We unearth the details on George A. Romero’s arguably best and worst films, Dawn of the Dead and The Dark Half.
‘Alpha and Omega’ is a recurring feature that examines a famous horror director’s best critically received film and their worst reviewed installment (according to Rotten Tomatoes). It will compare and contrast these two efforts, looking at the difference in the auteur’s work and seeing if any overlap exists as these two extremes of the director’s career are examined.
“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk here…” – Dawn of the Dead
“Want to be a writer, do you?”
“Yes, sir!” – ‘The Dark Half’
With how much the horror genre has grown through the years, it’s sometimes easy to forget the pioneers that helped innovate and evolve the field in the first place. George A. Romero has earned the reputation of the grandfather of zombie films, but he’s done a lot more than just rejuvenate the undead. Romero’s also responsible for pushing horror as a whole forward. Films like Night of the Living Dead, Creepshow, and the underrated Martin, are all classics of the genre. Romero’s also one of the first directors to pair together terrifying narratives with relevant social commentary and use horror as an allegory for what’s going on in the real world. Without the efforts that Romero took with pictures like Night of the Living Dead, modern horror as we know it would look very different.
Romero gets a lifetime pass due to his contributions to the genre and was still working steadily up until his recent death last year. That being said, the director is not without his share of misfires, which are honestly all the more fascinating when in contrast to his most famous films. “Alpha and Omega” will take two pivotal films from Romero’s filmography, Dawn of the Dead (which currently has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes) and The Dark Half (which currently has a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes), and examine the similarities and differences between the pictures and how they chart Romero’s changing sensibilities as a filmmaker.
Dawn of the Dead was one of the most startling, influential zombie films of its time when it came out in 1978 and it still holds that honor 40 years later. This is a triumph of horror cinema and a remarkable, satisfying follow-up to Romero’s previous zombie picture, Night of the Living Dead, which many considered to be the previous gold standard for the genre. In fact, Dawn of the Dead might be the greatest zombie film of all time.
Dawn of the Dead immediately gets its audience’s attention as it starts off right in the thick of the end of the world. The zombie outbreak is already in full swing before the opening credits are even finished rolling. Dawn of the Dead wastes absolutely no time with its introduction. Furthermore, the film kicks off with heavy gunfire and action set pieces. One of Dawn of the Dead’s first scenes involves a SWAT team that invades a zombie-infested apartment in order to illustrate just how bad the situation is at the moment. These characters are already in hell.
There’s a welcome contrast that’s present in the film’s characters, too. The cast is made up of people from all levels and skillsets who are eager to exterminate these zombies. An eclectic group of survivors works a whole lot better here than if the team were entirely professionals or civilians. These characters also mow zombies down every few minutes, which helps make this threat feel rather than a danger that the film simply tells its audience is a concern. The Dark Half struggles to make its threats feel genuine, but Dawn of the Dead never lets its audience forget that there are hungry zombies on the loose.
This gritty, apocalyptic vibe is what helps fuel the film. Survival is practically hopeless right from the start in a way that a lot of zombie movies don’t have the courage to do. The film’s first act is concerned with the survivors’ attempts to get out of an apartment complex and it almost seems like everyone is about to have an early happy ending until they wind up stuck in a shopping mall. At this point Romero beautifully undercuts the whole survival fantasy trope and treats the bulk of the film like one big nightmare of an epilogue. The film also spends time showing the team hole themselves up in the mall and get used to this bleak life. There’s a solid stretch of time where the characters accept that escape is impossible, which is another surprising, emotional angle for a zombie film to embrace.
Romero plays the film’s depressing nature in contrast to the sheer joy that he gets out of the shopping mall setting. Romero brilliantly juxtaposes the mundane nature of the mall with braindead zombies while muzak and cheerful tunes underscore the whole thing. This all comes together with demented glee as Romero tries to make a statement on commercialism. The Dark Half, on the other hand, is ironically much more single-minded in its horror.
