Last night, after watching my beloved Twins flounder in their attempt to score more than 1 run for the fifth game in a row, I was in a fairly dark mood. Fortunately, the Independent Film Channel was able to indulge my inner darkness, showing George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead. As a fan of zombie movies, I am naturally a tremendous admirer of the father of the genre, and his impressive body of work considering the restrictions in which he has typically had to work (low budgets, amateur actors, tight shooting schedules). Romero is an iconic figure who has seen his career reborn in recent years, rising again from obscurity like one of his undead monsters.
We’ve seen several players this year who have also made huge strides to resurrect their careers. Like a horde of slow moving zombies, they have come back to claw at the boarded-up windows of their opponents, who have taken mostly to hiding in the basement (or a mall) until the storm passes.
Night of the Living Dead came mostly out of George Romero’s boredom in 1968. He had spent the majority of the decade making commercials and industrial films in the Pittsburgh area, and wanted to branch out into a horror film. He and his collaborators scraped together $114,000 from investors and began shooting in the rural suburbs of the Steel City.
The results were remarkable. While the teeming horde of well-made-up monsters is a real and oppressive threat that put constant pressure on the film’s central characters, it’s perhaps the characters themselves that are the greatest threat to each other. The dissention that rots through the small band of survivors is the most realistic and sympathetic aspect of the film, as these very different people struggle to act in unison and fight over how best to ride out the waves of the undead. Interlaced throughout the film, whethere Romero intended this or not, is a strong critique of the notion that African-Americans couldn’t be lead actors in “white” movies, and a repudiation of racist stereotypes of the time. Even today, the film is a powerful statement agaist racism. Romero’s movie, thanks in part to the fact that it mistakenly entered the public domain, has been an incredible success and has made him a quasi-household name.
Likewise, before his breakout in 2011, Jacoby Ellsbury was content just to be a speedy outfielder who got on base at an ok clip and played good defense. He was a terrific basestealer and a good player, but nothing terribly special. In 2010, due to a broken rib and other problems, Ellsbury played just 18 games, hitting .192/.241/.244 and earning the ire of Red Sox fans around New England. They said he wasn’t tough enough, that he couldn’t play hurt, and that he wasn’t a team player (you know, exactly what they’re saying about Joe Mauer right now).
Finally healthy this year, Ellsbury has been a man on fire, seeing his stolen bases fall, but his power spike. His 23 homers are more than double his previous career high, his walk rate is up, and his defense remains excellent. According to rWAR, Ellsbury has been worth 6.3 Wins Above Replacement, making him the 5th most valuable player in the AL. Fangraphs estimates he’s been worth 6.8 WAR, third in the AL. Either way, it’s an incredible season, and Ellsbury is poised to become a household name for years to come.
Over the next ten years, Romero mostly stagnated. He achieved some success with the 1973 rage-zombies movie The Crazies, but mostly was dormant until 1978′s Dawn of the Dead, the Godfather Part II of zombie films. On a budget of $650,000, Romero sends four survivors of the zombie plague in a helicoptor to a Pennsylvania shopping mall, where they decide to take up residence. The four of them secure the mall and make plans to ride out the zombie plague there for as long as possible. Of course, it goes awry due to man’s own inhumanity, as a biker gang violates the sanctuary, allowing the zombies inside. Romero’s political agenda is just as subversive in this film, and much more blatant. Mocking the consumer culture of the United States, Romero has zombies wondering around the mall as elevator music plays in the background, simply because that’s one of the few things they remember about their lives. Dawn of the Dead is not just a classic horror film, but one of the great films of all time, and it cemented Romero’s status as one of the top guerrila filmmakers of all time, and a unique voice from outside of the traditional Hollywood system.
