reveal not only that footage of Baltimore under the opening credits sequence was sourced from a discarded documentary Argento was filming about Poe, but also that Stephen King and John Carpenter were courted for a quartet roundelay that obviously didn't materialize. Odd thing is that I was unable throughout to shake the thought that the best interpreter of Poe of late appears to be Stuart Gordon, whose "Black Cat" episode of Showtime's "Masters of Horror" is fabbo.
"Savini's EFX" (12 mins., SD) is a discussion of how key toilet paper painted in flesh tones is to Savini's kitchen-sink invention. It's a nice peek into this particular cheeseball's persona, as is "At Home with Tom Savini" (16 mins., SD), wherein Savini gives a guided tour of his tchotchkes-packed house. I love the moment where he's asked whether his face-hugger model is a genuine prop from Alien and he confesses that he bought it at a novelty shop like an ordinary dork. "Adrienne Barbeau on George Romero" (5 mins., SD) is an excerpted interview from a longer Romero doc in which, amongst the many sweet nothings delivered by the very sweet-seeming Barbeau, is the interesting tidbit that her fave Romero is Knightriders. Two Evil Eyes' theatrical trailer (SD) rounds out the disc. Originally published: July 9, 2009.