George Romero is known primarily for his Dead series, that increasingly self-conscious, ever more political, ongoing trash epic. From its trenchant, bargain basement beginnings to its outwardly satiric middle period, to last year’s thoroughly underappreciated, smartly timeless social commentary Land of the Dead, the Dead films have always displayed the odd congruence of humor and terror that Romero wields with the slickness of a grand ham. It’s almost something like whimsy–especially interesting when, in the Dead films, that blitheness is mixed with a genuine social awareness. There’s depth to Romero’s work; that’s why his seemingly negligible Stephen King anthology, Creepshow, seems rather anomalous. Creepshow was an homage to EC horror comic books of the 1950s, and a precursor to the HBO series Tales from the Crypt. Yet as obviously laden with nostalgia and gleeful gore as it may be, Romero’s film takes itself surprisingly seriously.
Hugely stylish, with its gross-outs and shockeroos rendered in crazy-comic histrionics, Creepshow looks and feels unlike Romero’s other, more naturalistic horror films. Split into five tales of varying success, penned by King at the height of his popularity, the entirety of Creepshow is nevertheless tonally cohesive. And with its gallery of grotesques, puppets and masks designed by Dawn of the Dead makeup master Tom Savini, the film feels as pleasurable as a tour through a Haloween haunted house…each boo is followed by generous bouts of laughter. “Father’s Day” is a classic back-from-the-dead, “Who Goes There?” treat, complete with an exquisitely designed worm-infested walking corpse;”The Crate,” the film’s lengthiest segment, is a nasty, delightful bit of misogynist wish fulfillment in which Hal Holbrook’s sad-sack university professor gets to feed his ball-breaker wife (Adrienne Barbeau, a nastier harridan than she even was in Back to School) to a ten-inch fanged wildebeast someone left in a box under the stairs; “They’re Creeping Up on You,” the most Romero-esque in its depiction of self-motivated isolation, concerns a particularly dreadful cockroach infestation in a high-rise apartment inhabited by a megalomaniac obsessed with social order and cleanliness.
The quick-witted, fleet comic book storytelling is a perfect match for Stephen King’s dime-store sense of vengeance and tidy resolutions, which in turn provide a neat little stage on which Romero can hone his comic gross-out skills. The tension created in the space between fear and parody was nothing new even at the time of its release (most of horror is set right in that in-between realm), but it’s not as easy to pull off as Romero, or often, Carpenter, make it look: Wes Craven’s been trying to accomplish the same tenuous balance for years. (A weekend watch of his 1991 People Under the Stairs for me exemplified the gigantic gulf in his work between concept and execution; he’s woefully inept. Romero, on the other hand, knows when to mete out the scares, and when to keep the laughs quarantined.) Creepshow may remain as hopelessly one-dimensional as the pages from which it sprung, but I’ll take its paper-thin stylings over Sin City‘s comic approximation of “human experience” any day: in Romero’s film, there’s not an ounce of cynicism.