Similarly, Matt Kemp burst onto the baseball scene in 2007, hitting .342/.373/.521 as a 22 year old, and suggesting to the world that he was going to be a superstar. He had another strong seaon in 2009, but has otherwise had trouble sustaining his success, turning in competent but unremarkable seasons in 2008 and 2010. But in 2011, Kemp has taken his rightful place among the greatest players in the National League, hitting .323/.392/.576 (a 168 OPS+). He has gone far beyond his previous performance, establishing career highs already in homers, walks, all three slash stats, and will soon eclipse his career high in stolen bases and RBI. Kemp leads the National League in rWAR with 7.7 and has even been decent on defense. Matt Kemp is now the superstar we all hoped he’d be, and hopefully will be able to maintain that into the future.
Romero was mostly dormant for much of the next thirty years. He popped up with one Dead movie, Day of the Dead, but truly returned to form in 2005′s Land of the Dead, starring Dennis Hopper as a George W. Bush-esque leader who holes up and tries to recreate society in Pittsburgh, thanks to the natural protection offered by the city’s three rivers. Romero ramped up both the gore and the political satire for this film, which mimics the dissolution of the American middle class, and how the American poor bear the responsibility for maintaining the security of the rich through military service. Hopper’s character also proclaims that he won’t negotiate with terrorists when one of his former employees threatens to take down his empire. Land of the Dead was a triumphant return for Romero, who proved that given time and budget, he could still deliver a movie with chills, gore, and substance. It’s not his best film, but it’s pretty damn good.
I will admit to be similarly skeptical when the Cardinals signed Lance Berkman to man right field for them this year. After all, Berkman had just suffered from a knee injury, was going to be 35, seemed to be trending in the wrong direction in regards to his physical fitness, and had been in a definite decline over the previous two seasons. Indeed, after his abysmal .413 slugging Percentage last year, it seemed likely that Berkman simply wouldn’t be able to catch up to good fastballs anymore and that his salad days were behind him.
I was totally wrong. Berkman now has his highest OPS+ of his career (171), is hitting .292/.403/.576 with 30 homers (his highest total since 2007 and the highest rate of homers per AB since 2006). Berkman’s success this year is so overwhelming it’s worth wondering whether the Cardinals should bring him back next year. Certainly, they may not want to make a multi-year commitment, but Berkman has shown he may still have a lot of good baseball left in him.
Then again, the Cardinals might want to be careful. Romero has followed up his terrific Land of the Dead with two absolute clunkers. In Diary, Romero critiques the YouTube culture in which everyone sees themselves as a potential journalist, documenting horrible things that happen rather than trying to stop them, where people don’t consider themselves “actors” but rather filters. His second follow up, Survival, focuses on the massive divide that seems to exist within American society, where compromise is a dirty word on a small island dominated by two families, even as the world burns around them. Sadly, while both offer interesting perspectives, Romero also makes them formulaic, dominated by uninteresting characters and didactic philosophical discussions. Instead of zombie movies about politics, they are political movies that happen to contain zombies. They are largely miserable and fairly boring, with only occasional flourishes of the old Romero.
Like Diary and Survival, Aaron Harang is an important reminder that it’s important to be skeptical of “comebacks.” Harang was the vastly underappreciated ace of the Reds from 2005-2–7, before heavy workloads began to take a toll on his arm. He struggled in 2008, pitched all right in 2009, but collapsed in 2010, posting a 5.32 ERA (77 ERA+) and struggling through a lower back strain. It looked like Harang was done. But despite pitching for a bad Padres team this year, Harang has a sparkling 12-3 record in 22 starts, and has a perfectly decent looking 3.96 ERA. But don’t be fooled. Harang has been ok, but much of his apparent recovery is due to a terrific pitchers park. He’s thrown 13 of his 22 starts at home, allowing batters to hit just .252/.320/.395 against him there. On the road, however, batters have hit .322/.381/.485. Despite his 4.65 road ERA, he is 6-0 on the road, propping up a mediocre 90 ERA+ with some great luck. Like Diary and Survival, it’s easy to get excited for the return of Harang. And on the surface things look the same. He’s winning and his ERA is below 4.00. But there’s not nearly as much substance behind him. The Aaron Harang that was so wasted for those Reds teams is gone, and this is what we have left. It’s sad, and much like Romero movies, a little gross. That doesn’t mean he’s not worth watching, but you’ll have to slog through a lot of less than stellar stuff to get to a gem.