A valid way to judge a film that comes from the 1970s, like Dawn of the Dead, is in whether it still connects or if it feels dated. Against all odds, Romero creates a two-hour zombie movie that keeps moving and still feels relevant, give or take a few details (the blue zombies may be a little much for some). Furthermore, much like Night of the Living Dead that came before it, there’s some real racial commentary that’s being made here and both of these films have a lot to say on the social and political issues of the time. Ken Foree’s Peter feels like a direct response to Duane Jones’ Ben from Night of the Living Dead.
The way in which these pictures both push African-American actors to the forefront and start a conversation about segregation and exploitation in a zombie film of all places is pretty damn incredible. Not only does it give these “simple” zombie movies a whole lot more value and lasting power, but they also mark the beginning of modern horror in many ways. Romero showed that horror films could be about more than just monsters and Dawn of the Dead helps reiterate that in the ‘70s. The Dark Half doesn’t have nearly as much depth to it. It’s just a scary story, and a broken, underwhelming one, at that.
Outside of the film’s larger social commentary, Dawn of the Dead also succeeds in how it highlights the shutdown of civilization in various ways. Romero portrays this strife on two separate fronts of both the urban and rural nature. There are even glimpses of community-run militias that provide a larger sense of how the population outside of the film’s main characters are dealing with this destruction. This all gets punctuated through news reports that occur throughout the film, catching audiences up on the widespread nature of this apocalypse. The broadcasts eventually come to an end, which is an effective way in itself to show how civilization has reached its nadir. Romero plays another storyline in juxtaposition to the shopping mall massacre where a bunch of mercenary-like zombie hunters exterminate some civilians from a cabin in the woods. For a moment it feels like a whole other movie has crossed over with the film, but this bleak scenario helps show that these rural folk will suffer annihilation just like those in the city. It doesn’t matter where you are, the deadly results will still be the same.
Dawn of the Dead also carries an intentionally more comedic tone than its predecessor, Night of the Living Dead, because Romero wanted to invoke a comic book vibe to the material. This is an incredibly stylistic decision to make for a zombie film, but it’s the sort of ambition that would have also been a strong fit for The Dark Half. The film so frequently verges into parody that if Romero had intentionally played up those aspects and made it a pulpier affair then maybe it would have worked better.
Dawn of the Dead’s comedic vein also helps Romero achieve the film’s desired effect where it’s actually a critique on consumerism and the false sense of security that it can provide. In a way the film is very much a satire of modern day society and how many mindless shoppers seem quite similar to a horde of undead zombies under the right conditions. The “shopping spree” montage near the middle of the film is the best example of this, while it also just acts as a standout, unique scene in the picture. Dawn of the Dead’s political and racial undertones already elevate the picture to something higher, but this added take on society again helps the film resonate more than the typical zombie film.
A sense of humor may be a detriment to The Dark Half, but Romero puts it to good use in his claustrophobic zombie film. The appearance by the zombie nun is absolute nonsense, but it works. Similarly, there’s a beat towards the end of the film where it looks like one last zombie might tear the heroes to shreds. That is, until the invading undead gets a little too close to the helicopter’s propeller. It’s the perfect way to defy expectations one last time before the credits roll. Romero makes sure that his audience is incapable of predicting what will come next, which is a factor that’s especially important since this isn’t his first zombie film. There’s even a moment where the survivors have to crawl through some air ducts that feels reminiscent of Alien for a hot second.
Dawn of the Dead is also an important film for the simple reason that it looks incredible and is full of iconic, memorable scenes from the horror genre. They’re not complicated shots, but all of those wide-angle views of the parking lot full of zombies are crazy effective. The scene where Peter’s infected friend, Roger, turns into a zombie is one of the film’s best moments. News reports spout messages of doom and Peter has to execute Roger in a pretty damn powerful, bleak sequence. Not only is it tough to see such a good character perish, but also the trauma that it places on Peter is just brutal. Gaylen Ross’ character, Francine, interestingly never screams during the film. Ross thought that it would detract from her character’s strength, which Romero agreed with in the end. These are thoughtful character choices, whereas Hutton actually quit The Dark Half for a few days during production because he was so difficult to work with. Other set pieces like the headshot during the beginning of the film would become technical triumphs of the time. The film’s ending is also incredibly powerful and has a lot to say on the power of determination and the human race. It’s definitely one of the more satisfying, thoughtful conclusions to a zombie film, but it will still leave you gutted like nothing else. Dawn of the Dead cements its reputation in the genre whereas The Dark Half fails to re-invent the wheel—in fact it goes all the way back to training wheels.
