1985 had seen the final part of the late George A Romero’s Zombie trilogy Day of the Dead and it was to be another 20 years before he would return to the trilogy to make it a sextuplet of films that would be his swansong before he died. Monkey Shines would be his first movie after the original trilogy.
Romero had dissolved his own production company before he would make Monkey Shines, a film that would be a first for for him for a number of reasons. It was to be his first studio film in this case for Orion and it would be the first film he had adapted that wasn’t Stephen King. Monkey Shines is adapted from the book by Michael Stewart and concerns a budding athlete cut short by an accident which leaves him quadriplegic unable to move any part of his body apart from his head and neck. For any actor it would have been a challenge and for Jason Beghe especially so having only had a handful of roles in TV shows and minor parts in a couple of long forgotten films. As Allan Mann he had to move about in a wheel chair and he controlled with a joystick to his mouth and it’s here that his friend Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow) a scientist in a laboratory that uses animals, in this case a monkey that he’s been experimenting with a serum, and together with animal trainer Melanie (Kate McNeil) he gifts his friend the animal to help him with tasks. A hatchet faced nurse who provides full time care for Allan resigns and the film gets increasingly darker as the monkey begins to understand his new master’s feelings of rage towards others including a surgeon (an early screen role for Stanley Tucci) who operated on him but is now dating his now ex-girlfriend who abandoned him after the accident.
With his zombie trilogy seemingly coming to its natural conclusion Romero needed new material and Monkey Shines was part inspired by a real life programme at the time where monkeys were trained to assist both para and quadriplegics. It was not to be quite as straight forward as it might be hoped for and the old adage of never working with animals here with the monkey, that had been trained, on arriving on set refusing to perform what it had been taught and instead the trainers own capuchin monkey appropriately named Boo was to play the role of Ella. Not everything could be done even by a trained monkey and was supplemented by Tom Savini whose workshop made a variety of arms, legs etc to help out with certain shots. Boo didn’t always behave and the disc has a number of recollections by cast and crew alike of the monkey just refusing to do more than one take and getting progressively worse taking the opportunity to pee on actors when sitting on their shoulders or at one point throwing its own excrement into Beghe’s mouth. It’s a warning as to what the makers of the forthcoming movie about Michael Jackson’s monkey movie can expect.
Monkey Shines is an interesting film from Romero, none of the out and out blood and guts that splattered the screen of his other movies and was one of his better non zombie films after bizarre misfires such as Knightriders. In many ways its Jekyll and Hyde theme here was to form another trilogy with The Dark Half and Bruiser following over the next few years.
The dual format release of Monkey Shines has a decent array of extras which makes the disc a worthwhile addition to fans of Romero the best of which An Experiment in Fear, a decent 50 minute documentary about the making of the film and equally as good if not better are the two commentary tracks one by Travis Crawford a film historian which if a little academic at times and occasionally non scene specific is still interesting. There’s also a commentary by Romero as an informal interview with some Scouse radio presenter who initially seems a bit obsessed with back sides from the opening scene with a fleeting shot of actress Janine Turner’s backside and then carrying on his fixation with the actor Timothy Bottoms name before he finally calms himself down.
The disc has the usual deleted scenes of which there are only 3 and are character moments rather than plot developments. Best of all is the original ending which even Romero admits is far better than the one in the theatrical cut which the studio forced upon him with a gratuitous Carrie / Alien rip off shot. Less good on the disc is a Behind the scenes featurette comprising of old footage of Boo and the cast between takes and there’s an archaic ‘Making of’ which is mainly vanilla filler.
Monkey Shines was not as appreciated as it is 30 years down the line which perhaps was not helped by a advertising poster that suggested it was more of a comedy than psychological horror and a tag line that was ill conceived and resulted in the cinema’s being picketed by wheelchair users. Released by Eureka entertainment this is one of a number of retro films getting a decent treatment which many current dual disc releases could well benefit from.
Here’s the Monkey Shines trailer……
Monkey Shines is released on dual format disc on October 8th 2018