PITTSBURGH MADE: Monkey Shines (1988)

When Monkey Shines came out on video, I was probably 16 and had watched Dawn of the Dead hundreds of times. I was also an edgelord kid who hated everything and didn’t like this at all. I didn’t understand that directors can change and grow. I just wanted more gore.

Based on the book by Michael Stewart, this was director and writer George Romero’s first major studio feature and had — for him — a big budget of $7 million. Shooting in Pittsburgh — Carnegie Mellon and Murrysville are two of the locations — in the late summer and early fall of 1987, this had a long post-production and editing process as Romero shot more film than he ever had before, plus had to learn to work with live monkeys.

That said, there are also four Tom Savini-designed puppets. If you guessed that Frank Welker does her voice, you are correct.

After athletic law student Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) is hit by a truck, he loses control of his arms and legs and must learn to live in a wheelchair controlled by sips and puffs, which is nearly all he can do. His friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) suggests that he get a helper monkey and specialist Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil) helps him by getting Ella trained in working with him. It lifts his spirits and he finds himself growing close to Melanie.

The secret is that Geoffrey has been experimenting on these monkeys and is close to losing funding if he doesn’t get results. He has injected Ella with a special drug that boosts her intelligence. What he doesn’t know is that it causes her to share emotions with Allan, first him feeling her ability to run through the grass in his dreams, then killing a bird that drives him crazy and even setting the home of the surgeon who may have screwed up his operation — and now lives with his ex-girlfriend — on fire and killing the man and his lost lover.

Now the rage that goes through both of them begins to feed on itself and everyone in their way pays, even if Allan doesn’t want it to happen. While this has a studio-demanded happy ending — spoiler warning, he crushes the monkey with his wheelchair which doesn’t seem all that happy — Romero filmed a different way to close this, as Geoffrey’s boss Dean Harold Burbage (Stephen Root) steals the remaining drugs and injects them into all of the test monkeys. After Allan regains his ability, Burbage is assaulted by animal rights protesters who had earlier attacked Geoffrey for experimenting on monkeys. When he returns to his lab, we learn that the monkeys have completely taken him over.

Romero said of the ending, “I thought my ending played well, but I’d admit that the testing results were overwhelmingly in favor of the current version. To Orion’s credit, they said —  it’s up to you, we’ll release it either way. So I decided to go along and not fight it. But I’ll always miss it.”

I may like this more than I did when I first saw it, but it remains the first film where I noticed that I wouldn’t necessarily love every movie by every director, even George Romero. Supposedly, he had to cut half of what he shot to hit the right length of the film, but even still, it feels like there is both too much going on and too little of a story at the same time, which I realize is a juxtaposition.

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