Obviously there are a lot of reasons to love Dawn of the Dead and it’s easy to see why horror aficionados still bring it up in response to modern horror. The gore in the film is so realistic, yet also so relentless. Tom Savini works his magic here and most of the film’s effects were even figured out and handled with no prep whatsoever, which is absolutely crazy. Accordingly, the film almost had an X rating due to how far it goes, but after many negotiations with the MPAA, Romero was able to bargain them down to an R. If all of this wasn’t enough, Dario Argento and the band Goblin are responsible for the film’s soundtrack and score! In exchange, Argento was also given the rights to edit and release the European version of the film, which is rather fascinating. As a counterpoint, The Dark Half’s music is courtesy of Christopher Young (who’s responsible for Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Hellraiser, and its sequel’s scores), but no one was fighting to get the exclusive European distribution rights there.
Dawn of the Dead’s sterling reputation in the horror community would rise to such heights that a remake would even be tackled in 2004 by Zack Snyder with a script by James Gunn (both of which have turned into tentpole directors for both Marvel and DC). The consensus on Snyder’s remake is still up for debate (although it’s arguably the flashy director’s most restrained film), but any ill will towards the 2004 version hasn’t tarnished Romero’s original version. If anything, the film’s updated version helps accentuate how difficult it is to create a zombie film as poignant and shocking as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Romero was at the top of his game during the ‘70s and ‘80s, but his struggling efforts in the ‘90s also help highlight an important stage of the director’s career.
When it comes to 1993’s The Dark Half, other works of Romero’s like The Crazies or Monkey Shines technically rate a little worse or are at least comparably terrible, but when cross-referenced through IMDB and other resources, it appears that The Dark Half gets the least amount of love from Romero’s filmography. Besides, isn’t it fun to explore when Stephen King adaptations implode on themselves, especially when so many have recently been done justice? If nothing else, this is the only Romero film and Stephen King story to get turned into a LuasArts-esque MS-DOS adventure game, which is pretty bonkers. A Martin point-and-click video game would be so much better than this, not that that’s exactly saying much.
The Dark Half essentially tells the story of what Stephen King went through during his days under the pseudonym, Richard Bachman, only it adds some schizophrenia and murder to the equation. Horror writer, Thaddeus Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), gets caught up in a situation of dual identity that’s quite similar to King’s own predicament. The Dark Half takes Thad’s problem one step further when his pseudonym and other half actually begins to manifest and comes to life as George Stark. This premise is a solid enough idea, even though the whole “Jekyll/Hyde” dynamic is a fairly clichéd and archetypal angle to explore. It’s also a story that King would turn to more than once, as Secret Window (published as, Secret Window, Secret Garden) tells the same schizophrenic narrative and is arguably just as messy.
The clunky instincts of The Dark Half point to the fact that Romero seems to work a whole lot better when on a smaller, more independent scale. It’s the reason why these larger studio pictures from the peak of his career tend to be less successful than his earlier, more humble efforts. Romero isn’t someone who necessarily needs a big budget or more resources at his disposal. He’s a horror director where less is more and the vast difference in quality between The Dark Half and Dawn of the Dead acts as a strong example of this. There are many moments where this film just doesn’t work and it’s not exactly clear why, but a lot of this ties back to how Romero works better with a smaller production.
Right from the start of the film, Thaddeus teaches his class about duality and really gets to push this theme in the audience’s face. If Beaumont underlining the phrase on the chalkboard isn’t enough to reiterate this point to the viewer, then the film’s tendency to bring it up every few minutes definitely will. It’s fairly convenient when these themes about duality become crucial to Thaddeus’ life and the movie in general. He continually talks about how it’s important to give your other half and inner voice its necessary freedom, otherwise fiction is set to fail. Whether that idea is true or not, the film continues to push it like it’s gospel. Even the photographer who takes the photo for Beaumont’s latest book jacket waxes on about how he wants to make a book about teddy bears in coffins, another (ridiculous) example of the duality and balance of extremes that interest the film. It reaches a point where I’m surprised that Beaumont doesn’t just wear a shirt that says, “HUMANS ARE BOTH GOOD AND EVIL, OKAY?”
