REEL RETRO CINEMA: Rob Kelly looks back fondly on the Romero-King cult classic that turned him on to horror…
In REEL RETRO CINEMA, Rob Kelly takes a look at old movies — and their comic-book adaptations. Here, he pays tribute to horror auteur George A. Romero, who died over the weekend at the age of 77.
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By ROB KELLY
From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, my Dad took my sister and me to the movies. Not every week, but close, so over time we ended up seeing virtually every cinematic touchstone of my generation: Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, The Road Warrior, etc. But one of the most important cinematic discoveries of my life came not on the silver screen, but in a bookstore.
One week, either before or after the movie we had planned to see, we were killing time in the mall. As I wandered the aisles of the bookstore my sister wanted to visit, something caught my eye, something that looked like a…comic book (a rare sighting at the time in that kind of shop). It was a book called Creepshow, and on its cover it declared that it featured art by Bernie Wrightson.
Even in the days when comic creators were still relatively anonymous, I knew Wrightson’s name from Swamp Thing, one of my early favorites. I picked up the book and flipped the pages, and was startled by what I saw: This was a comic book all right! But not just a comic book, it was over-sized, on glossy paper, and featured the kind of gory, gooey horror that would have never seen the light of day in, say, DC’s House of Mystery or Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula. Knowing my Dad would never buy me this thing, I put it back.
Little did I know, this book was a tie-in to the movie Creepshow, which was released in November 1982 from Warner Bros. Combining the efforts of Stephen King and the (now, sadly, late) George A. Romero, Creepshow was an unabashed tribute to the classic EC Comics of the 1950s. Thanks to its R rating, there was no chance my Dad would take me to see it but, thankfully, there was cable TV.
I don’t remember when I saw Creepshow for the first time, but I do know that once it entered my life, it rocketed (or, more appropriately, slithered) to the top of my nascent favorite films of all time list. And it’s been there ever since.
Creepshow opens with great character actor Tom Atkins playing a typical suburban Dad, enraged that his young son (played by Stephen King’s real-life son, now noted author, Joe Hill) is reading comic books, specifically “this horror crap.” After throwing the beloved comic book away, the son curses his father to Hell. Outside the little boy’s window is a spectral apparition, who beckons the boy—and the audience—to come closer.
In an animated sequence, the now-trashed comic book opens, and the first story is Father’s Day, about a creepy family that gets together every year for the titular holiday. They are waiting for their nutty Aunt Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors), who murdered her cruel, crooked father, after years of enduring his mental and physical abuse. Before joining her family, she visits her father’s grave, spilling some whiskey on the sacred ground. This has the unintended—and unwanted—effect of reanimating her father’s corpse, who shuffles into the house and exacts revenge, all in pursuit of the Father’s Day cake he never got.
Following that is the more comedic segment The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, starring King himself as a simple-minded farmer who foolishly touches a meteor that lands in his backyard. Soon, Verrill finds that he is infected with some sort of plant-like virus, slowly turning him into a mossy, shambling creature (a swamp thing, if you will). Jordy lives all alone in his dilapidated house, visited only by the ghostly images of his father, who offers his son no comfort from the beyond. Jordy cannot find a way to stop his body’s horrible transformation, eventually taking things into his own green hands.
Third is Something To Tide You Over, with Leslie Nielsen (in a rare, post-Airplane! non-comedic role) as Richard Vickers, a psychopath who decides to get revenge on his cheating wife and her boyfriend, played by a pre-Cheers Ted Danson. Obsessed with technology, Richard buries each of his victims on his private beach up to their necks in sand, videotaping each terrifying moment to be played back and “enjoyed” later, his own personal snuff film collection. The couple eventually drowns, and Richard thinks his problems are over. Unfortunately for him, revenge is a dish best served waterlogged…
Fourth is The Crate, set in a sleepy college town. Starring Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver and genre goddess Adrienne Barbeau, the story focuses on a mysterious, dusty crate found under some stairs at the college. Weaver’s Professor Stanley is summoned to check it out, and soon learns that there’s a razor-toothed creature living in there, and it’s hungry. Very hungry. He ropes in his pal Henry, who sees this as an opportunity to do away with his foul-mouthed, crude, and belittling battle-ax of a wife, Billie.
The final story stars the legendary E.G. Marshall (who played the POTUS in Superman II) as millionaire businessman Upson Pratt, who has holed himself up in a high-tech, super-expensive apartment that he is obsessed with keeping spic-and-span clean. Pratt is cruel and hateful, and enjoys ruining the lives of his competitors, not even feeling anything when one of them commits suicide. But while Pratt has ensured that people can’t get to him, the same can’t be said for bugs. Namely, swarms of huge, hideous cockroaches. So when they start crawling into his safe space, Pratt finds the outside world less than interested in helping him out.
Creepshow ends where it began, with the little kid who lost his comic book. Using a voodoo doll bought from its pages, the boy gets revenge on his Dad. Oh boy, does he ever. Never touch a kid’s comic books!
Anthology films can be tricky to pull off, but to my mind Creepshow is the finest example of the genre. The first two installments are the weakest, but still pretty good. Things pick up with the third: The Crate is a mini-masterpiece, and the scares keep coming through the fifth story and the epilogue. A lot of this, of course, has to do with Romero, who brings a cheerfully lurid energy to the proceedings. There are scenes here that literally look like EC comic-book panels, with actors frozen in front of deeply saturated splashes of color.
Creepshow is thoroughly, proudly, trashy and cheap, delivering the same kind of chills that you get reading horror comics that previous generations had to hide under the bed. It crackles with energy and mordant humor, and doesn’t always reassure that the bad people are the ones who get punished for their wrongdoing. Sometimes, you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As a kid, I was only dimly aware of what a movie director was (Lucas, Spielberg certainly, a few others), but I knew enough about Romero to know that this was a grown man (he was over 40 at the time of Creepshow) delivering the kind of disreputable, gory scares that were supposed to be for 12-year-olds. His glee is palpable in every frame of the movie. Watching Creepshow felt like I was getting away with something.
George A. Romero was one of cinema’s most important innovators, pretty much ushering in modern horror with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, and then topping himself 10 years later with Dawn of the Dead. He inspired dozens (hundreds?) of Monster Kids who eventually got into the business for themselves. And while he was most famous for his zombie epics, he helmed a number of other great movies, like 1973’s The Crazies, 1978’s Martin and, of course, Creepshow.
You scared the hell out of the 12-year-old me, Mr. Romero, and I can never thank you enough.
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of Aquaman and Firestorm: The Fire and Water Podcast, the host of The Film and Water Podcast, and the host of TreasuryCast. He doesn’t open strange crates, ever.