One of the best moments of my life as a horror movie fan happened in January of 2008. I was working with Troma Entertainment at Tromadance, their take on the Sundance Film Festival. Tromadance occurred during the same week as Sundance and Slamdance in the same alternate reality that is Park City, UT in the second week of January. It was a weird time. Heath Ledger had just died, the Funny Games remake was being shown in competition, as was the first Paranormal Activity. I was running around, getting all the free stuff I could and handing out fliers for Tromadance, and randomly running into celebrities every five seconds. Then on probably the second day we were there, one of my Troma teammates spotted him, the man himself, George Romero. He was a really tall man, which I had not expected. I do not remember what I said to him, because I was in shock, but I got a picture with him and shook his hand. I do remember him being one of the nicer stars that we met during our time in Utah.
This has nothing to do with the movie MONKEY SHINES or the fact that I saw it as part of Alamo Drafthouse NYC’s Terror Tuesdays – and I’m aware, but I do count myself as very lucky to have met one of my filmmaker heroes before his death last year. George Romero, to me, was always more than just the dude who brought zombies to the world at large. He was a masterful sociopolitical commentator who managed to almost always do things his way. MONKEY SHINES is a step out of the slow-walking, flesh-eating path of Romero’s typical oeuvre, but still manages to show itself as a film only he could’ve directed. It was Romero’s major studio debut but he made sure it was shot in Pittsburgh, to escape the watchful eye of studio execs on this production. This didn’t actually help matters much because the studio made him add in a very out-of-character happy ending, in addition to cutting about 40% of the original footage due to time constraints. Romero ended up returning to independent distribution after that, which GOOD ON HIM!
Despite the problems Romero had with the studio (Orion pictures), MONKEY SHINES still has a good bit of brilliance to it. Stanley Tucci has one of his first big roles as Dr. John Weisman who could be described as a sexy villain – which may seem extremely unexpected from Tucci, but he does it very well. Additionally, the film boasts a small role for Stephen Root who’s been in everything from Office Space to True Blood to most recently in his amazing performance as manipulative hit man Fuches on HBO’s Barry. He has his second role in a film ever in MONKEY SHINES as yet another evil doctor. Tucci and Root are just a few licks of frosting on a cake full of meaningful metaphors and sad horror, however.
The film centers on Allan Mann (Jason Beghe; Picket Fences, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago P.D.), a college track star who is paralyzed in a running accident. His girlfriend, Linda (Janine Turner; Northern Exposure, Friday Night Lights) soon leaves him for Dr. Wiseman (sexy-villian Stanley Tucci) who performed Mann’s surgery. He is stuck in his house with his surly religious nurse, Mary Anne (Christine Forrest, Romero’s wife, who also stars in Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow), her bird, Bogey, and his overbearing mother, Dorothy (Joyce Van Patten; St. Elmo’s Fire, Oz). His friend and schoolmate Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow; Mad About You, To Live and Die in L.A.) comes to his “rescue” at a point where Allan is beginning to lose hope. Geoffrey is a scientist in a nearby laboratory, where he has been conducting an experiment, injecting human brain tissue into monkeys. Dr. Burbage (Stephen Root) is his boss who has very ideas on how to do animal experimentation. In an effort to help Allan and also to save his star monkey #6 (played by the cutest capuchin, Boo) from Dr. Burbage’s vivisecting hands, he takes #6 away from the lab and says that she died.
Geoffrey meets with Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil; The House on Sorority Row), an animal trainer who has had great success with training monkeys to assist disabled people. He teels her he has a “normal” monkey and wants to assist his friend. Melanie starts training #6 who eventually gets renamed Ella. She also becomes friendly with Allan. Things seem to be going extremely well, until Ella starts to become too smart for her own good. Geoffrey hides the fact that this monkey is smarter than your average bear, monkey, or even some humans, and to disastrous results.
I love this film because it speaks to the profound bond that people and their pets have, especially if the person is lonely. Also, because this is George Romero, the messages are aplenty. Big Pharma and animal experimentation are bad. You shouldn’t play God, and you shouldn’t use people or animals for financial gain. Also, you’d think that maybe Romero has a big of a grudge against doctors, due to the way that both Dr. Weisman and Dr. Burbage are portrayed. Perhaps that grudge is legitimate if you look at the state of pharmaceutical companies and health care in the US today. Romero was always ahead of his time with the knowledge and forethought of capitalism’s negative effects. I can only imagine what he would have to say about the state of affairs in our country now, and I’m greatly saddened that it’s impossible to know. RIP George, you will always be a national treasure.