There’s a heavy-handedness at play here that’s absolutely absent in Dawn of the Dead. There Romero is confident in his themes and messages about consumerism and society, but here it feels like he continually brings The Dark Half’s subtext to the surface because he’s not confident that the material works. Additionally, these are not difficult themes to grasp, which makes their constant discussion all the more frustrating. Romero’s best work in The Dark Half is the way in which he creates its atmosphere, but if he took a more confident, subtle approach in the film’s larger themes the picture as a whole wouldn’t be such an awkward mess.
Thaddeus faces trouble when he wants to “kill off” his pseudonym and end this chapter of his life, however his alter ego refuses to go away. Characters say things like, “I don’t know if I want to get rid of George. I’ve grown attached to him,” as if he’s a real person. They even go so far as to make an actual tombstone for this fake dead writer. Thaddeus’ circumstance get even sillier when the introduction of his dark half and the start of these murders is marked by how it looks like someone dug themselves out of Stark’s fictitious grave.
The Dark Half is obsessed with duality, but it’s a theme of Romero’s that’s also applicable to his filmmaking style for both this film and Dawn of the Dead. Romero’s own duality as a filmmaker can be seen across these two pictures, where one is broad and full of graphic horror, while the other is a more psychological beast. The failure of the latter is like Thad Beaumont’s own predicament where Beaumont books don’t sell well, but trashy George Stark novels fly off the shelves. This is likely the reason why Romero would stop telling stories like this and instead retreat back to zombie pictures in the later stage of his career, almost to a fault.
Romero spends some time in Thad Beaumont’s childhood in order to help set the scene for the audience before Thad’s life flies off the rails. A flashback to 1968 showcases a young Thaddeus hard at work with his special pencil, “Black Beauty,” when he begins to exhibit signs of mental anguish and a split personality. This prologue pushes the idea that Thad’s frightening behavior originates as a symptom from his writing. Romero does effective work as he mines the horror of a child who’s plagued with mental problems. That being said, Romero also turns up the gruesome gore factor that he’s notorious for with a particularly graphic brain surgery scene that occurs early on in the film.
It’s a moment that’s so intense that one of the nurses on duty even screams in terror. There’s basically a disgusting tumor (complete with an eye and a cavity-plagued tooth) that’s growing in Thaddeus’ brain. Romero gets a lot out of this idea and takes advantage of particularly disturbing visuals like when the tumor’s eye blinks and moves about the brain tissue. All of this evil twin material gets juxtaposed with chaotic bird migration patterns, which don’t really make a lot of sense, but still builds creepy tension. By the way, when has a sparrow ever been intimidating? Why not make these crows or ravens? For what it’s worth, sparrows are birds that typically symbolize joy, protection, and loyalty, so they’re also completely misused here. The film embraces this device and repeatedly uses shots of bird scattering for dramatic effect. These moments are supposed to function as some sort of fright, but they mostly fall flat. As silly as all of the sparrow material might become by the end of the film, the scene where sparrows tear Stark to pieces—right down to the bones—is pretty damn sweet. It’s definitely Romero’s most effective death that involves passerine birds.
The murders that take place in The Dark Half also leave a lot to be desired. The film’s first murder, which is also the introduction of Beaumont’s dark half, actually spends more time not showing the audience the details of it all. Stark’s appearance is intentionally obscured in fog and smoke, as if to keep his obvious identity a mystery. Then, when Homer gets murdered, the camera lingers on his detached prosthetic leg rather than actually showing any carnage. It comes across as pretty lame. We eventually learn that the man was beaten to death with this leg—an act that would actually make for an interesting murder sequence—but none of that gets shown.
In comparison, Dawn of the Dead proudly shows off the carnage from its initial murder and more or less takes the opposite approach here. Romero in the ‘70s is all about showing off the gritty details of death, whereas his approach in the ‘90s shies away from money shots. That’s not to say that putting the carnage front and center would make The Dark Half a better film—there are still fundamental problems with its story—but it would at least feel like more authentic Romero.
On that note, the film doesn’t completely avoid brutal violence and disturbing imagery. One victim gets his tongue and penis cut off, with his penis then stuffed into his mouth, so…yeah. As Beaumont’s sanity continues to slip there are some unnerving visuals that plague him, like a turkey that cooks in the oven, but beats like a pulsing heart. Thad’s nightmare where his wife becomes some porcelain version of herself is also super disturbing. It’s touches like this that elevate the material and give The Dark Half some redeeming value, even if the film’s still a telegraphed mess.
One of the biggest factors that works against The Dark Half is how Timothy Hutton is so miscast and terrible as both Thad Beaumont and George Stark. This is the sort of role that someone could really turn into an impressive, layered performance, but Hutton’s work almost feels more suited for a comedy. There are many scenes where Thad is at war with his body as he steadily loses control over himself, but they play a lot like that one scene from the Jim Carrey comedy, Liar, Liar. It doesn’t help that a lot of the dramatic weight in this horror film revolves around watching someone scrawl down messy notes. One misguided scene sees Stark attempt to kill an old man when the noise causes a neighbor to open his door and investigate what’s happening. “What’s going on here?” he asks, to which Stark bluntly replies, “A murder…Want some?” The guy closes the door and goes back to his business. It’s honestly unclear if this is supposed to be a “joke” or not.
Once George’s personality starts to take over Thad’s, it doesn’t take long for him to tell people things like how he wants to “have their balls for breakfast.” The dialogue may attempt to illustrate the shift in Thad, but Hutton’s performance never quite rises to the occasion. It’s hard not to laugh when Thad’s description of the killer to the police starts with, “He’s about my size…” Yeah, no freaking kidding! Everything in this film tries to hammer the audience over the head with the fact that George is the bad guy here. He dresses entirely in black, for instance, and the film goes out of its way to try and hint at something that is already painfully obvious. When The Dark Half does eventually show the killer’s face, it’s a moment that’s treated like it’s meant to hold weight, but the audience has figured it out ages ago.
During all of this Thad has no idea what’s going on, but there’s really not much suspense here to keep the audience invested. It’s pretty clear what’s happening right from the film’s start and that lack of tension definitely hurts the movie. The Dark Half establishes what it’s doing well within its first half hour and then basically continues to replay the same scene for two hours. The film doesn’t need to be nearly this repetitive or long. As sloppy as all of this is, Stark’s battered appearance by the end of the film is at least effective and shows how far this guy has devolved. It’s definitely an upsetting visual. This fuels the film’s final act and at least gives a lucid dream-like demeanor to its conclusion.
As The Dark Half approaches its ending, it struggles to stick the landing with all of this. The film props itself up on the revelation that everyone has “part of the beast” within them and people either suppress or encourage it. This really doesn’t make for much of an explanation though. Is Stark’s existence a result of Beaumont’s brain tumor, is he psychologically based, or something else entirely? Furthermore, the fact that somehow the key to all of Thad’s problems lies in sparrows is additionally absurd. At one point there’s a scene in the film where there’s a weird close-up on a poster for the musical, Cats, while a character is in peril. This unusual detail serves no purpose and off-kilter impulses like this linger through the film and feel like they’re there purely to perplex the audience.
The Dark Half’s failure is a true disappointment because there are several occasions where the pairing of George A. Romero and Stephen King is a perfect match for horror. This doesn’t mark the end of the director’s career, but The Dark Half’s poor performance did lead to Romero taking a break from directing for an unprecedented span of seven years. Even though the director’s efforts like The Dark Half are highly flawed pictures, there are still brief glimpses of magic that remind the audience that this is the same director that helped put zombies on the map.
However, the monopoly on scary songbirds still goes unclaimed.